Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Korea, Barack Obama, and Theodore Roosevelt

Korea, historically, has benefited and suffered from being located between two major civilizations, China and Japan. These last couple of days Korea, or at least the northern Kingdom (let's call it what it is), the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, has been in the news because it detonated a nuclear device. President Barack Obama made vague threats to do something about this terrible evil.

In North Korea they probably are concerned, because they know Barack Obama's party, the Democratic Party, is the only political party in the world to ever actually use a nuclear device in a war. Not only that, but there was a conscious decision by former President Harry Truman to use the first atomic bombs against civilian targets with only symbolic military significance.

To the extent that Americans have historical memories of Korea at all, they start after World War II, when we invaded southern Korea, thus taking it from the Japanese empire and adding it to our own. In 1948 the North Korean government almost succeeded in freeing South Korea, but the United States invaded again and captured almost all of Korea, for a few days. Then the Chinese caught General MacArthur napping, and drove the U.S. troops back to about the midpoint of the Peninsula. There an uneasy armistice emerged that has left Korea divided in half to this day.

American interest in Korea long predates Harry Truman. It was seen as another part of Asia ripe for trade, exploitation, and perhaps even conquest at about the same time long-sighted, greedy Americans began coveting Japan and China. By 1900, when Theodore Roosevelt was elected Vice-President (he became President when Saint Czolgosz took out the war criminal William McKinley), some business men based in the United States had large businesses in Korea. Notable among them were Collbran and Bostwick, which also operated in China, and Leigh Hunt in mining, who was a sometimes guest Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. In 1900 Russia and Japan were struggling for control of Korea, but the British and Germans were also interested in its commercial exploitation.

Roosevelt decided that Russia was the greater threat to the overall interests of the United States. He encouraged Japan to fight with Russia over Manchuria, resulting in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, which Japan won. Recall that the U.S. was still in the genocide business in the Philippines at that time. In order to keep Russia out of North China, secure Japan as a regional ally, and secure the Philippines, Theodore Roosevelt gave his permission to the Japanese to take over Korea [See Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power by Howard K. Beale p. 279].

Attitudes of the U.S. ruling class towards Japan changed as Japan became a more powerful economic and military competitor. At the end of World War II the U.S. thought it would gobble up the Japanese empire, but it was not so easy. Nationalist sentiment in Asia resulted in a long transition from colonial states to independent states.

What actually happened between 1880 and 1950 has been obscured by the economic separation of the two Koreas since then. South Korea was built up as an economic powerhouse by Japan (then a U.S. underling) and the United States. North Korea's promise was stifled by an increasingly rigid ruling class that put most of the country's resources into its defense budget.

The common appraisal of the North Korean nuclear development program is that both its first and second nuclear explosions were substandard even compared to the primitive U.S. explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It sounds like making a nuclear bomb is simple: just get enough fissionable material together for a few microseconds. But in fact the teams that developed the original atomic bombs for the U.S. had to confront multiple technological problems in diverse areas such as electronics, metallurgy, conventional explosives, as well as atomic physics. They included the world's best scientists of that era. But sooner or later, if they keep at it, the Koreans will have an atomic bomb. The problem with having an atomic bomb is that if you use it, you no longer have it as a deterrent. I don't see how a nation with North Korea's resources could ever mass manufacture atomic weapons.

What should President Obama do? Instead of enlarging upon the over 100 year history of the U.S. threatening and betraying Korea, he should say:

"On behalf of the Democratic Party I sincerely apologize for our long history of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including our use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and our invasion of Korea after World War II. I welcome northern Korea into the community of nations. I am pulling all U.S. troops out of Korea and promise that the U.S. will allow Korea to follow its own destiny. I hope that Korea will refrain from continued development of nuclear weapons, but in any case I am ordering an immediate major reduction of the U.S. arsenal. If Russia, China and other nuclear powers follow this path, we can eliminate nuclear weapons from the global arsenal by 2010."

The chances of that happening?

Can we serve Democratic Party brand militarist swill and say it is a Change from Republican Party brand militarist swill?

Yes We Can!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Theodore Roosevelt, Hawaii and Japan

When the United States seized Hawaii in 1893, it did not seize the islands from the native Hawaiians. It seized it from the Japanese. That is my new thesis, based on some hints I found these last few days. Probably some specialists in Japanese and Hawaiian history already have studied this issue. Of course, like any historical hypothesis it is stated too simply. Even if basically true, or somewhat true, to understand what happened you have to look at a very complex set of events.

