[For comment on the coming Middle-East free-for-all, click here
Introduction: the sources of our strength
A practical education
Education and invention
Abstraction and practice
The demise of shop class
The value of universal schooling
Introduction: the sources of our strength
Why is the United States of America, with all its warts and insanities, the strongest and richest nation on Earth? Several answers are plausible.
Our forebears got a pristine land, with natural resources virtually undisturbed by Man. The natives from whom they took the land had only primitive technology, which did not change or harm the land much. So in farming, building cities, and developing industry, our forebears wrote on a clean slate.
Our Founders also wrote our social structure on a clean slate. Unburdened by the history and agonies of “Old Europe,” they designed our society from the ground up. At least in the modern era, as distinguished from the ancient world, they were the first phalanx of true “social engineers
Other nations just evolved, from ceaseless struggle and ethnic tumult. Ours was the first nation built by “intelligent design.” Until the EU’s advent, it was the only one.
In some ways the structure that our social engineers gave us was terribly flawed. They tried to meld two entirely different cultures into a single nation: an industrial, communitarian North and an agrarian, aristocratic South based on slavery. To do that, they gave us an unbalanced governmental structure whose wheels are starting to come off today. Under the influence of filibusters and the so-called “Hastert Rule,” we have devolved into minority rule
—or at least minority vetoes, i.e., the antithesis of democracy. Over a century and a half after our greatest-ever war, which we are still fighting in our elections and in Congress, the jury is out on whether those two dramatically different cultures can co-exist.
Yet however much they botched the structure of our government, our Founders got the basics of a functioning society right. Almost as an afterthought, they gave us our Bill of Rights—a guide for human social evolution that matches the traits of our biological evolution. They gave us freedom of speech, thought, religion, association, and markets. They gave us basic principles of fairness in criminal law. Through juries, they brought popular wisdom into the courtroom.
In essence, our Founders gave us the spirit of “live and let live,” to which anyone from anywhere could subscribe.
The basic rules of our Bill or Rights can fit on a single page. But they gave us Yanks an enormous social-evolutionary advantage. Over more than two centuries, they have drawn to our shores all the best, brightest, and most enterprising people. They have brought to us all who could not stand misery and oppression where they were and sought to make their lives better by leaving. They have given us a population that, without knowing it, mostly subscribes to the Jewish philosophy of tikkun olam
, “repair the world.”
When our many immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, they may have seemed like the poor, wretched, huddled masses of the poem. But they brought with them a burning desire to make things better. With a fire in their bellies, they wrote a beautiful history on the blank slate of our pristine valleys, forests, rivers and mountains. They built a great nation, the greatest in human history.
Our Bill of Rights has drawn the best of the world’s people to our shores. They include Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs’ Syrian grandparents, and the nameless ex-Syrian chef who made the best baba ghanoush I ever tasted. We could have still more worthy Syrians today, if only we would open our doors like Germany and Sweden.
But desire alone doesn’t beget success. One also needs ability.
Rarely, but sometimes, practical common sense rules our disputatious species. It did so for us Yanks during the critical period after our greatest war—our war against ourselves to end slavery. Our various post-Civil-War land-grant acts gave people, including many recent immigrants, more of a blank slate on which to write their individual histories. Most important of all, it gave them a free public education.
A blank slate and the knowledge to write on it: those were the secrets of our national success. No other nation in human history had ever had either, at least as much as we Yanks had. Certainly none had both.
In those days, in the middle of the nineteenth century, no one asked for citizenship papers at the classroom door. If you lived near a town and your parents didn’t need you (or you were too young) to work on the farm, you went to school. You may have had to walk miles through snow to get there and back, but you went. And you went for free.
No one then thought of education as a new human right, but it was. “Readin’, writing’ and ‘rithmetic” became the goal of all parents for their kids. That was the first time in human history that every child, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, was deemed worthy of training and enlightenment.
That period in American history marked a giant step forward in human social evolution. It was comparable in importance to the invention of universities during the Renaissance.
