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

30 July 2013

A Papal Lesson in Humility

By now, the whole world knows Pope Francis’ impromptu remark about gays. It came during an 82-minute news conference on the papal plane, on his way back after a wildly successful visit to Brazil. To long-time reporters on the Vatican, that conference was unprecedented in both its length and openness.

One subject was gays generally, as well as in the laity and the priesthood. “If someone is gay,” the Pope said, “and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

There are undoubtedly closet homosexuals in the priesthood even today. But it may be a long time before openly gay men are welcome in the Catholic priesthood. It may be even longer before we see female priests, notwithstanding the Pope’s soothing references to the Madonna.

Yet the hate is gone. Two millennia of disdain and moral opprobrium vanished with that simple, honest, compelling five-word question, “Who am I to judge?”

Indeed. The Pope is the leader of the second-biggeset religion on Earth. (The biggest, Islam, has no comparable single leader, due largely to its many schisms.) He is supposed to be God’s Vicar on Earth. If he is no one to judge, what about the rest of us?

This is how a great teacher works. I, a Jew, have called Jesus our species’ greatest pol so far. Why? Because he framed the best bumper stickers in our species’ history, two millennia before we had cars.

“Love thy enemy.” “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Turn the other cheek.” These bits of eternal wisdom are not just proverbs. They have been the basis for wildly successful national and international policy, including our Marshall Plan. And when our species has ignored them, disaster usually followed.

Some day, we may view Pope Francis’ simple question “Who am I to judge?” in a similar light.

Our species’ reach has always exceeded its grasp. That’s a good thing: we strive. But our egotism usually has exceeded both our reach and our grasp. That’s not such a good thing.

We no longer believe that our little planet, third of nine from the Sun (if you still count disparaged Pluto), is the Center of the Universe. We know that our Sun, whose energy created us and all life on Earth, is an unremarkable G-type star on the very fringe of a small galaxy, which we call the Milky Way.

Why does it look like a “Milky Way” at night? Because we are on its very edge and so can see nearly all of it spread out before us. Astrophysically speaking, we live in the sticks. We are celestial hicks.

If there is a multispecies galactic or intergalactic civilization, we are not yet part of it. Why? Maybe because we live in the sticks. Maybe because the citizens of that advanced civilization consider us too vain and primitive to join it. Neither reason is a cause for egotism.

Our self-knowledge as a species is not much farther along than our knowledge of the Universe in which we live. There are still those of us who think homosexuality is learned behavior, which can be unlearned with a little help and a lot of coercion.

Straight people who believe this either never went through puberty or have utterly forgotten what it was like. If you’re male, a few months—a year at most—convert girls from objects of humor and occasional derision into paragons of beauty and objects of such intense desire that we stammer, our tongues tie in knots, we lose our trend of thought, and we stare at our feet.

This is learned behavior?

And if it’s not—if it’s hard-wired instinct fueled by raging hormones—how is homosexuality learned? How then does it appear unbidden in people who are surprised to find it in themselves, just as we straight men are ambushed by our own raging hormones in our early teens?

Homosexuality could even have an evolutionary purpose: population control. Is it just a coincidence that gays seem to be exploding out of the closet, everywhere, just as our species is getting so numerous as to begin spoiling the planet on which we evolved and exhausting its resources?

Sex works in strange ways. We now know that fathers of small children have reduced testosterone, and therefore sexual desire, and that their physically holding and playing with their toddlers increases this hormonal effect. The evolutionary purpose of this phenomenon is obvious: toddlers at their most vulnerable need fathers who take care of them, not ones who seek sexual adventures outside the home.

Could homosexuality work in a similar way to contain population without coercive measures like China’s? Gays can have kids, but only through expensive and risky procedures like artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. Mostly, they adopt unwanted kids from dysfunctional or violent heterosexual families, giving at-risk children a shot at a stable and loving home.

In any event, gays’ routine expression of their love and sexual desire does not increase our population burden, as it does for so many heterosexual couples. So the next time you see gays holding hands or kissing, know that they are making more space and reserving more resources for your kids.

Evolution is. Global warming is. Science works. And you can now see the slow explosion of our population bomb in the clearest signal of classical economics: steady, secular increases in the prices of commodities, including gasoline. Yet we have so many misguided, egotistical people who vehemently deny all this.

Evolution can even explain love. Why do we cherish our mates and children, while spiders and some reptiles eat theirs? Biology provides two clear answers. First, except for elephants, we humans have the longest gestation period in the animal kingdom. And since we’re not as big as elephants, we have to stick with our pregnant mates—and stick together—to make sure that our young survive.

More important still is the extraordinarily long time it takes for our young to mature. If you count college graduation as the end of our long maturation process, that’s twenty years. Many species on our planet don’t even live that long, at least in the wild. But it takes that long for us to produce a true, capable, fully educated adult.

Without love, how would we do that? Eating our young like reptiles and spiders just wouldn’t do. It might waste a twenty-year investment.

Jesus’ bumper stickers work so well because they comport with who we really are. Without love—of mate for mate, parents for children, and each for the other, we wouldn’t survive. Our children would not make it to maturity, and wars would decimate us. Now, with nuclear weapons, they could even extinguish us. With love, we have the chance, and now the knowledge, to make this little planet into the Eden we once thought we lost.

All we have to do to get there is reduce our egotism and increase our humility. We have to take ourselves and others as we find them, not as we might like them to be. That goes for foreign cultures, too.

We need the wisdom to make a great edifice out of individual stones, like a Japanese artisan, not by crushing people and cultures into square bricks, all the same size and shape. Crushing round people into square bricks of dogma or ideology only produces apathy or revolution.

Recent events prove these points. A onetime-engineer named Mohammed Morsi became a religious zealot. He tried to force his religion down the throats of millions of Egyptians, who had turned to him not for religion, but for a way out of tyranny. He could not take his people and their yearnings as they were, so Egypt is in shambles.

Iran has a similar history but is in much better shape. It, too, turned to Islam as a way out of tyranny. But its people are increasingly modern, secular and restless. They don’t want to be crushed into square bricks, all the same size and shape, whether by their own Basij or the demands of a hateful and uncomprehending West.

Under these circumstances, a little humility goes a long way. If Pope Francis’ simple, honest question, “Who am I to judge?” becomes a mantra for our age, it could help preserve our species and bring that Eden a step closer. It might even help heal our fractured Congress.

Footnote: The science fiction now popular in our culture gives us no clue how remote other star systems are from us. In my graduate-school class in physics, in 1966, we were required to work a real problem in space travel, using Einstein’s special theory of relativity. We had to calculate the time and cost of traveling to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star (besides our Sun), only four light-years away. The problem presupposed an ability to accelerate at one g (Earth’s gravity) to the midpoint, then decelerate at the same rate for the rest of the voyage.

The results of the calculation were surprising and (for science fiction fans) disappointing. The elapsed time on the ship would be eleven years; the elapsed time on Earth over three centuries. When the crew got back to Earth, everyone they knew would be long dead and buried, for at least thirty generations. They would be like fourteenth-century knights trying to live in twentieth-century America.

But the real kicker was the energy required for the voyage: seven solar masses, i.e., seven times the mass of our Sun, all converted into energy in accordance with Einstein’s famous formula, E = mc². Even converting our whole Earth into energy wouldn’t begin to do the job!

So the fact that we haven’t yet encountered other intelligent species tells us nothing about whether they exist. They would have to be incomparably more powerful and accomplished than we just to make the trip. With the necessary power and wisdom, they would probably pay no more serious attention to us than we do to a rabbit warren in our outback. We have a lot to be humble about.


27 July 2013

Our Own Jackie Robinson

[For an embarrassing but necessary confession of error, click here. For a recent post on the Zimmerman matter and the President’s response to it, click here.]

We Yanks have a saying. “Pioneers are the ones with arrows in their backs.”

The saying comes from our formative years, when people of European descent poured across the Great Plains to settle our Louisiana Purchase. As their numbers increased, the original settlers, misnamed “Indians”, began to see a growing threat to their land tenure and their way of life. So the wagon trains of pioneers came under increasing attack. By that time, many of the “Indians” had firearms, too, but folklore tells us they still used arrows.

