Tuesday, September 8, 2015

ISIS is Islamic, but we should still shut up about them

Islam has never been united. For one thing, there is no Muslim pontiff who speaks for the world's 1.6 billion Muslims living on six continents. Yet even the Roman Catholic Pope speaks for only about half of the world's 2.2 billion Christians; and millions of them choose to disregard him on such crucial matters of the faith as birth control, premarital sex, divorce and gay relationships. 

If we sat down and took a deep breath, we'd all admit that there is no perfect, ideal version of Catholicism, or Christianity for that matter, that exists separately from the people who call themselves Christians. Anybody who says he is Christian and practices some form of the faith, no matter how strange, is a Christian. Attempts to label practitioners on the margins of a faith as "heretics" or "not true believers" has been tried, will continue to be tried, in vain. It only comes with conflict, violent schisms, cults and new denominations.

The same is true of Islam, with its Sufi, Sunni, Shia branches... and a bunch of sects and sub-sects that I don't know or understand. It is diverse and always changing.

ISIS in particular, with upwards of 30,000 fighters, or about 0.00002 % of the world's Muslims, is Islamic, just as they claim. A dark and evil part, but a part of Islam nonetheless. Just as violent white supremacists in the KKK or Branch Davidians are indeed part of Christian pageant, because they profess themselves to be so. You or I can stand aloof and say they're not, but Christianity is what Christians do; Islam is what Muslims do; including all the good and bad. These religions are not what some sacred texts say. We can't just define away the behaviors -- and the believers -- that we don't accept as pure or "mainstream." (Although millions of believers will continue to do just that, to the detriment of world peace and understanding....)

Likewise, the U.S. should not -- and I'm thinking of Barack Obama specifically but before him scores of prominent conservatives -- engage in pointless, unwinnable schismatic debates about who is or isn't Islamic. It's apparent why both sides are tempted to do so: conservatives want to stoke xenophobic fear among Americans that justifies, post facto, their wars of choice in the Mideast and continued spying and infringements on our civil and constitutional liberties; and President Obama, in response, wants to calm Americans' nerves, and avoid antagonizing one-fifth of the globe, including America's peaceful 2 million+ Muslims. Conservatives' anti-Islamic argument is mean and stupid on its face; Obama is stupid for engaging seriously with stupidity.

Just as our arguing that ISIS is not Islamic does not seem to affect their appeal to disaffected recruits from all over the world, nor does our paying so much attention to ISIS hurt their cause. Just the opposite. When the most powerful nation in the history of the world -- not to mention the "Great Satan" -- declares that ISIS is scary and powerful, it's the best possible endorsement for the Islamic State's recruitment and fundraising efforts.   

Keeping a cool head and maintaining perspective on global threats are responsibilities of being a superpower. We must be serious when choosing our enemies, and more serious in how we fight them. That doesn't automatically mean all guns -- and mouths -- ablazing.

I've said it before: With all of its vast power, the U.S. shouldn't say that ISIS is an "existential threat," "clear and present danger," or anything of the kind.  It's the equivalent of a well-armed huntsman hyperventilating at a swarm of mosquitoes. 

Since 9/11, almost no leaders of any political stripe are willing to say the truth: We cannot defend ourselves against every attack on U.S. soil by extremists, especially by lone wolf terrorists inspired by the Internet and driven by deep personal resentments and/or violent mental illness. (ISIS's forte.)  And especially against those attacks on U.S. soil that require very little coordination or preparation (that could tip off domestic spies), and make use of readily available weapons of mass terror: assault-type weapons, ammunition, and bomb-making ingredients.  

In October 2002, I grasped this sad fact immediately and personally during the DC sniper attacks. The terrorists, who everyone was sure must be al Qaeda, ended up being a disgruntled, mentally disturbed Army vet (the sniper) and his impressionable teenage nephew (the spotter and getaway driver).  They were armed only with a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle. They killed 17 people and wounded 10 others, and perhaps worse, caused widespread terror in several states before they were caught, by selecting victims at gas stations and shoppers in parking lots, two of the commonest places in American life. That's how easy terrorism is. And there's nothing stopping anybody today from doing the exact same thing. Nothing. Nowadays we just have a few more cameras around that anyway wouldn't pick up snipers tucked away in the distance.... 

