Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Obama: still stuck in the fantasy of Perpetual Peace

The other day, President Obama gifted the United Nations with a speech that demonstrated his oratory skills and penchant for flowery rhetoric. Given partly in celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations (it became a reality on October 24, 1945), this speech glorifies the accomplishments of the UN, while also addressing a number of current real-world events. But more importantly, it justifies the idea of the UN and the overarching goal of that body: lasting world peace and prosperity for all.

A noble goal, to be sure, one that has long captivated the minds of world leaders and prominent thinkers. And in this regard, there is an oft-noted (or assumed) dichotomy of approaches: mutual respect and cooperation versus the threat and use of force. Those who promote the first—like the President—tend to ascribe the second to any and all who disagree with them. From Obama's speech:
It is this international order [created by the United Nations] that has underwritten unparalleled advances in human liberty and prosperity. It is this collective endeavor that’s brought about diplomatic cooperation between the world’s major powers, and buttressed a global economy that has lifted more than a billion people from poverty. It is these international principles that helped constrain bigger countries from imposing our will on smaller ones, and advanced the emergence of democracy and development and individual liberty on every continent.

This progress is real. It can be documented in lives saved, and agreements forged, and diseases conquered, and in mouths fed.
That's the first approach, the one championed by Obama and other proponents of similar visions. And it is contrasted as a matter of course in their opinions by this (again, from the same speech):
There are those who argue that the ideals enshrined in the U.N. charter are unachievable or out of date -- a legacy of a postwar era not suited to our own. Effectively, they argue for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history and that pre-date this institution: the belief that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; that the rights of individuals don’t matter; and that in a time of rapid change, order must be imposed by force.
And specific to the United States:
The United States is not immune from this. Even as our economy is growing and our troops have largely returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, we see in our debates about America’s role in the world a notion of strength that is defined by opposition to old enemies, perceived adversaries, a rising China, or a resurgent Russia; a revolutionary Iran, or an Islam that is incompatible with peace. We see an argument made that the only strength that matters for the United States is bellicose words and shows of military force; that cooperation and diplomacy will not work.
Let's be clear here. There is the "vision of the anointed" (to borrow from Thomas Sowell), the one put forth by Obama and others, and there is only the above "might makes right" vision to oppose it. It's one or the other, according to Obama. That the choice. And given that choice, who in their right mind would opt for the second, would choose war and the loss of liberty over prosperity and increased liberty? The problem here, of course, is that it's a false dichotomy. It's not one or the other; it's not now, and it never has been. There is all kinds of room between these two extremes. But before going there, let's first examine Obama's vision a little more closely, because frankly it's kind of vague and bereft of specifics.

The fundamental idea is simple: the United Nations and the international rules/laws it creates can maintain peace in the world and promote prosperity. Indeed, Obama and many others claim that is exactly what has transpired over the last seventy years: the world is a better place and has been a more peaceful place because the UN works. Of course, there is a an assumption here, the notorious "correlation equals causation" one, ever so common among thinkers great and small. And that assumption cannot withstand scrutiny because the last seventy years has also been the period of the Pax Americana, a characterization I have addressed previously:
Most recently, there is the Pax Americana, a term used by different people to signify various periods both before and after World War II to be sure, but one which I think should be applied to the years from about 1950 to about now (hopefully longer). Used by many pejoratively--including JFK in 1963--and objected to by others because of the existence of the Soviets, hindsight now affords us the ability to see the period more clearly, wherein it very much follows the pattern of the previous two periods discussed.

True enough, the world has not been free from violence at all in this period. And the threat of nuclear destruction has hung over all of it. Yet, American power checked the dreams of Soviet leaders and enforced the boundaries of states--many of theme arbitrary--throughout the world. There were protracted wars in Korea and Vietnam to be sure, but the ultimate consequences for being on the "other side," no matter who supposedly "won" became clear. And the supposed other superpower--the Soviet Union--was really no such thing, as the wealth and power of the United States increased exponentially, while the Soviets struggled to maintain a facade of success until it all came crashing down around them with the fall of the Wall.
So, to be blunt, why is it that the UN gets the credit? Because there is a very clear alternative to the storyline Obama is providing. And indeed, this alternative also explains why Korea and Vietnam did not lead to larger conflicts, something that Obama's storyline does not. More importantly, it offers a far more Real Politick explanation for the collapse of the Soviet Union. That said, both versions also allow for the role of commerce and capitalism in all of this, though a careful reading of Obama's speech suggests that in his storyline, it's economic cooperation that is key.