And so it is with race. As virtually everyone with a pulse now knows, Jackie Robinson was the first major-league baseball player of African-American descent. He was a great baseball player, permanently ensconced in the Hall of Fame long before anyone even thought of using drugs to enhance performance.

But he was much more than that. He was a great human being and a superb pioneer.

He received death threats regularly during his first few years of play. People booed him and jeered at him. They threw things at him from the stands. Some even spat at him.

He never let any of it get to him. He played under incredible pressure, not just to be the best that he could be, but to show the world that racism—no matter how open, vile and bestial—would never faze him.

He played in an era long before footballers spiked the ball, and long before “trash talk” became accepted. The personality he presented to the world was a humble and modest player of great talent, who loved the game, played it well, and honestly acknowledged the skills of his teammates and rivals. In Jewish terms, he was a mensch.

If any sportsman can be said to have transmuted hate into love, it is he. Of all the great baseball players in the Hall, he is probably the greatest. For he not only played superb baseball, consistently throughout his career; he also fought strong headwinds, having nothing to do with the game, that no one else before or since has had to overcome.

Kinda reminds you of our President, doesn’t he?

You could say, as many do, that they hated Bill Clinton, too. But there was a difference, a big difference. No one hated Bill Clinton from the day he took the oath of office. No one set out, from the first day of his presidency, to make him fail. No one was willing to let the ship of state go down just to drown the captain. They gave the new guy a chance—something that used to be an American tradition, just like pioneering.

They only started to hate Bill Clinton when he began to throw his superior intelligence in their faces, transparently gloating over his own political triumphs. Then, when he had a White-House intern perform oral sex on him and lied about it (who doesn’t lie about illicit sex?), they went ballistic. They paralyzed the whole country for two years while they set out (unsuccessfully) to impeach him. (They would have crucified him if they could, but that punishment had gone out of style.)

Barack Obama did nothing of the kind. He never flaunted his superior intelligence or gloated over his successes. His mother and Plains grandparents raised him to be respectful, modest and understated. Although seldom remarked, his empathy, even for his enemies, is one of his most shining qualities. And his family life and sexual morals are as impeccable and admirable as those of any occupant of our White House, ever. (Compare, for example, Thomas Jefferson, who kept his black slave Sally Hemmings as a mistress for most of his career, and who never freed any of his many slaves but her and their children.)

So why did so many hate Obama, from the moment he became our President? Why did they call him a socialist, although none of his policies even remotely resemble socialism? Why do they still? Why did they call him about every other name they could think of, including “Nazi,” Communist, “empty suit,” terrorist, Marxist, terrorist sympathizer, and “angry black man”?

Barack Obama? Angry? You’ve got to be kidding!

We all know, deep down, where this hatred and mindless opposition came from. We all know what bottomless font of ire the GOP, having wrecked the nation under Dubya, sought desperately to tap. The vociferous denials by Fox and its bullies, and by GOP leaders who should have known better, just prove the wisdom of Shakespeare: “methinks the [racist] doth protest too much.”

But race is far from the only respect in which Barack Obama is a pioneer. He’s the first president ever to enact comprehensive health-insurance reform, although his predecessors tried for a whole century. He’s the first President to get serious about internal industrial changes to fight global warming. For example, he has doubled the fuel-efficiency standards for cars and small trucks, declared CO2 a pollutant, incentivized installation of windmills and solar arrays all over the nation with mostly private money, and is in the process of phasing out coal, the most horribly dirty fuel known to industry and the cause of about 40% of our Yankee contribution to global warming.

And he’s the first president ever to fight terrorism successfully and economically, with massive surveillance, ninjas and drones. These things may now be controversial, but they have worked. And they worked without the pain, enormous expense, and vast unintended consequences of invading and occupying two mostly innocent sovereign nations, which is what Dubya did.

If President Obama has had any serious failing at all, it was being too much like Jackie Robinson. Jackie’s role was playing baseball: fielding and hitting. Public speaking was not his job, although he did it extraordinarily well for a baseball player.

In contrast, public speaking is a large part of the President’s job. He is our Educator in Chief. For a former professor, he’s neglected that role far too long.

But Barack Obama is also among the best of our species, Homo sapiens. He learns. He adapts. He changes. He accepts and accommodates new information and new circumstances. He may be one of the quickest studies ever to sit in the Oval Office.

And so it is with public speaking. The President has apparently decided—at long last!—that someone had better counteract the virulent lies spread by Fox and the abstract, simplistic ideological dogma that passes for practical GOP policy these days. And in this noisy world of 24-hour blowhardry, the President apparently has decided that the best antidote is his own bully pulpit.

So in less than a week, he has surprised us twice. First, he appeared impromptu in the daily White House press conference to teach us about race. He told us straight out what it feels like to be a “black” man in America, even as President of the United States. He spoke without notes or a teleprompter, right from the heart.

David Brooks, one of the few remaining GOP pundits who can respond to fresh events honestly, said the President’s impromptu talk was “just great.” It was.

Not only was it effective on a basic human level. It was effective politically, too. It was unannounced and unexpected, so it made news easily. The President broke through the ennui of jaded reporters by doing the unexpected, the non-routine. Surprise works in politics as well as in warfare.

Just days later, the President appeared, again without warning, in a full-throated defense of his modest health-insurance reform, so-called “Obamacare.” With recent statistics and smiling, live people on camera behind him to back them up, the President carefully explained how the Affordable Care Act will not only bring millions more into the system but will: (1) lower premiums for individual buyers, (2) force insurers to provide greater value for your money, and (3) provide incentives for keep health care costs low.

Both unrehearsed talks were new and powerful in three respects. First, they were short: less than 20 minutes each. They each addressed single subjects. They hit the highlights, without burrowing into the weeds. So they accommodated the attention spans of twittering Americans. They were bite-sized servings of information direct from the most authoritative voice in our nation, our President.

Second, by using different and unexpected venues and formats—and therefore surprise—these informal talks made sure they were not ignored. Reporters flock to an unexpected story like lemmings with their tails on fire. So in a culture of 24/7/365 blather, surprise is an essential tool.

Finally, these talks did what the President should have been doing for the last five years: refuting the lies of Fox and the rigid and useless GOP dogma with facts, rational analysis, common sense, and patience.

You can’t do that with long-winded complex major policy addresses. You have to speak directly to the many ordinary, persuadable people who don’t fully credit (or like) Fox’ bullies but don’t know any better. And you have to match (or overcome) Fox' key strategy: constant, mindless, relentless repetition—the very same strategy that Nazi propagandist Goebbels invented for the “big lie.”

The second talk, on health insurance, also showed the promise of the President’s personal style. With friendly, smiling and occasionally laughing faces just behind him, on camera, he used a bit of humor to make his points. He also, quite briefly, lapsed into a resentful tone, which was not helpful. But if he can bring his humor and personal charm to bear, he will make great progress. The best way to bury fools is with laughter.

Now that the President has started speak directly to his people, I hope he will do so regularly. Like FDR’s “fireside chats,” his informal talks could get us Yanks back on track and change the course of history.

But our own generation’s Jackie Robinson is not the only pioneer with arrows in his back. Consider the plight of Elon Musk, our generation’s Thomas Edison.

Already he has two enormous accomplishments under his belt. He has run the world’s first fully private, commercial space missions. And he has developed, completely from scratch, a superb electric car, and the first car of any kind to win both Motor Trend’s “car of the year” award and Consumer Reports’ highest rating. His car company, Tesla, just recently turned profitable.

You would think this man would be a national hero. But no. Many jeer at him, too.

His rivals in the auto industry chide his alleged “inexperience” and “naïveté.” This mindless opposition is understandable: his rivals want him to fail because they compete with him, and because his success would make self-evident how stodgy and uninventive they have been.

But then there are the politicians and innumerable online commenters who want Musk to fail simply on general principles. They like fossil fuels. They like their gasoline-powered muscle cars and big pickup trucks. They don’t want any of that to change, and they certainly don’t any of that wimpy clean energy in their country. They want their energy as obsolete, expensive, noisy, polluting and hazardous to future generations as it can be. They love oil and coal.

As your read their loutish online comments, you perceive a level of disgust and even hatred for this pioneer that that they theretofore had reserved for Al Gore and our President.

