Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On this day in 1918...

...the most devastating conflict that the world had ever seen up to that point, came to a close. Total casualties were just shy of 50 million with deaths from military causes in the neighborhood of ten million or so. The war administered a shock to western civilization from which it has never recovered. But whatever the subsequent political and culturial implications of places like The Somme and Verdun on our collective memory, it worth remembering the very real suffering of the men fought and died there.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872 - 1918)

The Red Plague.

How can we understand all this killing by communists? It is the marriage of an absolutist ideology with the absolute power. Communists believed that they knew the truth, absolutely. They believed that they knew through Marxism what would bring about the greatest human welfare and happiness. And they believed that power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, must be used to tear down the old feudal or capitalist order and rebuild society and culture to realize this utopia. Nothing must stand in the way of its achievement. Government--the Communist Party--was thus above any law. All institutions, cultural norms, traditions, and sentiments were expendable. And the people were as though lumber and bricks, to be used in building the new world.

Constructing this utopia was seen as though a war on poverty, exploitation, imperialism, and inequality. And for the greater good, as in a real war, people are killed. And thus, this war for the communist utopia had its necessary enemy casualties, the clergy, bourgeoisie, capitalists, wreckers, counterrevolutionaries, rightists, tyrants, rich, landlords, and noncombatants that unfortunately got caught in the battle. In a war millions may die, but the cause may be well justified, as in the defeat of Hitler and an utterly racist Nazism. And to many communists, the cause of a communist utopia was such as to justify all the deaths.

The irony of this is that communism in practice, even after decades of total control, did not improve the lot of the average person, but usually made their living conditions worse than before the revolution. It is not by chance that the greatest famines have occurred within the Soviet Union (about 5,000,000 dead during 1921-23 and 7,000,000 from 1932-3) and communist China (about 27,000,000 dead from 1959-61, as mentioned). In total almost 55,000,000 people died in various communist famines and associated diseases, a little over 10,000,000 of them from democidal famine. This is as though the total population of Turkey, Iran, or Thailand had been completely wiped out. And understandably, something like 35,000,000 people fled communist countries as refugees. It is as though the countries of Argentina or Columbia had been totally emptied of all their people. This was an unparalleled vote against the utopian pretensions of Marxism.

More here.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)

The Lessons of 1989.

Throughout the 1980s, democratic insurgencies in the Philippines and South Korea, as well as the long resistance of the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa, showed that when the ruled do not want to go on in the old way, all they really need do is to fold their arms. These examples were studied behind the Iron Curtain: Matynia's book on Poland makes a direct comparison case with South Africa, and leading Polish dissident Adam Michnik was a close observer of the gradual but impressive manner in which Spain evolved from a sort of fascistic theocracy into a civil and secular society.

Today, the memory of the "velvet revolution" or the "soft revolution" is very strong in Iran, where arrested intellectuals and activists are accused in so many words by the secret police of having a "velvet" agenda. In Tehran, alas, there are still many in the clerical leadership who believe, as the Communists no longer did, in their own primitive and oppressive ideology, and who are willing—if not, indeed, eager—to kill for it. (And the brutish Iranian mullahs secured the first great-power endorsement of their election theft from Vladimir Putin's Moscow, which, these days, is the seat of an aggressive, chauvinist, militarist, and clerically influenced regime.) So we still have our duties of solidarity with movements of transformation, and we can draw on the memory of a time when civilized peoples, so long forced to hold their tongues and hold their breath, all exhaled at the same moment and blew the old order away without a shot being fired.


Monday, November 09, 2009

'Going Muslim'

"Going postal" is a piquant American phrase that describes the phenomenon of violent rage in which a worker--archetypically a postal worker--"snaps" and guns down his colleagues.

As the enormity of the actions of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan sinks in, we must ask whether we are confronting a new phenomenon of violent rage, one we might dub--disconcertingly--"Going Muslim." This phrase would describe the turn of events where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American--a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood--discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans. This would appear to be what happened in the case of Maj. Hasan.

