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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

WAITING FOR NEWS

While we wait for the results in Georgia’s by-election, with high hopes but a cold-eyed awareness of the unlikelihood of an upset, I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on what has been going on in the world.  A very great deal that is really bad is happening both domestically and abroad, and though there is precious little any of us can do about it, in the words of Willy Loman’s wife, attention must be paid. 

The current confrontation with North Korea has quite naturally elicited comparison with the Cuban Missile Crisis fifty-five years ago, but they are quite different.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was much more serious, simply because Russia as well as America was armed with megaton-grade intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The crisis was created by a series of American actions – first attempting unsuccessfully to overthrow the revolutionary Cuban government of Fidel Castro, then situating intermediate range nuclear armed ballistic missiles on the Turkish border of the Soviet Union.  Khrushchev responded to both of these actions by agreeing to place Soviet medium range ballistic missiles in Cuba “ninety miles from America,”  John Kennedy, stung by the ignominious failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and determined to demonstrate that, though young, he was tough, set up a naval blockade around Cuba to intercept the Soviet ships bringing the missiles.  This was, unless I am mistaken, the only time the world has come to the brink of world-wide annihilation.  Fortunately, Khrushchev was considerably more rational than Kennedy and the collection of Cold War liberals around him, and disaster was averted.

The present confrontation has less scope for disaster, because North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is quite small and its delivery systems undeveloped.  But it is also, it seems to me, inherently a more unstable situation because the American president is demonstrably irrational and the North Korean ruler gives every appearance of being so also.  The chance of miscalculation on either side is enormous.  In addition, I can see no evidence whatsoever that the American President has the slightest concern for the loss of millions of lives, so long as he is made to appear strong on television and likes how he is received by public opinion.  It is as yet undetermined whether those around him are prepared to exercise any restraint on him.

I cannot see anything that even an aroused public can do in the short run to diminish the probability of disaster.  We must simply hope.

The domestic situation is, I believe, a good deal worse than is generally recognized.  Trump’s failures with regard to the Muslim ban and the repeal of the ACA are very good indeed, and I celebrate them.  It also seems now that he and the Republicans will fail to restructure the tax code so as to benefit the super-rich, including of course the President himself.  But quietly, off camera, the appalling collection of people he selected for cabinet positions are quickly doing things that endanger the freedom, the health, the very lives of millions of Americans, while hastening the environmental disasters that now loom.  I weary of cataloguing the ugliness being perpetrated by the Attorney General, the Secretary of Education, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and many more.  For all that he is despicable, Steve Bannon has not yet been able to do nearly as much damage as these other deplorable men and women.

Our only recourse, aside from the courts, which may provide some relief, is the ballot box, today, in months to come, and then in 2018.  I do not have anything clever or deep to offer, just my acknowledgement here of the harm being done.

What offers the most hope, at least to me, is the continuing energy of resistance at the grassroots level.  Everything we can do to support that and participate in it is to be encouraged, applauded, and imitated.



15 comments:

Chris said...

Standard disclaimer, Trump is an awful human being, and I hope he doesn't get us into any conflict with NK. Any deaths of innocents on either side is a tragedy.


Getting down to bare bones facts, what is the likelihood that NK can do any real damage to anyone but themselves? They have often been portrayed as a fellow traveler with numerous axis(s?) of evil, and some dangerous threat to freedom and democracy across the globe, but the cold facts reveal everyone there is mostly malnourished, maladroit, and compared to the US technologically backward. As I said in earlier post, I think just the readership of this blog could arm wrestle the entire NK population with victory. Let us assume there arises an actual stand off between both countries because neither can reign themselves in. What is the worst case scenario? Isn't it that Trump turns NK into a black hole of radiation and death on all future world maps, and that NK maybe launches a missile into the middle of the pacific ocean, perhaps killing lots of innocent marine life?

Essentially what I'm getting at is, isn't the risk of a body count here only one sided? Whereas the risk in the Cuban Missile crisis was the death of the human species.

Bill Maher joked that NK is the metaphorical chihuahua in the car when you're walking through a parking lot. The first time it barks and paws the car windshield, you jump back startled and alert. Once you realize it's a chihuahua though, it's clear it's no threat at all to your safety. Hence, we can nuke chihuahua, but what can the chihuahua do to us?

s. wallerstein said...

It is often claimed that North Korea has enough bombs and missiles to do a lot of damage to South Korea or even to Japan after a first U.S. nuclear strike.

Ed Barreras said...

This was, unless I am mistaken, the only time the world has come to the brink of world-wide annihilation.

