Grand Delusions about Ukraine and U.S. Power

The mess in Ukraine is part of a broader picture of how U.S. policy has failed for many years to impose a liberal order on the world. Here John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago speaks compellingly about our delusions of power and influence—and how they have led us to the edge of conflict with Russia.

Mearsheimer’s arguments put into perspective what many of us have felt. I urge you to hear him out. You’ll learn what “liberal hegemony” means.

 

The Good News for 2022

Every new year begins with hope for a better one. This is traditional and expected. After the disasters of 2021 there seems to be a greater push than ever for optimism and change—even while we all feel the negativism out there. So how do you balance hope against realism, wishful thinking against despair? How can anyone account for the unpredictable path of the pandemic?

Some rely on the pseudo-science of forecasting, like the folks at Vox. See “22 things we think will happen in 2022” which features a fairly pompous introduction justifying the imperfect discipline of polling. They see the end of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Bolsonaro reelected, and the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Not too hopeful, is it? Most prognosticators like Brian Sullivan of CNBC focus on the economy, predicting a series of booms in areas that a majority of climate activists hope won’t happen—things like more babies and copper mining.

The one positive event that many seem to be ignoring is the launch and deployment of the James Webb telescope, a great scientific achievement that will, sooner or later, alter all our lives. Also, if you can believe the NY Times, Artificial Intelligence will begin to be used

to detect and combat algorithmic bias. Last month, 193 countries signed a first-ever global agreement to devise a common framework for the ethics of A.I. More recently, a researcher unveiled technology that might be used to predict breast cancer in healthy people. And maybe next year, robots will make better calls in baseball games.

One should especially pray for the latter development.

The Times also published an essay by Margaret Renkl entitled, “I Just Turned 60, but I Still Feel 22.” In it she doesn’t talk about feeling 22 but instead rambles on about feminism, getting fatter, and how it feels to be 60. She offers bromides about facing the future. I have to say that anyone who feels they are 22 at age 60 is not really facing the future. Or the past, for that matter.

For me, the really good news for 2022 is that a growing majority of people around the world are finally beginning to face the climate problem. Among them are young people, who of course are the best hope for the future. In an LA Times editorial, Tony Barboza writes that “when participants across the political spectrum were told that growing numbers of people are angry about climate change, they were more inclined to express their own outrage and support taking action.”

Anger and focused rage can be big motivators in persuading local officials and federal representatives to finally do something about the climate. 2022 could be a turning point. There’s always hope.

Comments on the Rittenhouse Verdict

I said I would eschew politics in this blog but events always confound our best intentions. By now most of you know that a jury exonerated Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges. House libertarian Megan McArdle of the Washington Post wrote a disgraceful pseudo-defense of that verdict with a number of preposterous claims.

 I’ll give you a few of the comments outraged readers made (8,000 and counting) about her piece instead of writing mine. Readers sometimes have more sense than writers.

    •  An almost all white jury picked in a day by a judge who insisted that the dead men could be called “rioters” and “looters” but not “victims.” That’s your benefit of the doubt, extended almost unilaterally to white men with guns, and no one else.
    • This is the sort of grandiose self deception that always leads to tragedy. Just like George Zimmerman playing cop killed Trayvon Martin, in the same way Rittenhouse wanted to play militiaman, and when it turned out that he was not invincible, as soon as he felt threatened, he panicked and shot over and over. Privelged White boys with deadly toys.
    • Bottom line: open carry vigilantism is now the law of the land.
    • What a delusional piece of garbage. This gives license to all the little Nazis out there to declare open season on protests.
    • Let’s not candy coat this. He should not have been there at all. He should not been allowed by police to roam around armed. When it looked like he might be in over his head he chose to use that weapon and shot to death two people severely injuring another. Why isn’t he accountable for at least something, anything? What a travesty.
    • McArdle really should have waited awhile before penning this post trial assessment. What this trial reveals is a clear example of white privilege, that’s what the article writer refers to as the “benefit of the doubt.” . . . The minute the foolish young man decided to grab his gun before leaving home for a protest out of state was the moment his fate and his victim’s fate were sealed.
    • Left or right, it doesn’t matter. The fact is two people died, and one was injured. The fact that these people couldn’t defend themselves, (they didn’t have a gun, Rittenhouse did) , they never made it to court, because a 17 year old boy decided to take a gun into a dangerous situation and decided to shoot. I didn’t buy his display of tears, all good defense attorneys coach such performances. Make him look like a choir boy, and the jury will forgive him. They did. But what message does that send to other 17 year old boys, who think carrying a loaded AR-15 rifle is “cool,” and are not trained to handle intense situations. Where were this boy’s parents? Who in their right mind would allow their kid to carry a loaded weapon into an inflammatory situation? If Rittenhouse wanted to give aid and put out fires, why did he bring the gun with him? Guns are only used for one reason, to kill. This verdict doesn’t surprise me, considering the behavior of the judge, who bent over backwards to help the defendant. Juries are keenly aware of when a judge consistently dresses down a lawyer, justified or not. Justice was not served today.