Our leaders continue to lie to us that by eliminating (as in 100%!) the threat of Islamist extremism "over there," and oppressing the peaceful Muslims at home, we can keep ourselves safe "over here."  In fact, by persecuting Muslims at home, and making stupid wars of choice over there, we make Americans less safe over here, in ways that we've witnessed numerous times. (In a word: blowback).  And worse, we who usually refuse to trust our leaders, who know they tell us what we what we want to hear, choose to believe their lies. (The 240,000-employee strong Dept. of Homeland Security, which didn't exist prior to 9/11, the NSA, the Pentagon's top brass, and the military-intelligence contractors getting $285 billion a year certainly thank us for our choice!)  We should know better.

When influential bloviators like Glenn Beck, and even conservatives that I know, say that radical Islam is one of America's most dire problems, nobody dares laugh at them. Yet if I said the KKK was something every U.S. Presidential candidate should propose a plan to fight, I'd be laughed out of town. Never mind that there are upwards of 3,000 Klan members in the U.S., in all 50 states, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, as opposed to 100 or fewer members of ISIS in the United States, according to the Pentagon.

Either way it's like arguing which is worse, the mosquito or the fly. The West, in particular the United States, has many more important problems to address. 

Publicly, we should ignore ISIS; outside the public eye of cameras and journalists, we should fight ISIS seriously but in proportion to the threat they pose, in the time and manner of our own choosing, and not have our actions be driven by the release of disgusting YouTube videos.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

A few more lessons from Bernie Sanders' run for President

I don't disagree with Jeb Lund on the positivity of Sen. Bernie Sanders' run for President, but there's a bit more to say here.

First, about being the right-looking "blowdried" candidate with a red tie: yes, true, alas. But let's not swoon over Bernie just because he "doesn't give a f--k" about his image. Let's swoon over him because he does give a f--k about the right things. And he actually proposes good legislation: on the minimum wage; regulating the Wall Street fraudsters; and on and on.

I mean, image is a terrible thing nowadays. The Republicans' version of the perfect-image candidate is Ben Carson: a black identity politician whose positions are indistinguishable from anybody else's (insofar as he has stated positions on anything). His bona fides are that he pulled himself up by his bootstraps despite being black and poor, can't stand his fellow African-American Barack Obama, and most importantly, rails against Obamacare. Beyond that, Ben Carson is a cipher... or an empty suit. He doesn't have many policy ideas because, as is blindingly obvious -- and this only adds to his appeal among Republicans -- it never occurred to him to run for President until quite recently, at the urging of Republicans who were out to prove they didn't distrust black people... as long as they believed all the "right" things.  

Second, Bernie's humble economic station is a good thing nowadays; but a politician's wealth or privileged background was not always a predictor of his political leanings or his performance in office. FDR, an all-time top 3 U.S. President and blueblood patrician, proved that. What Roosevelt had was a sense of old-money, old-fashioned noblesse oblige. With the recent departure of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the closest things we have to old money in U.S. politics today are Jeb Bush and Donald Trump.  

In fact, running for President today -- the GOP presidential nomination, that is -- is not a result of a candidate's wealth and privilege, necessarily, it is a path to wealth and privilege: as a FOX contributor / talk radio host / author / highly-paid guest speaker. Never before was political loserdom a path to anything but a ticket to retirement.  Now with enough Super PAC money and a favorable audience with Sheldon Anderson, a nominee can be plucked from political obscurity and made a front-runner, with his guaranteed payday at the end, whatever the result.

Third, there's something different about a Bernie Sanders or Ralph Nader running for the Democratic nomination, knowing he's going to lose, in the hopes of nudging (or embarrassing) the eventual nominee to move slightly to the Left, and the gaggle of Republican candidates trying to outrun each other to the Right, eastward beyond the horizon.  Because many Democratic voters would be uncomfortable with a Bernie Sanders as a nominee -- "too liberal!" -- whereas, no matter who gets nominated by the GOP, most Republican voters will be dissatisfied -- "he's not conservative enough" -- or even bestow the worst insult imaginable -- "he's a RINO."  