The 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident is generally cited as the second near-miss. From Wikipedia:

On 26 September 1983, the nuclear early warning system of the Soviet Union reported the launch of multiple USAF Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles from bases in the United States. These missile attack warnings were correctly identified as a false alarm by Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Air Defence Forces. This decision is seen as having prevented a retaliatory nuclear attack based on erroneous data on the United States and its NATO allies, which would have probably resulted in nuclear war and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. Investigation of the satellite warning system later confirmed that the system had malfunctioned.

Daniel Langlois said...

'The Cuban Missile Crisis .. was created by a series of American actions – '

Actually, I agree, though I catch a scent of emotional disapproval. Well, maybe one can approve, or disapprove, of Kennedy's muscular and idealistic anticommunist policy, and again, idealistic anticommunist vision. Either way, I think it seems reasonable to assert that the United States took the initiative and held it until its objective was achieved. Also, one might add that only the behavior of the United States is relatively well-known and documented and thus analyzable in any detail.

'first attempting unsuccessfully to overthrow the revolutionary Cuban government of Fidel Castro'

I agree -- Kennedy authorized a CIA-organized force of anti-Castro Cuban exiles to invade Cuba. Indeed, Kennedy took full responsibility for the debacle.

'then situating intermediate range nuclear armed ballistic missiles on the Turkish border of the Soviet Union.'

I'm trying to connect the dots concerning what is questionable about this 'series of American actions' my guess is something like this: don't threaten the very existence of the Soviet Union?

'John Kennedy, stung by the ignominious failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and determined to demonstrate that, though young, he was tough, set up a naval blockade around Cuba to intercept the Soviet ships bringing the missiles.'

Well, okay, all of this business about Kennedy being young and tough strikes me as being of dubious relevance, unless it seems likely that a different president would have behaved differently. I don't even know what different behavior might be suggested, here. I would call it a good thing at least, that Kennedy did make very clear the problem, that there were “ballistic missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead…capable of striking Washington, D. C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area.”

'Khrushchev was considerably more rational than Kennedy and the collection of Cold War liberals around him, and disaster was averted.'

I incline to note that Kennedy frantically pursued a strategy of negotiation with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. It was a dire situation, but I don't come at this in terms of 'don't back the Americans in this situation'. I say that I don't know what alternative might be suggested to how things were handled by Kennedy, but I can speculate that the advice is to be weak in the standoff with the enemies to American life and culture. Rather not a conciliatory way of putting it, but I would rather not have to speculate if you can tell me what you would have done. My political judgment is perhaps not sterling stuff, but I will offer that maybe Mr. Kennedy's performance was an admirably competent exercise in power politics.

I made light of the use of the term 'rational', to describe Khrushchev, and I'll add that it seems, from my perspective, that the Soviet Union's objective in placing strategic weapons in Cuba is not clear. I have to just throw up my hands and say 'whatever the motivation'. I guess that Khrushchev included, in his 'rational' deliberations, that Cuba would have been
vulnerable to and even invite surprise attack. Noted, that this was rational of him..?

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I've heard it said (I think on NPR) that Seoul is close enough to NK that traditional artillery could reach it. That would be bad enough. If NK can launch a nuke at SK (and/or Japan), the results would be catastropic, even if they didn't escalate things into a worldwide multilateral conflcit.

Jerry Fresia said...

Let's say Trump, as did W with regard to Saddam, decides on a "decapitation" strike on the NK leader. And as it did with W, it fails but, as with W, many are killed and there is a good deal of damage to the UK infrastructure and war making capabilities.

NK would still have the wherewithal to attack Seoul and US bases in the ROK and kill tens of thousands. What would come next?
Tactical nucs? Ball game over.

While one option, with regard to resistance, is indeed the ballot box, it isn't the only option and may not be the most important to start with. Mass insurgency and disruptive social movements (as articulated by Francis Fox Piven) are. The ballot box then follows, otherwise it is too guarded, compromised, and controlled. To focus solely on the ballot box, to the exclusion of disruptive social movements, may be putting the cart before the horse.

LFC said...

@Ed Barreras
The 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident is generally cited as the second near-miss

There was also a false alarm incident in November 1979, when U.S. detection systems picked up, incorrectly of course as it turned out, a (supposed) Soviet ICBM launch.

See James G. Wilson, The Triumph of Improvisation (Cornell U.P., 2014), p.1, and the sources he cites.

LFC said...

@ D Langlois

I'm not an expert on the Cuban missile crisis by any means, but I'm not sure either side behaved all that 'rationally'. It's true that JFK could have done worse: e.g., could have ordered an air strike as opposed to a naval blockade. An interesting discussion of some non-rational elements in U.S. decision-making during the crisis, the details of which wd take too long for me to look up and summarize, is in Stephen Rosen's 2005 bk War and Human Nature (not a good title, btw, as it does not give a v. good idea of the bk's contents).