More here.

It was Twenty Years Ago Today.

It was perhaps the greatest day in the history of human freedom. Never before had so many people freed, so quickly, with so little loss of life.

For those too young to remember that day, its difficult to describe the joy that seeing those people standing on the wall brought. Not only was there a flood of happiness but also a huge sense of relief.

For those of us who came of age during the Cold War, the danger of imminent conflict between east and west was a basic fact of our existence. Most people took it for granted that sooner or later Soviet tank armies would come rumbling through West Germany and it seemed the the best case scenario was a conventional war with perhaps 20-30 million dead. The worst case scenario is too terrible to contemplate. Amazingly, none of it happened. Whether it was luck, providence, or inspired leadership, we came through.

It's worth remembering as we struggle with Islamism, third rate North Korean dictators, environmental issues and a global economy that borders on disastrous...we've faced far worse. For all the apparent stress on the cultural and political fabric of our nation, the challenges we face today are tiny compared with those we've faced in the past.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

My thoughts on yesterdays political events.

Much will be said today about the elections yesterday, what they mean and what they portend for the future.

Republicans are celebrating big wins in the gubernatorial races in Virginia and solidly Democratic New Jersey. These are major victories. They illustrate the change in the political winds quite well I think. Obama's victory in Virgina last year was seen a as a major breakthrough for Democrats. It was the first time they had won a presidential contest there since 1964. Now a year later they loose by 18 points. That's a big change. In New Jersey, one of the most solidly blue states you had an incumbent governor outspend his opponent at least 2-1 (Dick Morris says 5-1 but take things he says with a grain of salt). Obama made numerous trips to the state to campaign for his guy. He lost anyway. Frankly, he lost badly.

Liberals will find some comfort in blaming the weakness of the candidates in those states. The rejection of those specific candidates doesn't necessarily mean a rejection of Obama or his agenda they will argue. In fact I actually heard a caller on a talk show as I was driving in this morning argue that the lesson Obama should take from yesterday's results is that he should stop being so centrist. America, the caller argued was far too ideological for Obama's utilitarian approach. I've got to say I'm mystified by this argument. I disagree both with the caller's description of fact (compared to say Europe I think the U.S. is noticeably non-ideological and as to Obama being non-ideological...well let's just say I disagree) and his advice going forward. If the Democrats believe that they can make gains by purging the blue-dogs and lurching leftward, they are delusional.

At the same time Democrats have been pushing the meme that there is a war for the soul of the GOP between folks who are indistinguishable from Democrats (the forces of good) and conservatives (the minions of Satan...not that they believe in Satan or anything). These folks will no doubt take comfort in the results of the congressional election in NY-23. It's a strange race though. The Republican candidate was picked by 11 people and was arguably to the left of the Democrat(she was briefly endorsed by Kos before he realized that his endorsement was actually hurting her). It's hard to argue that she really had a mandate from Republicans in her district.

The Democrat seemed to be a personable, conventional liberal. This stood in sharp contrast to the weirdly awkward Conservative party candidate Doug Hoffman. Never the less, in 30 days Hoffman went from being a total unknown with no money to being a cause celeb for the American right. Add the fact that the Republican dropped out and then endorsed the Democrat and his coming within a few thousand votes of winning is simply astonishing. The truth is that the result in NY-23 is a (moral) victory for conservatism, a bitter defeat for insiders who try to foist candidates on unwilling voters and at best an endorsement of the Democrat as being the least weird of an odd bunch.

It seems to me though that the biggest story yesterday was not an election result but rather the acknowledgment by senior Democrats that there will not be a health care bill this year. This is devastating for the chances of health care legislation.

It's not as though this congress is exactly circumspect about passing things and figuring out how they will work later. This can only mean that the Democrats have done the math and they simply don't have the votes. They are putting a brave face on it saying they'll pursue it next year but frankly that's laughable. If they can't get nervous democrats to vote for it now, what makes them think that it'll be easier in an election year? Also keep in mind that that Democrats were saying these things before losing the governorships in New Jersey and Virgina. And if as expected, the Republicans make big gains in the 2010 congressional elections? Well let's just say their chances are somewhere in the neighborhood of zero.