But we Yanks were then a practical people. To us it just seemed the practical thing to do. If you want people to write a new and beautiful history on a clean slate, you have to teach them how to hold the pen and use it to form letters. And since you never know in advance who might become the rare genius, you’d better teach everyone, just in case. That was the absurdly simple formula for our national success.
A practical education
Today the word “education” is far more complex and far more fraught than in the mid-nineteenth century. The word now includes pre-school, which science tells us enhances kids’ brain development. It includes primary school, which gives kids the most basic tools to become useful and productive citizens, just as it did in mid-nineteenth century. It includes so-called “higher” education, in colleges and universities. It includes the type of cutting-edge research and study that drives science and technology forward. And it includes professional schools in law, medicine and engineering, where students learn to put higher knowledge to work for the common good.
As we try to grasp all these different things under the heading of “education,” we miss the most basic point. Education is not a luxury. It’s not a “privilege.” It’s the practical means by which our species evolves socially. Apart from biological evolution—which the comfortable living we humans have made for ourselves has all but halted—it’s the sole means by which our species evolves at all. It’s the engine of human progress.
Not only that. Education is the only way our species maintains
in the future the same level of advancement that we enjoy today.
Individuals die, but society subsists. FDR, Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington are gone. So are the four greatest thinkers in human history: Newton, Adam Smith, Darwin and Einstein. So are Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Louis Pasteur, and Andrew Carnegie, to say nothing of the other thousands who propelled us forward and made our lives richer. So is Jesus. None is coming back, at least not in the flesh, and not anytime soon.
So if we humans want to take up where they left off, we are going to have to teach our kids well. We are going to have to get them not just to go and do likewise, but to go further
. Every generation. Every time. Every kid. Without fail, and without slacking.
Perhaps the best way to think about how practical education is is to think about why our forebears made it universal and free in the nineteenth century. Why did rural kids in the growing ninteenth-century Midwest and on our Western Frontier have to go to school? Wouldn’t they have done more good just by sowing and harvesting crops like their parents?
The answers were practical. They needed “readin’” so they could understand the Farmer’s Almanac and the Bible, so they could follow the politics and the advance of culture through newspapers and books, and so (if they were so inclined) they could educate themselves further and pass their learning and insights on to others. They needed “writin’” so they could order farm tools and equipment from Eastern and European manufacturers, so they could express themselves, and so they could communicate. They needed “‘rithmetic” so they calculate acreages, seed counts and crop yields, so they could measure and do carpentry to build their homes and barns, and so they could do their accounts and manage their budgets.
They better they could do those things, the more successful they would be. For a nation that wanted to give everyone a chance to be successful, a chance for Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness,” universal, free education was a no-brainer.
Education and invention
A thousand years from now, if our species survives, what will they remember us Yanks for?
Simple, majoritarian parliamentary systems will long since have won the social-evolutionary struggle with our noxious, inefficient and factional two-party, two-house system, let alone with its filibusters and “Hastert Rule.” If we Yanks still have a unique nation, we will no doubt have cast off these national hobbles ourselves.
Our roles in World War II and the Cold War will be mere sentences in the history books, like the War of the Roses today. Our role in our species’ near self-extinction in October 1962 will be a dismal footnote, much like the Great Plague, the Dark Ages, and the Mongol Conquest of most of Europe and Asia.
In the year 3016, they might still remember us for our Bill of Rights: a single page that sets good rules for our species’ social evolution, consistent with our biological evolution. They might remember us for being the first society “intelligently designed” by self-conscious social engineers, antedating the EU. But most of all, they will probably remember us Yanks as inventors.
By 3016, designing babies and fixing genetic defects will be routine. Most ordinary people will live well past 100. So people will have a lot of time to tell stories and to learn history.
Historians of technology will catalogue our Yankee firsts, and it will still be an impressive list. We were first to develop electric lights, phonographs, “scyscrapers,” airplanes, telephones, televisions, atomic reactors, atomic weapons, digital computers, and the Internet. Although only co-discoverers of DNA, we were first to splice it, knit it and edit it. Our scientific inventors have developed the first, crude gene-editing techniques, which will be the foundation of future medicine and agriculture.
So we Yanks will go down in human history as extraordinarily productive inventors. Maybe future historians will even remember that we invented universal, free public education.