Most Republicans probably don't stop to think why there's no equivalent of the "RINO" label among Democrats. (I wish there were). But if they did, they might realize that we Democrats are a pretty diverse bunch who can't even agree among ourselves what a true Democrat is. On the Republican side, talk radio settled that issue at least 15 years ago; and the media masters of the GOP police their ideological purity mercilessly...even at the expense of losing elections. (Which I grudgingly give them credit for; although they have convinced themselves that they speak for America's "Silent Majority," and when they lose, it is thanks to George Soros and the Lib'rul Media conspiracy, not their ideology). 

By Jeb Lund
May 27, 2015 | Guardian

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Putin's skewed view of WWII threatens his neighbors and the West

Here's a key point from Lucian Kim's op-ed that most Russians and those who haven't spent time in Eastern Europe do not understand [emphasis mine]:

For most countries that emerged from the Soviet empire 25 years ago, independence from Moscow exposed messy, overlooked histories. The small nations of east central Europe had been pushed and pulled by the Nazi and Communist juggernauts surrounding them. From the Baltics to the Balkans, it was a story of collaboration and betrayal, resistance and subjugation. One and the same army could be viewed as liberator, conqueror and occupier. Loyalties were split, quartered and ground to pieces.

Complexity or inconvenient facts had no place in official Soviet historiography, where the Red Army was celebrated as the undisputed victor in the war against fascism. The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that carved up Poland and ceded the Baltic nations to the Soviet Union was forgotten; the Holocaust downplayed; and the role of the Western Allies diminished. World War Two was remembered as the “Great Patriotic War” and didn’t start until the Nazis’ genocidal invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. There was no mention that Hitler and Stalin were allies before the attack. The Pacific war was a sideshow that the Soviet Union didn’t enter until Japan’s defeat was imminent.

Kim said it: complexity. There's no place for it in Soviet hagiography, er, historiography. Take Ukraine in WWII, for instance. Today most Russians and many "liberals" in the West decry Ukraine's national freedom fighters in UIA-OUN as "Nazi collaborators." Their history was complex, and messy. UIA fought with Nazis and against them; they fought Soviet occupiers and Polish forces.  But it's important to keep in mind that the Soviet Union had just recently killed over 3 million Ukrainians in 1932-33!  Today's Russians and 20/20-hindsight historians ignore Soviet genocidal mass murder in Ukraine, and instead express indignation that some Ukrainians would ever have chosen to ally themselves with Nazi Germany in the (probably vain) hope of achieving eventual national liberation from Soviet mass-murderers. 

And indeed, Russians conveniently overlook that their WWII hero Josef Stalin was the first to collaborate with Hitler with terrible, tragic results for both Russia and Europe!  

Coldly rationalizing it, we can understand why Stalin sided with Hitler, for much the same reason those subsequent "collaborators" in E. Europe did: to buy time before eventually turning on an "ally"; because his side was relatively weaker; and because both had common enemies. These things happened -- but in the awful context of world war. If we're going to judge these "devil's pacts" post facto, then we should judge them realistically and equanimously.

Unmentioned in Kim's article are the Soviet Cossack paramilitary units -- the true patriotic ones who today wear St. George's ribbons and say that fight Ukrainian "fascists" and "Banderovtsy" -- who went over to the Nazi side by the thousands, including, ironically, in Crimea. They served in the Russian Liberation Army that was directly commanded by German Nazi officers. (To see more, Google translate this article in Russian: http://crime.in.ua/news/20140324/posobniki-nacystov ).  Germany officers never commanded guerrilla fighters in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. And yet Russians today view Cossack paramilitary units positively and UIA as worse than devils.