By the Time I Retrieved My Fly Swatter,
the Fly Had Flown Off

Our concept of time constrains, to one degree or another, everything we do. Delay frustrates the best-laid plans, stresses every outcome, and makes for bad decisions. Look at the climate crisis. We still can’t comprehend the magnitude of its unfolding. The remedies proposed are insufficient and politically impossible, even if we had the time and will to impose them.

Democrats keep struggling to agree on their social spending plan, and the results look worse and worse. Biden wants an agreement before he goes to the Glasgow conference to avoid looking like a climate blowhard. But the pressure of time won’t make for a better deal. To link an event like Glasgow to drafting major legislation is typical of how we lock ourselves into political and social deceptions.

And yet I think we all function better with deadlines. Channeling the pressure of time to an agreed-upon outcome produces results, especially when dodging the deadline has serious consequences. But this only works on the mundane level of things to do. How does Nancy Pelosi enforce her legislative deadlines? Out of necessity she fudges them.

Political impotence is the result and has been for years. Anything short of major political reform won’t change things, and so we’ll keep trying to swat flies like Sinema and Manchin because we’re not going to see major political reform, are we?

My outlook is gloomy because real political reform seems more than ever a pipedream, and the world is enmeshed in a capitalistic system with deep historical and social roots. Amitav Ghosh has written a new book about this which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Our concept of time has led to the great divorce from nature that has finally resulted in massive climate change. We still see time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. But in fact, as I’ve said before, “progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.”

The way we perceive time is basically an illusion. So says physicist Carlo Rovelli in a wonderful book, The Order of Time, which I’ve read. “Perhaps, therefore, the flow of time is not a characteristic of the universe: like the rotation of the heavens, it is due to the particular perspective that we have from our corner of it.”

Still, our awareness of time passing “contains all the ambrosia and all the gall of life.”

Finally, Some Sense on Climate

The discussion on how to control the out-of-control climate has always seemed to me somehow out of whack. Climate doctors invariably focus on changing our energy sources, but pay little attention to how to cool this rapidly overheating planet. And that is the presenting problem.

Dr. David Keith, a professor of applied physics and of public policy at Harvard, finally addresses this crucial issue in “What’s the Least Bad Way to Cool the Planet?” He offers what will be to many a new framework for addressing our most immediate urgency.

Eliminating emissions by about 2050 is a difficult but doable goal. Suppose it is achieved. Average temperatures will stop increasing when emissions stop, but cooling will take thousands of years as greenhouse gases slowly dissipate from the atmosphere. Because the world will be a lot hotter by the time emissions reach zero, heat waves and storms will be worse than they are today. And while the heat will stop getting worse, sea level will continue to rise for centuries as polar ice melts in a warmer world.

Keith’s conclusion is that we need both to stop carbon emissions and find ways to cool the planet. To do the latter we need some form of social geoengineering, likely in the form of reflecting sunlight. As another report notes, such technologies will likely involve “adding small reflective particles to the upper atmosphere, by increasing reflective cloud cover in the lower atmosphere, or by thinning high-altitude clouds that can absorb heat.” The report acknowledges that there may be “an array of unknown or negative consequences.” And many critics have focused on these. Others have tried to account for them.

The other way to reduce heat is by using carbon removal (capturing it from the air) technologies. This, it seems to Keith, is far less feasible, considering the scale and time required to bring it about.