Franz said...

Here is a recent article on the crisis that almost led to nuclear war in 1983:

https://redux.slate.com/cover-stories/2017/04/able-archer-almost-started-a-nuclear-war-with-russia-in-1983.html

Daniel Langlois said...

@LFC

'Stephen Rosen's 2005 bk War and Human Nature'

I'll bite -- it so happens, that I flipped through this, and it's integrating political science and evolutionary biology. The notion of 'rationality' vs. 'nonrationality' is toyed with in a more formal theoretical way, here, which means first making clear what is meant by rational. And what is meant in this case, is what economists mean by rationality. A microeconomic model of decision making etc.

I might simply consider purposeful behavior or actions that are associated with goals. My standards are low! Yet there are nicetiese -- what if I want something and the opposite of that thing at the same time, or if I want different things at different moments in time,
or if I use all my resources to get the most of my first choice while ignoring opportunities to get a lot of my second choice cheaply. People are not rational if, under one set of circumstances, they use information to make one decision and then later use the same information to make an entirely different decision.

any easy cheapshot here: Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Was this rational? This way
of analyzing the past has has major problems..

LFC said...

@D Langlois

Rosen's specific discussion of JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as I recall, draws on what might be called neuropsychology rather than ev. biology (though I believe he draws on the latter at other points in the book). As I said, I don't recall all the details.

Also, I don't want to get into the snake pit of trying to give a worked-out definition of 'rationality' even in the specific context of foreign policy. But calling all "purposeful behavior" rational seems too permissive, because in effect it requires or at least allows the goal or the end or the purpose to be insulated from any kind of judgment or evaluation.

---

As for your (perhaps rhetorical?) question: Hitler's invasion of the USSR made sense within the framework of Hitler's ideology and belief system, but that system was itself basically bonkers or nuts. It was a closed system, rooted in myths, falsehoods, and delusions, and largely impervious to empirical reality. (For a recent discussion, see the opening pages of T. Snyder's Black Earth.)

So I'd say Hitler's invasion of the USSR was irrational in two senses: (1) in a broad sense, b/c it grew out of Hitler's irrational belief that Germany could not survive and/or prosper unless it created through conquest a large European empire and subjugated, displaced, and/or eliminated those Hitler viewed as 'inferior' 'races'; and (2) in a narrower sense, b/c it did not even serve Hitler's goals, inasmuch as it was based on a miscalculation that Germany could quickly and completely defeat the USSR, something that I tend to doubt was ever in the cards (even if the timing and details of the strategy had been different, though I have no particular interest in getting into discussions of this). What it did do of course was to cause tens of millions of deaths (and precipitate actions and events so horrific as to be almost incomprehensible).

Daniel Langlois said...

@LFC


Okay, so you suggest considering 'the framework of Hitler's ideology and belief system'. I suppose that Nazi objectives weren't based on rational cost-benefit analysis. What do I mean? I'm not sure, I'm just spitballing rather informally, playing with abstractions, here. I did recently read Herman Wauk's grand pair of novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, which found a global audience. Though I guess we're all already familiar with notions like that war is inevitable, struggle ennobles Man, and the destiny of any race is either to conquer, or to be defeated and vanish from history. Ideas that motivated Hitler.

But also, during world war 2 Hitler was fighting a war with Great Britain but while fighting that war attacked Russia. Everyone knows that having to fight on two opposite fronts at once is bad... and it's also a well known fact that every European country which tried to invade Russia has always been thouroughly beaten. Furthermore, in its scale of destruction, the war on the Eastern Front was unique; from Leningrad to the Crimea, from Kiev to Stalingrad, the Soviet Union was devastated - at least 25 million Soviet citizens died. And in the end what did the German aggressors have to show for it? So, I am not the first to ask, apart from the standard "he was a crazy guy bent on taking over the world" answer, what was the rationale etc?

I'm not sure there is any direct evidence that it was strategically a bad idea. Hindsight is always 20/20. ven neutral Spain sent 20,000 or so volunteers to fight alongside Hitler's armies, for example -- think, here, in terms of 'the crusade against Communism'. Hitler almost won the war with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union lost a whopping 13.5% of its population to the war. Russia contained significant resources of oil, coal, gas, steel, etc.

