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

05 April 2015

Build or Bomb?

[For brief comment on John Kerry’s interview last night, click here. For a more focused political analysis of recent events, click here. For some reasons why it might be better to believe in Jesus’ practical advice, and not in his divinity, click here.]

Old age, as they say, is not for sissies. You get weaker, not stronger. So does your memory and mind. People whom you once helped reach out solicitously—and sometimes unwittingly offensively—to help you. Your body’s organs start to act like the cranky parts of an old car: they need special attention, a little jiggling here, a retry there, occasionally an assistive device or drug.

Yet age has three undeniable benefits. First, your appetites decline. You no longer eat so much and so urgently. So you can eat healthier. You can dine at the finest restaurants and still end up with a reasonable bill. Just so, your declining passions let you value real love, friendship and companionship as much as good sex.

Second, your ego declines along with your body’s strength, memory and certitude. You are inclined to give others’ strange thoughts a second look. At least you look patiently for the logic and emotion behind others’ contrary views before rejecting them out of hand.

Finally—you begin to understand, if only dimly, that as the song says, “Love is all there is.” The love of friends, family and even neighbors becomes the chief pleasure in your life, what sustains you. And you begin to notice all the endlessly variable packages in which human love can come.

Whether this is wisdom or decline is hard to say. Let’s just call it “focus.”

“Love” is a funny word. It applies to so many different things. But what they all have in common is life. Love promotes life and staves off our inevitable death.

For the act of procreation and the love we lavish on our children, these points are obvious. Our kids take longer to grow up, both mentally and physically, than do the progeny of any other species on this planet. That’s why the huge debt we Yanks are now piling on our youth for their higher education is not just a crime, but an assault on our species’ evolution.

There are other types of love, too. There’s the love that Jesus of Nazareth advised us to bestow upon our neighbors and enemies. When that love works, we have (after many wars) China and Vietnam. We have (also after many wars) the EU. After fewer wars, we have the US, Canada and Mexico. When this sort of love doesn’t work, we have Syria, Eastern Ukraine, the Middle East, and the Korean Peninsula.

As a species, we can do so much more today than ever before. We can build planes to fly us between continents. We can build bridges and tunnels to connect them. Examples are the Chunnel, the several bridges over the Bosphorus, and the bridge that Russia has just hired an oligarch to build between Russia proper (not Ukraine!) and Crimea.

We can also build bombs that destroy. Our nuclear weapons can take out whole cities and nations, leaving radioactive rubble uninhabitable for decades or centuries. With cruise missiles and drones, we can kill at retail, by remote control.

Retail killing may be better than wholesale killing. But it’s still pretty far from the love that Jesus advised. So are the barrel bombs by which Assad has converted Syria from a thriving, mostly secular nation into a sectarian killing field of rubble and refugees. He can lie like a rug on Charlie Rose as many times as he likes; but he can never erase what he has done.

When you think about it, some things are not too hard to understand. Life is better than death. Love is better than hate. Building is better than bombing. Love is our species’ chief survival mechanism.

That’s why so many people who are not Christians revere Jesus. Muslims revere him as a prophet, just like Mohammed. I, an assimilated Yankee Jew, have trouble believing that Jesus was divine, the son of a sturdy male God with an impressive grey beard, living somewhere out there beyond Arcturus. But I have no trouble at all believing that Jesus was the smartest pol that ever walked our Earth.

Human evolution is a funny thing. It never walks a straight line. It has left us with large portions of our DNA that don’t seem to do anything—molecular evolutionary detritus.

It has also left us with an appendix. Once this organ probably worked a bit like chickens’ gizzards. But now it’s entirely vestigial. Without warning, it can flare up with infection. If we don’t cut it out then, it can kill us.

Our tribalism is like that. It’s an evolutionary dead end. When we humans lived as primates in small tribes on the African savannah, it helped us compete with rival tribes to survive. Now it threatens to destroy us—all seven billion of us—as we try to turn away from building bombs toward building houses, schools and hospitals.

There are a few encouraging signs. One is that bridge to Crimea that Putin has commissioned. Maybe if it works he’ll stop trying to bomb and bash his way to a land bridge though Ukraine, a rival tribe’s territory.

China, apparently, has stopped trying to dominate the South China Sea by patrolling it with ships and planes of war, thereby risking a catastrophic new war in Asia, just when Asia is getting up on its feet and perhaps taking over our species’ leadership. Instead, China is building artificial islands to reach the resources that it wants. To be sure, that kind of building raises thorny questions about territorial ownership and national sovereignty. But it’s better than bombing, isn’t it?

Yet first prize for the most recent building effort goes to the architects of the “framework” agreement with Iran. Their edifice is nothing solid. It’s only an abstract bridge between continents, cultures and faiths.

Right now, it’s just a skeleton. Maybe it’s only scaffolding, as the word “framework” implies. The winds of tribalism and war could easily tear it asunder.