Planting sufficient trees would require a lengthy and immense transformative effort. Industrial removal methods must confront the challenge that there is just too much carbon to remove from the air in too short a time. The technology is nowhere in place.

The challenge is that a carbon removal operation—industrial or biological—achieves nothing the day it starts, but only cumulatively, year upon year. So, the faster one seeks that one degree of cooling, the faster one must build the removal industry, and the higher the social costs and environmental impacts per degree of cooling.

Geoengineeering—e.g., putting sulfur particles into the stratosphere—sounds “reckless,” says Keith, and will surely exacerbate some climate changes, but

the harms that would result by shaving a degree off global temperatures would be small compared with the benefits. Air pollution deaths from the added sulfur in the air would be more than offset by declines in the number of deaths from extreme heat, which would be 10 to 100 times larger.

And, of course, the “grand challenge is geopolitical.” What countries would get to decide on such a course and execute it? And for how long? Carbon removal is the safest path, but “solar geoengineering may well be able to cool the world this century with less environmental impacts and less social and economic disruption. Yet no one knows, because the question is not being asked.”

More research, and there is very little now, is essential. “Cooling the planet to reduce human suffering in this century will require carbon removal or solar geoengineering or both.”

A Warning to the Sheep

If you were thinking Trumpism was a passing phenomenon, the work of a nitwit showman, then you thought wrong. The strongest indictment came Thursday in a Washington Post opinion piece, “Our constitutional crisis is already here.” I urge you to read the full piece. For those without a subscription I’ll give some excerpts below.

Author Robert Kagan is one of those pundits who has walked both sides of the street. He’s been both a prominent neoconservative and a vigorous opponent of Trump. He was a longtime advocate for global intervention, yet in 2016 he endorsed Hillary Clinton and loudly called Trump a fascist. Here he has outlined a fearsome yet possible scenario, beginning this way:

The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves. The warning signs may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial.

Trump will no doubt be the candidate in 2024, says Kagan, and the majority of Republicans will try to “ensure his victory by whatever means necessary.” They will do this by controlling state and local officials who certify elections. The stage is “being set for chaos” and partisan warfare.

The political and intellectual establishments in both parties have been underestimating Trump since he emerged on the scene in 2015. They underestimated the extent of his popularity and the strength of his hold on his followers; they underestimated his ability to take control of the Republican Party; and then they underestimated how far he was willing to go to retain power. The fact that he failed to overturn the 2020 election has reassured many that the American system remains secure, though it easily could have gone the other way—if Biden had not been safely ahead in all four states where the vote was close; if Trump had been more competent and more in control of the decision-makers in his administration, Congress and the states. As it was, Trump came close to bringing off a coup earlier this year. All that prevented it was a handful of state officials with notable courage and integrity, and the reluctance of two attorneys general and a vice president to obey orders they deemed inappropriate.

The framers of the constitution never imagined such a breakdown of the three branches of government or the rise of such power in a national political party.

Suspicion of and hostility toward the federal government; racial hatred and fear; a concern that modern, secular society undermines religion and traditional morality; economic anxiety in an age of rapid technological change; class tensions, with subtle condescension on one side and resentment on the other; distrust of the broader world, especially Europe, and its insidious influence in subverting American freedom—such views and attitudes have been part of the fabric of U.S. politics since the anti-Federalists, the Whiskey Rebellion and Thomas Jefferson.

What makes the Trump movement historically unique is not its passions and paranoias. It is the fact that for millions of Americans, Trump himself is the response to their fears and resentments. This is a stronger bond between leader and followers than anything seen before in U.S. political movements. . . . His charismatic leadership has given millions of Americans a feeling of purpose and empowerment, a new sense of identity. . . .

For Trump supporters, the “error” is that Trump was cheated out of reelection by what he has told them is an oppressive, communist, Democrat regime. While the defeat of a sitting president normally leads to a struggle to claim the party’s mantle, so far no Republican has been able to challenge Trump’s grip on Republican voters: not Sen. Josh Hawley, not Sen. Tom Cotton, not Tucker Carlson, not Gov. Ron DeSantis. It is still all about Trump.

