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op-ed: the intelligences of america

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I have hope: hope that Barack Obama is a liar.

By this I mean: I hope he has misrepresented himself, and his agenda, to the American people. The most obvious deception is in his platform of social reforms, reforms that garnered him the support of the working classes (which do still exist), but can not be paid for out of current funds. I don’t place much credence in the accusations of “socialism” that were tossed in his direction near the end of the campaign; despite the current financial crisis, money still talks. Banks have gone to the government for support, but the richest individuals in the USA are in no such difficulties, and will not permit explicit socialism to take hold.

A less obvious deception was the way Obama gained support from African-Americans, since a subtle distinction exists: he is not an African-American in the sense used by other African-Americans. His mother was a white lady from Hawaii, while his father was an immigrant from Kenya. Barack has no historic connection with Slavery, and no experience with the Civil Rights struggle. Was he justified in this deception? I think so; the alternative was yet another old white man as President.

The challenges facing President-Elect Obama are large, there are many of them, and they all require money. You can do most things if you are willing and able to throw money at a problem, but the money is not currently for the throwing. The baby Boom generation are aging, and the Medicare and Social Security bills are staggering. The cost of the military has to come down, both the direct costs (funding of the Iraq War and other adventures) and indirect costs (research and procurement). Obama’s stated policies do not talk about reducing these costs. There seems to be a temporary lull in the ongoing energy crisis, but it will be back. The Environment? Ouch.

During his Presidential campaign, Obama was occasionally accused of being an Elitist by the McCain camp, who portrayed their candidate as “the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with”. The Democrat candidate was a university professor, for Heaven’s sake – one of those lily-livered Liberals who only talk to each other, and don’t really understand what “the people” go through.

If the Republican campaign was appealing to “the people”, what was the Democratic campaign appealing to? Why, “the people”, of course. They just did it in a slightly different way and, it turns out, more effectively. Here’s where I have a problem, however: when it comes to politics, “the people” are stupid. I’m not talking about a lack of the kind of intelligence measured by IQ tests; there are many kinds of intelligence, not all of which are easily measured.

In addition to the kinds of scientific intelligence that the tests measure, there’s “Emotional Intelligence”, which I’m not sure I believe in. (A lot of people do, so it hardly matters what I think!) I could say the same about “Social Intelligence”, the kinds of inter-personal and group-related skills that hold communities together and allow them to operate effectively. The kind of intelligence that concerns me most, however, is what I call “Temporal Intelligence” (TI): the ability to look backwards and forwards in time. It is a trait that is in short supply, in my opinion, and not just in the USA. A low TI rating implies, among other things, a failure to imagine the future impacts of current actions. Unprotected sex today leads to pregnancy and STDs in the future; saving money today means more money tomorrow, but if you take on debt today, you must repay it in the future. You sign a 30-year mortgage, but do you know how long 30 years is, and can you imagine where you will be by then?

What does this have to do with the Election in the USA? My theory is this: to get elected, Obama had to appeal to the short-term interests of the electorate. Today we hear “Yes We Can!”, but will we hear “Yes We Will!” tomorrow, or next year? By the end of Obama’s term(s) in office, will we hear “Yes We Did!” just as loudly and frequently?

That will be the real test of his presidency. Those problems I mentioned are long-term problems with no quick fixes. If Obama has two terms in office, the work will not be completed by the end of those eight years; they may be just barely under way. This will not sit well with an electorate with short attention spans. “The People” are the ones who thought that taking out larger and larger mortgages on their overpriced homes was a viable financial strategy – which it might have been, in the short term, but can never be, in the long term. I simply do not trust voters – in the USA or elsewhere – to find, and hold, a solid grasp on the real long-term issues.

In other words, I hope that Barack Obama is (or becomes) a real Politician, someone smart enough to know what really needs to be done, or to listen to those who do know, and then to lie to the American people while seeing that it is done. The ability to carry off such a mass deception is the mark of a politician, or a diplomat; it is not a job for a “man of the people”. It is a job for an Elite Politician, someone much smarter than “the people”, and it appears that the people of the United States of America just elected one as President. This is where the Hope comes in.

