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

26 August 2017

Gary Cohn and the Subtle Treachery of Self-Importance

[For a comparison of Cohn’s with Tillerson’s response to Trump coddling bigotry, click here. For the usual catalogue of popular recent posts, click here. For a recent essay on how and why our Civil War continues today, click here].

As a front-page story in the New York Times reported on August 26, Gary Cohn almost resigned over Trump’s coddling of Nazis and racists. He’s Trump’s director of the National Economic Council and, as such, the principal architect of Trump’s economic policy (if Trump really has any). Cohn is also Jewish and therefore no fan of Nazis, neo or otherwise.

According to the NYT, Cohn actually wrote a resignation letter. For several days after Trump’s bigot-coddling initial response to the events in Charlottesville, Cohn agonized over whether to deliver it.

But in the end, he didn’t, despite the urging of many friends and reportedly even his own wife. Cohn contented himself with a generalized broadside against racism, which failed to identify Trump by name, in an interview with the Financial Times—a British newspaper widely read by the international financial elite.

Cohn told himself (and whoever else would listen) that he could do more good inside the Trump administration, by helping shape and pass tax reform, than by being temporarily out of a job and out of the centers of power in Washington. In short, Cohn thought he could do more by whispering in the would-be tyrant’s ear than by fighting division and tyranny as a private citizen, albeit a fabulously rich and powerful one.

This is, of course, how tyrannies are built, brick by brick and co-option by co-option. At least that was how it happened in Germany, as Adolf Hitler morphed from an unknown World War I corporal, to freely-elected Chancellor of Germany, to Die Führer. So many, including the great industrialists Krupp and Thyssen, thought they could do more “inside” and could “control” the maniac and the dark tides of history.

This is how even leaders of great democracies prolong and entrench their most terrible mistakes. Don’t take my word for it. Take Lyndon Johnson’s.

Somewhat like Trump, Johnson was a big, gruff, crude, overbearing and egotistical man. At the height of our national division over our misguided war in Vietnam, someone asked him why he kept inside his administration people who opposed the war, including his Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Johnson replied, “Better to have ‘em inside the tent pissin’ out than outside the tent pissin’ in.”

So go ahead, Mr. Cohn! Stay inside the tent and continue pissing on the rest of us. Continue to delude yourself that you can cure what ails us by lowering taxes on the wealthiest men and corporations while the rest of us are fighting each other in the streets.

But as you do so, please recall also a speech by one of our two greatest presidents—a speech that every high-school student still reads today. “A house divided against itself,” said Abraham Lincoln, “cannot stand.”

We Americans are not divided because we are weak. We are weak because we are divided.

Among many other things, we are divided about North Korea’s imminent nuclear threat. We are divided on what to do about subtle Russian meddling in our democracy. We are divided about how to address China’s rising global influence, especially in regions from which we are withdrawing to save money. We are divided into racial, ethnic, gender and gender-orientation cliques like poor students in a dysfunctional high school.

And in all these things and many more, our current president is our divider-in-chief. No amount of tax reform—even one that gives some relief to ordinary workers—will cure our most fatal disease: our deep and growing division. That disease simply may not be curable if it is based not on policy or methods, but on who we are.

That’s how Nazism, racism, misogyny and bigotry of all kinds work: they make division incurable by basing it on who and what we are. African-Americans, Mexican immigrants, peaceful Muslims and even Jews are excluded or disfavored, not because of what they know, support, do or think, but because of who they are. Trump fans the flames of this division by speaking of “beautiful people” on both sides, and of “beautiful statues” of people who pledged their lives to and fought fiercely for slavery.

Think about it, Mr. Cohn. We have a Congress that can pass no major law because it’s divided. We have a House with a thing called the “Hastert Rule,” which lets no bill even reach the floor unless a majority of the majority is for it; this rule entrenches any small minority (like the so-called “Tea Party” or “Freedom Caucus”) and excludes the true bipartisan majority of the whole House from all practical influence in legislating. We have a Senate in which filibusters and Senate “holds” (single senators’ mere threats to filibuster) kill bills and presidential appointments. We have a nation in which warring factions are assembling in our streets, one side of them is armed, and sometimes the police do nothing.

With all this going on, can a uniquely American version of “Krystallnacht” be far away?

It is now absolutely clear how Trump intends to govern. Whether as Jekyll to his occasional teleprompter-fed Hyde, or whether as a straight-out strategy, Trump will hew to and rely on his “base”—the third or so of us who believe in division, exclusion, racial supremacy and violence. He has done so again and again, despite opposition from those inside his tent pissing out and many outside his tent pissing in.

What makes you think you are so much stronger and wiser as to make a difference? What makes you think that your field of expertise, banking, has any cure at all for what ails us, or for the Trump-injected virus that feeds the ailment?

Trump is 71 years old. He’s not going to change. He will always revert to type. When push comes to shove, he will never understand or respect your expertise and experience as you hope. In the final analysis, all your wisdom as a banker will prove useless.

We can’t cure hate with capital formation or tax reform. We need a real leader who will bring us together by taking us to common ground, with understanding and empathy.

So please, Mr. Cohn. See your leverage and your influence as it really is, not as you’d like it to be. See this president as he really is, not as you’d like him to be. See your divided and clueless party as it really is, not as you’d like it to be.

Drop your subtle treachery of self-importance and understand that your only real influence comes from your wealth, your many friends in high places, and your profession. Get down in the trenches with the rest of us, and fight bigotry and division with everything you’ve got.

You know in your heart that that’s your sole faint hope of helping to make America great again. So resign, speak out, name this abomination of a president by name, and get to work!

Endnote: The facts of this piece are based on two stories on the front page of the New York Times of Saturday, August 26, 2017, under the respective headlines “Condemnation For President By a Top Aide,” and “After Gunshot, Officers at Rally ‛Never Moved.’”

Rex Tillerson: A Beacon of Hope from the Dark Tower

Charles Fried (pronounced “freed”) is a Harvard Law professor who was Solicitor General under President Ronald Reagan. He recently described President Trump’s appreciation and enforcement of the rule of law as follows:
“You come with a certain level of constitutional literacy, and he is totally illiterate in these domains. You think every day it can’t get worse, and then it does.”
Another law professor, Michael Waldman, President of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, described Trump’s attitude toward the rule of law as follows:
“When the president says, ‘Make sure to hit the heads of people on the door of the police car,’ or pardons a sheriff accused of racial profiling, it redefines the law as just brute force.”
With all the lawyers now up in arms about the president’s casually negligent treatment of the rules that make our system great, there is something striking about Rex Tillerson. He’s the top appointed official in our Cabinet. As Secretary of State, he’s fourth in order of succession to the presidency, after three elected officers. Of the three ahead of him (Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and Orrin Hatch), only two (Pence and Hatch) have professional postgraduate degrees. Tillerson is the only engineer among them.

Unlike all but a handful of people in our government, Rex Tillerson is not a lawyer. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas in 1975. In a steady rise of 31 years, he became the Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil—the American corporate behemoth that keeps the wheels of our cars and trucks turning.

Why does this matter? Well, lawyers deal with verbal abstractions called “law,” which are subject to interpretation (by precedent and otherwise) and “spin.” Civil engineers deal with things made of rock, cement, and steel. They either work or they don’t. And when they don’t, the effects can be disastrous. There’s not much room for interpretation and “spin.”

Take the Great BP Blowout and Oil Spill, for example. It killed eleven workers and polluted the Gulf of Mexico, probably for decades.

To a lawyer or PR man, “damage control” meant convincing the public and juries that the disaster wasn’t so bad, and that anyway BP wasn’t responsible for all of it. To someone like Tillerson, “damage control” means building and installing oil-well blowout preventers that work, and so making sure the next such major disaster never happens.

Thus it didn’t surprise me when, of all the senior members of Donald Trump’s government, Tillerson came out the strongest against hate. Like a blowout-preventer that doesn’t work, hate can’t be “spun.”

If someone hates you because of who you are—your race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation—there’s no room for negotiation. There’s not much you can do to shed the yoke of hate.