This revulsion at pioneers is, of course, fundamentally un-American. Without the pioneering Pilgrims, who endured dangerous month-long sea voyages to get to an unknown land with bitterly cold winters, our nation would not exist. Without the real pioneers who brought their families to settle our Louisiana Purchase, on foot and by wagon, we might be fighting the same kind of incessant border wars that held Europe back for so long. Without our strong industrial pioneers—Carnegie, Whitney, Edison, Sloan, Ford, Rockefeller, Grove, Gates and Jobs—we would be neither strong nor rich.

Not only that. When the odds are long, we Yanks are supposed to root for the underdog, aren’t we? Don’t we want to see clever and strong takers of big risks win the industrial lottery, propel us forward, and make us stronger? Why are so many of us supposedly forward-looking people jeering at our very own pioneers and innovators, wanting them to fail, and wanting things to stay just the same?

Fortunately, these louts are yet a distinct minority. But we cannot let their numbers grow or their attitudes prevail. As the President recently reminded us so eloquently and personally, we are hardly a homogeneous nation bound together by common ties of race and ethnicity. We are a rainbow with hues, shades and cultures from every corner of the world.

Common genes and common handed-down native cultures don’t bind us together. Ideas do. Among those ideas are not just life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but innovation, progress and positive change.

When we start jeering at change and the agents who make it, we are jeering at ourselves. We are jeering at what makes us American and what has made us the world’s strongest and richest nation. We are wallowing in cultural self-hate.

Having grown up partly in Hawaii, the President is no doubt familiar with the metaphor “crabs in a bucket.” When crabs fill a bucket and one tries to crawl out, the others pull him back in. Our citizens in Hawaii, about one-third of whom are descendants of Asia, use this image as a metaphor to contrast Asian with American culture.

The naysaying crabs tried to pull Jackie Robinson back into the bucket. But he prevailed. I have no doubt that the President and Elon Musk will, too.

Yet as the President’s stock in trade is words and persuasion, not hitting, fielding or industry, he will have to do a lot more talking to bring our national culture back to its historic norm. Now that he has begun to do just that, we who want our nation and its best cultural norms to last for the ages can breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Footnote: I personally am both a beneficiary of those incentives and an investor in clean energy. Next Tuesday, they will begin pouring concrete for blocks to hold up our personal solar array. Next April, we will receive combined federal and state tax credits amounting to 40% of our investment, but 60% will remain our own money. In two or three weeks, the solar array that we have paid for will begin selling power back to the grid—power that comes from sun, without smoke, noise, rotary motion, pollution or greenhouse gases.

Erratum: Whoa! Talk about an over-50 moment! Previous versions of this post confused Jackie Robinson with Mickey Mantle. My thanks to three commenters, including Doug in DC, for pointing out my gigantic blooper, probably the worst in this blog’s history.

My “Change and Removal Policy” is to point my errors out, not erase them. That helps keep me humble. And so here. But I'm going to take a break from blogging for a while and then refocus more on energy.

All I can say in my (weak) defense is that I am not now, and never have been, a Yankees fan. A sportswriter I will never be!


19 July 2013

The Zimmerman Matter

An unremarkable trial
Vigilantism and its discontents
Why we have police
Update: the President’s Impromptu Talk

An unremarkable trial

George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin proves two things about our society. First, our criminal justice system worked the way it’s supposed to work. Second, our culture—especially in Southern states like Florida and Texas—is becoming dangerously pathological and pathologically dangerous.

Insofar as anyone not obsessed with the case can tell from reading the press, the trial was unremarkable. A man was accused of murder and manslaughter. There were only two eyewitnesses to the incident. One (the victim Martin) was dead. The killer (Zimmerman) exercised his constitutional right not to testify.

So there was no direct evidence of what actually happened. None at all. Zimmerman’s lawyer said that Martin had attacked Zimmerman, and that Zimmerman fired in self-defense. The entire trial turned on whether that was true.

The prosecutor had to engage in sheer speculation to make his case. With Zimmerman silent, there were no eye witnesses. There were some ear-witnesses, to a scratchy recording of a scratchy phone call transmitting a distant call for help. Martin’s and Zimmerman’s mother each said the person crying for help was her son. But in a commendable display of honesty (given the poor quality of the recording), Martin’s mother admitted she wasn’t sure.

So there was not just scanty evidence. There was virtually no reliable evidence on the key points of the defense: who attacked whom, and whether Zimmerman had reasonable ground to fear for his safety or his life. On these crucial issues, there was nothing but weak circumstantial evidence, the conflicting testimony of ear-witnesses, and plenty of speculation. The two sides relied on “narratives,” i.e., conflicting stories told to achieve opposite results—acquittal or conviction.

If anything important in public life should teach us the difference between “narratives” and fact, this case was it. When “narratives” replace hard evidence and science as the basis of “truth,” a society decays. We are moving faster and faster down that descending road.

Although it’s not explicit in our Constitution, our law recognizes the need for a higher standard of truth before we put someone in jail, let alone execute him. It requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

A juror would have had to be brain dead not to have had a reasonable doubt whether Zimmerman killed in cold blood, or even through negligence. There just wasn’t enough reliable evidence either way to know for sure. So the jury acquitted Zimmerman.

That’s precisely what’s supposed to happen in a case like this. People don’t go to jail in America unless they confess (and their confession is credible!), or unless we are virtually certain they belong there. (Whether our so-called “scientific” or “forensic” evidence is worth the credence that juries typically give it is another story entirely, one on which PBS’ “Frontline” series recently cast serious doubt.)

A few years ago, an African-American named OJ Simpson walked free from a double-murder trial because of that selfsame high standard of proof in criminal cases. Later, when the parents of one of the victims sued him for wrongful death in civil court, they won.

These apparently inconsistent results did not arise from flaws in the law or the respective juries. The parents won, while the state’s prosecutor lost, because the standard of proof in civil cases is a “preponderance of the evidence,” or in nonlawyers’ terms, more likely than not.

So the real issue with the Zimmerman matter is not the trial. If we don’t like a system that lets so many probable criminals go free, then we have to change our standard of proof of guilt from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to a “preponderance of the evidence,” as in civil cases. But before doing that, each of us should think hard about what would happen if we found ourselves in the criminals’ dock because of mistaken identity, or for other reasons of which we have no clue.

Vigilantism and its discontents

Routine application of our high burden of truth in criminal cases doesn’t mean that Zimmerman’s entire course of action was proper, let alone laudable. What it means is that we have to distinguish between our criminal justice system, which is chugging along as planned, and our culture and communities, which are in social and moral decay. We have to separate the trial from the larger incident or “case.”

What was Zimmerman doing following Martin around, by car and on foot, with a loaded weapon at his side? Both sides in the trial agreed on those facts.

They also agreed on Zimmerman’s probable motivation for those acts. He was following Martin around because he suspected Martin of being a criminal or “punk,” from whom he wanted to protect his mother and his neighborhood. Although the judge would’t let the lawyers use the word “race,” it’s obvious that Zimmerman based his suspicions largely on Martin’s race, age, behavior and dress. Since he didn’t know Martin from Adam, there was nothing else from which he could have formed an impression. What Zimmerman did was profiling at its very worst.

So here we had an ordinary citizen following another around with a gun, trying to do the job of the police. To my knowledge, Zimmerman had no training in investigation or police work, let alone in self-restraint. All he had was basic training in Neighborhood Watch—which amounts to “if you see anything suspicious, stay out of trouble and call the police.”

Zimmerman self-evidently failed to stay out of trouble. And when he did call the police, he went beyond what the police wanted him to do. He disobeyed the dispatcher, got out of his car, and followed Martin on foot.

We used to call such people “vigilantes.” That was not a term of approbation.

Why we have police

Let’s analyze where we as a nation, or at least Florida and Texas, might be headed. To do that, we must take a look at history and architecture.

Ancient Rome had no such thing as a police force. The idea of having a specialized paramilitary force to protect ordinary people from assault, robbery and other crimes arose after the Renaissance. Today, no country in the world lacks such a force, whether they spell it “police” like us or “polis,” as in many other nations that use the Roman alphabet. Police forces seem to have been a good idea that caught on, species-wide.

So how did ancient Rome protect its citizens from crime? It didn’t. The citizens had to protect themselves. The rich had able-bodied slaves to protect them, including trusted ones with good weapons. Veterans of the many Roman wars had their own weapons and military training, which most civilians (including criminals) lacked. Ordinary people made do with what they had. Mostly, they took their risks and lumps.