It is possible that I am not giving the American people enough credit, or failing to correctly measure the cumulative effects of their various intelligences. It would be better if people were always fully informed and aware, and always acted in their own best interests, but I do not expect to see that happen outside Science Fiction. As for John McCain; you may get the chance to enjoy a beer with him after all. He’ll have plenty of time on his hands, and moderate alcohol intake can have a beneficial effect on heart conditions.

Written by brian t

November 5, 2008 at 5:33 pm


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An informative Project Syndicate article, here, delves into the reasons behind the current surge in interest in Scottish Independence, emphasising the independent institutions already in place. Its conclusion is surprising, but well thought-out: Scotland is in an unusual situation for a country seeking independence, with general approval of the status quo, despite the surge in voting for the Scottish National Party.

The article, for an American publication, does not look into the reasons behind this SNP surge: general dissatisfaction with the ruling Labour Party in Westminster, with the Conservative Party seen as English and foreign. After the elections earlier this year, the SNP is the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, and is set to lead a majority coalition, with negotiations in progress at time of writing. It is their stated aim, after this, to start negotiations to repeal the Acts of Union (1706-7) and hold a referendum on independence.

Following independence, what is the next step for Scotland? At the risk of stating the obvious, we can look forward to closer ties with Europe including adoption of the single currency, and an increase in trade with other European neighbours. Having seen the generally positive results of this in Ireland, I have no problem with any of that, though the article does pour cold water on any hopes for the level of Brussels largesse that Ireland has enjoyed.

Nevertheless, Scottish Independence is now firmly on the political agenda, and an exemplary continuation of the Scots realpolitik we read in the history books. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a Scotland that had made its peace with an imperial England was pioneering Enlightenment thinking and the Industrial Revolution. Instead of kicking England out of Scotland, they took Edinburgh to Westminster, to the extent that Scots have been in charge of the ruling Labour party for last 15 years. When John Smith died in 1994 he handed over the reins to Tony Blair (who was originally from Edinburgh); Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, and is soon to retire in favour of Gordon Brown (from Glasgow). Having a Caledonian in Number 10 will surely weigh heavily on the Scottish Independence process.

With the hard work done and less remaining to fight over, with an awareness of British Imperial history, and an emphasis on political structures and cultural identity, the kind of “struggle” that went on in Ireland looks like a collossal waste, counter-productive and unnecessary in the Scottish context. My nation of skinflints knows that there are cheaper ways of getting the job done!

Written by brian t

June 2, 2007 at 9:44 pm

Posted in history, politics, scotland

slagging off the bombers

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Today, in London, five people were convicted of plotting to bomb targets in and around London. Those would not have been suicide bombings; the modus operandi was taken from Timothy McVeigh’s bomb attack on Oklahoma city, with fertilizer-based bombs in vans triggered remotely. There are more details at BBC News.

One of the planned targets was the Ministry Of Sound, a famous London nightclub. Transcripts of conversations (also at BBC News) between the bombers go in to detail on why this might have been a target. Something about “slags” (loose women) i.e. moral judgment on the people in the nightclub. They drink alcohol, dance, have adulterous sex outside marriage; so they deserve to die, right? Quote:

… no one can even turn around and say ‘Oh they were innocent,’ – those slags dancing around…

This line demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Western society; more specifically, the emphasis on individuals and individual responsibility. It starts with the way the role of governments has evolved.

Today, a Western government has strictly defined limits on what it controls. It does not have Carte Blanche to decide what is a crime and what is not, even if it sometimes seems that way. It responds to what it perceives as the “will of the people”, expressed though the members of Parliament, who talk directly to their constituents. There is a certain level of party-politics involved, where individuals do not get what they want, but the electorate will only tolerate so much of that.