You can try to change your religion—if that’s what’s at issue—but even that’s no guarantee. During the Spanish Inquisition, Grand Inquisitor Torquemada (who was himself the grandson of Jews) condemned many converted Jews to torture and death for not having been converted “enough.”

When the reason for hate is in the mind and imagination of the hater, the hated are never safe or free. Ask the descendants of Armenians who survived the Turkish genocide, the Jews who survived the Holocaust, the remaining Sunnis in Syria, or the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar today.

Hate based on personal characteristics, rather than on actions or policy, can’t be “spun.” For the hated, it’s an existential call to resist, be oppressed for no other reason than being, or die. It’s just one short step away from a call to violence or to war.

Leaders like Rex Tillerson understand this awful truth. You can “spin” yourself as a “white supremacist,” a “white nationalist,” a member of the “alt.right,” or even a “populist.” But if you believe that you are superior to others because of your racial or religious heritage or national origin, or just due to the color of your skin, you are a Nazi. Society needs a functioning blowout preventer to keep those like you from ever gaining a foothold of power in America.

That’s why, when it came to repudiating the President’s awful vacillation on hate, Tillerson didn’t shirk his duty as a leader and a human being. He didn’t, like Gary Cohn, publish his dissent in a foreign periodical read mostly by the global financial elite.

Tillerson went straight into the lion’s den, on Fox. Asked whether the president had spoken for American values, Tillerson was as straightforward as a blowout preventer that stops an undersea explosion before it starts. “The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson said.

In addition to being a courageous rebuke by an underling, Tillerson’s reply was probably the single most pithy and accurate summary of Trump’s presidency so far, including his Tweets.

Unlike Cohn, Tillerson is not a Jew. He’s nowise a “minority”—not a Muslim, Hispanic, African-American, or the descendant of refugees from the Middle East or Eastern Europe. But he’s an American who knows what that means.

As an engineer who knows how bad blowouts can be, he knows that, once hate gets ahold of our body politic, we are lost. Not just the hated, but all of us, are lost.

So keep your eye and ear on Tillerson. Right after special counsel Robert Mueller and (just by a smidge) the new FBI head, comes Tillerson. If Trump ever fires him, you will know that our Republic and our values are in grave peril.

Endnote: The facts and quotations underlying this post can be found on page A12 of the New York Times, for Monday, August 28, 2017.

Tillerson’s forthright response to Trump’s coddling of bigotry vindicates my initial assessment of the man. Over nine months ago, I judged him the best pick in all of Trump’s cabinet, both for his solid and unusual background and for his role, once he became CEO, in reversing Exxon Mobil’s denial of global warming in public while its scientists had proved it in private.

Catalogue of Popular Recent Posts

[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For other popular recent posts, click on the links below:] permalink

24 August 2017

A Tale of Two Wars

[For the usual catalogue of popular recent posts, click here. It appears at the end of the following essay because that essay, like the one before it, describes our nation’s current and ongoing existential test.]

It was the best of wars. It was the worst of wars.

The “best” killed over fifty million people worldwide. But in 72 years there has never been a recurrence. There has never been another war in which our species’ major powers fought each other all out on their own territories. The more recent proxy wars have been bad enough; but there has been no World War III. So humanity’s most terrible conflict may have resembled the war to end wars that our President Woodrow Wilson once sought in vain.

The “worst” war was our own private American affair. It was the only war we fought entirely on our own territory. It was our only war that left our own American cities as broken and bleeding as Germany’s after World War II. Still today, it has killed almost as many Americans in combat as all the other wars in our national history put together, including our War of Independence, our roles in the two world wars, and our more recent wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Both the “best” and “worst” wars were ghastly affairs. Men became beasts, and wholesale murder became not only legal, but customary. The concentration camps and death camps of World War II had pale origins in Andersonville, our South’s own Civil-War prison camp. But there was a vast difference in the outcomes, clearly visible today.

World War II is really, truly over. Nazism and fascism are gone from Germany, which has become a model democratic nation. Modern Germany has built monuments to its moral errors all over its territory. It teaches its children about the Holocaust, the death camps, Hitler’s “Final Solution” for the Jews, and its enslavement, oppression and mass murder of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians and Gypsies, among others. It maintains and enforces criminal laws against hate speech and denying the Holocaust.

Those monuments, textbooks and laws insure against anything similar ever happening again, at least in Germany. Today’s Germany devotes its industrial might to energy conversion and peaceful manufacture and trade. It has outlawed military action outside its territory, except for logistical support of others in keeping the peace. And Angela Merkel, modern Germany’s peaceful leader, is now the moral, if not the practical, leader of the free world.

In short, modern Germany has accepted its defeat, has acknowledged the moral and political reasons for its loss, and has risen from the ashes of war to become a repentant, admirable, even exemplary nation. In contrast, our Civil War is not yet over, even 152 years after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Heather Heyer is only its latest casualty. And tens of thousands of Americans—maybe millions—are still struggling for its lost cause of slavery, bigotry, white supremacy, and oppression.

Some even go by the name of the evil we thought we had vanquished forever in the “best” war: Nazis. Others exploit a uniquely American kind of camouflage called “branding;” they go by the names of white supremacists, white “nationalists,” or the “alt.right.” Steve Bannon, just fired from his perch as a floating “strategic advisor” for President Trump, has vowed to become their Josef Goebbels and wage a political propaganda war in their names. Our other media are complicit in spreading their heinous message because conflict sells “news.”

As I oft told my law students before I retired, good questions are the beginning of wisdom. That’s why we teach law in the United States using the so-called “Socratic method.” The professors ask the questions, and the students are supposed to answer them.

So here’s a question for all our students and all people everywhere to answer. Why?

Why is the most terrible war in world history really and truly over, with a satisfactory conclusion at long last, while the most horrible war in our uniquely American history is still going on? Why is this so, when only 72 years have passed since the end of World War II, but we are 152 years beyond Appomattox and still counting? Why has our nation never expunged the racism and bigotry that are the legacy of slavery, after so much time?

Why does Germany have monuments to the Holocaust and its death camps all over its territory—even little brass bricks in its streets, memorializing individuals taken away to death camps—while we in America have some 700 monuments remembering the traitors who fought to dismember our nation for the purpose of perpetuating slavery? Why is it that our chief eastern non-interstate highway, numbered “Highway 1,” which extends from the Mason-Dixon line to the depths of Florida, is still named for our traitor-in-chief, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy?

One answer may be the lies we Americans tell ourselves. Some of us thought that President Barack Obama’s inauguration ushered in a “post-racial” society.

What nonsense! Tell that to the unarmed black kids gunned down by police in the last few years. Tell that to Heather Heyer. Tell that to the nine all-black victims of the shooting in Charleston, who were gunned down by a self-proclaimed white supremacist while praying peacefully in church. Tell that to our Democrats, who watched helplessly for eight years while bald racism fueled the most extreme and extravagant obstructionism in Congress since the declared part of our Civil War, down to shutting our government and threatening a catastrophic default on our national debt.

The lie should have been obvious to everyone just from who Barack Obama is. He’s not a descendant of slaves. He’s two generations removed from African tribal royalty.

Even Colin Powell would not have qualified, had he run for president and won. His ancestors were Jamaican. Maybe some had been slaves at one time. But, if so, they had been emancipated under British law decades before our Civil War, and peacefully, with no similar all-out conflict.

That awful truth may be the beginning of wisdom. We Americans are not even close to having had a supreme leader from among the descendants of the slaves we fought our most terrible war to free. Maybe when that happens, some time in the indefinite future, we’ll begin to approach the desired “post-racial” society. Don’t hold your breath.

But the worst lies we Americans tell ourselves have to do with the Civil War itself. It’s not over. It’s not even close to being over. It won’t be over until all of us Americans—not just Northerners and Democrats—accept the fact that it was all about slavery, acknowledge that the North won, and repudiate the South’s treachery and the racism and bigotry that justified it as un-American.