Is that last invention related to the others? I think so.
Amidst today’s blizzard of abstractions, it’s hard to see what makes an inventor. Some inventions require both extraordinary brains and extraordinary education. These included atomic piles and bombs, the Internet (with its mathematical protocols), and much of modern molecular biology, including gene editing. But many of our greatest inventors were (and are) far from today’s highly-educated Ph.D.’s working in lofty and obscure research institutes. Edison and the Wright Brothers certainly were, as was Steve Jobs. So is Elon Musk today.
Perhaps the best examples were Orville and Wilbur Wright, the two bicycle mechanics from Ohio who invented aircraft capable of controlled flight. Not only did they invent useful airplanes; they invented the tools to make them. To perfect their designs, they invented small, crude versions of what today we call “wind tunnels.” They were two ordinary guys with a good, free basic education and an obsession for flight.
At the time the Wright Brothers were assembling bicycles, a global host of luminaries had been working assiduously on human flight worldwide. Similar luminaries had been working on it for centuries before Leonardo’s famous drawings of winged men.
But the duo that succeeded
were ordinary Americans to whom universal, free public education had given a leg up. They could read others’ work, from anywhere, write away for parts for equipment, do the arithmetic required for mechanical design and budgets, and understand basic science and mechanics. Imagine where human flight would be today if the Wright Brothers had lacked their basic education and had rotted away on some remote farm.
The modern philosopher John Rawls once proposed an interesting criterion for ranking human societies. Suppose you were a disembodied soul waiting to be incorporated into human form, just before birth. Suppose you could not choose the family that would bear you, but you could choose the nation or culture into which you would be born. Wouldn’t you choose the most egalitarian one, to maximize your chances of happiness and success? Even if you were not born into a rich or powerful family, you would have a decent chance at education and advancement.
Education and invention are susceptible to similar analysis. It’s impossible to identify in advance who will be the next Carnegie, Edison, Wright Brothers, Jobs or Musk. Even if we could gather all the information, there are too many variables in genetics, socialization, health, upbringing and wealth even to take a fair stab at the problem. So isn’t the best recourse to give everyone
a good basic education, regardless of wealth and status, and let them take it as far as they can? Isn’t our erstwhile Yankee invention of universal, free, public education the best way to preserve and develop unseen talent?
Abstraction and practice
One of the most vivid phrases in recent journalism sprang from the pen of conservative pundit David Brooks. Opposing Harriet Miers’ bid for our Supreme Court, he reviewed her voluminous legal writing as “the relentless march of vapid abstractions.” The phrase was apt, and Miers never made the Supreme Court.
Abstraction is the bane of human thinking. With brains the size of grapefruits, our species has to
resort to abstraction in order to grasp anything real, let alone our limitless Universe. But abstractions can be tools of the Devil. In politics, they often are.
Today, that occupational hazard of pols is creeping into education, or at least the politics of education. And so we have Bobby Jindal, a pol who once was a Rhodes Scholar, accused of making it easier to teach the abstraction of “creationism” in high-school biology and science classes. The result, in many rural schools in Louisiana, is education in a so-called “theory” of biology without reference to a single peer-reviewed experiment. It’s all abstract gobbledygook, motivated by the Christian Bible and supported by abstract reasoning without anchor in experimental science. The ancient Greeks or pagans could have done at least as well.
Hard as it may be to believe, our forebears did not have abstractions in mind when they invented universal, free education. They did not want to teach kids what
to think, but how
to think. They wanted to give them the tools of thinking—reading, writing, and arithmetic—not the results. Although these worthy pols antedated the twentieth century’s ideological wars by half a century, they would have understood the difference between indoctrination and education.
The demise of shop class
Today, a good way to grasp the dumbing of America is to mull the demise of shop class.
In the late fifties and sixties, after my sixth grade, I attended well-financed public schools in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. Virtually all my classmates were college bound, as was I. Nearly all my courses were labeled “advanced placement,” with much the same couple-dozen students in every class. I ended up being a physicist/seismologist, lawyer and then law professor. But in junior high school, along with “advanced placement” math, English and science, I took wood shop, metal shop and mechanical drawing (blueprints).
