Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 December 2013

A Christmas Message of Love


[For a very short update on Germany, click here.]

“Love” is a funny word to use in politics, let alone international relations. Most diplomats prefer a more neutral, professional term, like “cooperation.” In their bad, old Soviet days, even the Russians spoke of “mir i druzhba,” peace and friendship.

But Jesus knew his stuff. When he advised us to “love thy enemy” and “love thy neighbor as thyself,” he used just the right word.

“Love” is the term we humans use to describe our most important relations: the ones with our spouses and children and broader families, without which our species could not survive. After them, what could be more important than enemies and neighbors? An angry enemy or neighbor can make life even more miserable than angry in-laws.

Seven decades ago, we were suffering human history’s most terrible conflict, with Germany and Japan. If the nuclear age had begun a little earlier, our species might have extinguished itself. Yet today, Germany and Japan are our friends and allies and the world’s fourth and third most productive economies.

What made the difference? Love. Our pols gave it a bureaucratic name—“the Marshall Plan.” They named it after a former general who may have been our greatest statesman ever, George Marshall.

But forget the name. What we did was remarkable. After history’s most horrible and exhausting war, many of us Yanks just wanted to crawl back into our pre-war isolation. We wanted most to tend our neglected farms and gardens and beat our swords into plowshares, in order to live well. Instead, we worked hard, paid our taxes, and spent “our own money” to rebuild our devastated enemies.

Just half a century ago (51 years, to be exact), we and Soviet Russia nearly extinguished our species in a gratuitous nuclear holocaust. Our mutual reluctance to do so marked a turning point in human history. Although wide recognition is just now dawning, that may may have been our species’ most important historical inflection point. Both sides stepped back from the brink and began to talk to each other.

Not only did we Yanks refuse to leap over the cliff. We treated the fearsome Soviets as fellow human beings. We showed another kind of love: patience, vigilance, deterrence, and perseverance. That’s a kind with which parents of difficult children are all too familiar.

We set up a “hot line” to avoid misunderstandings. We spoke and dealt with our enemies. We worked with them, day after day, year after year, though good times and bad. The result? A prolonged peace and eventual nuclear disarmament, still ongoing today.

With the pressure of several centuries of foreign invasions gone, the Russians could relax, breathe a bit, and think. Soon Stalin’s Evil Empire and its gulags collapsed of their own weight. Today Russia is awakening as a more or less normal country, albeit still gradually shaking off the twin nightmares of Communism and Stalin’s Terror.

Back in the 1930s, Stalin’s Russia was hardly full of love. It crushed Ukraine, first with two engineered famines that killed eight million Ukrainians. Then, in the Great War that followed, it and the Nazis killed another eight million. They treated the entire nation as nothing more than a battlefield, its people as dispensable pawns.

The resulting sixteen million deaths were over half of Ukraine’s 1930 population. That would be like 153 million Americans dying in famine and war today. Ukraine’s was probably the single most horrendous experience of national suffering in modern times.

Yet today Russia is loving its neighbor. It has just pledged $15 billion in financial support and a 30% reduction in Russian natural-gas prices for Ukraine’s hard-pressed consumers and industry. Russia is still a relatively poor country, so this love is all the more impressive. (Whether Russia has the vigilance to see that most of the benefits go to Ukrainians, and not into the pockets of Yanukovych and his cronies, is another issue.)

Cynics will say this is all just self-interest. That’s partly true. Russia wants Ukraine to remain in its commercial orbit, whatever that means. (Trade is an equal-opportunity phenomenon, best enjoyed by all.) But just so, our Marshall plan helped make our former enemies allies and so contain the menace of Stalin’s Soviet Russia.

What of it? Motives don’t matter. Acts do. In love, motives are often complex. Every spouse, parent and lover knows that. What matters is the nurturing. Our species lurches forward, step by step, regardless of motive, whenever we help each other.

Anyway, this time the self-interest is enlightened. Our fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and our nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were self-interested. So was our Marshall Plan. Stalin’s starving and trampling of Ukraine was self-interested. So are Putin’s trade blandishments. Most observers can discern an important difference.