To understand how far we Americans are from wisdom in this matter, we can ask ourselves yet another simple but powerful question. Which came first, racism or slavery? Which was the cause and motivating force of the other?

A friend and colleague of mine, a law professor just retired, has found the answer in our history. She’s descended from a group of people sometimes called the “free blacks” of Virginia. History has tried to cover their story up, but she has laboriously unearthed it and is writing a book about it.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, long before our Civil War, there were thriving communities of free and independent African-Americans in Virginia. Their freedom and thriving were no accident. Virginia law actually recognized and protected them.

Some had bought themselves out of slavery with money they had earned by working for low wages “on the side,” apart from their “work” as slaves. Some had been freed by generous masters, often in their masters’ last wills and testaments. Some had come from British parts of the Caribbean, where slavery had been abolished decades earlier. The law of Virginia recognized every one of them as a free and equal citizen.

Yes, this was the very same Virginia that later became the heart of the Confederacy. This was the same Virginia that last week provided the site of a white-supremacy demonstration in Charlottesville! What changed?

As President Obama has said many times, racism is not natural to humans. It has to be learned. And so it was in the Virginia that had accepted the free blacks as equal citizens.

As time went on, the South’s institution of slavery came under challenge in many ways. The Abolitionist movement grew strong in the free states. As new American territories sought statehood, horrible battles—both political and military—arose over which of them would be slave and which free. The Underground Railroad gave slaves a path to freedom in Canada and so motivated the fugitive slave laws, which helped jet-propel the Civil War.

As the noose of history and righteous indignation tightened around slavery’s neck, the institution and those who supported it fought back. Laws protecting free blacks in Virginia slowly disappeared, as did the communities they fostered. The “one drop” rule arose in Virginia and other slave states: the notion that a person with one drop of “black” blood is entirely “black” regardless of actual skin color, free status, education, talent, personal history, etc.

Of course this pernicious idea makes no common sense. It violates every principle of justice and the science of genetics. But it had one powerful motivation: it made identifying, segregating and controlling slaves easier. Thus it served to “protect” the institution of slavery, then increasingly under siege.

What does this lost history teach us? Our culture of racism arose and grew stronger to protect the institution of slavery. Slavery came first and was the motivation for racism. Racism grew to justify and facilitate slavery.

Later the Civil War, which the South fought to preserve slavery and its economic benefits for white rulers, entrenched racism in the American psyche along with the inevitable death and suffering. Like an undead ghost of a terrible tragedy, racism remains with us 152 years after the war ended and the Civil War Amendments abolished slavery by law throughout the United States and their possessions.

Our Civil War is not still a “hot” war. To be sure, there are occasional “hot” outbursts, like the murders in Charleston and the killing of Heather Heyer.

But even in “peacetime,” the war has been going on continuously since 1865. It was there when John Wilkes Booth murdered one of our two greatest presidents. It was there when Andrew Johnson—a Southern fifth columnist who did more damage to our nation than any of our presidents (even Trump, so far)—pulled Northern troops out of the South, successfully vetoed the first Freedman’s Bill, and allowed racist terror to become the “rule of law” throughout the South.

It was there during the spate of lawless lynchings that characterized our (international) pre-war and inter-war period. It was there in the racist murder of Dr. King. It was there in the murder of the two Kennedy brothers—probably the two most consequential assassinations in American history save Lincoln’s. And it’s there today in the absolutely astonishing majorities, throughout the South, that voted for Donald Trump—a man with absolutely no political experience but rare native “talent” in promoting bigotry. It’s also been there for decades in the subtly racially bigoted politics that have put every Republican since Reagan in a position of power, and that animated Trump’s victory last year.

To gauge the success of the continuing Southern rebellion, just think of the study done, in Richard Nixon’s time, by Kevin Phillips, Nixon’s demographer and political strategist. He asked a simple question. Where is the geographic line, north of which more businesses in the United States use the adjective “American” in their names, but south of which more include “Southern” in their names? That line, Phillips thought, would provide a good gauge of the cultural affiliation of the backbone of America, its businesses.

Where did that line run? Far north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the supposed border between North and South. It ran right through the middle of states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Maybe that was why Phillips became the architect of Nixon’s rancid “Southern Strategy,” which for almost three generations has played on Southern regional resentment and racism to win elections for a minority party with an explicit goals of crushing the working man and woman and exalting their bosses.

So now the Germans have Angela Merkel, a great and magnanimous leader in the mold of Queen Elizabeth I. We Americans have Donald Trump, the reductio ad absurdum of today’s GOP politics. It would be hard for a writer of fiction to invent and make credible a character more devoted to the racism and bossism of the South and more skilled at deceiving working people while empowering their bosses. It took the threat of 23 million people losing access to medical care to begin to wake voters up.

Our Civil War is unlikely ever to get “hot” again. In the nuclear age, a hot war between the states might extinguish America, or even our species. But it’s no less an active war for being fought only in the halls of Congress and on the streets of America, and occasionally in our churches, as in the recent Charleston massacre and the murder of four tiny, innocent girls bombed in their church during the sixties.

It’s a war in which every American has a stake, and in which each of us must take a stand. It won’t be over for good until we expunge racism and bigotry completely from the minds and hearts of everyone but the most mentally infirm extremists.

It won’t be over until all of us, like Mitch Landrieu, can explain with empathy yet firmness why all those Confederate memorials must come down, the sooner the better. It won’t be over until all of us native-born Americans understand, with at least the sensitivity of a naturalized citizen like Arnold Schwarzenegger [scroll down for video], why we must “terminate hate.” And it certainly won’t be over until Donald J. Trump leaves the White House for good, and the vast majority of our people understands exactly why he had to go.

Imagine how differently Europeans would feel (and how much more frightened they would be!) if every city in Germany and Austria—and many small towns—had on their public squares “beautiful statues” of Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and Rommel (the “good” general, like Robert E. Lee). Imagine how Poles, Ukrainians, Gypsies and Russians, not to mention Jews, might feel. Imagine 700 such statues, all claiming to be a part of German history and pride! Imagine how much slower Germany’s economy and tourism might be.

How can we Americans fail to see the analogy! How long can so many of us maintain the lies and the charade?

The charade is not without its reasons. The GOP maintains it because it’s helped the GOP win elections ever since Nixon and his vile “Southern Strategy.” Our media maintain it because Nazis, white supremacists and other bigots create conflict, and conflict sells “news.” Our churches fear to face it because so many of their parishioners claim to know God and follow Jesus, yet have no clue how Jesus would despair at their bigotry and adamant refusal to love their neighbors as themselves.

In this vast treachery to basic moral values, only our business people stand out. No one knows whether they do so because the oppressed are their customers, too, because the vast majority of their customers empathizes with the oppressed, or simply because they are risk averse and fear losing any customers at all. But as we do know, corporate America has led our recent public struggle against bigotry and hate, from the bathroom wars of North Carolina to the murder and strife in Charlottesville, and on to the daily verbal atrocities of Trump’s Tweets.

We do know that corporations, unlike Trump and his Cabinet, and unlike the GOP side of Congress, are susceptible to pressure and persuasion. We know that they respond to boycotts. But, so far at least, their leaders have stayed one step ahead of the boycotts.

It’s a sad thing when moral people who just want to do what Jesus advised, or who want us to continue our social evolution away from the tribalism of our biological evolution that could ultimately extinguish us, must depend on the “moral compass” of amoral business to end our Civil War at last. But that’s where we are.

The vast majority of Americans wants to end the hate and bigotry. The vast majority wants to see the last of relics of Davis, Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, Calhoun and their treacherous colleagues. We want to pretend that the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, Jack Kennedy, the Reverend King, and Bobby Kennedy never happened. We want to turn the page on the few who still believe there is something “noble” in the lost causes of slavery, white supremacy, oppression, and lording it over one’s fellow human beings.