Kim also notes, as I and many others have, that today's Russians do not have much to look back at and take pride in. The Allied victory in WWII is one of the few events Russians in the 20th century that they can be proud of:

When Putin came to power in 2000, Russians were still reeling from a decade of nihilism that had followed the collapse of Communism. For a country that was beginning to pick itself up, the “Great Victory” against the Nazis presented itself as the ideal surrogate for a national idea to pull together Russia. Practically every family had suffered in the war, and the whole country knew the iconography from Soviet television and film. Putin couldn’t buy Russia a new identity for all the petrodollars in the world, but he could make Victory Day the de facto national holiday, celebrated with ever more gargantuan military parades.

Finally, I can echo the assertion that most Russians do not understand that there was a real war in the Pacific. To them, the war ended in Berlin when the Soviets seized it. (The Soviets' subsequent rape of Germany is another story....)  Regardless, it's important to Putin and his supporters today that WWII remains a Russian victory to defeat Fascism in Europe. 

By Lucian Kim
April 13, 2015 | Reuters

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The murder of Russian liberal reformer Boris Nemtsov

Yours truly has been more active lately on Twitter than his blog, even though I am on record saying Twitter is dumb. Mea culpa. So I want to get a post on the books for February.

The murder of Russian liberal "reformer" Boris Nemtsov seems like a good thing to comment on in more than 140 characters.

Most of you will never see the snarky left's or the conspiratorial right's comments to knock the deceased Nemtsov down, may he RIP. I'm here to tell you that you should know they are out there. 

They're saying or going to say he was a Yelstin-era fake "reformer" who didn't always walk the talk. True. They'll say he was probably involved in corruption and lining his own pockets as governor of Nizhny Novgorod and as a Duma state deputy. Also probably true. They're saying he was a known womanizer. True. They're saying he supported Putin back in 2000.  True.  And he even seemed to backtrack on Ukraine after the fire and fighting in Odesa last year. True.

But everything is relative. I'm a liberal, so I can say that and not risk crucifixion.  

Relatively speaking, Nemtsov was a Russian liberal. And he was brave by anyone's standards. He exposed the collossal corruption of the Sochi Olympics where literally billions of dollars were transferred to Putin's cronies to run the winter games in a sub-tropical, 3rd-tier resort city. The night he was gunned down on the street he gave an outspoken radio interview on independent Echo of Moscow. He called Putin a despot and a murderer. He called for Putin's regime to be taken down, democratically, but also certainly by using massive street protests and community organizing. 

He went to Ukraine in 2004 during the Orange Revolution and said he "envied" Ukrainians for what they were doing there, demanding political change and free and fair elections. (I know, I was there and heard it with my own ears, to roaring cheers from the Ukrainian crowd.) He came and said much the same thing during the Maidan Revolution in 2013-14.

Relatively speaking, and not just relative to other Russians, Nemtsov was braver than you or I or 99 percent of the people in the world, because he was a direct critic of the absolute ruler of a country where he lived that was known to jail and murder dissidents with impunity. 

He wasn't afraid to stand with strange bedfellows in favor of democracy. He stood with Marxist thug and faux intellectual Eduard Limonov (who had the gall to cast aspersions on Nemtsov immediately after his death, calling him a skirt-chaser and "not innocent".) He stood with Russian chess grand master and dissident Gary Kasparov. Nemtsov, it seemed, was ready to stand with anybody -- or with nobody at all, as one person remembered, seeing him picket alone on the street at a sparsely attended rally -- who was against the current non-democratic Putin regime.

Personally, I believe Putin ordered the hit on Nemtsov. Now was an opportune time. Only the West would care about Nemtsov's murder, not some 80 percent of Russians, and Putin is already in the West's doghouse. Western economic sanctions against Russia won't get any worse for this. The West would fall on its knees in gratitude if only Putin would seem to observe the unjust ceasefire agreement in Minsk II and keep a "frozen conflict" in the Donbas and occupied Crimea. Western leaders are hardly going to make Nemtsov's killing an issue (an "internal Russian problem") when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine -- and perhaps the entire post-Cold War order -- are on the line. So I suspect that this was just a timely moment for Putin to cross an old enemy off his list. KGB guys do that kind of thing.

