Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Century Later

Kaiser Wilhelm I

One hundred years ago, World War I started.  No one really wanted it to start, but all the key players in Europe had bound themselves up in such a way that they could see no way to avoid war without losing face.  The sad truth is that politicians, then and now, would rather see a disastrous war that kills millions than "lose face" by admitting they were doing something stupid.

Then and now:  because it's happening again.  When politicians compare Putin to Hitler, what does that do?  Well, do you negotiate with Hitler?  Heck no -- no one wants to be compared to Neville Chamberlain.  Do you defeat him and allow a negotiated surrender?  Apparently not:  the demand for unconditional surrenders extended World War II and cost many lives, but it was thought to be necessary.  

But how do you persuade a nuclear superpower to surrender unconditionally?  You don't.  Let's be clear on a couple of points here:
  1. Russia is a nuclear superpower.  They may have fewer nukes than in the past, but it's easily enough to cause several hundred million deaths.  If they wanted to, they could destroy the United States (at the obvious cost of being destroyed themselves).  The people who survived would no longer be "the United States".   Ditto for the European Union.  A superpower is defined not in terms of what it can create, but what it can destroy.  Superpowers can only be pushed around so much.
  2. We (the US, the West, whatever) did not "win" the Cold War, except in the all-important sense of surviving the Cold War.  Of course, in that sense, the Russians won, too.  It is true that the Soviet Union did not survive the end of the Cold War, but Ronald Reagan did not bring down the Soviet Union.  The Russian people brought down the Soviet Union.  If we keep getting this wrong, we will keep screwing up our policies in that part of the world.
If we are prepared to act like adults for a while -- what now?  What is needed is a compromise that gives everyone what they insist on and respects the realities of the situation.  I have two suggestions in mind.
  1. Russia leases the Crimea from Ukraine for 100 years.  The US leases Guantanamo Bay from Cuba, even though relations between the two countries have been terrible for decades.  Hong Kong was leased to the UK from China even during the Cold War.  The main advantage of this solution is that it acknowledges that Crimea is in principle a part of Ukraine (to soothe their pride) while also acknowledging Russian control.  Also, instead of a costly war, at least Ukraine would get something for the loss of control of Crimea.  This is my preferred option.
  2. Russia buys the Crimea outright, the way the US bought (for example) Alaska and the Louisiana Purchase.  Arriving at a fair price would be challenging, to say the least, but again Crimea gets something in return, as opposed to the huge losses that could be expected in a war.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Problem with News

Photo by Stefano Corso via Wikimedia Commons.

When it comes to factual data that is easily understood and of little long-term consequence, the synoptic news media can probably be trusted.  If they say that the current temperature of Buffalo, NY is 21 degrees Fahrenheit, or that last night Chicago beat Indianapolis 109-87, they're probably right.

When it comes to editorials and opinions, they are usually wrong and always untrustworthy.

The hard part comes with the in-between stories:  stories that are supposed to deal with facts, but facts that are not easily confirmed; stories that can take on a whole different appearance depending on what is reported and what is buried or on the precise choice of words; stories in which we are "supposed" to see that there are "good guys" and "bad guys", possibly due to the political, cultural, or geographic bias of the news organization, possibly just because such stories attract more eyes and ears.  In these in-between situations we may be getting "nothing but the truth" without getting "the truth, the whole truth", but more often we will have a few lies, mistakes, and insinuations mixed in even with the few limited truths we are given.

This comes up in situations like Syria and the Ukraine.

In the case of Syria, the narrative from most of the media is that Assad is a monster; the narrative from many Catholic and Orthodox sources is that the rebels are Muslim fanatics who murder Christians and desecrate churches.  The odds are that both are true as far as they go.  So what should "we", meaning the US, do?  Honestly, this is the kind of fight we should stay out of.  I slightly prefer the devil I know to the devil I don't know, but that doesn't mean I think we should help Assad.  Whoever wins will be morally problematic, and whoever wins will be in power only for a few years, eventually to be replaced by people who hate them.  There is NO SUCH THING as a long term in situations like this.  We're best off keeping everyone at arms length and not identifying with anyone.