But everyone—rich and poor alike—relied on architecture for personal safety. The standard Roman home had a single entry. Usually, it had a stout door with an iron bar. The rich had pleasant outdoor courtyards, but they were all inside the outer walls. The roof was open to sky, sun and breeze, but high, hard-to-scale walls with spikes on top prevented intrusion. Outsiders could not even look in, let alone enter.

Now fast-forward to America in the twentieth century. I was born in the mid-forties. Early in my life, my family moved to the same upscale West L.A. suburb where OJ Simpson lived at the time of his trial.

When I was a kid there, all the front lawns were open to the street. There were small fences between lots, but they were easy to cross. They gave us kids practice in fence-climbing.

We kids played football on my front lawn. At a whim, we would go to a neighbor’s house to continue the game or to do something else for fun. Nothing barred our way but the occasional unlocked gate latch, which kept neighbors’ dogs confined and toddlers out of swimming pools.

Today my (and OJ’s) old neighborhood is much changed. High fences and impenetrable hedges line the streets. The big front lawns are no more visible than the inner courtyards of rich people’s estates in Roman times. Little signs dot fences and stick up at odd angles, threatening “Armed Response.”

What those signs say is that rich people, at least in LA, no longer trust the police entirely. They supplement police protection with physical barriers and private security services.

Some, no doubt, have weapons on their premises. But most rightly conclude that policing, like anything else, is a speciality. So it’s better for them to do what they do best than to try to be jacks or jills of all trades. They practice law or medicine, buy and sell companies, make or star in movies, or otherwise wheel and deal, leaving the specialized business of personal protection to the police and licensed private contractors.

With this background, Akron, Ohio, was a revelation for me. Our house there is worth about one-fourtieth what my childhood home in OJ’s neighborhood is now worth. Our Akron neighborhood is well integrated, mostly African-American and white. For the eleven years I lived there, and for our regular visits back still, I have never felt so safe.

Many times, we returned from trips to find FedEx or UPS packages sitting on our front porch, in full view of the street. Nothing ever went missing. A few times I left the keys in the front door overnight, out of sheer fatigue or absent-mindedness. They were still there in the morning.

Most properties have no fences between homes at all. The properly lines meet somewhere in the middle of a big lawn, and no one but realtors seems to care exactly where. If kids are playing and a ball strays into a neighbor’s lot, the kids retrieve it and, if anyone is there, wave at the owner. The owner waves back. Everyone can see the sky, all of it not blocked by trees.

For a few years, a policeman lived across the street and a few doors down. For a while, he parked his police car on the street. So did another policemen a few blocks away. The closer one moved away, and maybe the rules for personal use of police cars changed. We don’t see the squad cars much anymore.

Anyway, nothing has changed in our old Akron neighborhood since the squad cars went away. Safety, it seems, is more a matter of culture and social norms than fast-response policing. But having police who know and live in the neighborhood certainly helps. Today it’s called “community policing,” but it’s really just common sense and neighborliness.

When I compare these two places I’ve lived—one unabashedly wealthy, one solidly middle class—I feel sorry for the people living in the rich community today, and for people in the Martin-Zimmerman community. I don’t want to live behind high walls and hedges, or to threaten passers by with “Armed Response.” I don’t want to live in an ancient-Roman style home, looking at just a patch of the sky, straight up. I don’t want to live in a prison of my own making.

Nor do I want vigilantes like Zimmerman prowling my neighborhood, however protective their intentions might be. I want people who’ve graduated the Police Academy, who follow orders from superiors, who can shoot straight under pressure (at other than point-blank range) and who understand that self-restraint is even more important than the weapons hanging from their belts.

In short, I want trained, full-time experts, not amateurs and dilettantes, keeping me safe. Vigilantism offers none of those benefits.

And what about community? Apparently Martin had been living with a relative in Zimmerman’s community for only a few months. He was new in the neighborhood. Why didn’t Zimmerman know that? Why didn’t he approach Martin and get to know him? Why did he feel he had to follow Martin around while carrying a firearm, when a few words might have made friends, or at least allayed suspicions? Martin might even have helped Zimmerman find out who the bad guys really were, assuming Zimmerman’s mother was not just afraid of phantoms.


These are the kinds of questions that people should be asking about the Zimmerman incident. Second-guessing the lawyers, judge and jurors will accomplish nothing. Our double-jeaopardy laws prevent ever trying Zimmerman for the same crimes again, unless the State of Florida can win an appeal, an extreme unlikelihood.

But analyzing where our culture and communities are going is just what we need. A lot of questions need answering, but two things are certain. Returning to the vigilantism of our semi-mythical “Old West” is not the answer to living safely together in the twenty-first century. Nor is returning to ancient Rome’s culture of relying on yourself, your household, and your personal weapons for safety from crime.

If we ever get to that point, the rest of the world will long ago have passed us, and we will have become a banana republic. We will all be devoting too much time to target practice and martial arts, and far too little to gainful employment, innovation, and cultural enrichment. And most of us—whether black, white, brown or yellow—will be running scared, of both vigilantes and each other.

Update: the President’s Impromptu Talk

I published the foregoing post half a day before learning that the President had spoken on the same subject, impromptu, at the beginning of the regular White House news conference. He spoke without notes or teleprompter, from his personal experience and from his heart.

He was sober, even subdued. His understated, quiet language came as a welcome relief from all the opinionated, dogmatic loudmouths who are sure they have the abstract secrets to life, the Universe and everything, including racism and crime, and can fit them on a bumper sticker.

President Obama was most authentic and touching when he described how the experiences of African-American males—even his!—differ from those of the rest of us, largely because who they are engenders suspicion in and of itself.

Our society won’t be fully “post-racial” until that reflex suspicion disappears. Neither the President nor other African-Americans can change it by themselves, for it exists in others, about them. But as the President said, it fades more with each new generation.

The informal talk was less than eighteen minutes long. So I won’t attempt to summarize it or even give highlights.

Yet two points are worth noting. First, the President’s effort not only was well worth making. It also made the news.

The odd notion that the President of the United States gets lost in the cacophony of daily gossip and blowhardry is, in Mark Twain’s words, greatly exaggerated. If the President has to make more impromptu and unannounced appearances at White House news conferences to use his bully pulpit, he should do so. At least once a week.

Second, the President questioned the value of “stand-your-ground” laws. Do they defuse suspicion and confrontation, or do they encourage it? Are they invitations to vigilantism? What if Trayvon Martin had been armed and had shot Zimmerman, out of reasonable fear of an older man, wearing a holster, following him by car and on foot?

There are not many other issues on which the President will feel such a deeply personal stake. But there are others on which he feels strongly. One is spreading the benefits of modern medicine to those who can’t now afford them. If his second inaugural address and recent major speech were indicative, global warming is another.

I hope and pray that his interrupting the normal (and dull) routine of White House news conferences is not a one-of, but the beginning of a new regime of communicating directly with the public. From time to time, we all need to hear from a highly intelligent, even-handed, thoughtful person, who (thank God!) happens to be our President.


14 July 2013

Speak to Us, Mr. President! (An Open Letter to our Chief Executive)

Dear Mr. President,

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was probably the greatest political genius in American history, maybe all history. He got a self-centered but industrious people to rise from isolationism and meet the threat of history’s greatest military tyrannies, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. He got a nation whose (earlier) Guilded Age had nearly destroyed our economy, and capitalism itself, to spread the wealth, share control of industry with workers, and invent our “consumer society.”

In so doing, FDR not only saved us and our great experiment in democracy. He made us the richest nation in history. He also saved capitalism from its own worst instincts.

How did he do it? He didn’t let his political enemies speak for him or define him. He spoke directly to the people, with his “fireside chats.” And he did so often. Every week.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it was anything but simple. Those “chats” were unique in history. Unfortunately, they still are, at least here.

Maybe it’s a bit unfair to invoke all of history. Fireside chats with a whole people didn’t become possible until electronic media made them possible. (That happened about a century ago, with radio, which FDR used.) Even in its most democratic period, ancient Rome could not have assembled all of its people in its Forum or its Senate.

But every American can see and hear you, Mr. President, if you choose to speak to us, and we to listen. The Internet only makes it easier, with asynchronous streaming and downloads.