This idea of cooperation undergirds Obama's vision, the vision of the annointed (those who believe they know what is best for everyone else by virtue of their superior intellect), the utopian dreamers (including both hard core communists and anarchists), the vision of all those who suppose there is a future available wherein there is perpetual peace and unlimited prosperity. The essential supposition is simple: people will come together as a whole and put aside selfish desires in order to benefit the whole.

By the why, I should also mention that I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I'm looking to sell...

Of course, it's easy to mock. And it is perhaps a little unfair, insofar as I know Obama and other like-minded folks recognize there are limitations to the idea, realize there will be problematic "children" who refuse to share and/or play nice. That's what the all-powerful UN is for:
And that’s why we should celebrate the fact that later today the United States will join with more than 50 countries to enlist new capabilities -- infantry, intelligence, helicopters, hospitals, and tens of thousands of troops -- to strengthen United Nations peacekeeping. These new capabilities can prevent mass killing, and ensure that peace agreements are more than words on paper. But we have to do it together. Together, we must strengthen our collective capacity to establish security where order has broken down, and to support those who seek a just and lasting peace.
But getting back to this notion of cooperation, there is a necessity of sorts in this regard that Obama addresses towards the end of his speech:
Let me start from a simple premise: Catastrophes, like what we are seeing in Syria, do not take place in countries where there is genuine democracy and respect for the universal values this institution is supposed to defend.
He goes on to explain how superior democracy and democratic institutions are to authoritarian ones, both with regard to bettering society and to maintaining governments across time. He notes how democracy can take different forms, base on the where of it, the culture of those who establish it. And Obama concludes thusly:
That's why our strongest leaders -- from George Washington to Nelson Mandela -- have elevated the importance of building strong, democratic institutions over a thirst for perpetual power.
Now, Obama is somewhat correct here: democratic institutions do limit humanitarian-style catastrophes, do lead to more stability across time. There's no getting around this, as it's been true since the time of the ancient Greeks. But a note of caution: Obama's word choice is wrong when he speaks of "democracies." Democratic institutions yes, but actual democracies no. Because the governments of the United States and of the European nations that Obama describes as "mature democracies" are not actually democracies. They are republics, or in classical terminology mixed governments. They have democratic elements, to be sure, but also aristocratic/oligarchic ones and, in most cases, monarchical/tyrannical ones.

But I don't mean to turn this into a lecture on forms of government. The key here is the need for republican governments to establish a continued world peace. That idea has been offered before. Indeed, there is a clue in the last two words of the above quote that suggests a source. Obama indicates "perpetual power" as the antithesis of his vision and one cannot help but think of Immanuel Kant's 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace."
Immanuel Kant

In this brief treatise, Kant lays out what he sees as the necessary conditions for establishing and maintaining perpetual peace among all the states of the world, the necessary conditions for eliminating war once and for all. The piece has two sections. The first is a list of six rules that should immediately be put into place, according to Kant. The second is a list of three definitive requirements that must be met in order to guarantee the future. Setting aside the first section, lets look at Kant's three "Definitive Articles for Perpetual Peace among States":
1) "The Civil Constitution of Every State Should Be Republican"

2) "The Law of Nations Shall be Founded on a Federation of Free States"

3) "The Law of World Citizenship Shall Be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality"
Do those look familiar? Remember, Kant is writing in 1795. There are, in fact, only a limited number of true republics, there is no United Nations or even a League of Nations yet, and the idea of world citizenship was simply unheard of. Yet Kant has pinned down exactly what many imagine are the critical features for a world without war: democracy, an international body politic, and open borders for peaceful purposes.