Today I can’t remember whether these were required courses or my electives. My dad did keep a basement workshop with a drill press, table saw and wood lathe. I liked to work with my hands, as well as with abstractions.
But whether or not I elected these courses, they were available to all students. Experienced and seasoned professionals taught them well. Today, my toolbox still contains a steel center punch that I forged for myself in metal shop over half a century ago.
These courses taught me far more than rudimentary manual skills, many of which I had already acquired from my home workshop. They taught me something that few pols today have a firm grip on: consequences and responsibility, i.e., cause and effect. If I let the wood slip at the tool, it broke or gouged. If I fired or cooled the metal wrong, it got brittle. If I forgot to wear my gloves, I cut or burned my hands. The chain of causation was clear and simple; there was no one to blame but myself.
The immediacy of working with tangible things in my hands taught me responsibility and cause and effect in ways that abstract reasoning never can. Working with other students, not college bound, also opened the door to inter-class relations. It gave me an enduring respect for people who work with their hands and an insight into how tangible work can clarify thought and ennoble people who lack easy facility with language.
My lesson in diligence and responsibility deepened before my last year in college. While overhauling the engine in my used 1955 Chevy, I failed to replace the main bearings, mainly due to laziness. The result was a blown-up engine on my way to my senior year at university, and no car during it. If only all our pols could understand cause and effect—let alone responsibility—as clearly as I did then, we would have much less discord in Congress and much more cooperation.
The farmers, mechanics and merchants who enthusiastically embraced universal free education during our nineteenth century all could see cause and effect with the vision of people living close to the land. They understood that consequences are best learned by doing, by experiencing things you can see, smell and touch. They also understood that character grows from understanding, and understanding from experience, and that absract, verbal “experience” is a pale shadow of the real thing.
As the ancient Greeks observed, “the suffered is the learned.” We Yanks have lost that sense of concrete learning in a relentless march of vapid abstractions about “freedom,” “enterprise,” “smaller government,” and the like. We need to get it back.
The value of universal schooling
So as I look at Germany and its apprenticeship programs, I see a society that has better and better respected plumbers, machinists, electricians and carpenters. I see a society that values people who work with their hands and treats them better than ours does. I see a nation that better understands how mind and body interact with tangible work and how, although our minds swim in a sea of abstractions, we all must live in the real world.
I see a nation in which Energiewende
is not a reckless gamble, but a rational response to two fundamental causes: global warming, which is accelerating dramatically
, and the impending exhaustion
of known oil reserves in two or fewer generations. I see a nation whose people and pols, far from adrift on a sea of abstractions, can still see cause and effect.
A century and a half ago, human life was incomparably different. There were no cars, trucks, airplanes, transcontinental railroads, electrical appliances, electronics, atomic reactors or bombs, artificial satellites, or antibiotics. There were no X-rays, let alone CAT scans or MRIs. Some doctors were still applying leeches to cure disease. Space travel and gene editing weren’t even science fiction.
Yet despite their primitive surroundings, our forbears of that era were wiser than we are today. They sought to give all their people more education than perhaps they needed for daily life. Maybe they hoped that education would inspire their people to greater achievement, as it did the Wright Brothers and so many others. Maybe they also understood that education can build character, as well as knowledge. At least they understood that education, along with land grants, were the most basic infrastructure of all.
Once we Yanks invented
free, universal, public education. Now we are dismantling it. We are dividing our people into fixed social and economic classes, according to their education. We are dumbing education down, insisting that it contribute to some immediate job qualification.
We are giving it begrudgingly, at the cost of enormous near-lifelong college debt.
Worse yet, we fail to see that the vast progress our “Yankee ingenuity” has made possible now requires more
universal education, not less. We fail to see that the specialization occasioned by exploding human knowledge requires more
fields of study, not fewer. Not only must we educate specialists as such. We must also educate specialists to understand each other’s specialities, through increasing “interdisciplinary” learning.
At the same time, we must also educate better generalists, who can, with less knowledge of details, presume to sew the patchwork of our infinitely specialized fields of learning into a working quilt. Our politicians and leaders must be among them.
