Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dead 13 Billion Years, but Okay

I fear death much like anyone else. In fact, much like most mammals.

Fear of death is a good thing. It keeps I, even us, out of a lot of trouble.

But humans are nothing if not complicated. Society and culture go along with giant brains that can create mental virtual realities that sometimes cause us to lose touch with the world.

Religions have long appealed to people by promising "life after death." The idea of an afterworld or heaven has competed with the idea of reincarnation for at least 2000 years.

People don't like the feeling of fear. That is the whole point. People have good memories, they see people die, and instead of getting on with life they start dwelling on death. Religions calm some people down: they don't feel they need to worry so much about death as long as they follow their religion's rules for getting into heaven.

Yet religions have many negative consequences, including making people gullible about all sorts of issues. Religious contempt for life can even lead to war, as when the Roman Catholic Popes encouraged Europeans to conquer the Middle East in the Crusades, with a promise that anyone who died in the crusade would be admitted to eternal life in heaven.

I fear death, but I don't want to be paralyzed in life by my fear of death. It is one thing to run away from an immediate, life-threatening circumstance, it is another thing to hide from life itself.

The way I figure it is that scientists say the universe is about 13 billion years old. They might change that figure from time to time, but I'll use it here. I was born in the mid-1950's. Before I was born I did not exist, not in any meaningful way. That was being not-alive, which is to say dead.

So I was dead for 13 billion years. And what of it? No big deal. I did not know I was dead. Nothing to worry about.

I am pretty sure I have just about 3 decades of life ahead of me at maximum. After than I will be dead for as long as the universe, or the space-time continuum, continues to exist. I won't be conscious, so I won't know I ever existed.

That is just the way it is for living organisms. We have our time, then we die. The important thing is to have a good time (defining good however you like) while alive.

Just in case you are missing the idea of scale here, reflect on the number one billion, or 1,000,000,000. Few humans live more than 100 years. 10 times one hundred is one thousand. String together a thousand thousands and you have a million. Then string together one thousand millions and you have a billion.

So I am just a meteor burning in the night. My entire life seems long to me, because I am in it, but to the Universe I am pretty close to nothing.

And I am fine with that. When I die other people will continue to live, animals will continue to live, stars will continue to shine. That is life after death. I won't be there. But as long as humanity endures, people like me will be there. Just as I am here now, long after my ancestors have died.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Intelligence without Intelligence

Intelligence, like most words, can be used as a descriptive for many things.

In the title above, the first instance of the word intelligence means information gathering. Now there are a lot of different reasons to gather information, and I don't mean seeing what discounts are available for shopping at the mall. I mean spy stuff. National Security Intelligence. FBI, CIA and NSA intelligence. Finding out what people are up to and whether that is a danger to the American People, or at least our Ruling Class. [Even referring to the ruling class got you classified as a likely Communist back in J. Edgar Hoover's day.]

The second instance of the word intelligence in the above title means something like "accurate analysis of the situation" or perhaps wisdom. It could mean using good judgment in deciding what is important to protect about the American People, and how to do it.

The U.S. government has spent vast sums of money over the decades gathering intelligence. Yet the second form of intelligence, displaying wisdom based on the intelligence gathered, has been sadly (but not completely) lacking.

The 911 fiasco, in which the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were destroyed or damaged by hijacked civilian airliners on September 11, 2001, are the best known example. An army of FBI, CIA, and NSA agents had been gathering intelligence on Islamic jihadist groups, including Al-Qaeda, for years. Many of the operatives had been tracked to the U.S. and were known to the FBI to be attending flight schools. Yet no one stopped them except the passengers on Flight 93.

There has been little improvement since then. In fact, under the leadership of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the situation has grown into a tragic farce. The Homeland Security and National Security budgets since 2001 have essentially bankrupted the nation. The few hundred members of Al-Qaeda and similar groups have expanded into an international army of at least 100,000 with tens of millions of supporters and sympathizers.

There are so many factors leading to the lack of an intelligent approach to protecting America that I can only touch on some of the major and more interesting ones in this essays.

George Washington was a terrorist. Andrew Jackson was a terrorist. Jefferson Davis was a terrorist. So was Harry Truman. So is Barack Obama. The inability to reflect accurately on America's past, and on its current internal situation, creates a fog of stupidity and moral laxness that makes it essentially impossible to accurately distinguish friends from foes and to sort out the most dangerous foes.