Now, someone who is predisposed to accept the vision of Obama might read Kant's articles and say "yes, of course! Kant pinpointed these things centuries ago and was absolutely right." And to be fair, Kant—consistent and deep thinker that he is—has probably defended this vision better than anyone since, despite the relative brevity of the essay. But the first article is problematic (which, I think, Kant knew full well). If a state is not an established republic—Kant rightly defines republicanism as "the political principle of the separation of the executive power (the administration) from the legislative"—what then? And as history has clearly shown, establishing a republic is no easy task, whether it is done from without or from within (contrary to Obama's remarks in the speech), especially when there are neighboring states that can impact such a process.

This is the fundamental fallacy of the vision: there is no means through which all states can be brought into the fold, so to speak. And because of this, the international body politic, the UN, is necessarily used by those non-republican states for their own ends, not the ends of the world at large. Thus, the idea that selfish desires can be eliminated when it comes to the actions of states is dead on arrival.

But allowing—just for the moment—that this was possible, that all states could be induced into becoming true republics, there is the secondary issue of prosperity, an issue that people like Obama seem to believe would naturally occur if the above conditions were met. Such people would do well to read the first section of Kant's essay more carefully. For in it is the following "rule":
4. "National Debts Shall Not Be Contracted with a View to the External Friction of States"
I like Kant; I think he is both an original and careful thinker, by and large. But here, on this point, he falls flat on his face. The idea is simple: Kant would have states limit themselves from going into debt over any purpose that is not explicitly domestic. And those who seem to share his vision—like Obama—gloss over or ignore this particular issue as a matter of course. The issue is, quite simply, that of resources. All states are not created equal in this respect. They never have been and they never will be. And states with greater resources are not going to degrade their own standards of living for the benefit of those states with fewer resources. That's a clear limitation of republicanism, for the people of a state necessarily remain sovereign and can be expected to look after their interests as a group above and beyond the interests of the world-at-large.

The idea of a rule that limits economic expansion--because it limits national debt--is a non-starter. Resources in the moment are always limited. And ultimately, conflict between states is about resources, period. It may be couched in other terms—religious, cultural, or even humanitarian—but ultimately it is resources or access to resources.

This creates a very obvious paradox: universal peace and universal prosperity are incompatible, but the latter still requires the former. The truth of it: Kant's outline is only about perpetual peace. He is not addressing inequality in the least and his proposed international league would not be about addressing it, either. No doubt, he hopes that less war means more prosperity and less inequality, but he knows what man is about, fundamentally. From his essay:
The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state (status naturalis); the natural state is one of war.
The current utopian vision that infests the minds of people like Obama and UN dignitaries ignores this reality and wrongly equates peace and prosperity. Again, these are two very different propositions. And it is pure fantasy to suppose both goals are attainable. Peace is a fine thing, but it is not maintained by handshakes and flowery rhetoric alone, much less by unattainable promises for future goods. Because the reality of potential conflicts is ever-present. And man is and always will be a selfish animal. States rise and fall; those at the pinnacle may help secure a general peace and may even increase prosperity for those in other states, but there is no "perpetual peace" to be had, above and beyond such periods of dominance.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Back to the pajama party

Some time ago, I expressed my frustration with the current state of sports commentary—by and large—noting that many studio shows were little more than extended pajama parties. What I mean by the pajama party comparison is that the "broadcasters" in these studio shows are more concerned with playing around, doing each others' hair and nails, and exchanging gossip than they are with actually doing anything that might possibly—however unlikely—be termed "journalism."

I watched a few minutes of the Fox NFL Sunday crowd do it's afternoon wrap-up—just to get some scores and highlights—and as Terry Bradshaw rolled through the scores, he made no fewer than five mistakes, laughing at each one in turn. And as bad as this crowd is, they're not the worst. In my opinion, that honor goes to TNT's Inside the NBA team. But even they are hardly running away with the honor; pretty much all of the studio shows for sports on U.S. television suffer this same short-coming.

And it's not limited to television in the least. In fact, my use of the term "pajama party" to characterize this stuff comes from radio. Years ago, the late, great Jim Mandich—former Miami Dolphin and a staple of the South Florida sports scene—used the term on his radio show in reference to the radio show of another sports journalist in South Florida. That particular journalist currently has his own show on ESPN radio and it's still just a pajama party. In fact, it's such a pajama party that listening to it on the radio was deemed insufficient by the geniuses in charge and consequently, it became a TV show as well, wherein the lucky viewer is able to watch the pajama party actually take place.