All of this also bodes ill for Cap and Trade. This was always going to be a hard sell in the Senate. It seems clear that Democrats were holding it back, hoping that momentum from the passage of Obamacare would allow it to squeak through. Now that seems a forlorn hope.

The consequences of mismanaged TARP and stimulus funds have come home to roost. The American people simply don't trust the democrats on basic competence issues. They are no longer willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I think they're in for a bumpy ride.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Worst Parking Job Ever.

Details here.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

Cause you never know when you might need this sort of information.

Step 1

Remove the casing of the bomb. This may sound difficult, but you can be very rough with the bomb in order to remove the outer casing. Atomic bombs are designed to withstand heavy damage without detonating. Once you can observe the inner workings of the bomb, you are on your way to being able to dismantle an atomic bomb.

More here.


Even with good instruction, it is fiendishly difficult to learn any new language well, at least after about the age of 15. While vilified in certain quarters as threatening the future of the English language in America, most immigrants who actually try to improve their English skills here in the United States find that they have trouble communicating effectively even with doctors or their children’s schoolteachers.

Yet the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. This accounted for the melancholy tone, for example, of the obituaries for the Eyak language of southern Alaska last year when its last speaker died.

That death did mean, to be sure, that no one will again use the word demexch, which refers to a soft spot in the ice where it is good to fish. Never again will we hear the word 'ał for an evergreen branch, a word whose final sound is a whistling past the sides of the tongue that sounds like wind passing through just such a branch. And behind this small death is a larger context. Linguistic death is proceeding more rapidly even than species attrition. According to one estimate, a hundred years from now the 6,000 languages in use today will likely dwindle to 600. The question, though, is whether this is a problem.


For those of you who think Obama's deficits don't matter:

The Tax Foundation has run the numbers to see what the tax rates would have to be to eliminate the deficit (not pay off any of the national debt mind you, this would just be not going any further into the hole). It's grim:

Using the Tax Foundation’s Microsimulation Model, we can project how much revenue a
broad-based increase in federal income tax rates would generate. However, when the rates
necessary are spelled out, it becomes apparent that deficits this large simply cannot be closed
with higher federal income tax rates. This year and for several years to come, even if
congressmen were willing to present the full bill to the taxpayers in the form of higher taxes
to match their spending level, they could not do so.

It's your money. Read the whole thing.

The Golden State isn't worth it.

Today's public benefits fail that test, as urban scholar Joel Kotkin of and Chapman University told the Los Angeles Times in March: "Twenty years ago, you could go to Texas, where they had very low taxes, and you would see the difference between there and California. Today, you go to Texas, the roads are no worse, the public schools are not great but are better than or equal to ours, and their universities are good. The bargain between California's government and the middle class is constantly being renegotiated to the disadvantage of the middle class."

These judgments are not based on drive-by sociology. According to a report issued earlier this year by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., Texas students "are, on average, one to two years of learning ahead of California students of the same age," even though per-pupil expenditures on public school students are 12% higher in California. The details of the Census Bureau data show that Texas not only spends its citizens' dollars more effectively than California but emphasizes priorities that are more broadly beneficial. Per capita spending on transportation was 5.9% lower in California, and highway expenditures in particular were 9.5% lower, a discovery both plausible and infuriating to any Los Angeles commuter losing the will to live while sitting in yet another freeway traffic jam.

In what respects, then, does California "excel"? California's state and local government employees were the best compensated in America, according to the Census Bureau data for 2006. And the latest posting on the website of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility shows 9,223 former civil servants and educators receiving pensions worth more than $100,000 a year from California's public retirement funds. The "dues" paid by taxpayers in order to belong to Club California purchase benefits that, increasingly, are enjoyed by the staff instead of the members.