But take a quick look at the men and women who built this abstraction. Look at them as they were in the last hours before their announcement. Look at the ashen, haggard, sleep-deprived faces of John Kerry, Sergei Lavrov, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the rest.

They had given their all. They hadn’t slept for days. No general planning a battle (from a safe distance) had ever striven, sacrificed, or strained more. Yet they were building, not bombing. They were working to prevent the bombs from falling and even from being built.

Their abstract scaffolding is shaky. There are lots of atavists everywhere who would like to tear it down. To stand the test of time, let alone to bear fruit, it will have to endure and support a much stronger structure.

But make no mistake about it. Those sleep-deprived, ashen-faced negotiators are the heroes of our time. It is only through their efforts—and those of others like them in ages to come—that our species will extract its inflamed appendix, make our planet sustainably livable, and reach for the stars.

John Kerry, a Hero Yet Unsung

I love it when current events confirm my analysis. A glorious example was last night’s PBS interview with John Kerry.

I won’t liken Kerry to Jesus. At least not yet. He’s still got to turn the “framework” into a structure and end our senseless Little Cold War with Iran. And he’s got to do it by persuading Iran to forsake nuclear weapons, forever.

He’s also got to convince Iran, Israel and our other friends that Jesus’ love for enemies is their proper guiding star. Already that sort of love—in a thing called our “Marshall Plan”—has built three of the four largest national economies. (1 and 2) It’s counterintuitive. It sounds strange. But it works.

Jesus’ love for enemies is no sloppy, sentimental love. It’s the love of a neglectful parent getting an errant kid out of jail and realizing that re-educating him is going to take a long, hard slog. It’s that parent dedicating himself to the task, while working two jobs and trying to save his marriage. It’s tough love. It’s effective love.

If you watch the interview with Kerry, you can see that’s just the kind of stuff he’s made of. He’s tough and realistic. Speaking perfect English and enunciating clearly, he has gravitas oozing out of every pore. He neglects no risk and minimizes no problem. But he doesn’t exaggerate the dangers or ignore the opportunity for sensible solutions, either.

One of the few things that still sticks in my aging craw is mindless tribalists deriding smarter, more practical, more able people. They belittle real leaders as children singing “Kumbaya” with baseless hope.

Jesus was no sloppy, sentimental, infatuated lover. As you may recall, he paid for his lesson to us with his life. He was crucified. You don’t have to take that on faith; it’s historical fact.

Kerry, too, was crucified in a way—in our 2004 presidential election. A man who fought and was wounded in our worst losing war, and who then courageously protested against its wrongness and stupidity, was beaten by a man with a fraction of his intelligence, no experience in war, and zero gravitas. A serious and able pol lost to a frat boy because we Yanks, as a nation, were still ready to pat ourselves on the back and party.

But quality and excellence have ways of coming out, especially when times are tough. Kerry still has a job to do, one of the most important of our day.

If he does it right and well, who knows? Maybe we Yanks will have a better alternative to Hillary and Jeb. Maybe we can dispense with dynasties and get back to electing the most able candidate, as we did in 2008 and 2012.

Kerry is self-evidently not even thinking of that now. He’s focused on his vital present task, as he should be. That’s what real leaders do: prioritize what’s important. They put personal ambition aside until the job is done. But we who are not leaders can watch the interview and dream.



  • At Sun Apr 05, 10:12:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Jay,

    For whatever reason, this post really struck me as something I can greatly relate to. Age is a funny thing that Carle Sagan summarized as 4.0 billion years of evolution in 40 seconds in his second (II) Cosmos video in 1978! He explained that without death there would be no evolution and no future generations. The cosmos requires death for future life. We and the earth are all made out of bigger atoms/molecules cooked in stars that preceded our sun. Our solar system is a second or possibly third generation star/solar system beyond the 14 billion year old big bang.

    My son, 12 year old Ben has been greatly enjoying whacking tennis balls around a few times a week while asking his tennis coaches many good physics questions (as well as asking his 6th grade teach the same/similar questions). Warmest regards, Rod and Ben

  • At Wed Apr 15, 03:31:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Aging is not only funny, but a bit ironic.

    How many older people have said, with perfect sincerity, “If only I knew then what I know now!" And how much wisdom, so hard won with so many errors and suffering, dies when geezers do, or when they get Alzheimer's?

    The solution to the second problem, of course, is education—aka passing hard-won knowledge and wisdom down to future generations. That’s another reason why making this generation of college students indentured servants is not just a shame, but a crime against our species’ evolution.

    This point also demonstrates the danger and misguidedness of the backlash against the “Common Core.” If they have real value, knowledge and wisdom are not “local,” but universal. Our species has come as far as it has only because knowledge and wisdom eventually diffuse worldwide. That’s the transcendent value of the Internet: where once the process took decades or centuries, it now can occur in minutes.



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