All this requires more hours, more years, more fields, and more cross-fertilization. We need to be planning the future rather than catching up with the past. We must train and enlighten every kid who can take education beyond high school.
Today’s excuse is lack of money. We’re in debt. But were our forbears rich? They were expanding a brand new country helter-skelter across a whole continent. They had just fought the most devastating war in our history, and the last one ever to take place primarily in our Homeland—our Civil War. Yet they didn’t shrink from planning wisely for the future and finding the money to fund their plans. Should we?
A cursory look at today’s world shows beyond dispute that we Yanks are falling behind. Scandinavia finds ways to send every kid to university who wants to go. It does so without crushing debt, and without dumbing down curricula to make universities look like trade schools.
At the same time, Germany and parts of Scandinavia send to trade school kids who want to go there and have the aptitude. So it keeps the so-called “manual arts” at the cutting edge, rather than as a poor cousin to the relentless march of vapid abstractions. No wonder these countries, small compared to ours, are slowly and steadily pulling ahead in the race toward new technologies and more sustainable societies. No wonder the Large Hadron Collider sits near Geneva, not in Texas.
The nation that universal, free public education made great is turning its back on the secret of its success. Our would-be presidents talk about making university debt
-free, not cost-free. Our President talks about making junior college
free. Only Bernie Sanders, a long-shot but worthy presidential candidate, has the right idea.
Universal free public education through high school made our nation supreme through the rest of the nineteenth and all of the twentieth centuries. If we want to remain supreme in the twenty-first, we are going to have to extend that idea to university, and probably beyond.
A few recent so-called “studies,” funded by so-called “conservative” think tanks, purport to show that higher education is not a good “investment.” They do this by taking the fully-loaded, unsubsidized cost of a university education and seeing whether the salaries of a select group of university graduates recover this cost, over a lifetime of work, as compared to the salaries of a select group of non-university peers.
These studies put their thumbs on the scales by cherry-picking the “comparable” non-university groups. Yet even if they didn’t they would be absolute nonsense, for four reasons.
First and foremost, by focusing only on the direct financial returns to the students themselves, these studies ignore the whole purpose of subsidizing education: the general benefits to society. On average, educating all students who want education makes us all better off, not just the individual students. But those benefits are not as easy to quantify as an individual’s lifetime earnings.
For example, consider Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, inventors of the first effective and first oral polio vaccines, respectively. Both enjoyed free or low-cost higher education. Because of their work, unknown millions of Yanks were spared death, paralysis or debilitating illness. How do you quantify that
on a crude business-school spreadsheet? Would we all be better off if they had become bankers and earned greater lifetime incomes?
The second reason why these studies are absurd is that they fail to account for the effect of student loans and debt. Burdening young people with massive debt for their education has obvious and severe lifetime effects, both psychological and financial. It makes young people more stressed and worried, and so less likely to experiment with their lives or take risks. Comparable students without
higher education, and therefore without huge debt loads, may be more relaxed and creative, may take more risk, and therefore may be more entrepreneurial. The failure of these “studies” to control for these obvious effects violates the most basic principle of scientific inquiry: maintaining a complete and realistic control group.
The third reason why these studies are worthless is timing. Before the 1970s most tuition at American public universities was minimal. For example, I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley—then the nation’s premiere public university—in 1966. At that time, there was no tuition, only an “incidental fee” of $100 per semester. My total “tuition” for four years of the best public higher education in America was $800. Similarly, this table
from the Institute of Education Statistics shows the low level of tuition at public institutions even a decade later, after the so-called “Reagan revolution” made university students pay dearly.
Tuition did not rise dramatically until the mid-nineties and our new century. But students from those eras have not yet completed their careers; i.e., they have not yet reached their peak earning years. So comparisons between university grads and non-grads for those years are meaningless. They necessarily rely on projections based on unfounded and ideologically suspect assumptions.
But the final reason why these “studies” are nonsense is that real current events contradict them. Students of rich families are pouring into our nation’s elite private and public universities from all over the world, especially (but not exclusively) from China and India.