But I don't mean to pick on South Florida (though I do mean to pick on ESPN). These dimwitted kinds of shows are on the radio all over the country. And it's a mystery to me when and why they became the standard format for sports talk on the radio, To be sure, the pajama party format has existed outside of sports talk for some time. The Glenn Beck Show is a perfect example of this. Listeners get to hear Beck and his studio co-hosts babble incoherently for hours, tell un-funny jokes, and giggle incessantly at their own cleverness.

But I digress. I was ranting about the sports side of these things. The pseudo-news-and-analysis shows have enough problems...

Getting back to television, as I noted in my previous piece, all of this seems to stem from the idea that name recognition trumps ability. Terry Bradshaw and Charles Barkley just weren't journalists of any sort when they were hired into these roles. And they still aren't. They were and are big-name former sports stars.

From left: Howie Long, Terry Bradshaw, Charles Barkley, Jimmie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit

Now I don't mean to be overly critical here. For all I know, this pajama party atmosphere is something that the people in charge want; the people on these shows are being told to act the way that they act because it's good for ratings. And given the near-idiocy that is prevalent on SportsCenter these days, I guess that's not surprising.

Still, I find it both aggravating and depressing, this steady erosion of a serious approach to vocations in favor of extended bouts of navel-gazing. Because that's really what is going on here. It's the spectacle that is important, not the actual content. And in that regard, the whole thing strikes me as symptomatic of a decaying culture. Of course I realize that sports is not actually life or death stuff; ultimately it's just entertainment.

Nonetheless, there is an underlying seriousness to competition as a matter of course. Competition is a fundamental aspect of existence, it always has been and always will be. Man competes for everything and such competition is necessarily the source of both conflict and enrichment. Sports, wherein people gain enjoyment from both playing and watching competitive activities, is itself made possible by such serious, real-world competition. It exists as a thing because of increased standards of living and increased leisure time. Its history extends as far back as the history of civilization.

But there's nothing particularly sacred about sports, it is just a thing. Still, this is true of other "things," be those things entertainment-related, economic, or even political. As I watch the growth of sports-related pajama parties, I can't help but see parallels on other "serious" news  shows, from panels of know-nothings that populate cable news, to questionable experts and financial reporters on market-oriented shows. Is the pajama party train on its way there, as well? How long until it takes over nightly news, where already the job of weatherman seems to depend largely on cup size?

Fundamentally, it's a growing lack or seriousness, of professionalism, in favor of being the center of attention that I see, that has taken over the world of sports journalism and is steadily growing in scope everywhere else. It is—philosophically speaking—and abandonment of stoic principles in favor of hedonism. And if we have learned anything from history, it is that such is the harbinger of collapse.

So, thanks sports guys for all you do...

Monday, September 21, 2015

Anti-elitism: from TV lawyers to Donald Trump

It's crazy, the things that get lodged in our memories, isn't it? Moments, images, and the like that seem entirely benign, pointless, or mundane in retrospect live on in our memories. I got to thinking about one recently, a brief incident/conversation with a few buddies back in the mid-eighties.

We were watching TV one afternoon. Or maybe it was morning. Or evening. But that doesn't really matter, nor does what we were watching. A football game? Sit-com? Maybe a movie? Anyway, there was this commercial which I can see in my mind with a ridiculous amount of clarity. It was for a personal injury attorney in Fort Lauderdale, one Jeffrey I. Orseck. The scene was of a faux reporter (a buxom blonde, to be sure) rushing to get an interview with a man leaving the courthouse. She held a microphone up to his face--the microphone had a little call letter sign that read "JIO-TV"--and asked him about his latest triumph in court.

The man was Orseck of course, impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit (Brooks Brothers, no doubt) with a red power tie and matching kerchief and a Mont Blanc poking out of his pocket, as well. And he went into a little spiel about how everyone deserved a lawyer who would fight for their interests and get them the money they deserved...because they had been injured in one way or another.

Tres classy, right?