But if we are to win—if we are to end the Civil War that four major Assassinations, countless lynchings and shootings, the end of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and countless underhanded minority-rule charades in Congress have kept alive for 152 years and counting—we are all going to have to stand up and be counted. We are going to have to fill the streets, the Web pages of the Internet, the opinion pages of our newspapers, and the town-hall meetings of our members of Congress, again and again. We are going to have to spend our hard-earned money on politics and political campaigns, pressure our businesses, and cajole our cowardly, confused and venal pols to stand up. Many of us are going to have to move South and bring with us new ideas, enjoying the rewards of warmer weather.

We are going to have to do all this until the Southern guerrilla and fifth-column movement, which General Robert E. Lee surrendered formally to avoid, finally succumbs to the weight of numbers and history. We are going to have to push, push, push to bring the worst war in American history to a slow, belated, painful and inglorious end.

When at last that happens, we may find that our very own, long-ago “war between the states” has become the longest, nastiest and most consequential war in human history. We may discover that we Americans will have taken longer than any modern nation to come to terms with gross moral errors—longer even than the Turks with their Armenian genocide. We may come at last to see our “exceptionalism” only in the staunchness of our misguided holdouts and our collective willingness to coddle them.

Catalogue of Popular Recent Posts

[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For other popular recent posts, click on the links below:] permalink

17 August 2017

E Pluribus Unum

The near-universal outrage—especially among our powerful business community—at President Trump’s lame excuses for white extremism in Charlottesville inspired this short essay. More than that, it inspired hope. My somewhat despairing previous essay, based on our current overall national trajectory, appears here. The usual catalogue of recent essays now appears at the end, here, in recognition of the importance of what may be an inflection point in our national divisiveness.

It’s strange. It’s odd. To use a common Trumpism, it’s “sad.” We Yanks have forgotten what once made us Americans.

How could we forget? It’s on the back of every dollar bill. True, it’s small and obscure. If you’re my age, you may need a magnifying glass to see it clearly. But it’s there.

It’s on the right side of the back. It’s just below the field of stars that represent the original Thirteen Colonies. It’s just above, and to the left and right, of the Eagle’s head. It adorns and explains the great Bird, who holds the olive branch and the sheaf of arrows in his claws, representing strength in peace and in war.

It’s Latin, not English. Our Founders were well versed in that ancient language. In their time, Latin was as ubiquitous, and considered as important, as computer code today.

The meaning of the three words is simple and clear: “From Many, One.” The symbolism of the divided scroll is unmistakable. It’s not “left” or “right.” It’s both.

That simple credo is the secret of our strength and our national success. It means that we are not a nation like almost every other. We alone are not riven by differences in race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or (today) gender or sexual orientation.

If you live and are human, you can be American. You can be fully American. You can be equal. You can have equal opportunity. No one can dismiss, disparage or persecute you just because of who you are.

You can hold your head high. You can bow to no man or woman. And in the fullness of time, you can give your family and our nation the benefit of every drop our your talent, wisdom, strength and intelligence. We Yanks neglect no one’s skills because of superficial differences that just don’t matter.

That simple idea—“E Pluribus Unum”—has made us the strongest nation on Earth. How? The same way it worked in ancient Rome. When you offer full and complete equality and respect to all your citizens, everyone everywhere wants to become one. All the smartest, strongest, bravest most resourceful people everywhere flock to your shores, augmenting your people’s strength, intelligence and initiative.

You attract the best from around the globe, like a magnet.

And so it was with us. First came the English and the Scotch. Then the Irish, the Germans, the French, the Italians. Later, in quick succession, came the Poles, Slavs, Chinese, and Japanese. Then the Mexicans, followed by Central and South Americans, poured into our nation. Today it’s the Russians, Syrians and Somalis. All who have the guts, brains and initiative to risk their lives to improve them come here and enrich our so-called “human capital.”

So simple an idea, but so powerful. Even our Native Americans—once victims of genocide and forced relocation into reservations—contributed. During World War II, our largest “Indian” tribe, the Dinè (Navajo) gave us their language. Their “Code Talkers” lent us an unbreakable code that helped us win the war in the Pacific.

Of course Europeans came also. The physicists who invented the nuclear weapons that ended the war in the Pacific came to our shores fleeing the Nazi scourge in Europe. Many of them were previously despised minorities—Italians and Jews. Now, as our collective faith in “E Pluribus Unum” wanes, their successors are returning to Europe, clustering around Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider. With falling budgets and rising anti-immigrant rage, our fleeting supremacy in advanced physics is crumbling like a fading dream.

If the truth be told, we Yanks always have had trouble understanding our most important idea.

Some of us did not come here voluntarily. Some came in slave ships, in chains. We fought our greatest and bloodiest war to free them. We changed our Constitution to make them fully equal. We enshrined “E Pluribus Unum” in our Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. We passed civil rights and voting-rights laws.

But we’ve been backsliding meanwhile and ever since. Along came Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan’s racial terrorism, mass lynching, and Jim Crow. The good Reverend King reminded us of our founding Principle, but we killed him. Lyndon Johnson got more civil rights passed into law, but he lost his way in a misguided foreign war.

Today the most retrograde movement in over a century confronts us. We have a president who won his office by dividing us. He built his short political career by inflaming the resentment of a single ethnic group: working non-Hispanic whites without college educations. He has pitted them against everyone else, especially African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and other recent immigrants. He’s trying to write the most important word—many (“pluribus”)—out of our national motto.

That, of course, he cannot do. “E Pluribus Unum” is the central idea of America. It’s the basis or our strength, our uniqueness, and our “exceptionalism.”

Other nations have the rule of law. But laws can change, just as they have in the barbed wire now facing desperate immigrants in Serbia and Hungary. Other nations have written constitutions, and some of them read better than ours, on paper. But no other nation has anything like our commitment, faltering as it may be, to “E Pluribus Unum.”

Donald Trump is far from the first to challenge our national credo. Nor will he be the last. The current retrogression began with Richard Nixon’s heinous “Southern Strategy,” a naked ploy to mold racism and Southern regional resentment into a winning political strategy. Trumpism is its direct descendant.

But you can’t make something positive out of negativity. You can’t turn evil into good. You can’t build a nation out of the resentment and violence of the night riders, the Ku Klux Klan, the lynchers, Dylann Roof, or the thinly veiled Skinheads of Charlottesville. All you can do is rend and besmirch our nation’s fabric.

Today even the democratic left is confused. The Democratic Party worries about resentful working whites. It frets that Trump will take them away from it. It neglects the Black Lives Matter movement as “divisive” and “controversial” and the concern of a small minority.

But Black Lives Matter is in the mainstream of “E Pluribus Unum.” Unlike many of the white followers of Trump, it seeks not supremacy, but equality.

BLM wants the descendants of African slaves to be able to hold their heads high and walk the streets of our nation with the same freedom from fear as the rest of us. It wants to realize the promise of equal citizenship that made Rome supreme in Europe for most of a millennium. It wants what our Civil War, the Post-Civil-War Amendments, the Johnson-era civil- and voting-rights laws, and the King movement tried to achieve, but so far have collectively failed to do. In confusing this fundamental point, the Democrats are aiding the enemies of America.

And so it is with all those who want to become equal Americans. The cause of the child who walked a thousand miles to escape gang mayhem in El Salvador is our American cause. So is the cause of the Syrian or Iraqi translator who helped us out of respect for our values but now fears deadly reprisals. So is the cause of the brilliant hacker in Russia or China who sees more opportunity in Silicon Valley than in St. Petersburg or Shanghai.

We are so close. Our demographers say that so-called “minorities” will be a majority of our nation by 2043. That’s only 26 years away.

Once that happens, we will have no alternative. We will have to get along and work together. We will have to live “E Pluribus Unum” or fail spectacularly. We will all have to give up our hyphenated identities and become fully American. There will be no turning back.

But twenty-six years is a long time. In a similar time, early twentieth-century Germany morphed from one of Earth’s two most advanced civilizations into goose-stepping Nazis. In much less than that time, the Soviet Union dissolved and morphed into Vladimir Putin’s provocative tsarstvo. In just a few years, Britain—the vanguard and leader of democracy since Magna Carta—has threatened the sacred project of a united Europe and a truly global “common” market.