Why is that so? Rich families everywhere know the value of education, particularly higher education in America. Those who can afford it will pay whatever it costs, without a thought to the absurd B-school “studies.” If it costs $100,000 a year, they’ll pay it for their kids. If the costs go up to $200,000 per year, fewer families will be able to afford it, but those who can will still pay. Why? Because smart people know that education is priceless.
American universities accept foreign students eagerly. Some set tuition especially high for them, milking their parents as cash cows. Others limit foreign admissions so as not unduly to restrict the opportunities for native-born Americans. Some are increasing foreign admissions in the vain hope of subsidizing
education for a decreasing number of native-born students.
The end result of this process is clear. As ever-higher professorial and administrative salaries, plus ever-higher building and maintenance expense, drive the cost of higher education higher, it will become a privilege of an international economic oligarchy. Without special subsidies, it will be out of bounds for the average American, let alone students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Any resemblance to the vision of our nineteenth-century pioneers, who invented universal, free public education, will be purely coincidental.
Meanwhile, the education “sector” that remains will focus more and more on satisfying the short-term-profit goals of business and at attracting offspring of a global economic oligarchy. Even now, government is increasingly handing off support for basic research to industry, which subsidizes shorter- and shorter-term goals.
The final step in the sequence is obvious. Many of the tens of thousands of foreign students educated annually in our great universities will return home to China, India and other countries from which they have come. There they will use the knowledge and skills acquired here to copy our great universities in their home countries.
But lacking our apotheosis of profit and our allergy to so-called “socialism,” they will find some way to copy our nineteenth-century invention, too. They will subsidize education for as many of their native kids as they can, at least the most promising, as we used to do.
Slowly but surely, they will create great systems of free higher education analogous to our universal free secondary eduction from the nineteenth century. I won’t live to see it. But, if we Yanks continue on our present path, it would not surprise me to see foreign universities leading the rankings of great global universities by the middle of our new century.
The Shiite and Sunni Siblings
It’s amazing, really, how human politics can come into focus if you just view supposed grown-ups as prepubescent children. In a recent essay
, I analyzed our South’s reaction to a half-black, half-white president as a two-year-old’s temper tantrum. That analysis was a perfect fit.
The tantrum has been going on for six years now. But with the end of President Obama’s two terms approaching, it appears about to burn itself out. Even in Yankee fantasyland, where voters confuse policy with entertainment, two-year-olds with their fingers on The Button don’t inspire confidence or peace of mind.
Now we can see another good fit for children’s anaysis, this time in the Middle East. Just think of Shiite Iran and the Sunni Saudis as having a severe attack of sibling rivalry.
This time, we’re not dealing with two-year-olds. Instead, we’re dealing with prepubescent children above the age of reason (about eight), who are strong enough to do each other real damage.
Major powers are the parents. We drew their boundaries and gave them modern weapons which they had no means to develop themselves. Now we have the unenviable task of pulling them apart before they seriously hurt each other or break up all the furniture in the living room, including what’s left of Syria.
The immediate cause of the fracas is the Saudis’ recent execution of the Saudi-native Shiite imam Nimr al-Nimr, along with 43 Sunnis and three other Shiites. Iran responded with slow police response as Irani Shiite rioters destroyed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Then the Saudis retaliated by withdrawing diplomatic relations.
All this is not much new. Sunnis, led by the Saudis, and Shiites, led by Iran, have been bashing each other all over the Middle East for some time, in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. So far, the two leading siblings have managed to keep from going at each other directly using the ceremonial daggers and heavy paperweights on the living-room table. But unless things change, that’s only a matter of time.
Lest we English-speaking peoples wax too condescending, it’s helpful to recall the several centuries of Catholic-Protestant wars that devastated both Continental Europe and the British Isles. But we Yanks and Brits have one advantage, or at least we should have
. Except for occasional explosions in Northern Ireland, we supposedly grew out of that sort of thing seven decades ago. And anyway weapons then were far less destructive than now.
There is no doubt who the distraught parents are. First the Brits, then the Europeans, and finally the Russians supplied the murderous siblings with weapons and technology otherwise far out of their reach. The more mature sibling, Iran, first got its weapons from Cold War America. After its people threw out the dictator we installed, it got them from the Soviet Union and now Russia.