In the case of the Ukraine, depending on who is telling the story it appears to be parallel to one of four precedents.

  1. The US invasion of Panama under Operation Just Cause.  The US had several reasons for this, but the nominal one was to defend US personnel in the Canal Zone.  At least the US did not annex Panama.
  2. The US annexation of Hawaii. It's hard to see this as really justified, and the US did seize the territory on the excuse of protecting Americans in Hawaii.  But at least the annexation stopped there, and over the long haul this has probably worked out to the advantage of the Hawaiians. 
  3. The German annexation of the Sudetenland. The "reason" for this was to protect ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia.  However, the annexations did not stop there.  Also, the annexation was not to everyone's advantage early on and ultimately was to absolutely no one's advantage.
  4. The German annexation of Poland, northern France, etc.  There was little attempt to present an excuse; Germany wanted the land and was able to take it, period.
The synoptic media make this sound like the annexation of the Sudetenland; Russian statements make it sound like Operation Just Cause; and American politicians make it sound like it might be most like the German annexation of Poland.  My guess is it's closest to the US annexation of Hawaii, but under the circumstances, it's just a guess.  It's based in part on the fact that although I am not quite sure what to think of Putin and contemporary Russia, I am very sure what I think about Barack Hussein Obama and the European Union.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Once a German Professor, Always a German Professor


I am a great admirer of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as I have been since I was first introduced to his writings in the late 1990's when I began to learn about the Catholic Faith.  He is obviously a man of great learning and wisdom.  However, like all of us, Benedict has been shaped by his experiences, and reading his writings it is often obvious that he was once a German professor.  

Often this shows in his selection and presentation of material.  One problem faced by a scrupulous  academic is that what he wishes to be both accurate and very precise.  All too often, this approach backfires.  Care for precision can sound like doubt, and the delay in coming to the point can be extremely frustrating.  Of course, this sounds familiar to those who know some German, in which language the meaning of a sentence is often impossible to guess until the last word.  More seriously, though, the bulky verbiage can be confusing to those not used to it, and especially to those (in the secular media, for example) who do not believe the fine distinctions represent important differences.

Another noteworthy characteristic of the German language is that it uses long words where English would use phrases.  The main practical difference is that we would tend to vary the phrase more than a German would find synonyms for the long word.  Also, these words tend to be logical to the point of being very funny.  For instance, in English we have a "wrist", but in German the same joint is called a Handgelenk (= "Hand Joint").  In English, we have a "glove", but in German gloves are called a Handshuh (= "Hand Shoe").

All these things stand out clearly to me as slowly work my way through the last encyclical that Benedict wrote alone -- Caritas in Veritate, or Charity in Truth.  The subtitle of this encyclical is On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth, and the phrase "integral human development" occurs 21 times within the body of the text.  I'm not sure, but I suspect that the phrase works much better in his native German than it does in English.  Regardless, this and certain other stylistic elements have made this encyclical unduly difficult to work through.  Isn't there a better English expression for the same concept?

I think there is; I suggest the word "flourishing".  Flourishing has the connotation of robust, energetic, holistic growth -- growth for both the individual and the society, growth that encompasses the spiritual, physical, moral, cultural, and economic spheres.  This is the main gist of what Benedict was trying to say:  laws and policies must be designed to promote the flourishing of all affected parties, while in the process never doing evil that good may result.

This explains why so many Catholics saw this as an attack on Capitalism.  Even at its best, Capitalism has as its goal the prosperity of each participant, each looking out for himself, ideally while never doing evil that good may result.  If society as a whole also prospers, or if other affected parties prosper, it is a happy coincidence.  The same can be said of the other aspects of flourishing -- the moral and spiritual dimensions, for example.  Capitalism has, of course, provided greater material prosperity, though very unequally.  A quick glance at the headlines clearly indicates that it does not lead to great advances in the cultural, spiritual, or moral spheres.

It's a sad thing that I have to point out that this is by no means an endorsement of Socialism.  Nearly a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, many people are still stuck in the idea that there are only two possibilities:  unrestricted Capitalism or Socialism/Communism.  No; but trusting to dumb luck is not wise, and we can set the bar higher than the egocentric pusuit of material prosperity.