It was--the mid-eighties--kind of the heyday for TV ads from personal injury attorneys. The king of the hill in this regard was David Singer, who achieved some level of fame for his "Is that a light on in David Singer's office" ads. But Orseck and others weren't far behind. The Florida Bar was just starting to get involved in ad content from lawyers and the rules were loose, to say the least.

Anyway, as we watched the ad, we got to mocking it, the cheesiness of it, the transparency of Orseck's ambulance-chaser mentality, and the stupidity of people who would actually buy into it. I mean, no one could be that stupid, right? At this point, one of my friends--and I know exactly who, by the way, but won't use his name--said something that really stuck with me and is perhaps why I remember all of this so clearly. He said "you guys have no idea; Orseck is like a king to the people he's talking to. They think he's awesome."

My buddy was right, I think. Especially if one goes by the success lawyers like Orseck and Singer were having in those days, all thanks to these ad campaigns. We--my buddies and I--were looking down our collective noses and mocking appeals that were not directed at us in the least. They were directed at people with less education, less sophistication on such matters. To be blunt, we were behaving like textbook elitists. Because less education and sophistication doesn't automatically translate to less intelligence. And the truth is, many people who opted to make use of lawyers like Orseck and Singer benefited mightily. I know this because I know how successful their practices became (Singer is still in business; Orseck passed away in 2007).

That said, this isn't a mea culpa. I'm not apologizing for my attitude here in the least, for my mockery of such ads, for my elitist attitude. It is what it is. But I'm bringing it up and delving into it for purposes of qualifying the weird success Donald Trump continues to have in the polls. Consider his latest tiff, wherein people like me on the Right and most on the Left are rolling their collective eyes. At a Trump campaign event a few days ago, a member of the audience posed a question in the Q&A, wherein he noted that Obama is a Muslim and "not even an American." The man wanted to know when we could "get rid of them [Muslims]." Trump's response:
We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things, and you know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening and we’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.
Wait, what? "We're going to be looking at that"? Looking at what, how to get rid of "them"? And of course, Trump's response was immediately contrasted with McCain's to a similar question the latter fielded in 2008 when a woman called Obama an Arab. McCain was quick to correct her (and was roundly booed for doing so).

As is the case with ambulance-chaser ads, I can't help but shake my head at the stuff coming out of Trump's mouth (or not coming out of his mouth). But my buddy's point is worth remembering: this shit plays well with the people it is being directed towards. The difference, of course, is that neither Orseck nor Singer were seeking political office with their ads (much less seeking the Presidency). Trump is specifically appealing to the non-elitist crowd and--in my opinion--he's doing it specifically to wind up the elitist crowd, which in and of itself draws cheers from the non-elitists.

I don't accept for a moment the idea that Trump believes most of what he is saying; I think his whole "birther" game was just that, a game. He's not ignorant or stupid. He's a full-bore elitist, himself. But like the successful ambulance-chaser, he's specifically tailoring his message for the less-educated, the less-sophisticated. Trump has, I think, done a very careful calculation in this regard and decided that this is all a zero-sum game, that by taking this slice of the pie, he's denying it in full to everyone else. Thus for Trump, the issue will become whether or not he can successfully carve off some other slivers from others' slices.

That said, I also think Trump is wrong (though I admit that I do not know that he is). It's not a zero-sum game because the actual pie is not defined (meaning that the American electorate changes in scope and size from election to election). And--more importantly--I don't think everyone in the group Trump is catering to is as stupid as Trump thinks. People are going to start wising up, are going to start realizing that they are getting played. Which points to another difference between Trump and the ambulance-chasers: the latter have quantifiable rewards for their supporters (clients) in the form of cold, hard cash. That's what separates the successful ones from the pack. What does Trump have for his supporters? Baseball caps?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Observations from the gym

Years and years ago--think decades--when I was much younger, I had a gym membership at Bally's. I'd go periodically, hit a few machines, do a little lifting, and maybe play some racquetball. But I was certainly no gym rat. I joined with the best of intentions, of course: to gawk at women in spandex and to maybe improve my own physique just a tad. But like many people who join gyms, those intentions only served to get me to the gym once and a while (though Bally's happily charged me month after month). I knew I had to wise up and make a choice: make full use of the gym or stop pretending. I chose the latter.