There are no guarantees in history or in human life. Empires rise and fall. Great ideas succumb to perversion, misunderstanding and corruption. People get smart or get stupid. Bad things could happen to us Yanks, just as they are happening now.

But one thing is clear. Bad things will happen much more quickly and more surely if we forget or neglect the source of our strength. To see it, just take out any dollar bill and look at its back, right side.

It’s not the money that matters; currencies rise and fall. It’s the idea: “E Pluribus Unum.” If we can continue to follow that great idea until demographics enshrine it in our collective DNA, we can continue to be the “last, best hope of mankind.” If not, we could fall as far and as fast as Rome, or Nazi Germany.

The sky above or the mud below. Those are our limits. The words on our own dollar bills provide the direction. The choice is ours.

Catalogue of Recent Posts

[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:


16 August 2017

What Awaits Us: the “Prophecy” of Cause and Effect

[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
1. Further social disintegration
2. The tides of time
3. Loss of moral suasion
4. Global instability
5. Trump’s personal fate


“Mene, mene tekel, upharsin.” (“Your days are numbered, your kingdom and your people.”)—the “writing on the wall” in dissolute King Belshazzar’s palace

King Belshazzar and his epoch had prophecy. Some people could see farther than others, but they couldn’t (or wouldn’t ) explain why. Foresight and understanding of cause and effect were rare gifts at that time. So our species attributed them to divine or magical forces. We had “prophets,” not “experts.”

Today we have much greater understanding. We have Science. We have polls. We have historical analogies. We have detailed analysis of five thousand years of recorded history and even more careful scrutiny of recent events.

We have tens of thousands of highly educated people, whom we call “experts,” who make it their business—their careers and their lives—to see around corners and predict the future, not by magic or divinity, but by understanding cause and effect. Some of our pundits, endowed with this facility, print “prophecies” in our daily newspapers. Not all of them strike home, but many of them do. We have Reason.

So it’s not hard to predict the immediate future of these United States. We have enough writing on the wall right now.

We have over six months of President Trump. We can see him clearly as a puerile narcissist, concerned only with his own narrow, immediate personal advantage and self-image. He’s incapable of Reason, delayed gratification (which psychologists tell us is the best predictor of children’s success, even more than intelligence), sustained attention to anything, or empathy. He’s without a doubt the most corrupt and unfit president in our short history. After six months, we can see his trail of utter failure, devoid of solid accomplishment even by his own and his party’s lights, except installing the right-wing ideologue Neil Gorsuch on our Supreme Court.

Unlike the parliamentary democracies that served as our Founders’ models, we have no way of getting rid of Trump without a palace revolt or a drawn-out, contentious legal proceeding, called “impeachment,” for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Our Founders, otherwise brilliant, left us no easy means to correct an obvious electoral mistake.

So what awaits us? The immediate future is not hard to see. There are a few consequences that are obvious and inevitable; to those we first turn. Then there are contingent consequences, which depend on how we, our friends and allies, and our adversaries and enemies, respond to or exploit our current indisposition.

Let’s take them in turn. The first three consequences below are virtually inevitable, at least as long as Trump stays in office. They are the immediate consequences of our vast electoral mistake, plus his self-evident inability to grow, change or learn. The rest of the consequences are contingent on events, but are almost equally inevitable under stated contingencies. Welcome to “prophecy,” twenty-first-century style.

1. Further social disintegration.

Never since our Civil War has social cohesion been so weak among us and social discord so strong. But there’s a difference. Then our discord revolved around two issues only: slavery and preservation of our Union. Today it is multidimensional.

To be sure, the same two issues underlie a lot of our discord today. Slavery is gone, but white supremacy, racism and bossism are not. Trump exploits and relies on them, again and again. They motivate his “base”—those he turns to every day, lacking the vision or self-confidence to reach beyond them.

After vacillating, Trump returned to his “base” in reaction to the unrest and domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, VA. He falsely equated white supremacists and neo-Nazis, on the one hand, with their at times unruly opponents on the other. He thus revealed utter ignorance of the four-century-long struggle of people of color for equal treatment as human beings in America. Equally stunning in ignorance was his falsely equating Washington and Jefferson, who died long before the lead-up to our Civil War, and men like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, who rebelled, seceded and made war against our nation in the lost cause of slavery.

That our supreme leader should be so careless with history is appalling. That a New Yorker should take such an explicitly Confederate stand is the height of geographic and cultural apostasy. Whether out of ignorance or malice, Trump is taking us back 150 years, to themes and attitudes that our nation fought its most bloody war to inter forever. Abraham Lincoln must be turning in his grave.

But our discord today has much greater reach. Today we disagree about almost everything. We disagree about states’ rights, guns, abortion, economics, safety nets, taxes, welfare, health care, and foreign policy, among other things. We disagree about the facts of each others’ lives. We disagree about who won the popular vote and who voted illegally.

We could barely decide whether or not to throw 23 million people out on the street, without practical access to medical care, in the richest nation on Earth. We can’t decide whether Kim Jong Un is just a misguided youth who can be reformed, or a dangerous Hitler clone who threatens nuclear destruction and world peace. We can’t even agree that the foreign nation that helped give us Trump as president—Russia—bears watching, even though it (as its own Rush Limbaugh clone said recently [set timer at 2:20]) is the only nation on Earth that (at least right now) could reduce us to radioactive ash.

How can we be sure that social disintegration will increase? Because our president encourages and promotes it at every turn. Maybe not every Tweet, but the vast majority of them, contains clear insults expressed or implied. Like clockwork, Trump regularly insults minorities, his political adversaries, and the journalists who try to report accurately what he does and says. The insults appear in the language of a five-year-old, using words like “bad people,” “losers” and “sad.”

Have we forgotten that people don’t respond well to insults? Isn’t that diplomacy and politics 1A? The consequences are legion. Our people don’t like each other, don’t trust each other, and won’t give each other a chance. They have divided into cliques and clans like gangs in a dysfunctional high school. The disease infects our voters, our Congress and even our leading industrial competitors.

We are a nation falling apart at our many seams, unable to cooperate. And we will continue to fall apart at least as long as the primary source of infection, our own president, stays where and who he is. (Our GOP and our vicious propaganda organs, such as Fox and Rush, are also to blame; but they’re a longer-term problem.)

2. The tides of time.

There is an intrinsic inertia in human affairs and in history. The world is a big place, with many people and many cross-currents. The tides come in, and they go out. Like tides in the ocean, all big changes take time.

Physicists call it “hysteresis,” at least when speaking of ferromagnetism. President Obama likened it to turning a huge ocean liner around. But whatever simple analogy you use, one thing is constant: major trends in human affairs take time to change.

The GOP exploited this simple fact of life brilliantly to disparage Obama and win political power. They knew that the Crash of 2008 and its aftermath were severe body blows to our economy, our political cohesion, and our national self-image. They knew it would take about a decade for us to recover, which it has.

So they blamed it all on Obama, although he tried hard to fix it, and although most of it arose from the GOP’s own negligent and pernicious policies. They relied on racism, distrust of our first “black” president, and current attribution to the guy in power to make the blame stick.

But notwithstanding the blame, President Obama’s policies were good, steady and sound. Over the near-decade of his presidency, he turned the ocean liner around. He and the Fed curbed the banks that had caused it all. He bailed out our auto industry, a mainstay of our national economy, saving millions of jobs. The bailouts of banks and car companies may have been contrary to every tenet of capitalism, human morality and moral hazard, but they had a salubrious practical effect: no second Great Depression came. Our and the global economy slowly, laboriously and painfully recovered, as and when most economists expected.

Only recently, with slow, steady and slowly increasing economic growth, has this fact become self-evident. But guess who gets credit? Guess who takes credit, with self-serving propaganda repeated endlessly by Fox and Rush? Trump does.