Terrorism (or political violence, if you will) works, sometimes, as George Washington, Lenin, Muhammad himself, General Franco, and many other founders of governments have demonstrated. But it doesn't always work, for as many reasons as there all variables in the world. Psycho Killers do not usually become heads of state. Terrorism works best when it is part of a larger agenda that includes something that a majority of people like, or at least are not willing to risk dying to oppose.

Nationalism, religion, and political partisanship are three large scale value sets that power-seekers, including terrorists, can use to further their agendas. But entirely peaceful people may use these to further their agendas too. But there are other nuts and bolts that don't involve violence and can be used by the power hungry to expand their organizations. Hitler's Nazis helped unemployed World War I veterans and sold their own brand of cigarette to finance their party. Eliminating other forms of crime (theft in particular) is another winner, used by the Taliban and the many political parties, left right and center, to gain popular approval.

But beyond the big picture stuff that helps us understand human nature and social dynamics, there are the institutional flaws that have characterized U.S. intelligence services since their inception, and seem to multiply the more money they are given. Some of these are described in detail for the FBI in Enemies: A History of the FBI, by Time Weiner.

The FBI was created to fight the working class, and particular any socialist, syndicalist or communist manifestations of working class power. It largely ignored the threats of organized crime and right-wing ideologies like fascism. Switching to fighting Islamic radicals after nearly a century of fighting communism is a big switch. How many FBI agents understand Islam? How many have bothered to read the Koran, or the folk tales that are associated with it? More important, how many can spot the difference between loose, angry talk, and the quieter people who actually do operations?

The NSA was created to spy on other military commands and spy agencies. You would think it would be a piece of cake for them to spy on groups who are armed with second-hand AK47s. But apparently it isn't.

Don't even get me started on the CIA. The Agency often has good analysts sitting at desks, but seems to have a disconnect between good analysis and any kind of operations that would slow down groups like Al-Qaeda or the self-styled Islamic State.

The Special Forces are good at killing people, as long as they have technical superiority and overwhelming force. But they panic when the going gets rough, as in the Black Hawk Down incident.

The real lack of intelligence is in our national leadership, and here I include Congress, military leaders, top bureaucrats, and corporate leaders as well as whichever puppet happens to be playing President at the moment. The whole system is get-along go-along, backslapping, unable to change to meet the requirements of the times. The only analysis most Congressmen are good at is how to raise enough money for the next election campaign. There may be occasional shows of real intelligence by any of the American leadership, but they are usually vetoed by the rest of the lot.

Here is a simple to do list that would eliminate 90% of the terrorist threat and cost almost nothing:

1. Make peace with Iran. End the embargo unconditionally. Same with Syria.
2. Guarantee human rights for Palestinians and allow them to set up their own state independent of Israel.
3. Release all political and religious prisoners.
4. Support a global non-sectarian agenda.
5. Stop meddling in the sovereign affairs of other nations. Recognize all governments on a de facto basis. Be as friendly as possible.
6. Hold trials in the U.S. for our own war criminals. Join international conventions to police all war crimes and crimes against humanity.
7. Allow Iraq and other artificial states to fragment or join together according to their own wishes. An international peace conference in the Middle East and recognizing people's right to national self-determination could accomplish this.
8. Reduce the homeland security budget by 75% and focus on actual human agents and analysts gathering human intelligence, rather than trying to spy on every American all the time.
9. Focus on fixing the potholes in the U.S. Return to the Jeffersonian ideal of a coastal navy and a minimalist armed forces.

Well, that isn't going to happen. So how about this: find good people and befriend them. They are your best defense, at home and abroad, against religious crazies, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist.

Ultimately, no matter how much information the spies' computers pick up, real human beings need to interpret that data. If higher-ups dismiss important information while concentrating on the trivial, as happened with the 911 disaster, having massive amounts of intelligence gets the same result as having no intelligence at all.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Woodrow Wilson, Eugene V. Debs, and Bashing Bashar

Double standards are the norm in propaganda, including history as propaganda. Barack Obama regularly has "terrorists" and innocent civilians near them executed without trial (and in many cases based on poor intelligence). Most U.S. citizens don't think twice about it. It is a small price to pay in order to not have to accept God (Allah), and Mohamed as his final prophet, and some self-styled Caliph as as their sole interpreter in present time.

The refusal of President Obama to work with the President of Syria, Bashar Assad, against a common enemy, ISIS, is typically rationalized by declaring that Assad is a dictator, and a brutal dictator who imprisons Syrians who oppose him. Perhaps he has executed some without trial, or at least without the kind of trial you can get in the U.S. if you are not just gunned down in the street, and if you can afford a good lawyer.