News “conferences” are not fireside chats. Reporters pick the topics by asking the questions. They flit from theme to theme like bees among blossoms. The discussion of each topic is no deeper than a bumper sticker.

Worse yet are news conferences with “spokespeople.” They may be good and careful “professional communicators.” But they are not you.

They don’t have your reputation, character, intelligence or charm. They don’t have your authority. Even the best often sound like beleaguered amateurs trying hard to do a job well beyond their pay grade. And they weren’t elected to anything, let alone after the longest and most grueling campaigns in American history. They are hired champions without knighthood or a lance.

Anyway, learning about factual developments and new policies is best done directly. Our Founders intended representatives to govern us, not to see and hear for us. Our Founders had absolutely no idea how venal, gossipy and self-absorbed our free media would become. As a former professor yourself, should know that real educating cannot be delegated.

Despite all the noise, distraction and racism in this still-racist society, we elected you. We elected you with a clear and unquestionable majority, twice—something we hadn’t done since Ike. Our most productive states elected you by landslide proportions, both times.

At the end of the day, we elected you for your good character, intelligence, even-handedness and good judgment. We elected you because we wanted to welcome you frequently into our living rooms, at least more than John McCain or Mitt Romney.

But we’ve seen you there only rarely. Despite your office, or maybe because of it, you’ve been the invisible man. You’ve let other people speak for you and define you and your administration. You’ve let lies proliferate—even become “conventional wisdom”—without effective response.

So it is with the widespread nonsense about your modest but historic health-insurance reform. You haven’t explained to the doubting Thomases how your reform will not only bring health care to millions who don’t have it, but will make health insurance better for the rest of us.

The sad truth is, you don’t talk too much. You don’t talk enough, at least directly to us.

You’ve made some great speeches in your time. Your 2007 speech on terrorism and how to defeat it was a masterpiece of detailed, sensible policy. You followed it in executing bin Laden, winding down two unnecessary wars, and still keeping us safe. Your 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia called us to adulthood, a status to which we still aspire. (The current code words, “freeloaders” and “takers,” are less explicit but still potent. The folks who use them to play on prejudice and intolerance have made some modest progress in “diversity”: they now include Hispanics.) Your recent speech on climate-change survival called us to realism and the kind of personal responsibility that—until the advent of Fox, Citizens United, and politics by bumper sticker—had always made us Yanks “exceptional.”

Direct marketers have a simple rule. A consumer must get at least six letters or e-mails before he or she even begins to take notice. That rule underlies the entire direct-mail advertising industry. It’s also the motivation for e-mail spam. The senders of these letters and e-mails know their businesses; they rely on repetition to sell.

Fox does also in selling lies, relentlessly. So should you in selling truth. The vast majority of Americans are not like your colleagues on the Harvard Law Review or your students at the University of Chicago, whose law school is one of the best in the nation. They are not quick studies. They need more than incisive and compelling rhetoric, which you easily command. They require endless repetition, just like those consumers who take notice only after getting the sixth e-mail.

Repeating a message may be hard for you, as for any highly intelligent person. But you’ve never shied from doing hard things that might do good. Anyway, you are smart enough to say the same thing in different ways to different audiences, and so to avoid the boredom of rote repetition. (That, after all, was the secret of the Socratic method by which you and I once taught law. The daily, impromptu interaction with students avoids the boredom of hearing and giving your own repeated lectures year after year.)

Your political enemies have put you off the scent by jeering at your community organizing experience and your (relatively rare) speechifying. But of course they are whistling past their own graveyard. You are changing the nature of politics with your “community organizing” on the national level, using the Internet.

As for speechifying, your enemies would praise their jealous God if they could speak, let alone think, like you. The dirty little secret of politics is that it’s all mostly talk. We no longer compel people with whips and chains, like the Pharaohs did building the pyramids. And twisting arms in Congress seems to have died with LBJ. Now we persuade.

So all political action begins and ends with talk. Progress doesn’t happen in Congress much any more, where fixed dogma and a perpetual quest for money have made speaking and thinking irrelevant. But talk can still make change among the people, your constituency. We (or most of us) still listen when you speak. I personally watch or read your every major speech. (That hasn’t been hard because there haven’t been many of them.)

So tell us, again and again, how Ben Bernanke saved our economy despite a Congress paralyzed by an opposition content to do nothing but jeer at you. Tell us why no banker has yet gone to jail for causing the Crash, what you are doing to keep bankers from doing it all again, and how your enemies are aiding the bankers, every day, for no visible purpose other than keeping those campaign contributions flowing. Tell us how you wound down Dubya’s two unnecessary wars, preserving as much of the societal gains in Iraq and Afghanistan as we can, while healing our reputation as a world leader by example, not aggression.

Tell us, again and again, how you got bin Laden and are defeating Al Qaeda the right way, with intelligence (in both senses of that word), finesse, ninjas and drones, not by invading two mostly innocent, sovereign nations. Tell us how complex a place Syria is, how much damage we have done since the Great War by barging into the Middle East without knowing what we were doing, and therefore why your support for Syria’s rebels is cautious and often clandestine. And tell us, as many times as you can before you must leave office, how we must not leave our children and grandchildren a hotter, wetter, less hospitable planet, with less habitable land area, wracked by drought and gigantic storms.

Next tell us about the congressional debacle du jour: immigration. Tell us about the immigrants who invented television and founded Google and Intel. Tell us about Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple and was the grandson of a Syrian immigrant. Tell us about the folks who invented atomic energy and atomic weapons—the immigrants who fled Nazism and helped us win history’s greatest war. Then ask us why some of us vote for Republicans who want to close the doors to immigrants, who have always made us strong and rich. Ask us why they want us to inbreed like moonshining clans in the Appalachians.

Last but most important, Mr. President, please talk to us about the hideous, corrosive effect of our tsunami of economic inequality. Recently, the great TV journalist Bill Moyers showed us the history of two American working families, one black, one white. They are great spirits by any human measure: hard-working, uncomplaining, responsible, optimistic, resilient, and articulate.

They blame nothing and no one but misfortune and themselves. But like the rest of the 45 million of us now living in or near poverty, they could not make it in America. The white couple broke up. The black one held together as a family, despite unspeakable hardship and the slow death of their youthful dreams. Their obvious love for each other and their faith in God shine from their eyes through the camera lens. Yet one of their five children—after serving in our Navy!—had to go to Afghanistan and work for a military contractor to get a decent-paying job.

These families would be assets in any human society. To watch the parents’ lives decay into desperate poverty just as they reach the age when the rest of us retire is not merely a shame. It is a crime before God.

As we decay into a ghastly caricature of Dickensian England, to the self-deceptive glee of Fox and our right wing, we should understand a few things. We are not England, let alone in Dickens’ time. We have no class system. We have nothing like the grudging respect of poor for rich that it once commanded. We don't (yet) have public floggings and executions.

We are Americans. We are rowdy, disputatious, self-righteous and bristling with guns. If we get much closer to Dickensian England, the culture that results will be nasty and brutish for everyone—rich and poor alike. Please speak to us often about that, too.

We need to hear from you, our elected leader. We need your incisiveness, your good judgment, your political and rhetorical skill, your even temper, and (when you show them) your humor and charm. Can you devote just twenty minutes a week—maybe even half an hour—to speaking to us, your people, directly?

We want to hear from you, not others. We don’t want reporters and self-appointed “pundits” to interpret and “spin” what you think. We want to hear your voice and see your face. We want to know what you know, see and think. That’s why we elected you, twice. And that’s why you are still one of the very few public figures, in politics or business, in whom we have any great confidence.

Those of us who still can think are depressingly aware that there is no national figure even close to your caliber anywhere in the bleak landscape of American politics today. Maybe Jon Huntsman, Jr., is one, but his own party has marginalized him. Corey Booker and Elizabeth Warren have yet to achieve national stature, although both are trying.

For the moment, we can take solace in the fact that we have you for three-plus more years yet. So speak to us, directly, at least once a week. Please. The results might surprise you and change the course of history.

Coda: Even Putin Did It

During Vladimir Putin’s first term as President of Russia, I often watched Russian news, live but recorded, in Russian, direct from Moscow. I did so chiefly to maintain and improve my understanding of spoken Russian.