But taking credit for the tides is a losing proposition when you don’t control them and don’t have a clue what drives them. Trump’s policies all point in the wrong direction. He’s destroying what little remains of our social cohesion. He’s exacerbating industrial and financial concentration, economic inequality, and abuse of power. He’s allowing the bosses needlessly and carelessly to pollute our air, water, soil and food. He’s aggrandizing the power and influence of clueless, selfish people like the Koch Brothers. He’s increasing the risk of international conflict, especially with Russia, North Korea and China, with inconsistent and incompetent responses to real threats.

Under Trump, the upward force of the rocket engines that Obama’s policies fueled is spent. The forces of gravity are augmented. What goes up must come down, for all we have now is upward momentum to counter gravity. Without a change in leadership, gravity will take over, sooner rather than later.

Our Yankee global leadership, much of which already has passed to Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping, will vanish utterly. The world will pass by our gasoline-driven cars and fossil-fuel dependent, dilapidated infrastructure. Our excellent companies’ upward trajectory will stall in an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion. Our stock market will crash. Unemployment will increase. Exports will slow.

We will be left behind in a world engaged in massive energy conversion, without us, and tiring of our simplistic ideology. More practical, less ideological nations like Brazil, China, Germany and India will replace us as the motive forces of human progress.

All this will happen within the next decade, unless we change soon and hard.

3. Loss of moral suasion

Throughout our short history, we Yanks have claimed the moral high ground. We call ourselves “exceptional” and think of ourselves as morally superior. But how can we square that self-image with the constant stream of insults and lies coming out of our White House?

In the remarkable movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a retired man drifts away from his long-time wife, telling her “All you give out is this endless negativity . . .” Isn’t that just what Trump does? It certainly seems so.

No nation can capture the moral high ground when its supreme leader exudes the relentless negativity, accusation, selfishness, arrogance and narcissism of Donald Trump. The world will not take long to see this, and the moral suasion that long underlay our “soft” power will soon disappear.

In the eyes of the world, if not our own, we will become like every other nation on Earth, self-seeking, self-aggrandizing, hypocritical and subject to skepticism, if not fear and distrust. Our “shining city on a hill” will become just another smelly, polluted village.

These three results are consequences of the “leadership” of Donald Trump, his twisted and irremediable character, and the ascendancy of the resentful, surly and hateful hordes whom he represents, his “base.” They will prevail more certainly and more strongly the longer he remains in office.

Already these results are virtually inevitable, at least in the short term. But there are other consequences that depend on unforeseeable contingencies and circumstances. All are different and some are worse. Let’s take a look.

4. Global instability

When a great empire falters and stumbles, all of humanity can suffer. We speak of the “Dark Ages” following the fall of Rome. They lasted about a millennium, from the sacking of Rome by Alaric in 410 to the Renaissance in Europe. That sort of dark age may follow the United States’ decline, depending on how fast and how far it goes.

The inertia and hysteresis inherent in human affairs will not let that happen overnight. There will be a gradual but steady move downward. Precursors may be the continuing dissolution of Europe, after Brexit, in the absence of American protection and support. Other great powers will nibble around the edges of eroding American power. Russia will nibble in Eastern Europe and South Asia. China will nibble in the South China Sea and in South and East Asia.

In the nuclear age, the risk of conflict between nations going nuclear will increase, especially as Russia becomes tempted to undo the Soviet Union’s dissolution and “protect” its expatriates in the Baltics and its “near abroad,” including Ukraine. Kim Jong Un will pose a close second (to Russia) for nuclear conflict, as might Iran if its nuclear deal with the US is abrogated or ends without follow-on. The risk of the nuclear Armageddon that our species narrowly avoided in October 1962 will recur and likely will remain high for the foreseeable future.

China will likely avoid risking nuclear conflict, and perhaps any serious conflict, as it has for the past several decades, since its parts in the wars in Korea and Vietnam. It will expand its influence throughout the underdeveloped world primarily through trade and diplomacy. If it can cure its perennial corruption, Brazil may become the dominant power in Latin America.

These events may not be all bad. If China or Brazil can curb its corruption, or if India can curb its tribalism and democratic dysfunction, one of more of them might some day become a moral leader of a sort—less preachy than us Yanks but perhaps as worthy of emulation.

But one thing is clear and dangerous. As and if our Yankee influence and power recede, the world will grow more unstable. The Pax Americana may yield to regional conflicts, even vicious wars, as the steadying influence of American dominance recedes. Humanity will suffer an uncertain, unstable and worrying time, as the risks of nuclear conflict and the consequences of global warming subsume an humanity that has never faced any risk as grave, let alone both at once.

5. Trump’s personal fate.

Of course much of immediate future history depends on how long Trump stays in the White House. Each additional month of his “leadership” sets America more firmly on the path of decline and deprives the world more irrevocably of America’s traditionally steadfast moral and military leadership.

Despite occasional vacillation, there is no doubt that Trump considers our global leadership, on balance, a burden and a bad bargain. Each additional month of Trump’s presidency also strengthens and hardens the trend toward extreme economic inequality and bossism that ultimately could destroy our economy and even our democracy.

It’s far too early to tell exactly how Trump’s presidency will end. If his distaste for “losing” ever exceeds his narcissistic delusion of “winning,” he might resign. Or he might refuse to run in 2020. But those outcomes are unlikely now and unpredictable.

Even a military coup is not now beyond the realm of the possible. Generals Kelly and Mattis reportedly agreed, early in Trump’s presidency, never to leave Washington at the same time, probably in order to keep an eye on him. If Trump’s incompetence were to threaten a nuclear war, or were to fail to address a nuclear threat (by the likes of Kim Jong Un, for example), we might see a military coup.

Such a coup would not be entirely without precedent. As Reagan’s White House was lapsing into chaos while he was undergoing surgery after his attempted assassination, General Alexander Haig, then Secretary of State, once claimed briefly to be “in charge here.” There are circumstances under which the assumption of leadership by a rational, thinking general might even be desirable. The questions, course, are how long it would last and how it would end—questions impossible to answer without context in advance.

Barring such unpredictable events, the end of Trump’s presidency—besides the agony and destruction of eight full years—is most likely to come from the pale constitutional processes that our Founders and their successors left us, in lieu of a simple vote of no confidence. They are: (1) impeachment and removal, and (2) removal, whether temporary or permanent, by the Cabinet and Congress, under Amendment 25, for Trump’s being “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office[.]”

At this moment, it’s hard to tell which route to removal is more promising, or which our pols might take first. After six months, many pols who secretly hated or distrusted Trump from the very beginning are slowly coming to understand that their instincts were right. Some are coming to see in Trump a leader as close to clinical insanity as anyone ever to occupy the White House.

But their instincts for self-preservation and saving the nation are at war with their lust for power, which is what led GOP pols to line up behind Trump despite well-founded misgivings. So the question is when the rising curve of self-preservation and patriotism will cross the falling curve of hope for something good and enduring, or at least for more power, from Trump. No one can ever hope to predict that point with any precision.

So the default hope falls to Robert Mueller, the special counsel. He has three strings to his bow: collusion with the Russians, obstruction of justice, and corruption under the Emoluments Clause or otherwise. He is reportedly highly skilled, well respected, dogged, and incorruptible.

At the end of the day, all of Mueller’s careful and diligent work will be a bit of a charade. The House and Senate will indict and remove Trump, respectively—or not—based ultimately on whether they think our nation and our democracy can survive Trump’s presidency. Mueller’s careful work will just give them a pretext and legal basis for removing Trump.

Very few pols take personal responsibility for decisions as big as removing a sitting president. Most prefer to prevaricate, sit on the fence and dodge responsibility. Most would like to disclaim a personal role in making one of the most important decisions in our national history. But Mueller’s careful work could give them a reason and a basis for both dodging responsibility and yet making the hard decision: “the law made me do it!” That would be a vital national service.

Yet in the very, very worst case, we might not get rid of Trump at all. Recent polls suggest that half of Republicans—including his angry base with lots of guns—would not mind if he “postponed” the 2020 elections on account of alleged voter fraud. He might become our de facto president for life, like Putin, Erdogan and El-Sisi. The putative Nero of our time might truly morph into our first American emperor.