Is there a qualitative difference between leaders like Bashar Assad and American Presidents who have arrested and executed their opponents? If so, what are the factors that make the difference qualitative? Is there a meaningful difference between imprisoning or killing peaceful opposition, as opposed to armed opposition in a civil war?

Here I will examine these question in the context of World War I. That will give some historical distance. Yet it was the greed displayed by France and Great Britain during World War I that led to the Middle East being politically unstable since that era.

Woodrow Wilson was elected President of the United States in 1912. It is difficult today to imagine the politics of that era. Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party had liberal and conservative wings; on the whole I think the Republican Party was still the more progressive of the two. William H. Taft was President and ran for re-election as a Republican. Taft had been Vice-President under Theodore Roosevelt, who ran on the Progressive Party ticket after he failed to get the Republican Party nomination. These were the results:

1912 Party Popular Votes Electoral College Votes
Woodrow Wilson Democratic
Theodore Roosevelt Progressive
William H. Taft Republican
Eugene V. Debs Socialist
Eugene W. Chafin Prohibition
Note that even though Woodrow Wilson was pretending to be somewhat progressive, and Roosevelt ran as a progressive, the Socialist Party candidate, Eugene V. Debs, received a very substantial number of votes, about 6%.

Woodrow Wilson is arguably the intellectual architect of modern segregation. So it should not be surprising that he won every state in the racist, conservative Old South.

Woodrow Wilson was not just a white supremacist, he was a true believer in the supremacy of Anglo-Saxon culture. When World War I broke out in Europe he favored backing the British Empire, which then oppressed about 1/3 of the world's people. But domestic politics, including large numbers of Irish-American and German-American voters in the Democratic Party, kept the President and the United States in a state of neutrality.

Socialism was meant to be an international movement for peace and justice, and before the war Socialist parties in Europe opposed their respective governments militarism. However, after the war started, each nation's Socialist Party tended to rationalize supporting their own nation's efforts.

President Wilson ran again in 1916, rallying voters to the slogan "He kept us out of war." Anyway, he was too busy invading Mexico and a variety of Latin American nations. But the voting went back to the normal Democrat vs. Republican split:

1916 Party
Popular Votes
Electoral College Votes
Woodrow Wilson Democratic
Charles E. Hughes Republican
A. I. Benson Socialist
J. F. Hanly Prohibition
Then Woodrow Wilson asked the U.S. Congress to declare war on Germany. The vote in Congress on April 6, 1917 was 82 to 6 in the Senate, 373 to 50 in the House; hardly unanimous. Thus we entered the war on the side of the evilest empire in history, the British Empire. We did not fight for democracy; most people in the British empire were not allowed to vote.

Unlike in Germany, France, and Britain, the Socialist Party in the United States did not give up its peaceful and internationalist stand. It opposed the war, as did the IWW and other organizations and individuals. Wilson's reaction? He ordered massive arrests of those who opposed him.

One of those arrested was Eugene V. Debs, who had opposed him as a Presidential candidate in 1912. In 1918 Wilson was arrested. He was found guilty on September 12 and was thrown in a dungeon. The Supreme Court of the United States, in Debs v. United States (249 U.S. 211 (1919)) ruled neither Debs nor any other American's right of free speech included the right to be for peace during wartime.

Debs ran for President in 1920, from his jail cell, and received 919,799 votes.

So how different is that from Assad putting one of his critics in jail?

Wilson is not alone among Presidents and other powerful Americans in his crimes against humanity. George Washington executed soldiers for desertion even before he was elected President. Every U.S. rebellion has been brutally put down, most notably in the Civil War. Ronald Reagan ordered peaceful demonstrators to be shot dead even before he became President. The list is finite, but large.

I might sympathize with rebels in certain cases, but I don't expect anyone in power to hand over the keys to the government without a fight. Deciding to rebel, as the American slave masters did in 1776, is a hazardous course, not to be undertaken lightly.

Bashar Assad's crime, from Obama and the American Establishment point of view, is not that he has held on to power, or how he has held onto power. His crime is not becoming a pro-American puppet. His crime is doing what he thinks is best for Syria.

Some times there are happy endings. When Warren G. Harding was elected President in 1920 he tried hard to undo Wilson's worst deeds. He made peace with Germany, and he released Eugene V. Debs from prison. Harding was a Republican, and he made the mistake of letting his corrupt friends run the nation. But I'll take him for a better U.S. President any day over Woodrow Wilson.

And I'll take Eugene V. Debs over any elected President in U.S. history.