Others say it was fanatics who were motivated by Russian state propaganda-media to kill the "traitorous" Nemtsov who represented the Western "Fifth Column" in Russia. That's possible. But the fact that this happened meters away from the Kremlin, one of the most heavily-policed and surveiled places on Earth, makes me suspicious. Whoever did this was either crazy/reckless, or pretty sure they wouldn't be caught. The killers also left Nemtsov's female companion alive while managing to put four bullets into him. Would somebody worried about getting caught leave an eyewitness alive?

It's not inconceivable, however, that the "real killers" will be caught (I mean betrayed by their mafia dons). There was camera footage, apparently. Not surprisingly, since it was right by the Kremlin. But these killers will never tell the truth, even if they were indeed put up to it by the Kremlin. That's just the way things happen in despotic regimes. Witnesses can be made to appear -- or disappear -- and the guilty may be innocent or they may be guilty but not necessarily of the crimes for which they were charged.... 

(In a classic example of Putin-era propaganda, where the goal is not to advance a lie (an alternative version of events) but to make the truth unknowable, already the Kremlin is advancing at least three different fictional scenarios of Nemtsov's killing, while Putin's chosen henchman/ruler in Chechnya has come right out and said it was Western spies who killed Nemtsov to make Putin look bad.)

As with so much involving Russia, a mysterious violent event begets conspiracy theories because we know that virtually all decisions are made by a cabal of corrupt Kremlin insiders; therefore it's hard to believe that anything happens without their say-so. In a way, this attitude even augments the Kremlin's power, while giving them deniability.  

Time will tell, I hope, and reveal more facts, but it's likely that we'll never know the real truth.  All is speculation except that an outspoken critic of the ruler has been murdered in public, steps from the ruler's palace.  Even if Putin didn't order this killing, it serves his purposes: it augments fear of him among his opponents, and bolsters the brazenness of his cronies. In the end it doesn't really matter who pulled the trigger, argued Gary Kasparov: Putin is responsible. That's what today's sober analysts and future historians will say.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The myth of tech-economy 'makers'

This short little piece struck a nerve. As a result I'm gonna ramble far and wide here, so get ready....

If you want, ignore the feminist stuff in Debbie Chachra's essay. I did.

First, let me adduce my frequent correspondence with a Tea Party libertarian, John Birch Society paying dues member, Silent Generation curmudgeon and Hayek-Pinochet admirer, who says that every American without a job because of structural changes in the U.S. economy or globalization should become a barber, plumber, landscaper or carpenter, because Americans will always need such workers, who are generally sole proprietors, independent contractors, or even in the "gray" economy that works on cash and doesn't pay taxes.

True, such professionals are not strictly speaking "makers" or creators in the Silicon Valley sense of the word... but nor are they the great middle of white-collar service professionals, blue-collar service workers, home-care workers, etc. They do something with their hands, they can create "something" out of nothing, albeit with materials available to anybody. (But isn't coding just the same in that respect?) I think that's really what Debbie Chachra is getting at, although she would probably disagree. She would call much of that blue-collar work "repair." Her focus is on service-sector workers who are "caregivers" and nurturers.

She's talking about what our present culture and economy seems to value -- technological savvy. Whereas the Bircher is talking about the everyday needs in our economy that seem (?) to go unfilled. Both acknowledge a labor gap where people who can't write the next great app or create the next great disruptive business model -- the other 99 Percent of us -- actually dwell. Most of us are not adept enough to thrive in the tech culture as such; yet meanwhile, most of us are not trained to take care of our own quotidian needs, and furthermore, use such skills to make a living in the persistent remnants of the "old economy" -- I would call it the "domestic demand economy" -- that still needs hair cut, leaky faucets fixed, ceiling lights wired, etc. 

Indeed, the persistent value of domestic-demand economy workers probably does go overlooked. My old Bircher correspondent, however, goes too far, and unrealistically sees in them a way out for ALL those folks who are not made out for white-collar management or tech-savvy. 