But yes, I offered this as a rhetorical question. I don't think that much of what people do can be considered 'reasonable'. Perhaps 'understandable' would be a better term. I'm interested in WW2, but I think I'm more urgently troubled, at the moment, by why we should still study the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I had posted a response to this: 'The Cuban Missile Crisis .. was created by a series of American actions – '

I intended to lightly note the blame projection and finger pointing. I have mixed feelings about this issue. For me, it is not precisely that Kruschev seems to come out smelling like a rose, forgiven for ALL kinds of abuse, while Kennedy has impossible expectations put upon him. Be that as it may, I think it's fun and surreal to consider the men (or women) in suits, the bureaucrats, and the top military brass as 'rational actors'..Kruschev was 'more rational' than Kennedy, what does this mean? I think of 'irrational actors', like maybe fanatics of various descriptions, men with long beards, ideologues living in caves, and assassins with rifles. I don't know -- maybe it is true, that history is written by the victors, at least initially, and maybe it is true that the missteps often get short
shrift. I can quote that Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., summed up the general euphoria by
writing in 1965 that President Kennedy had “dazzled the world” through a “combination
of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated.” I guess that Noam Chomsky, maybe, has a different opinion..remind me if there was ever a totalitarian dictator that he didn't like? Rhetorical question!

LFC said...

@ D Langlois

I did not exactly "suggest considering" Hitler's ideology and belief system.

What I wrote was that an invasion of the USSR followed from, or was a predictable outcome of, Hitler's belief system, and then I immediately went on to say that that belief system was not rational. The "rationale" for Hitler's invasion of the USSR, as I understand it, was primarily ideological: Hitler thought, for various reasons, that Germany required and "deserved" a vast empire with fertile lands and the USSR was, in his view, an obvious place to obtain it.

Although many rulers throughout history have had an impulse to expand their territory, Hitler's expansionist aims were quite distinctive inasmuch as they were wrapped up in a delusional racialist ideology and also a particular set of political-economic premises; the racialist ideology was crazy and the political-economic premises were incorrect. And unlike the U.S.'s 19th-cent. westward expansion, the example of which apparently influenced Hitler in some ways, Hitler's 20th-cent. expansion involved a war with modern sovereign states (quite a few which put up a very serious fight).

At this point I'm not entirely sure what exactly we are disagreeing about, if anything, so I'll stop.

And I do not consider myself qualified, for lack of a better word, to engage in further conversation about the Cuban missile crisis.

LFC said...

p.s. typo correction:

quite a few of which

Daniel Langlois said...

'I did not exactly "suggest considering" Hitler's ideology and belief system.'

What, you didn't suggest? Or you didn't suggest 'considering'? ;)

'What I wrote was that an invasion of the USSR followed from, or was a predictable outcome of, Hitler's belief system, and then I immediately went on to say that that belief system was not rational.'

I see, the thinking has been done. ;)

I think you are hoping to emphasize very clearly, that you don't want to indicate some sort of great extent to which you would agree with Hitler's ideology and belief system. Of course not. That's a taboo. I don't like Nazis either. I am not on the lookout for Nazis in the thread. Of course you didn't *endorse*, but I think you did actually suggest considering the contributing role of belief systems, or somesuch. You went on to explore and compare Hitler's beliefs like so: 'Hitler's invasion of the USSR made sense within the framework of Hitler's ideology and belief system, but that system was itself basically bonkers or nuts. It was a closed system, rooted in myths, falsehoods, and delusions, and largely impervious to empirical reality.' You recommended further reading: 'For a recent discussion, see the opening pages of T. Snyder's Black Earth.' Full title: 'Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning'. I don't know the book, but I know that it's a big, amorphous, and difficult subject. And I guess that one of the questions that it, so to speak, 'suggests considering', is why did people from one of the most sophisticated countries in history become so brutal?

Perhaps I will myself suggest considering that abundant research shows that prevalent belief systems across cultures contribute to people’s levels of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. I think 'belief system' is rather vague, maybe it doesn't have to be, but you introduced the jargon. So I'm thinking what is a 'belief system', and coming up with multiculturalism, colorblindness, polyculturalism, and the Protestant work ethic.


The idea of endorsing a belief system or a worldview is kind of paradoxical, logically. I mean, when you have beliefs and principles so basic that they are not to be justified within the system. They are, so to speak, epistemologically privileged, and/or presuppositionless. They are used as starting points in justifications. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident'. They provide no reason. I wonder if I can look very closely at the belief that hard work leads to success, for example, and try to perceive my belief system development. There is evidence, but there is also tradition and authority and revelation. And association(or, Who do you hang out with?).

And in general, I see that a 'belief system' is going to be formed on some shaky ground. Hitler's belief system is an example that is merely more obvious.

I wish you were eager to discuss the cuban missile crisis, because a thread about nazis has only one place to go -- nazis are bad.