As a byproduct, I got a lesson in a modern leader’s skillful use of modern media. Putin was on the news almost every night during that time. Many cuts featured him presiding over routine meetings. They were boring and inconclusive fare, but at least they showed Russians a leader hard at work.

Once in a while, something more happened. It made me forget that I was watching to improve my understanding of spoken Russian.

For example, a Chinese reporter once asked Putin what about Russia most troubled or shamed him. After a short pause, he answered simply and honestly, “poverty in Russia.” Then he outlined his ambitious plans to reduce it. We could use some of that here.

Some time later, Putin held a national telethon, in which citizens from all over Russia’s eleven time zones called in and appeared on camera, addressing their president directly. Then Putin replied, also on camera.

If memory serves [Point 6], it was then that Putin explained to Heroes of the Siege of Leningrad, and all of Russia’s people, why he had ordered the city’s name changed back to St. Petersburg. He wanted, he said, to turn the last page on the chapter of Communism, which had destroyed Russia’s economy and its people’s initiative.

Putin didn’t want Russians to look back. So he felt he had to do something as dramatic as renaming an historic city—a step painful for all the people who had suffered and lost family in the terrible Siege. (The analogue for us would be changing “Pearl Harbor” back to its Native Hawaiian name.)

Another caller complained that, although awarded the status of Hero of the Soviet Union for fighting in the Great Patriotic War, he had waited for years to become a citizen in what is now a nation of Russia’s “Near Abroad.” Putin commiserated and said he would look into the application and try to help.

If anyone wants to know why Putin still enjoys a 70% approval rating in Russia, despite his sometimes heavy hand, they need look no further than these broadcasts. For the better part of a millennium, Russia’s supreme leaders had treated their people like surfs. For most of that time, they were. This was a leader of New Russia, speaking directly to his people. Often.

Putin had taken a page from FDR’s fireside chats and had improved them for modern media. I don’t know whether he is still doing so. A few years later, I lost access to Scola, which gave me Russian news live, and I got too busy to watch it anyway.

Of course Putin has access to television in a way that even you, Mr. President, do not. He largely controls Russia’s electronic media, although not its printed press. Even as our President, you would have to beg for news coverage, make sufficient waves to have your pronouncements declared “news,” or pay for coverage.

But I think the White House could easily afford to pay for a half-hour broadcast once a week. A smart media manager might even goad the networks to compete for exclusive live coverage, and/or bargain on price.

Or political contributors could pay. Already I contribute as much as I can to support you and like-minded politicians nationwide. I would much rather my money go toward your explaining your thinking and policies directly to us, the people, than for PR tricksters to use their best video deception to dupe an uncomprehending public. That’s most of what happened in our last presidential campaign, on both sides. Our people and our national future deserve better than that.

So please, Mr. President, don’t fall behind Vladimir Putin. We Yanks invented television and the Internet. Our leaders should know how to use them at least as well as he. They shouldn’t delegate the vital job of educating the public to unelected PR hacks with just a fraction of their character, experience and political skill. Nor should you.

Yours respectfully and gratefully, for all you have done and endured so far,



06 July 2013

Egypt’s Trials: More Common than You Think

Introduction: a promising start
The first checks and balances
Advising versus ruling
The attraction of radical Islam
Checks and balances unlike ours

Introduction: a promising start

What soul today feels no anguish for Egypt? Less than two and a half years ago, its peaceful Tahrir Square revolution was an inspiration to the world. It inspired me, a Jew, to write a post, while on vacation, entitled “I am Egyptian.”

Now Muslims are rising in arms to protest the ousting of their Islamist president. Civil disorder threatens, maybe even civil war. The Army, which has supervised and managed a mostly peaceful revolution so far, may have to start using real bullets.

Egypt is hardly alone in its trials. Recent demonstrations in Turkey set the generally progressive and effective government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan on its heels. Tunisia, too, is having a bit of buyer’s remorse after accepting Islamist government.

But, unbeknownst to most, these trials are not exclusive to the Islamic world. Religious fundamentalists are everywhere.

We Yanks have many right here at home. Just ban abortion and gay marriage, recognize the United States as a Christian nation, and post the Ten Commandments outside every courthouse—they think—and all will be well. We’ll get our jobs back from China, our deficit will disappear overnight, our infrastructure will heal like the beneficiary of one of Christ’s miracles, and our enemies will submit to our sheer moral glory.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But its utter illogic and unrealism is lost on the many true believers who vote primarily, or not solely, on the issues named in the second sentence of the previous paragraph. Those true believers now have enough of a critical mass to paralyze our Congress utterly. So we are not so different from Egypt after all.

The essay attempts to explain why, four hundred years after Galileo Galilei’s Christian apostasy jump-started science, and eight-hundred years after the birth of Anglo-American democracy at Runnymede, religion is still such a powerful force in our human world. Like most other things in our lives, it has positive and negative aspects. And like most other things that are part of the fabric of our lives and history, we cannot eliminate or ignore it. We can only manage it.

The first checks and balances

We Yanks love to brag about our “checks and balances.” We have three branches of government—executive (administrative), legislative, and judicial. They are supposed to supervise and restrain each other and to compete to enhance our “general welfare.” Their doing so, our pols tell us, will prevent runaway government and take us to Nirvana.

Never mind that our checks and balances aren’t working very well right now. Never mind that our legislative branch, Congress, is utterly dysfunctional and paralyzed. Never mind that our own Grand Inquisitor, Justice Scalia, has so cowed our courts with the scarecrow of “judicial activism” that they are reluctant to make any significant changes in policy, even when the Executive and Congress have been silent or catatonic for a long time.

Never mind, then, that our Executive is the only branch of government that still can actually function. Never mind that it has nearly unchecked power in war and foreign affairs, or that it got us into two decade-long foreign wars, both of which seem about to prove themselves mostly futile, without any serious pushback from the other branches.

Never mind that, in terms of real constraint on supreme political leaders, we are no longer at the forefront of nations but well down in the pack. Every parliamentary democracy can dismiss its prime minister, at any time, on a simple, majority “no confidence” vote. But we can’t get rid of a poorly performing president without a lengthy, legalistic trial for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” And so, within one voter’s lifetime (mine), we had the spectacle of executive government paralyzed for two-plus years by a gigantic public trial, complete with television cameras, to do the same thing that the British or Indian Parliaments can do on a single day, with a single vote. And one of those lengthy trials, for a President’s sexual peccadillo, accomplished absolutely nothing but paralyzing Congress with acerbic discord.

We Yanks still have bragging rights in one respect. We hardly invented checks and balances. Ancient Greece and Rome had them, and King John re-invented them at Runnymede. But we made them famous and important by constantly crowing about the alleged superiority of our system of government. We never stopped crowing as other nations enjoyed rapid development under unwritten (or frequently revised) constitutions that didn’t require our cumbersome amendment process.

The whole thing was a bit like Al Gore and the Internet. Of course he didn’t “invent” it, if by “invent” you mean develop the computer packet-switching protocols that allow it function. But Gore did convince President Clinton to free it from government control and make it the commercial, global and largely autonomous communications medium that it is today. Gore’s role was an important one: he recognized the Internet’s enormous potential when it was mostly a government-owned-and-run collection of computers in university and federal laboratories. Just so, we recognized the importance of checks and balances on individual rule, and we shouted them to the world.

But checks and balances are not new. Ancient Greece and Rome had kings or emperors. But open and public legislatures checked their power, at least at times. Not only that. Ancient pre-Christian religions also imposed some checks and balances. They did so in their “auguries” and “oracles,” which saked the inveterate human craving to know the future.

Of course, some priests were probably dumb enough to think they could actually read the future in the bloody guts of disemboweled chickens. But the smart ones knew that augury and oracles were their chances to exert political influence.

Universal education is not even as old as our nation. Before its arrival, only the elite had any education at all, let alone long practice in abstract thinking. And the secular elite were too preoccupied with real battles, paying or collecting taxes, and political intrigue to have much time to think. So for most of human history the best thinkers, and the ones most practiced at abstract thought, were priests.

The priests were the ones best positioned by education and practice to see cause and effect, ie, to gauge the likely impact of various social and governmental policies. They were also the best positioned to assess what we know today as “public opinion.” If you think our President lives in a bubble, think how small a bubble the kings and queens of yore lived in. As is well known from history and literature, a single clever advisor could bend their policies to his will and virtually control their access to information.