To switch gears: In my home city, there is a business incubator supported by the city and a few large local corporations and donors to support young tech startups, most of them trying to write mobile apps. Most of these apps, from what I've seen, are contingent services. That's what I call them. Maybe you know a better term. I mean apps or Internet-based services that consolidate, or piggy-back on, existing businesses. This is the majority of apps that I've seen. The app makers endeavor to provide a composite, streamlined, user-friendly interface for people looking to do everyday things that they already do, not something new. One hopeful assumption is that people will consume these services more frequently -- or at least more frequently through such new apps -- than they do already. I think that's a foolishly naive assumption. 

For if you think of the Internet as a utility -- as I do -- then it's just pipes. In this case, pipes of information. You can piss down this pipe or that one, a la George Castanza, but you're still pissing the same amount. The Internet isn't going to make you piss more. Maybe somebody's new pipe is nicer, or easier to piss in, so it collects more piss -- but it's still just a pipe. That's how I view most Internet startups. They're trying to channel existing demand. Most are disruptive in the sense that they may rupture existing sales and distribution channels of established players by lowering transaction costs and doing better marketing -- but demand (the amount of piss) in most cases is not increasing, it's just being re-channeled. Do you get me so far?

Now let me contradict myself. The Internet's pipe-makers are hoping that, by making product search and payment so much easier, you actually will piss, er, consume more. In some cases, they may be right. (This is where my metaphor comes up dry; because without additional income to consume more, people must take on debt; and in real life you can't borrow piss. But borrowing to consume more, amid stagnant median incomes, is exactly what Americans have done since the 1970s).

Then I hark back to the structural economy. Consumers have to make more money to consume more, whether they're buying at Internet-based companies or bricks-and-mortar companies. The explosion of knowledge-based companies is not putting more money in consumers' hands to consume more. If you're skeptical of this truth, look here at U.S. per capita disposable income: http://www.ibisworld.com/gosample.aspx?cid=1&rtid=4

This shows that, "Per capita disposable income displays a low level of volatility." It doesn't change much. But even that stat is misleading, since rising U.S. inequality means that rising disposable income of the rich skews the total. The One Percent has more disposable income, not the rest of us.

The point is that average Americans don't have more money to spend; they have less. (And they're still paying down debt from the Great Recession). So any Internet-based business that forecasts rising demand is probably a pipe dream. The most they can hope for, again, is to disrupt existing businesses by lowering transaction costs and re-channeling sales and distribution through their app; meanwhile the good or service being bought through them will still be provided by the same existing business that simply loses a cut of the sales to the app.

You can think of exceptions. For example, Uber or Airbnb. They are creating additional supply/capacity with private-sector contractors. But such companies are a transitory phenomenon. They are skating on the fringes of regulation to provide more capacity at a lower cost. And sooner or later regulation will catch up with them. Because most regulations came about for a reason -- usually to protect consumers, but also employees of suppliers -- and so when enough consumers get cheated and catch on, or enough providers' staff complain, then regulation-skaters' days will be numbered. Regulation simply hasn't caught up to them yet. That's my take.

And so I have just debunked the idea that most tech workers are "makers" -- in fact, most are derivative sellers and consolidators of somebody else's product or service. (Exceptions: behemoths like Google and Amazon; but they are still great market-makers and consolidators). In other words, they may create new marketplaces where goods and services can be bought and sold, but that's all. They are not creating new products or services. Again, there are exceptions but this is the general tendency.  And this makes sense! For all these app-makers and code-writers are not experienced businessmen in their industry; generally they aren't trained to make widgets, drive cabs, run hotels or restaurants or fix roofs -- they have never "created" a product or service before, they just see an opportunity to dismantle an existing marketplace and displace it with a new one: theirs.

This realization puts Chachra's argument in its place. She's right that the knowledge economy is sexier, and gets all kinds of attention, and high salaries for some. But most of these tech startups have a lot to prove, and in the end, provide very little. Indeed, they often succumb to competition from competing "marketplaces" established by tech competitors. Maybe one or two survives, and it has little to do with tech, and more to do with first-mover advantages, marketing, and hard-nosed negotiating with existing suppliers. And what are consumers left with? One or a few new marketplaces to replace the old ones; and consumers still have the same amount of money in their pockets to spend. 

By Debbie Chachra
January 23, 2015 | The Atlantic