Standard American history fare might be represented by Thomas A. Bailey's The American Pageant, a History of the Republic, a standard college-level introductory American history text during the 1950's and 1960's. "The white planters, mostly Americans, were further alarmed by the increasingly autocratic tendencies of dusky Queen Liliuokalani ... [they] organized a successful revolt early in 1893. It was openly assisted by American troops ..." President Cleveland, however, was against annexation. "A subsequent probe revealed the damning fact that a majority of the Hawaiian natives did not favor annexation at all." It was not until after the U.S. seized the Philippines in the Spanish-American War that "A joint resolution of annexation was rushed through Congress and approved by McKinley on July 7, 1898." As far as I can tell, nothing Bailey reports is untrue.

The standard leftist, anti-imperialist critique focuses on the native Polynesians of Hawaii. It tends to give more details about how the Christian missionaries, sugar planters, and traders grabbed the land and destroyed the native culture. It is not a pretty picture. Even Luzviminda Francisco's and Jonathan Fast's fascinating Conspiracy for Empire is focused on the role of sugar growing, manufacturing, and tariffs in its section on Hawaii.

Imagine my surprise when, in reading Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power by Howard K. Beale, to see a number of in-passing remarks about Japan and Hawaii prior to the U.S. seizure. Recall at this time that all the great powers (all European plus the U.S. and Japan) liked to seize islands to use for trade and military bases. That Hawaii was one of the last great prizes resulted from a balance of power and Hawaii's strategic position in the Pacific. Great Britain, in particular, believed it had rights to Hawaii since its Captain Cook had "discovered" the islands.

Theodore Roosevelt was an unabashed, aggressive American nationalist from an early age. As he rose to increasingly powerful positions in the 1890's, cumulating in his election as McKinley's Vice-President in 1900, he pushed an agenda of conquest. He was for the immediate annexation of Hawaii in 1893. In 1897, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he was one of a group of powerful men lobbying for annexation (and war with Spain). Secretary of State Sherman objected because of issues with previous treaties. "On June 16 an annexation treaty was signed. Sherman himself, ignorant of the treaty negotiations, had assured the Japanese minister that no treaty was being negotiated, and so when the treaty was announced Japan protested." Roosevelt publicly said "The United States is not in a position which requires her to ask Japan or any other foreign Power what territory it shall or shall not acquire." [Beale, p. 66-67]

Then the kicker: "Ignoring the presence of more Orientals than whites, Lodge argued on democratic grounds that a majority of whites and natives, who alone have a right to speak, seek annexation." A strange stance given that natives were against annexation. "Roosevelt pronounced the native Hawaiians unable to govern, and the whites therefore entitled to rule the islands."

The Japanese did not just protest. In April 1897 Roosevelt wrote that he wanted to annex Hawaii at once, rather than risk that he Japanese take it. In September 1897 he said Japan’s fleet was more powerful than the U.S.’s in the Pacific. “Then Japan sent a warship to Hawaii while our expansionists were trying to get McKinley to annex it…” [Beale, p. 233].

So, one can deduce that the U.S. had a treaty with Japan saying neither would annex Hawaii without the other's permission. I don't yet know what treaty that was; it is on my list to research for my U.S. War Against Asia. The Japanese sent some sort of battleship, and may have had a more powerful fleet in the Pacific than the U.S. (though that was probably just an example of Roosevelt trying to get Congress to appropriate more money for the Navy). And there were a lot of orientals in Hawaii. Maybe as many Japanese as Americans, certainly enough to warrant Japan's concern.

Fortunately, Hawaii was included in the U.S. census of 1900. Here are is the population, broken down by national derivation:

Group/of population

Hawaiian/mixed 24.4%
White 18.7%
Japanese 39.7%
Chinese 16.7%
Other 0.5%

It is surprising that Japan did not go to war with the United States in 1898. She might have seized the Philippines and Hawaii while the U.S. had its hands full fighting Spain. But unlike the U.S., the Japanese were still trying to act like a civilized, peaceful nation. Over the next few decades, the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Russian and France would continue to hammer home the lesson that being peaceful was for losers. Militarists would come to dominate the Japanese government and intimidate its normally peaceful population. But even so, Japan tried to stay at peace with the U.S. until it was given no other choice but war (or complete surrender) by the Franklin Roosevelt administration in 1940.


Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power by Howard K. Beale, Collier Books, New York, NY, 1962 paperback edition. Copyright 1956 by The Johns Hopkins Press.