 . . . Republican politicians marvel at how he has “tapped into” a hitherto unknown swath of the voting public. But what he has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the “mobocracy.” Conservatives have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty. But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms.

 . . . To understand how such movements take over a democracy, one only has to watch the Republican Party today. These movements play on all the fears, vanities, ambitions and insecurities that make up the human psyche.

 . . . This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party—out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear—falling into line behind him.

More on this issue:  “What If 2020 Was Just a Rehearsal?”

Thoughts on 9/11: Shanksville

Flight 93 Memorial

With all the postmortems and reflections, there hasn’t been enough thought given to the martyrdom of Flight 93 and its passengers on that disastrous day. Paige Williams wrote hers today in The New Yorker, part of which is worth repeating here. The legacy of 9/11 has been a history of American overreach and decline, as many have reminded us. The forty passengers and crew on Flight 93 helped display the contrary.

Forty-five minutes into the flight, at around 9:30 a.m., air-traffic controllers received two radio transmissions—a frantic “Mayday!” and the sounds of violent struggle, followed by “Get out of here!” United 93 plummeted seven hundred feet, over eastern Ohio. A hijacker, one of four, was heard announcing that there was a bomb on board. Using autopilot, the hijackers pointed the jetliner toward Washington, D.C. Its transponder disabled, the flight became harder to track. The plane’s cockpit voice recorder captured the sound of a woman struggling with a hijacker; she then went silent.

The crew and passengers, herded into the back of the plane, used the onboard phones, and their personal cell phones, to call people on the ground. Learning that other hijackers had just flown jetliners into both towers of the World Trade Center, they held a vote. Unarmed civilians, unbound by duty, they included a college judo champ, a former air-traffic controller, and a retired registered nurse. In an act that has become American lore over the past twenty years, the passengers and crew members chose to attack the knife-wielding hijackers and “retake the plane.”

They rushed the first-class cabin, carrying out what the 9/11 Commission’s report called a “sustained” assault. One of the plane’s data recorders captured “loud thumps, crashes, shouts, and breaking glasses and plates.” The hijacker flying the plane, as if to throw the assaulters off balance, rocked the aircraft left and right. One hijacker asked, “Shall we finish it off?” Another said to wait. A passenger shouted, “In the cockpit. If we don’t, we’ll die!” The hijacker soon asked again, “Shall we put it down?” This time, the answer was yes. The 9/11 Commission concluded that the hijackers “judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them.”

The plane roared low across pastoral Somerset County, Pennsylvania, skimming the village of Lambertsville. The aircraft flipped, then crashed at nearly six hundred miles per hour near Shanksville. People miles away felt the ground shake.

On Covid

It seems the world is on its way to losing the game of fighting the Covid virus. What that will finally mean we can’t yet know, but warnings abound. We see Europe’s fumbling responses, the continuing disaster in India, the confused and irrational reactions from masses of Americans—and the obvious conclusion is that many more will die, the variants will easily proliferate, and the world will incorporate this virus into its domicile of disease, just as it does with cancer.

There is something maniacal about Covid, its ability to adapt and thrive, multiply and avoid the vaccines, and finally infect people’s minds. J.M. Coetzee wrote about this some fourteen years ago in an excellent lesser-known book of his opinions called Diary of a Bad Year. I just finished reading it and was struck by the author’s visionary thinking—and how little we have learned in those fourteen years. Here are some excerpts.

If we can speak meaningfully of viruses as possessing or being possessed by a drive or instinct, it is an instinct to replicate and multiply. As they multiply they take over more and more host organisms. It can hardly be their intention (so to speak) to kill their hosts. What they would like, rather, is an ever-expanding population of hosts. . . .

The protagonists are involved in a strategic game, a game resembling chess in the sense that the one side attacks, creating pressure aimed at a breakthrough, while the other defends and searches for weak points at which to counterattack. . . . Two parties who embark on a game of chess implicitly agree to play by the rules. But in the game we play against the viruses there is no such founding convention. It is not inconceivable that one day the virus will make the equivalent of a conceptual leap and, instead of playing the game, will begin to play the game of game-playing, that is to say, will begin to reform the rules to suit its own desire. . . .