Not being stupid, Iranians understood their parents’ fickleness and learned how to make advanced weapons themselves. Their parents recently prevailed upon them not to seek atomic weapons, which would destabilize the whole region. But missile development continues apace, as does old-fashioned saber-rattling.
The Saudis have been the younger, less mature sibling. Beloved by the Brits and us Yanks exclusively, they never ventured outside the nest. Docilely, they left weapons development to us, while they tried to placate their mostly absent parents with reliable streams of oil.
Yet the Saudis have always had a rich, secret and dangerous fantasy life. They dreamed they could maintain a medieval family kingdom forever, well into the Internet age and twenty-first century. And they dreamed they could do so by exporting violent revolution to others
, in the form of Islamic extremism, throughout the Middle East and South Asia.
At first, these fantasies seemed harmless and easy to contain. Today, not so much. Like the dragons’ eggs of ancient mythology, they have spawned mindless soldiers of terror and doom: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and international terrorists—all virtually exclusively Sunni phenomena. The spawn of these Saudi dragons’ eggs threaten not just the sibling rival, but Europe and America as well. Already they have caused the world’s greatest refugee crisis since Stalin’s mass deportations and the aftermath of the most horrible war in human history.
So what are the parents’ doing? Occasionally, they make noises like adult parents conscious of their responsibility as such. But like most parents who don’t get along vey well, they pick their favorites and try to promote their advantage. For a decade they have been feeding the rival forces with weapons, financial support, and verbal backing.
Now the kids are threatening to destroy the living room, and maybe seriously wound each other. So what are good parents to do now?
One would think the answer would be obvious to any actual parent. Wind down the bitter rivalry. How? The first step is to take away the weapons, or at least the most dangerous ones.
The recent Nuclear Deal with Iran was a good start. But it was only a start. Getting the old—and possibly still active—souvenir World War II hand grenades out of the living room was a necessary precaution. But what about the ceremonial daggers and heavy paperweights?
Here we stumble upon one of the many unresolved contradictions of capitalism. Arms production and trade are “legitimate,” thriving industries worldwide. Not only do their successes feed the military power of the parents. They also promote national wealth and (indirectly, through taxes) the power of the State. So the parents have real incentives to give the rival siblings things that could end up killing them, destroying the living room, and perhaps gravely wounding the parents themselves.
The solution is conceptually simple but politically hard. Cut off the flow of arms and ammunition. Cut it cold turkey.
Sure, the more mature sibling Iran is ahead in making its own arms. But with their huge, never-boycotted oil sales, the Saudis have built up the most complete (and completely unnecessary) stash of conventional heavy weapons, including a big air force. The older and more mature sibling, Iran, has something resembling a democracy, with another election coming up soon. Maybe, just maybe, taking the ceremonial daggers and heavy paperweights out of the living room can avoid some of the mayhem.
Parents, of course, are not entirely responsible for their children’s bad behavior. They are neither omnipotent nor omniscient; nor can they be watching all the time. But they have a moral and practical obligation to exert their influence to ameliorate bad behavior, and a much stronger one to keep their kids from real mayhem.
The kids themselves are pouting, getting ready to see who will throw the first roundhouse punch. The parents are still weighing the profits of their war industries, their own traditional rivalries, and their own misguided loyalties to the favorites they have picked (or whom history has picked for them).
How they weigh those irrelevancies, and whether they assume their responsibilities as parents, will determine whether the twenty-first century looks much like the bloody twentieth. At the moment, the name “Nimr al-Nimr” is beginning to sound a lot like “Archduke Ferdinand.”
Another World War I now looks likely, this time in the Middle East, almost exactly a century after the co-called “Great War” that inaugurated the bloodiest century in human history. Can the major powers grow up and assume their responsibilities as parents, or will Yeats’ immortal line—“the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”—again become the figurative epitaph over millions of early graves? The answer depends almost entirely on whether major powers can begin to see arms industries as different from soap or furniture factories and begin to act as adult parents.