The American Pageant, A History of the Republic by Thomas A. Bailey. Third Edition. D.C. Heath and Company, Boston. 1967. Copyright 1966.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Groping Towards Reality

Humans are part of reality, but seeing reality clearly is sometimes difficult. I have been looking for a metaphor for the process of orienting oneself to reality and avoiding fiction. The best I have come up with so far is groping towards reality.

From ancient to modern times people have both groped towards a clear understanding of reality and attempted to construct blinders so that they could misinterpret the world to suit themselves. More often than not, the world being a complicated place, the same person or groups of persons would get parts of the picture right while painting in illusions for other parts.

Both the existence of reality and the human ability to know it have been questioned from ancient times. I believe questioning things, including what appear to be fundamental truths, is a good thing. What is funny is that having concluded either that reality is an illusion, or that humans can not know anything much about reality, people seldom question those conclusions. [See also my Questions to the Illusionists].

In some ways certain Buddhist critiques of the reality of reality are more cogent than their modern philosophic counterparts. In the Surangama Sutra the Buddha asks Ananda, "What is it that gave you the sensation of seeing? What was it that experienced the sensation? And who is it that experienced the feeling of being pleased?" The analysis that follows, in question and answer style, is quite sophisticated even if it ultimately leads one astray.

Cast forward to the modern philosophy of deconstructionism and you have Wittgenstein's (later) philosophic methods turned on their head to create a rationalization that amounts to saying: the world is not real, or at least we can't really know much about it.

But we do know a great deal about the world, both individually and collectively. Not only that, but other animals know about the world, even if they are not smart enough to create a theory of why it is just an illusion. We are both in and of the world.

It has taken our sensory apparatus and nervous system a couple of billion years to evolve. Our genetic inheritance gives us the ability to survive in the world, and that requires the ability to gain a knowledge of the world. Human babies are prepared to learn about the world. They learn from their interactions with the world. Their learning is held in their brains.

Groping is a good word for the process. The baby feels its way, reaching about uncertainly. It uses the resulting memories to build maps and images of the external world. It learns about its body. It begins to learn a language.

Having learned a language, a child starts learning about the world second hand. Family members relate what they did when "away." They talk about events that happened in the past, or what they plan to do in the future.

They also inevitably tell the child things that are not true, or are partly true. Prejudices, superstitions, and religions. Cultural behaviors: how to behave, what is expected of a child, a man, or a woman.

Children cope as best they can. One thing leads to another. There may be formal schooling. Some people eventually feel impelled to try to figure out what "the truth" is. But it is a complex world. Some people change religions, but in most cultures during most of history changing religion was a dangerous and daring act. Today in these United States of America people shop for a religion, a philosophy, a self-help guru, or a school of psychology. Most are shopping for amenable society, not so much for truth.

I think that philosophies tend to oversimplify the human condition. It is a complex world. We are complex. Each brain is a wonder of cellular architecture, capable of holding and comparing billions of memories of experiences.

Lately, I have been inspired by the work of Jeff Hawkins and colleagues on how the cortex of the brain might work [See my Machine Understanding blog]. The process described by Hawkins can fairly be described as groping. He believes that the detailed structure of the brain has evolved to turn sensory input into memories and automatic predictions about the world. Humans constantly adjust to the world, noticing when it does not conform to prior predictions.

The culture of science, while it has been used with bad motives all too frequently, for the most part follows the same pattern. The scientific method, amidst the ugly complexity of the world, is a kind of groping. We look at the world and what we think we already know. We form a hypothesis, or prediction. We set up an experiment to test the prediction against the hypothesis.

Quantum physics and molecular biology are usually considered to be very difficult sciences. You must work hard and be smart to succeed at them. But when it comes to studying humans, there are extra difficulties. The world is not an illusion, but humans are particularly good at distorting data about themselves.

On that line, a comment on a book I just finished, Outliers: The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell. This is an illuminating book about the human condition. It picks apart our assumptions about what makes a human highly successful in our society. Each of the chapters, focusing on one aspect of human culture and how it impacts success, is a great read. You will see Bill Gates, The Beatles, and math test scores in a whole new light if you read it. There are illusions in the world, but the world is not an illusion. The idea that success is a simple result of genius is one of our cultural illusions.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Holy Roman Empire, Hitler, and Benedict XVI

In Roman Catholic mythology, Jesus Christ appointed the Apostle Peter to lead the Church he established. Peter, in his old age, went to Rome, where he was martyred. In the meantime he had appointed a second in command in Rome to be the head of the Church. This bishop of Rome became known as the Pope, and has been the rightful spiritual (and some say temporal) leader of Christendom ever since.

Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and non-Christian academics, and the more honest Catholic historians, agree on a different story. The early church did not have a centralized structure. An astonishingly brutal Roman emperor, Constantine, reformed the Christian churches. A common creed was agreed upon at councils (Council of Nicaea) to which the bishop of Rome sent representatives like everyone else. Church and state worked together while the Empire lasted, and all non-Christians were persecuted. During a period of turmoil, the Dark Ages, after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the bishops of Rome, now called Popes (Pontiffs) worked to create a new religious and governmental order we now call the Roman Catholic Church.

The the Holy Roman Empire was born as a successor to the Western Roman Empire. The bishops of the Eastern Roman Empire did not recognize their Roman colleague's self-elevation. Islam almost overran both of them, and the pagan Vikings cut into the Christian domains for a while too.

I want to focus here on one aspect of the Holy Roman Empire during its long history (roughly 800 to 1800 A.D.): the struggle for supremacy between Popes and Emperors. Occasionally Popes were selected by the Emperors and were subservient, and some Emperors admitted to the supremacy of the Pope. They always agreed that Catholicism would be the only tolerated religion, with rare exception.

The Holy Roman Emperor had the additional problems of having rival Catholic Kings to deal with in France, Britain, and Spain; having invaders (usually, but not always, Islamic) pressuring them from the East; and having trouble gaining absolute power in their feudal kingdoms. When the Pope was unhappy with an Emperor, he could call in the French. It Italy itself there was a long feud between the imperial party and the papal party; every city had adherents to each. The Popes gained control of the regular governments of central Italy. Then, in worst case scenarios, the troops of the Pope fought the troops of the Emperor. If you want a good example of the conflict, check out the history of the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa.

The Catholic Church was in great turmoil, and in many ways at a low ebb, between 1800 and 1900. Between Protestant Christianity and modern rationalist culture, even in nations where it was the dominant religion it was unable to eliminate the opposition by its classic methods (murder and intimidation). Still, it remained the dominant religion in Latin America and southern Europe. Popes and the hierarchy sometimes allowed for reforms, but they also worked hard to restore monarchies and to maintain a privileged position for the Catholic Church in nations where it was dominant.

There was a qualitative change in the Church's politics after World War I. The emergence of Russia, or the U.S.S.R., as an atheist bastion drove the Church to work overtime. Democracy was equated with atheism. Monarchies, while still looked upon kindly, fell second fiddle to a new strategy: the modern Catholic dictatorship. The Church wanted dictators who would not recognize the human rights of atheists, Marxists, anarchists, or even run of the mill middle of the road democrats or republicans. Under the reign of Pius XI various authoritarian politicians and movements, that we now call fascist, were encouraged in their desires. It is important to recognize that the Roman Catholic Church had a long term strategy to restore Catholicism and Papal supremacy. In the short run they could tolerate dictators who were not subservient to the Pope if those dictators would create the conditions (by creating authoritarian states and exterminating non-Catholics) that would allow the Popes to end up at the top of the hierarchy.

Thus Europeans found themselves subject to Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany, General Petain in France, General Francisco Franco in Spain, and a host of lesser Catholic dictators.

In retrospect the Catholic Church lost its great gamble for control of the world. The Protestants (if you include atheists as Protestants) of Great Britain, the United States, and Russia defeated Pius XII (successor to Pius XI), Hitler and crew.

And then the great whitewash began. Pius XII and most Catholics announced they never really liked dictatorships, especially that Hitler fellow. To prove it they produced reams of documents showing how they had argued with Hitler, Petain, and Mussolini over a variety of issues (they never had any arguments with General Franco).

The important thing to remember is the context of the arguments. Hitler wanted to boss the Pope around; the Pope wanted to boss Hitler around.

In effect the Church had tried to create a new Holy Roman Empire. If Hitler had defeated Russia and then Britain, they would have succeeded. Hitler wanted only one state religion. He was Catholic and had no interest in the only other viable German option, the Lutheran Church. Over the decades the Church would have used its traditional techniques of brainwashing to gain control of Hitler's successors. But while Petain and Franco worked closely with the Pope, there would be friction as long as Hitler was alive. Just as during much of the old Holy Roman Empire period.

Why do most people not know this? Because after World War II we went straight into the Cold War between Capitalism and Communism. The leading capitalist nations, Britain and the United States, wanted allies against Communism. So they went along with the Pope's re-interpretation of the fascist era. The Pope was an ally; even General Franco was now an ally. Support for fascism was forgiven in return for support against Communism. And since Fascism was largely invented by the Church to counter godless Communism, it was a good deal for the Pope.