Are drinking, dancing, or adultery crimes in Britain today? No, they are not. Your religion might say otherwise, or you may even look down your nose in secular disapprobation, but it doesn’t matter: in a representative democracy you, as an individual, do not get to impose your personal sense of right and wrong on others. In a country as large as Britain, that would make everyone guilty of something.

Now imagine that the bombing had taken place, and each of the victims was a “slag” in every sense, committing all of the “crimes” the bombers imagined them guilty of. Firstly, how would you get your message across? Press statement? Videos of guys in masks? Dangerous: a lot of smart people would be looking for you – mock them at your peril – and every piece of information that slips out builds up a picture that can lead them to you.

So you get your message broadcast on the BBC and Channel 4: what effect will that have? It’s not enough for you to say that the victims were “slags”; do you have proof? You do? Enough to convince their family. OK, but then how does it follow that they deserve to die?

In a civilized society, like it or not, “morality” is insufficient justification for someone to die. It might be in Pakistan etc., but you’re not in Pakistan, and there is no general desire to impose Pakistan’s Sharia laws on Britain. The accusations would not be accepted, because the accusers have no authority to pass judgments.

The response from the family and friends of the victims would drown out any accusations. Why? Because the right to life of an individual takes priority. Britain no longer has a death penalty, even for the most serious of crimes, and (reminder) the actions the “slags” are accused of not even considered to be crimes. Here parents don’t kill their children when they violate moral standards; they discipline them, instruct them, and forgive them. There is such a thing as an “ex-slag”.

It follows, logically, the Ministry Of Sound bombing would not have got the message to the people of Britain. It would been the senseless murder of people innocent of any crime under the laws of the society they live in. Had they lived elsewhere, they would have behaved differently. If you don’t understand how individuals can behave that way without the collapse of society, you have a lot to learn. Start with the Analects of Confucius – 500 years before Jesus, over 1000 years before Mohammad – and his advice:

  • The superior man governs men, according to their nature, with what is proper to them, and as soon as they change what is wrong, he stops.
  • When one cultivates to the utmost the principles of his nature, and exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the path. What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.

Translation: coercion or violence will not change people; you have to deal with them as they are, and that works both ways.

Naturally, there are now calls for further inquiries in to the surveillance operations, to try to lay the blame for not catching these aspiring bombers sooner, and even the July 2005 bombers. You know what? I’m more than satisfied with the explanations, because it shows that surveillance is not 100% effective or comprehensive, and that there is still a chance of privacy in Big Brother Britain.

Once again I am reminded of The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand:

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.

Today, we need governments and police forces to protect us from the actions of the uncivilized. The ideal civilization would need no policing, from without or within; a society of individuals who would know what to do, and why they do it. It would carry no burdens of fear or guilt, and require no coercion; it can not be forced into existence, but can only come about through the open-eyes acceptance of education and self-enlightenment. I will not live to see such a world, not as long as parents burden their children with their unjustified beliefs.

Written by brian t

April 30, 2007 at 9:18 pm

location, location, location

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Since the middle of last week I’ve been feeling a lot better, and as the previous post hinted, the belated arrival of Spring in Dublin is also serving to lighten the gloom. So, let me take a little time to put down a controversial idea I’ve had for some time, but which I need to express carefully.

In my view of the world, one where religion and other beliefs are no justification for anything that harms anyone else, Israel is a major destabilizing force in the Middle East today. It is held together by the sheer will of a vigilant Israeli people, who have resisted onslaughts from all sides – military, political and economic – with the material support of the United States in particular. It is a country in which most young people – men and women alike – serve in the military, actively and in reserve.

After centuries in the wilderness of Diaspora, the state of Israel was founded in 1948, and since then has been the focal point of Islamic aggression. America’s support for Israel is an oft-given reason for the rise of Al-Qaeda terrorism. I have no patience for Islamic theocratic imperialism, the Allah-given drive to subjugate the world under the Mullahs. Though I am not keen on Nationalism in any form, I fully support the rights of the Israeli people, as any people, to self-determination, independence, and a homeland they can call their own.