Now as I said, this was some time ago. No regrets from me on that account, since I found other avenues--for a time--to stay in shape, or some reasonable facsimile thereof. I biked, I walked, I swam, I had jobs that required some physical exertion. All was well. Especially when the first two kids came along. They really kept me active. Aside from all of the stroller pushing and running around on playgrounds, there was softball, football, and basketball, sports my kids played where I joined in as a coach or assistant coach. You want an arm workout? Try two hours of pitching batting practice. Of course, the kids got older--they're both in high school now--and either moved on from these activities or no longer required my help.

But in the middle of all this came kid number three. And while there was still some of the same initial stuff--the stroller and the playground--I found myself growing tired much more quickly, owing no doubt to the fact that I was ten years older when kid number three was born, as opposed to kid number one. So I tried to do something about it: I ran. And I still run, even though I really don't like it much, because it keeps me healthy, keeps my heart strong. True enough, I go through extended periods when I fail to get out there, but I always manage to break out of these funks. Still, I found myself feeling my own mortality in new ways, probably because I could see my fiftieth birthday on the horizon (that's right, I'll be in my fifties and still have a kid in elementary school).

So, I went back to the gym. Well, to be fair, I joined a gym--L.A. Fitness, basically another Bally's--at the end of last year. I went a couple of times early on, but then fell into the same old pattern: I'd think about going, but would find a reason to put it off until "tomorrow." Halfway through the summer however (for some reasons I'm not going into), I forced myself to start going in earnest, at least three times a week. Many weeks, I've gone five or even six times.

A few months have gone by now and I have to admit to feeling a need to go. I feel better after working out, have more energy and am simply happier with myself. And I gather that's the way it's supposed to work. Oh, if only I'd figured this out in my twenties. But I digress...

Anyway, after almost three months of a serious approach to working out, I feel entitled to offer some observations on the whole gym scene, some serious, some less so, but all--I think--accurate:

1) Variety is the key to working out, just as it is the key to so many other things. Since I still run, I'm not that worried about cardio or even my lower body, but I can't just do nothing but arm curls and bench presses, right?

2) Most people are slobs, so bring a towel if you're going to the gym. When I finish on a machine or a mat, I always wipe it down. I thought this was protocol, but it appears to no longer be the case, given how many people I see drip sweat all over the equipment, then simply walk away when they are done.

3) It's very hip to lug around a gallon jug of water, especially if you're using free weights, even if you only end up drinking about a third of it. Me, I stick to my smaller squeeze bottle, given the fact that most gyms have water fountains.

4) People need to read the instructions on the equipment before using it. It's amazing to me how many people consistently use this stuff incorrectly, who--for instance--don't adjust seat heights and the like and fail to target the muscle group a particular machine was built for.

5) In that same light: isometric holds. If you have a limited time to work out, you should try to maximize your results, no?

6) Weight training first, cardio second. Seriously people, I know I'm still something of a novice but this is basic stuff. Yet, I see person after person--always decked out in top-of-the-line gear--do the reverse.

7) And in that same light, gym outfits have become much more interesting. Seriously, some of the leggings women wear just...well, enough said.

8) Stairmasters suck. Okay, not really. They're great, but they kill me (which, of course, is the point). The first ten minutes or so are no big deal, but after that...gah! I have to admit that the most impressive thing I see are the people--usually women--who not only hit those things for an hour, but do all kinds of additional movements on the stairs. Awesome stuff.

9) I have noticed that there are primarily two kinds of people at the gym: those who walk away from a machine leaving the weight settings as they used them, and those who feel compelled to increase the weight when they are done. Seriously. It's as though they think the next person who uses the machine will somehow be impressed by the higher setting, never mind that they have no idea who used the machine last. Are people really that shallow? Well...

10) Oh. My. God. The mirrors! Some people check themselves out constantly. I was in the locker room once and another guy there--younger than me, to be sure--could not take his eyes off of his reflection. He went to the mirror and posed every time he put on an article of clothing, including when he put on his hat and backpack!

Now if you'll excuse me, it's time to hit the gym!