With the Polish Pope and the current Pope, Benedict XVI, we have seen the Catholic Church shed its fake liberalism of the post war period. Liberal Catholics have been mercilessly purged from the Church hierarchy. Medieval styles of thought have begun to be promoted again. The Church has not openly advocated a return to monarchical government yet, but it has supported a number of right wing Catholic governments in Latin America and authoritarian politicians in Europe.

Hopefully the Church's time has passed. Hopefully no amount of attempted manipulation will restore the dark ages of Catholic monarchies and dictatorships. But we must be vigilant, because the Church is still large, influential, and well funded on a global scale. It still pushes for favored religion status in nations such as France, Spain, and Italy.

The best way to deal with the Church, for now, is to shed light upon it. Protestants need to calmly explain to Catholics why the authority of the Pope is not legitimate or based on scripture. Religious freedom has to include the separation of church and state that we have enjoyed in these United States. Thin the grass roots of the Church and its hierarchy will become irrelevant.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Larceny of the Heart and Government

I noticed that my dog Hugo had taken a stick from my wood pile to play with. Since I was walking to the garden to dump the kitchen compost, with nothing else on my mind, this launched a train of thought about the nature of theft. I thought about how I hate being stolen from, but have not led a pure life in that regard myself. I thought about how society and government work, and how they could work better. Only then did I go back to thinking about how Hugo seems to be able to distinguish between what belongs to him and what belongs to others. There seems to be a mammalian basis for the concept of private property.

The phrase "larceny of the heart" kept popping back into my head. I believe almost every human being experiences larceny of the heart from time to time. I would put define this as a step building on mere desire. It involves knowing that something does not belong to you, and thinking of grabbing it anyway. Theft is actually acting on that feeling. Sometimes we humans rationalize our thefts. After all, if something has been stolen from us, do we not have the right to steal it back?

Like most people I was brought up on the straight and narrow regarding theft. It is hard to imagine either of my parents, poor as they might have been as children, ever stealing anything as adults. My childhood thefts were extremely petty.

The socialist ideas that were circulating in that era (late 1960's) only gradually had an affect on me. They can be summed up: capitalism is theft. By paying workers poorly, or overcharging consumers, or both, capital is accumulated. To that, I learned when I started studying political science, add an overlay of imperialism. It is possible to pay workers well in an imperialist country, and keep the capitalists and politicians happy too, by overcharging consumers and underpaying workers in economic colonies.

Many theories of government have been proposed, but they boil down to two scenarios: government to steal, and government to prevent stealing. Once a government has been around for a while, it usually does some of both, and it is usually biased to the status quo. This is that there are rich people, and they won't tolerate the idea that their wealth was created by some form of theft. No one is supposed to steal, but sharp business practices of the past, and even past violence, is to be forgotten about in all equations of justice.

Looking at our current government, we can argue endlessly about what part of taxation is for communal projects we all benefit from, and what is some form of legitimized theft. The rich don't like the idea of progressive taxation. The middle class may not like being taxed to subsidize both wealthy corporations (largely owned by rich people) and the needy. The people who do most of the actual work, but whose pay makes it fair to describe them as working class or even working poor, don't like paying taxes any more than anyone else. And the poor, well, they are a real mixed lot. Except they all want one thing in common: they want more. They share that trait with all of us.

When someone, or an institution, asks for a government subsidy or tax break, do they ever say to themselves, from whom will these tax dollars be stolen? I don't think so. Not the person faking a disability to draw $200 a week, not the defense contractor corporation grabbing $2 million a day.

I believe the core function of government should be the establishment of justice. You should get that for your tax dollar, even before you get roads or public schools or other things I think governments are the best institutions for providing. In America justice is scarce; mostly you have to hire lawyers to even have a chance of getting it. That is fundamentally wrong.

I think that very little of the "crime" that is actually punished in the United States involves serious theft or violence. It has nothing to do with justice. It is almost all about black markets. If the government would stop creating black markets, most ordinary (non-business) crime would go away. Prisons could be closed, saving the taxpayers a great deal of money.

The other place where we could clearly cut back on government is military spending. America is safe from foreign invasion. Unfortunately, other nations are not safe from the U.S.

I'd like a little justice for my tax dollars. I believe that by setting examples at the top, there would be less trouble at the bottom. The ideal examples would be Presidents and Congresses that did not commit crimes. But since that is rare in U.S. history, lets start with this: a war crimes tribunal. Let's try and punish every president from George Washington to Barack Obama who has committed crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Then we can, with clear consciences, address the trickier issue of what is fair taxation, and what is legalized theft.