Priests were different. They still are today. Through their daily sermons and officiating and weddings and funerals, they have the chance to talk to ordinary people—or at least the “ordinary” elite—and assess their mood and thinking. The best of them, of course, incorporated this assessment into their auguries and oracles.

Those ploys didn’t always work. A leader emotionally committed to a course of action might not listen. Think Agamemnon in his quest to recover Helen of Troy. But politics is not a game of command; it is a game of persuasion and influence. There were undoubtedly numerous cases, including some reported in history and legend, where oracles and auguries were decisive in averting unnecessary wars and counterproductive policies.

So priests had our species’ very first checks and balances. Therefore we should not be surprised to see imams and Ayatollahs performing a similar role in societies like Egypt’s and Iran’s, which have not yet developed their own formal, secular checks.

Advising versus ruling

But there’s a difference between advising and ruling. A king or queen living in a medieval bubble needed all the advice and information he or she could get. If the people were on the verge of rebellion, or if they would not support a foreign war with any enthusiasm, a priest might know when the monarch might not. Then an augury or whisper in the ear might have a salubrious effect. It might even avoid a catastrophe.

Ruling is another matter entirely. Priests’ training in abstract thinking (just like lawyers’ today) helps them see cause and effect. But it also has two key deficiencies for rulers.

First, abstract thinking is often (some might say mostly) the antithesis of pragmatism. It often leads to certitude and intransigence, which can undermine practical rule, let alone justice.

You don’t have to look at Islam to see this point. Just look at Christianity’s history. For several hundred years, Catholics and Protestants fought pitched battles among and within nations. The carnage was unimaginable, especially for the primitive military technology of the times. If you know Vasily Vereschagin’s poignant painting “The Apotheosis of War,” just consider. If you counted the premature deaths from the Catholic-Protestant schism, his pyramid of skulls might reach the Moon.

From a modern perspective, that holocaust seems ludicrous. Don’t Catholics and Protestants worship the same gods, including Jesus Christ? Don’t they get along famously now, despite some trying to steal each others’ converts? So whatever was all that carnage for, the glory of God?

Islam hasn’t gotten to that point, yet. Its Sunni and Shiite jihadis give every indication of repeating the Christian holocaust, with equally bloodthirsty enthusiasm.

But a similar Islamic holocaust is hardly inevitable. Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s brand of “quietist” Islam points a different path, if both Sunnis and Shiites can see its benefits. The goal of every wise ruler—and every wise imam or priest—should be to walk that path sooner than later. For Islam to repeat the bloody schismatic history of Christianity in the twenty-first-century, with all of its vastly more productive machinery of death, would be a huge failure of both global leadership and the intelligence of our species.

Stalin once said that a single death is a tragedy, a million only a statistic. But Stalin was wrong. A million deaths are a million tragedies—to the individuals that must face them prematurely, to their families, and to their societies. One of the chief goals of any practical ruler should be to minimize those tragedies.

Some day all sects of Islam will know this. Then “jihad” will no longer be a war against different sects or tribes, or an attempt to kill or convert nonbelievers, but a spiritual and practical struggle with the evils that all humans face: ignorance, arrogance, war, poverty, disease, climate change, and, yes, tribalism.

The attraction of radical Islam

So why does radical Islam (perhaps illusorily) seems to be gaining credence in the Middle East today? Why are tens of millions of Egyptians now engaged in a desperate political struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood, which just a year ago seemed their salvation from tyranny? Why is Iran—a nation with much more well-educated, worldly, and sophisticated people than most in the West now suspect—still ruled by an aging but not irrational tyrant who, at the age of 73, is older than any national ruler now on the world stage, except for Robert Mugabe, now 89?

To answer these questions, look to China. Why was Mao a Communist? Why did Deng Xaioping jettison Communism not long after Mao died? Why is China, having jettisoned Communism in all but name, now the world’s fastest rising developing country, likely to become the world’s number-one economy in the next decade or two?

The answer to all these questions is pragmatism. Not an especially enlightened or brilliant pragmatism, but pragmatism nevertheless.

Mao’s greatest feat was unifying China in the chaotic aftermath of humanity’s most horrible war. How did he do it? Two ways.

The first had absolutely nothing to do with Communism or any ideology. It was simple humanity and economic justice. Before Mao, any warlord marching through the hinterlands of China would simply commandeer peasants’ crops, buildings and land to nurture and house his soldiers. It was a cross that Chinese peasants had to bear. And they bore it for two centuries, while Western colonialists carved up a weak and divided China like a steaming pork roast.

Mao won China by a simple expedient: he paid the peasants for their crops and the use of their land. His march from the caves of Yunnan to Tiananmen Square was more a progressive coronation than a battle, except when forces loyal to the Nationalist government intervened.

Mao also had an ideology—the next best thing to religion for people who don’t believe in God. China had never had anything like the muscular, proselytizing religions of outsiders, in particular Christianity and Islam. But as a secular religion Communism was tailor-made for postwar China. Derived from the struggle of ordinary people (Russia’s serfs) to be free and respected, it taught that the common person is worthy of respect. Hence Mao’s payments for value received.

Communism had other value for Mao: money and logistical support. In its Soviet guise, Russia had money. It also had international clout, due both to its pyrrhic victory over Nazi fascism and its huge and victorious armed forces, then tromping their heavy boots rather clumsily over Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

Russia could easily have feared China as a powerful neighbor and prospective enemy, especially under Stalin, who had feared (and therefore virtually destroyed) both Poland and the Ukraine in the leadup to the Great Patriotic War. But by becoming a fellow Communist traveler and an ostensible pupil sitting at Stalin’s knee, China avoided this fate.

Instead of an implacable and fearsome enemy, China gained a powerful ally and a source of money and materiel. Russia helped fund its revolution and its real great leap forward. If any leader of China at the time had believed this would be the outcome of adopting Communism as a national ideology, he or she would have done the same thing. Although ideological in the abstract, it was the practical thing to so.

But what happened then? Mao got a little senile and erratic in his later years, destroying China’s economy with the Thousand Flowers, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. (The latter was a form of extreme social deviance in a nation whose basic philosophy, Confucianism, had taught respect for elders and authority for two and a half millennia). But once Mao died and Deng Xiaoping took over, China dropped Communism like the economic hot potato it is.

The rest is history. Today China’s Communist party is modern, technocratic and anything but ideological. It looks more like the best of the Mandarin bureaucracy that once prevailed throughout Chinese imperial history than anything ever conceived or developed in Russia.

Having dropped the imperial system and replaced it with a one-party system ruled by a committee of nine (now seven), China has retained and evolved the best of its former shape. It has been much like one of those plastic combs that, bent all out of shape, returns to form when placed in boiling water. That restored plastic comb is now giving the (rest of) the capitalist world a strong run for its money, with intense competition and shrewd economic management.

Is radical Islam in the Middle East any more than a temporary expedient, just as was real Communism in China?

Only time will tell. But there are some affirmative indications.

The most important test case is Iran. It was a thriving democracy in 1953, when our and Britain’s spooks engineered a coup overthrowing its duly elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. The spooks installed the Shah, and Iran suffered 25 years of increasing tyranny, complete with the Savak, a secret police to rival the Nazi Gestapo.

Iran suffered under this unwelcome, externally imposed regime for quarter of a century. Then the dam burst. The result was something like the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution of 1917. The people got their freedom, but the revolution wasn’t exactly pure or accommodating.

On the good side, Iran’s Islamic Revolution was far, far less bloody than either the French or Russian revolution, especially to foreigners, even the ones (us) who deserved the most payback. But why Islam? Why did a largely secular, sophisticated, modern Iran turn so heavily to religion in the late twentieth century?

I think it was the times. Although the French and Russian revolutions were complex in detail and extremely bloody, their causes were absurdly simple. The French peasants and Russian serfs simply wanted enough to eat, a say in their own fate, and a chance to avoid gross exploitation by their so-called “betters.”

They were willing to fight for these things, in part because the risks were much less than they are today. In France’s and even Russia’s revolutions, the rebels faced small arms, horses, and cannon. There weren’t even yet many tanks. These weapons were fearsome, but their aim wasn’t very good. They could be circumvented with courage and training.