At a minimum Mueller’s careful work will take another two or three years, just as bringing down Nixon did. In a way, that’s a good thing. Neither the Congress nor the nation is quite ready to remove Trump now.

They may be in two or three years. But by then we Yanks will have lost industrial leadership in energy transformation irrevocably. We likely will have lost global and scientific leadership to China and Germany or (in the best case) to China and a revived Europe, perhaps with British participation.

Russia may have nibbled away parts of Ukraine, the Baltics and Eastern Europe, re-establishing the old Russian Empire, if not the Soviet Union. Kim Jong Un, if not himself extinguished in nuclear fire, may have put his criminal nation in a position to extinguish ours, at will, with a suicidal surprise attack. And Iran, having been released from its hard bargain by Trump’s improvidence, may be following in the footsteps of Kim’s North Korea.

Our excellent companies—our sole basis for national hope today—will have been battered by a falling stock market, foreign exclusion, robust foreign competition, global privacy and antitrust laws, and a general global distrust of and distaste for the fallen hegemon.

Being a Yank will no longer be a global privilege. Travel and immigration to many places may require visas and months of paperwork. The dollar will no longer be king. Our halos of moral superiority will be tarnished or will have vanished.

We will be poorer, sadder and no wiser. And we will have to prove ourselves all over again, every day, after our collective national fall. This will be the enduring national legacy of the Nero of our time.


10 August 2017

North Korea: will we make a pre-emptive nuclear strike?

[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
In a recent orgy of ape-like chest beating, North Korea’s “news” agency taunted us Yanks, saying that the Pacific Ocean wouldn’t protect us from Kim’s nukes. There’s some truth in that. Intercontinental ballistic missiles can jump the Pacific in just 30 to 40 minutes.

But there’s also a bit of a lie. Geography still matters. So does physics.

They call nuclear missiles “ballistic” because most of their trajectories—all but the short “boost” phase—is unpowered. Once the rocket engines die, the missiles “fall” like bullets leaving the barrel of a gun. Their speed and direction at that time, the shape of the Earth, the force of gravity, and the distance from launch site to target determine how long their deadly trips take.

The table below shows some relevant distances from Pyongyang (a proxy for North Korea’s launch sites) to some relevant targets in the United States. The table also shows two other distances for comparison: (1) that between Bismarck, North Dakota (a proxy for our Cold-War ICBM sites) and Moscow and (2) the longest distance from any point in North Korea to a nearby sea or ocean in which one of our nuclear-missile submarines could hide undetected.

Therein lies the rub. North Korea has no nuclear submarines, let alone seaborne ballistic missiles it can launch from them. It has no foreign possessions, nor any ally willing to launch nukes on its behalf despite fear of nuclear retaliation by the victim. So North Korea has to fire its missiles across the Pacific Ocean, or part of it, while our subs can get our missiles up close.

The final column in the table lists the estimated time to target of a missile launched over each of the listed distances. The estimate relies on simple proportionality of time to distance, using the old Cold War standard of 35 minutes from our missile silos (presumably near Bismarck) to Moscow.

Distance and Time to Target for Missiles from and to North Korea
Pyongyang-San Francisco8,993 km28 min
Pyongyang-Seattle8,262 km26 min
Pyongyang-Honolulu7,386 km23 min
Pyongyang-Anchorage5,992 km19 minutes
Pyongyang-Guam3,402 km11 min
Offshore sub-
any point in North Korea
100 kmNominally 20 seconds
Bismarck, ND-Moscow7,963 km35 min*

* Assumed as time/distance standard

Of course the table is not entirely accurate. The actual ratio of time to distance is nonlinear; it depends on complex gravitational equations.

But the table is accurate enough to make a simple point. Except for Guam, there is no other time in the table to a US target that is anywhere close to the time—nominally twenty seconds, probably less than ten minutes in practice—for our submarine-launched missiles to reduce North Korea, or as much of it as we choose, to rubble. North Korea could be history by the time any of its missiles landed on our soil.

Unfortunately, missiles are very hard to shoot down, especially in their ballistic phase, where gravity accelerates them toward their targets faster and faster. So the ghost of an already deceased regime could reach out, through missiles already on their way when we launched our counter-strike, and destroy our cities.

What does this simple point imply strategically? For the time being, there is no such thing as the Cold War’s “mutually assured destruction” (“MAD”) between us and North Korea, as there once was between the US and USSR. At worst, we might lose a few cities in a nuclear exchange. North Korea would, in all practical terms, cease to exist. Even if Kim himself survived in a deep bunker, there would be no soldiers or ground-based weapons left on the resulting radioactive moonscape to protect him from our commandos in haz-mat suits when he emerged.

Yet time is not on our side. The longer we wait, the more nukes and missiles Kim will have, the farther they will go, and the more accurately they will hit their targets. In other words, the longer we wait, the more cities we (and perhaps our allies) would lose in any nuclear exchange, even after North Korea became history, ballistics took its course, and North Korean missiles out in space reached their targets.

So the strategic conclusions are clear and stark. We can wipe North Korea off the map, or we can decapitate it, before or after it fires its nuclear missiles at us. There is absolutely no doubt as to which side would “win.” But the only way we can be sure of emerging more or less unscathed is to strike first. And the longer we wait before striking first, the higher the risks of not doing so will be.

The longer we wait, the closer North Korea comes to terrible destructive parity. And everything we know about North Korea suggests that Kim is hell-bent on that goal, to the point of starving and abusing his own people.

This is the dilemma that faces our president, our military and our strategic thinkers. At the moment, Kim won’t strike first because doing so would amount to unilateral suicide. But the longer we wait, the closer the strategic balance comes to mutual suicide, as at the height of the Cold War. If that ever happens, we must submit to terror and bullying by the most pathological regime on Earth.

We lived with a similar risk for decades during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But then we had no choice. And there were important differences.

Soviet leaders were far more measured and cautious than Kim. Still in memory was their nation’s agonizingly pyrrhic victory over German fascists, just part of Russia’s dubious distinction of being the most battered major power in human history.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who eventually made a deal to avoid Armageddon, once bragged “We will bury you!” But he could have been speaking of his supposedly superior Soviet society out-competing ours. To my knowledge, no Soviet leader ever openly threatened a first nuclear strike. And when nuclear test bans and disarmament agreements came along, the Soviets signed them and mostly kept their word, except for biological weapons.

Kim is different and much worse. He has repeatedly threatened a first nuclear strike. His “nation” is the most pathological in modern history, a hermit kingdom completely isolated from the rest of the world, with a “government” full of sycophants. Non-sycophants with independence get murdered like Kim’s uncle. Kim’s people are as oppressed as the Soviet Union’s at the height of Stalin’s Terror and are far more cowed than Russia’s, Turkey’s or even Egypt’s today.

Unlike the Soviets in their day, Kim’s regime has broken every deal he has made, with three successive American administrations. And now he is dead honest about his ultimate aim: to achieve nuclear parity and mutual assured destruction with us, and if the chance presents itself, to bully or destroy us.

If Kim were smooth and smart, he would string us along with tantalizing diplomacy until he had reached nuclear parity. Then he would privately disclose his nuclear arsenal and apologetically note that mutual assured destruction was already in force. He would be low-key and non-threatening.

But Kim is not that smart. The fact that he is shunning diplomacy and is trash-talking like a teenage street fighter suggests the depth of his isolation. There may be no one within his regime of sycophants to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear. There may not even be anyone to tell him that to launch a nuke now would be absolutely assured suicide.

Kim’s recent threat to nuke Guam—which is the closest to Pyongyang of all our possessions and hence the target that would give us the least warning—reflects his dangerously puerile state of mind. Any perceived military advantage, no matter how small or transient, he will try to use for blackmail.