We assume that, as long as it is applied with enough tenacity, human reason must triumph (is fated to triumph) over other forms of purposive activity because human reason is the only form of reason there is, the only key that can unlock the codes by which the universe works. Human reason, we say, is universal reason.

But what if there are equally powerful modes of “thinking,” that is, equally effective biochemical processes for getting to where your drives or desires incline you? What if the contest to see on whose terms warm-blooded life will continue on this planet does not prove human reason to be the winner? The recent successes of human reason in its long contest with virus thinking should not delude us, for it has held the upper hand a mere instant in evolutionary time. What if the tide turns; and what if the lesson contained in that turn of the tide is that human reason has met its match?

Surfside

The building went down in an area that I used to know well. The appalling collapse of the Champlain Towers South triggered for me a number of thoughts, as I’m sure it did for you. We read into disasters like this not only our observed failures as a society—which Florida for me represents on a grand scale—but our inability to protect ourselves from future calamities that we know are coming.

My parents, when they were alive, lived in a condo in Bay Harbor Islands, just a few blocks across Indian Creek from Surfside. I went to Surfside often, for bagels, for its Jewish ethnicity, its bazaar of stores, the beach and, nearby, the chic Bal Harbour shops. In recent times, Surfside has gotten built up, with more and more condos and an influx of people from all over.

Florida and its developers (commercial and political) have told us it may take years to find the cause of this disaster. They have ignored the unmistakable signs of climate change as a factor. They have also permitted, nay encouraged, the development of Miami and its barrier islands, building high-rise condos on a limestone bed that is totally permeable to constantly rising sea water. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to know that more buildings will come down. We seem temperamentally unable to deal with the effects of climate change that are staring us in the face.

Journalists are particularly cautious about making any such conclusion that climate must be accounted for. They don’t want to scare people and they don’t want to be found mistaken. I think it’s a fairly sure bet that more buildings will fall and more people will die, notwithstanding the engineering analyses. Florida has too many folks acting like the frog in the slowly boiling water.

Susan Matthews of Slate puts it this way: we might be entering a world “where building collapses are just another thing that journalists cautiously acknowledge as catastrophes that might be exacerbated by climate change, but we end up just dealing with them, just like we have learned to deal with the heat waves and the fires and the droughts and the hurricanes.”

May God save all those buried people.

Choices and Observations: Reengaging with the U.S.

costco interior

As most of you know, it costs a lot to live here, and not just in dollars. To live in the United States these days you constantly adjust your thinking about what you buy or don’t buy. And because the political situation is such an imponderable mess, you just put on your blinders each day.

My kids live in Charlottesville, certainly not (in most ways) a typical U.S. town. Home to a major university and a lot of wealth, there are maybe 8,000 black people (19% of the total population) living at the lower economic end. White people mostly live firmly separate lives from them, and those with bucks enjoy a kind of preppy culture, fed by the university and its traditions.

My kids have two boys, aged 4-1/2 and 1-1/2. They recently bought a big new house and are living the good life, though there are always money concerns. They buy a lot of stuff. Costco is the staple of life for folks like this, and it’s one of the great success stories of Charlottesville. The store size and the immense quantity of stuff available boggles the mind of a Mexican vecino.

Costco’s prices are good though you have to buy in quantity. Everything is big, including the shopping carts. The quality is excellent, the store help quite accommodating. People love the concept—and talk about it. At a dinner party I heard much about the variety of wines, cheeses and gourmet items. What a massive consumer culture informs the U.S.!

Politically, the left-right split normally prevents any kind of political commonality, so people here generally tune out its nasty cultural implications, disregarding them because there are no obvious solutions and because the triggers are hidden and dangerous. For liberals, it’s easy to talk about the latest Republican outrage or laugh at Matt Gaetz, but such conversation can be short-lived. Ventilating just doesn’t get you very far, and one gets fed up with the negativity.

So the genteel side of life in Charlottesville controls a lot of what happens here. And that’s not all bad. I know some music faculty here, but it’s hard to imagine far-out jazz finding an audience. Still, a jazz scene somehow flourishes, often minus black people. All the extremist splits in American society are here, most of them covered over. Cultural survival requires it.

P. S.  Costco wins with the millennials and everyone else.