Call it all self-interest if you like. But today’s better acts look a lot like love. After two millennia—and after exhausting all the alternatives but self-extinction—our species may finally be taking Jesus’ advice to heart.

And so we come to Jesus’ other compelling message: loving the poor.

We Yanks appear to be convalescing from a thirty-year-long disease of harshness. In recent years, we have disdained the poor, damned them with false racial epithets, and disparaged them as shirkers, scofflaws, freeloaders, criminals, and “takers.” In the process, we renounced the sort of love and generosity that had gotten us through the Great Depression.

Our motives were ignoble: selfishness and self-righteousness. We wanted to keep “our own money.” Our captains of industry wanted to lower their taxes, even on the backs of the poor.

But we Yanks, too, can become enlightened again. Loving, rather than despising, our disadvantaged can improve our own lots in life, if only by clearing the streets in our big cities of the homeless and mentally ill. Even now, we can see a glimmer of the vast improvement in our national psyche and economic performance that might come from once again having a socially cohesive workforce driven by hope and promise, rather than fear of losing jobs or not having them at all.

And so, city by city and state by state, we are starting to raise the minimum wage. We want those who work hard at the bottom of our society to have a chance at a decent life and the hope, pride, confidence and industry that come from the American dream.

Over half a century ago, we Yanks understood Jesus’ words well. PBS recently retold the tale of our “Candy Bomber”, as part of a Christmas gala featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

One of our Berlin-Airlift pilots, while flying supplies into besieged West Berlin, got the idea of giving watching German children candy. His small act of generosity soon blossomed into a massive and regular airdrop of candy to West Berliners, under tiny, makeshift parachutes. First his colleagues, then our Air Force, and eventually our private sector supported the drop.

The story doesn’t end there. Our generals later made this pilot the commanding officer of Tempelhof Air Base. After history’s most terrible war, and at the height of the Cold War, our hardened military leaders understood the power of love.

If the Russians can evolve from crushing and starving Ukraine to subsidizing it, and if we Yanks can “bomb” our erstwhile fiercest enemies with candy, we can also cure our pathological disdain for the unfortunate among us. With care and caution, we can end our Little Cold War with Iran and begin to stabilize the Middle East. We might even bring some love into Congress.

Those are our hopes. And today they are more and more realistic. Slowly but inexorably, hardened and practical pols and military leaders are coming around to Jesus’ way of thinking. It’s about time.

Personal gift giving is not, as some claim, incompatible with Jesus’ message. It’s an expression of love for family and friends, and it supports 40% of our Yankee consumer economy. So buy and give. Even enlightened parents see gift giving as an expression of love, albeit only one of many.

But if we can just extend our love to our enemies and neighbors, and to the poor, more frequently and more reliably, we can build our own Paradise right here on Earth—all of it. And we can do so without divine intervention.

The last twenty years of peaceful, self-interested love already have lifted nearly a billion of us out of extreme poverty. Jesus would approve.

Postcript: Germany, Too!

Seven decades ago, Nazi Germany was busy conquering its neighbors by the most efficient and brutal means imaginable. In the process, it threw millions of its presumed “enemies”—mostly Jews, but lots of others, too—into the charnel house of a deliberate and gratuitous Holocaust. It would be hard to conceive of a starker antithesis of love.

But our species’ capacity for constructive change is infinite. Today, under the enlightened leadership of Angela Merkel, Germany is doing much the same thing as we Yanks did with our Marshall Plan. Its citizens are working hard and paying taxes so that Europe can remain whole, peaceful and prosperous.

The effort is, of course, self-interested. But what a difference from seven decades ago! Germany today is loving its neighbors and former enemies, just as Jesus advised.

A united and peaceful Europe is the most extraordinary creation of political love since our own Founding and our Marshall Plan. (See 1 and 2) (That’s why Ukrainians and Turks want in.) Now it’s on the mend, from what might have been a shadow of the Weimar Hyperinflation that started the Great War off.

The cure has been Germany’s love: Christian love, human love. It’s no accident that united Europe’s anthem is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

Jesus would approve of that, too. Merry Christmas!

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