Our spooks seem to think that only a year must pass before Kim has serviceable ICBMs that can nuke the bulk of our cities. After that, it’s just a matter of mass production to get to parity and MAD. Do we really want to allow a demented tyrant like Kim to stand in the fearsome shoes of the old Soviet Union? Although it did some trash-talking, the Soviet Union’s government in its final years was one of the most cautious and conservative on Earth. Not so Kim’s today.

About 78 years ago, European democracies failed to take a tyrant at his word. They compromised, delayed, and promised “peace in our time.” The result was the world’s most terrible war. When the dust settled, 50 million lay dead prematurely. A full-scale nuclear exchange with a fully-nuclear-armed Kim could be worse.

It’s useless to try to psychoanalyze Kim Jong Un. His country’s culture and his own cult of personality are so far from our experience as to resemble what we might some day find among alien races in outer space. I have outlined my own small knowledge of the paternalism and authoritarianism of Korean culture, and I won’t repeat the analysis here. Suffice it to say that, in my view, it exceeds Imperial Japanese and Islamic culture in its paternal rigidity.

And that was in the South, which is slowly changing under the influence of its own democracy and the West. The North has had no similar influence.

In any event, all we can rely on is Kim’s actions. He has consistently refused to make fair deals and has broken the deals he has made. He has threatened repeatedly to use the terrible weapons he is building. And he has built his national economy (besides begging from China) almost exclusively on threats, crime, terror and blackmail.

Any pre-emptive strike by us would have to be nuclear. To be effective, it would have to be a coordinated surprise attack, seeking to “decapitate” the North Korean government by killing Kim and his entourage instantly, probably with a closely-timed barrage of small nukes. At the same time, we would have to take out most of the reported 14,000 conventional artillery pieces threatening Seoul, likely also with a coordinated series of small nukes.

The strategic advantages of a nuclear assault include not just power, but speed. Launched from several subs in seas on three sides of North Korea (the north side is China), the nuclear missiles could be timed to reach all their targets simultaneously, likely within fifteen minutes of the first launch. There would be no series of conventional air strikes, no laborious degrading and destruction of the North’s formidable air defenses, and little or no time for armies to move or artillery to emerge from caves and fire.

If our arsenal includes secret neutron weapons, which I believe likely, there might be insufficient personnel left manning the North’s Seoul-aimed artillery to fire it. No one but their families would mourn the men who, for decades, have stood ready on orders to wreak havoc on Seoul, a rare gem of human freedom, progress and success on mainland Asia.

The suddenness and ferocity of the nuclear attack would render all the massive planning for conventional war unimportant, if not irrelevant. Unless the huge but decapitated North Korean army began to move on its own (an unlikely event without command or control), there would be no reason to torture the North Korean people further. With proper attention to weather, wind direction and radioactive fallout, it should be possible to minimize casualties and prevent a prolonged ground war. Some external force, probably China, would have to come in on the ground, pick up the pieces, and restore order in the North. (The South, with its own and our troops present, could take care of itself.)

It would be in China’s interest to have a more pliable, normal buffer state. It would also be poetic justice for China to do the heavy lifting in the aftermath, for China created this monster and has nurtured it for over six decades. There is no doubt what nation has played the role of Dr. Frankenstein in Korea, while China’s other buffer state, Vietnam, is practically a model nation. China ought to rectify the consequences of its bad judgment and help clean up the mess it made.

When a nation supposedly at peace spends its income and energy building weapons of war, the world ought to take note. It failed to do so with Hitler, to its everlasting regret.

In some respects Kim is worse than Hitler. Until his armies started to move, Hitler talked peace internationally while inciting his people toward war. Kim talks war incessantly, both internally and externally, keeping his people and his region in a constant state of fear, anxiety and supposed “readiness” for war. Should we assume he doesn’t mean what he says? Didn’t we make that mistake once before, with globally catastrophic results?

I have read many of the popular press’ analyses of the uniformly bad options that face us and South Korea. But insofar as they expect durable and positive results from diplomacy, they seem to revel in wishful thinking.

What lessons of the past three decades didn’t our diplomats learn? If Kim is (and his father was) just trying to drive a hard bargain, he’s certainly doing it in a strange way and taking his time about it. We have to take seriously the probability that the world’s most absolute tyrant just doesn’t think as the rest of us do, and that his sole goal is to delay until he’s attained MAD and can bully us and the rest of the world. He’s either too honest or too in love with his own domestically absolute power even to use the old Communist stratagem: talk, talk; fight, fight.

Our adversaries, too, recognize that depth of the pathology that Kim represents. That’s why the recent Security Council resolution authorizing sanctions was unanimous. That almost never happens with respect to other parts of the world, even in benighted Syria.

This is the dilemma that faces us. Should we secure peace now by giving a twisted tyrant the power to destroy us at any time, even after we have destroyed him and his nation?

Is Kim worthy of the same careful treatment as the Soviets? The Soviets were our allies in World War II. Their own twisted system—Communism—may have been economically misguided. But it was intended to bring Russia and its satellites into modernity, and it did so, albeit with terrible hardship and loss. That’s why many Russians still revere Stalin.

In contrast, Kim’s system has brought his people nothing but famine, poverty, backwardness, isolation, and obsequious servitude tantamount to serfdom. There is no evidence of any realistic current chance for change.

Furthermore, Russia is a great power and has been for centuries. North Korea is an upstart spinoff nation whose economy is based on begging (from China), force, terror and crime. If ever a whole tiny nation were an international outlaw and pirate, North Korea is.

Of course we must not be hasty. Diplomacy—or attempts to start it—should continue. But we should have no illusions after three decades of duplicity, cheating and promise-breaking. In the nature of things, no one must know until our submarine-launched missiles rise out of the ocean on a trail of fire. When we reach the point of no return only our spooks can say, and they aren’t talking.

One thing the whole world should understand. We Yanks are a risk-averse people. Except for our enslaved Africans and displaced native Americans, all of us (or our ancestors) came here fleeing risk, mainly foreign wars and persecution. Syrians and others are still doing so.

For over a century, we Yanks tried to hide behind our oceans and our Monroe Doctrine, but progress and technology have caught up with us. Forced by circumstance to fight in both world wars, we proved helpful in one and decisive in the other. Our risk aversion led us to use the nuclear weapons we had invented, in order to avoid a ghastly house-to-house invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Since then, our risk aversion has made us a bit trigger happy. We’ve waged at least three major unnecessary wars—in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq—based on a simplistic risk-aversion theory best expressed by Dubya: better to fight them over there than here. Our spooks have toppled legitimate democratic regimes, in Iran, Chile, and Central America, just to avert a perceived risk of instability in oil markets or “our” hemisphere.

China in particular should understand two things about our national risk aversion. First, since 1945 we have responded to risks, both real and imaginary, coming from anywhere in the world. Examples are our Cold War paranoia (mutually shared with Russia’s Soviets), our fanciful “Domino theory” in Vietnam, and the fuzzy thinking that led to our invading and occupying two sovereign foreign nations (Afghanistan and Iraq) in the aftermath of 9/11. Second, although our risk aversion has much broader geographic scope, its strength is no less than that of China’s own, which motivated China’s involvement in wars for border buffers in Korea and Vietnam, and which today motivates China’s legally baseless claim to owning the South China Sea.

So the notion that we Yanks would suffer the likes of Kim Jong Un to hold the sword of national destruction over our heads for the foreseeable future is just not consistent with our national character. Sooner or later, right or wrong, good or bad, this facet of our national character will reassert itself. Then, absent a solid deal like the one with Iran, thoughts will turn toward pre-emptive strikes. Perhaps it would be better if they did so before it’s too late.

In the nature of things, no one outside the US will have a clue until a strike occurs. This is a secret that no Yank, no matter how partisan or crazily ideological, will leak. Not only would such a leak be treasonous; as time goes on, it could get millions of us killed.

Today, I judge the probability of a surprise, pre-emptive nuclear strike on North Korea to be about 40%. But it’s rising with every week that passes sans palpable progress in diplomacy, and with every test by North Korea of another nuke or missile.