But why, oh why, did they have to put the homeland there?

The answer is, of course, religion. One of the founders of Zionism in the United Kingdom, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, was a chemist whose process for mass production of acetone made a huge difference to British arms production in World War I: it was a major component of cordite, used in smokeless gunpowder. It gave Weizmann friends in high places, and direct influence over David Lloyd-George (Munitions Minister, then Prime Minister 1908-1915), and Lord Balfour (former Prime Minister, and Foreign Secretary 1916-19).

The Balfour Declaration of 1917, produced after a decade of urging by Weizmann, expressed Britain’s support for a “National Home” for Jewish people in what was then called Palestine. As reported in Lord Balfour’s biography (quoted in the Wikipedia article), Balfour had actually asked Weizmann, back in 1906, “why there”? His reply cited the historic connection of the Israeli people to the region, and he also said “anything less would be idolatry”. A curious turn of phrase: “idolatry”, as in “false worship”? As in Islam, this reverence for a mere piece of land explains much.

The wording of the Declaration is cautious, even conservative, insistent that no harm was done to existing non-Jewish people in the region. The idea of a sovereign state was played down at the time. Palestine was a British Mandate from 1920 to 1948, but Britain gradually lost control as their tacit approval of an Israeli state led to mass immigration. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the fallout from the Holocaust and further migration of Holocaust survivors in to the region, and Israeli attacks on British forces in the region, led Britain to call in the newly-formed United Nations to manage their abdication of control over Palestine.

The 1947 UN Partition Plan map is a mess, to be blunt; a compromise that tried to please everyone, and ended up pleasing no-one. The Wars of the next 30 years were the obvious instances of trouble, but there is a different kind of bomb ticking in Gaza; a demographic bomb. The Gaza Strip has a very high birth rate, and extrapolation of the 2005 UNESCO figures predicts a 44% population increase in 10 years, to over 2 million, with a population density approaching Hong Kong’s (5,700 per km²).

Today, I am concerned that the United States, having squandered most of its political capital in the Middle East, will leave Israel more exposed to attack. I thought the Hezbollah attacks on Israel in 2006 were insane, unrealistic, poorly planned and totally counter-productive; but they happened anyway. Israel will not be seriously endangered by such tactics any time soon.

No, my real concerns are long term; 10, 20, 50 years from now, when the USA may be hampered by oil shortages and domestic turmoil, and politically estranged from its allies far away. What happens when Egypt’s swing to the right puts an anti-democratic caliphate in place? When Saudi Arabia, its crude oil pipeline to the USA drying up, no longer needs to curry favour in Washington DC? When Lebanon becomes an extension of Syria, and Palestinian extremism distracts Jordan?

The fate of a small nation, isolated among enemies, without powerful allies, is a game that has been played out many times before, on paper, in computer simulation, and on the cold ground. The resolute Allies saw to Germany in World War II, but a more apt example is the Roman destruction of Israel in 66-73 CE; the impersonal, crushing response to a Jewish rebellion over religion.

I don’t know what the answer is; but if I was in charge of Israel’s long-term defence, I would be looking at every option, and a strategic withdrawal of the Jewish people from the region would be such an option. Then again, I am not one to invest a piece of ground with holy provenance; I would be left with mere history, and “I was here first” is no defence against an enemy who is equally tied to the same ground, for equally religious (i.e. irrational) reasons. An enemy who, by sheer birthrate and irrational blindness to consequences, has much to gain from Israel’s removal. I don’t like it – but that is no shield against reality, when it arrives.

Written by brian t

April 4, 2007 at 9:04 pm

age gaps

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(I wrote the following as a comment to an article lamenting the decline in fertility in the developed countries. Like many respondents, I’m not convinced it is a problem. Other comments have noted that attempts by countries such as Germany to import skills have been a failure: the immigrants tend to use more resources from the social system than any benefit they brought in – which is not an anti-immigrant opinion, just a demographic fact. I’m an immigrant, after all!)