Today, in the twenty-first century, the tyrants are much stronger. They have small arms, medium arms and heavy arms. They have immensely mobile tanks with highly accurate artillery. They have aircraft with dumb and smart bombs and accurate missiles. They also have various forms of electronic surveillance, to sense and meet any rebel threat and expose conspirators.

You just can’t compare the tyrant’s technology of death and spying today to what it was in the Russian Revolution, let alone the French. If the last Czar or Louis XIV had had modern weapons and electronic spying, Russia and France might still be monarchies today.

Faced with such awesome hostile technology, what will the modern man or woman do? Most will make a practical calculation. They will either take their families and emigrate, or they will stay and knuckle under. In order to stay and fight, you have to have something more than just anger and dissatisfaction. That “something more” was Islam, with its tradition of self-sacrifice and jihad.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution was not very bloody. But no one could know that in advance. It took immense courage to face the Shah’s Stalinist apparatus, not knowing until the end that he would back down and leave peacefully. Who could know in advance that the Shah would not be Bashar al-Assad?

Islam supplied the courage and the quest for justice. It also supplied the glue that held society together.

The Shah’s Iran was much like Stalin’s Russia. If you wanted to organize anything, let alone talk regime change, however peacefully, you had to go where you were sure no one was listening. So Mosques, the center of Iran’s religious life, became the center of resistance, just as Catholic churches did in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe.

Thus Islam became the focus of the Islamic Revolution for entirely practical reasons, not religious or ideological ones. Islam gave the people courage and hope. It gave them a place to meet, organize and plan. And so in the end, it inevitably became the focus of the Revolution.

But does this mean Iran is truly an Islamic state, with human automatons massing in huge squares like the Nazi storm troopers at Nuremburg? I don’t think so. You have only to look at Iran’s recent election to reject that notion completely. The most moderate candidate won, and he did so with the Ayatollah’s approval or acquiescence.

The opposition arranged to have a single moderate candidate for president among some half-dozen in all. The Ayatollah didn’t get to be Supreme Leader of Iran by being stupid. Surely he understood the significance of splitting the conservative vote. So he was either in favor of the moderate result or powerless to prevent it. It is entirely possible that Ahmadinejad was Iran’s Dubya, to be followed by Iran’s Barack Obama. Only time will tell.

Checks and balances unlike ours

The dirty little secret of checks and balances is that every nation has them, except maybe for North Korea and Zimbabwe. They just don’t always match our pure and abstract model of executive, judicial and legislative power.

In fact, our abstract model is next to useless outside of developed democracies. But throw away the model and think more generally about forces in balance, and you quickly come to the conclusion that checks and balances are pervasive worldwide.

China has its huge Mandarin bureaucracy, known today as the Communist Party. It has eighty million members nationwide—more than most countries have people. Think any such organization is monolithic? Think again. Then China has the PLA, a conservative force luckily under full civilian control, its powerful regional governments (analogous to our states), and its massive business community, growing more powerful every day.

Russia has the Kremlin, to be sure. But it also has the Red Army, which tilted the nation toward democracy and self-determination by turning back the putsch against Gorbachev. It has the Duma, which is nascent and mostly impotent now, but which has potential. And it has a rising business community, including the Oligarchs who, if they start looking beyond their own bank balances toward making history, could do Russia some spectacular good.

Iran, we now know, also has checks and balances. The Mosque and its not-so-secret police, the Basij, control about a quarter of the economy. There is a massive private business community, not associated with the Basij or the military, which just helped elect its own president. And there may be (and probably are) important policy splits among the Basij, the Islamic clergy, and the military-business interests that control about one-quarter of Iran’s economy.

We can now see similar balance emerging in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is the nation’s sole organized political party, with a religious base. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is the strongest counterforce. There is also a growing but disorganized business community, especially in the field of tourism. It wants tourists back. But the liberal opposition is disorganized. Except for street demonstrations, which have proved effective, it is largely impotent.


Check and balances come in many flavors. If we expect other countries to match our theory of three branches and to make their checks and balances look exactly like ours, we will inevitably be disappointed. More important, if we base our policy on cultural chauvinism, we will inevitably do harm.

Right now, there are three forces in Egypt that check and balance each other: (1) the Muslim Brotherhood, (2) the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and (3) the disorganized liberal, secular opposition. Except for street demonstrations, the third is too chaotic to have much effect, so checks and balances in Egypt depend on the first two. That’s why it’s vital that neither one overreach.

I don’t think the SCAF overreached in removing Mursi. He seemed promising as a candidate, and he won an electoral victory in the first flush of real self-determination that Egypt has ever had.

Yet his instinct was not to govern. Instead, he sought to grab more power before beginning to govern. He and his Muslim Brotherhood controlled parliament by virtue of that same flush of electoral enthusiasm, and then they stacked the deck by changing the constitution to enhance their power. Most of what Mursi tried to do in actually governing was to force his religion on others.

That’s not governing. Governing is not amassing power to do something unknown later. Governing is using whatever power you have, and compromising when you must, to improve people’s lives and gain the people’s trust. Only when you have that trust—and deserve it—can you reach for more power.

Any prime minister of a parliamentary democracy that did what Mursi did would likely suffer a “no confidence” vote. The leaders who got away with similar ploys, such as Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez, are not exactly paragons of democracy. And Putin had had two successful terms as President before reaching for a third term as Prime Minister. Mursi hadn’t even begun before trying to guarantee his own political party perpetual power.

That’s not how checks and balances or democracy is supposed to work. The idea of self-determination is not to win one election and then jigger the law so you never lose again. Hitler and Stalin both did that, and the results were unfortunate.

So the Army was right to remove Mursi. The international community should give its action cautious support. In the absence of an effective parliament, it was just doing what an effective parliament would have done.

But that doesn’t mean that the Army should arrest the duly elected president of Egypt, let alone hundreds of leaders of his political party. Like it or not, the Muslim Brotherhood stood the long vigil against Mubarak alone. Unlike Al-Zawahiri, its members didn’t take on the quixotic task of destroying the United States. They didn’t take refuge in a no-mans-land like Afghanistan and wage war against civilization. Instead, they stayed in Egypt, working and fighting for a better regime, day after day, often risking imprisonment and even execution. That’s why they had the only viable political organization in Egypt and could win the first election.

These men (they are all men) are Egyptian patriots. They deserve honor and respect for helping to remove the tyrant and advancing Egypt’s history. That doesn’t mean that they deserve absolute power or whatever they can take. It does mean that they don’t deserve arrest without reasonable suspicion of doing something that would be criminal even if it didn’t involve politics.

If the Muslim Brothers (or anyone else) incites or commits violence, by all means arrest them. But until then, the Muslim Brothers are members of Egypt’s sole working political party. The fact that the Army, as the sole operative check or balance in today’s Egypt, removed their leader in a “vote of no confidence” doesn’t change that status. If these patriots can figure out how to deliver a better life for all of Egypt’s people, they deserve a second chance. To arrest them is only to inflame discord.

We Yanks and other outsiders can help, but only if we ken a basic truth. There is no one true path to self-government. All that self-government requires is popular will to participate, some discipline and patience, some willingness to cooperate and compromise (i.e., some self-restraint), and knowledge that governing is a task, not a right, privilege or benefit.

Mursi didn’t show those qualities. Instead, he sought to grab more power before he had used well the power he had. So the Army removed him. He should be eligible to run again; now that the country knows him, his road will be steeper. But maybe he can learn and become the Egyptian “comeback kid,” like Bill Clinton.

The most important thing is keeping those checks in balance and avoiding violence. That means avoiding any incitement to violence, including the arrest of innocent people on pre-emptive grounds.

We Yanks invaded Iraq on pre-emptive grounds that proved to be vaporware. Egypt’s SCAF should learn from our mistakes. Paranoia may have fitted Stalin, but it’s not generally good governing policy. Everyone deserves a second chance, especially the Brotherhood, which worked the hardest of any organized social force to end tyranny in Egypt. The SCAF should release all its political arrestees immediately, except those for whom it has good evidence to suspect that they have committed or are about to commit specific crimes.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post referred to Soviet postwar armed forces “then tromping their heavy boots rather clumsily over Western Europe and the Baltics." (error empasized). I regret the over-fifty moment.