Isn’t it a basic point that any given country or region is limited in the number of people it can support? NB: by “support” I’m factoring in everything, including politics & aid – factors that will change the numbers, drastically, but don’t invalidate my basic point. When the land can not support the people, they will starve, or leave; as this point is neared, costs soar, and people can’t afford to have large families any more. I see this here in Dublin, too – one colleague of mine is being so badly hammered by the care costs, for his one (1) child, that a second is out of the question, unless they move to a cheaper country (ideally where the in-laws are).

My take on this: in any mature society, the population will stabilize, because some resources are fundamentally limited – such as land to build houses on. A country like Japan has gone just about as far as it can down this road. Yes, the balance is currently on the side of the elderly, and the young are bearing the burden of caring for them, but is that the way it’s always going to be? To be blunt: more of the Baby Boomer elderly will die per year than normal, which means the resources they use (esp. property) is freed up more quickly, restoring the balance eventually.

So, in a stable society the supported numbers are stable, and the population can adapt to them, eventually. (Oversimplification, I know!) In an unstable society, the number of people a country can support can change suddenly, due to factors beyond the control of the people. Zimbabwe is a great example: people are starving because of recent politics, not because of poor land or lack of natural resources, and there is hope that that can be reversed.

But in other parts of Africa, where countries & regions have been poor for generations, I would say the supported population is stable at a level well below the actual population. I really do not understand why women continue to have large numbers of children – or why men continue to force repeated pregnancy on women. They KNOW most of the children will die, but they still have them, and we get badgered by charities to “save the children”!

I think we don’t need more people: we need better people, which means dedicating more resources to each of them. Which means lower fertility is a good thing, in my opinion.

Written by brian t

August 18, 2006 at 5:08 pm

Posted in culture, economics, politics

wreck of a day

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Saturday will be over by the time I post this, and I will be asleep soon after. This was a day marked by violence and collisions, none of them involving me, thankfully, but still jarring.

Riot AftermathIn the afternoon I went shopping, and carried my camera, because I heard there was going to be a parade of Unionists through Dublin. I thought there might be an photogenic angry scene or two, but the reality was far far worse, and I’m not annoyed that I missed most of it. The mere presence of Unionists in Dublin was enough to attract Republican thugs from across the 26 counties, and they didn’t even need to see the Unionists to go on the rampage, attacking police and wrecking half of O’Connell Street.

Unlike London in 1999, I didn’t get to see the fighting for myself, only some running people, and a long view of a Garda (police) baton charge. A view of the aftermath was quite enough.

Next: a bruising Rugby clash between Scotland and England, the “Auld Enemy”, at Murrayfield near Edinburgh. After 80 minutes of scrums and rucks, plenty of kicks but no tries, Scotland came out 18-12 winners to pick up the Calcutta Cup for the first time since 2000.

Cra-a-a-ashFinally, late this evening, a car punched a hole in the wall opposite my apartment. It sounded like a blowout, and no-one appeared to be hurt, though an ambulance was soon on the scene.

At least I got a leather jacket at a good price. Can I go to sleep now?

Written by brian t

February 26, 2006 at 1:17 am

I hardly knew ye

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Hurricane Katrina hit Dublin yesterday, a faint shadow of her former self, a mere series of rainshowers, preceded by 100% humidity that kept me up half of Saturday night. Hardly compares to the dire situation in Biloxi and New Orleans, does it?

We’ll be hearing about the criminally incompetent handling of the evacuation for the rest of Dubya’s final term, at least. I hesitate to get involved in any further discussion on this; partly because I’ve noticed Americans are a little sensitive about their country, understandably, partly because it might sound like Euro-peonic schadenfreude. We may wryly joke aboutKatrina and the Waves, but anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet will be a little concerned at the approach of Opheila next week.

Written by brian t

September 5, 2005 at 11:39 am

Posted in america, politics