The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: November 2015 Page 1 of 2

The Silver Lining of Thanksgiving Past

I had originally intended to write a rather cynical Thanksgiving weekend post, pointing out that the Native American tribes who helped the pilgrims in that first Thanksgiving feast made a big mistake by helping Europeans figure out how to live and prosper in the new world. Their reward, ultimately, was slavery, scalp bounties, smallpox (sometimes deliberately spread) and, in the end, genocide. But it turns out the story has an interesting twist:

The Puritans were religious radicals being driven into exile out of England. Since their story is well known, I will not repeat it here. They settled and built a colony which they called the “Plymouth Plantation,” near the ruins of a former Native village of the Pawtuxet Nation. Only one Pawtuxet had survived, a man named Squanto, who had spent time as a slave to the English. Since he understood the language and customs of the Puritans, he taught them to use the corn growing wild from the abandoned fields of the village, taught them to fish, and about the foods, herbs and fruits of this land. Squanto also negotiated a peace treaty between the Puritans and the Wampanoag Nation, a very large Native nation which totally surrounded the new Plymouth Plantation. Because of Squanto’s efforts, the Puritans enjoyed almost 15 years of peaceful harmony with the surrounding Natives, and they prospered.

At the end of their first year, the Puritans held a great feast following the harvest of their new farming efforts. The feast honored Squanto and their friends, the Wampanoags. The feast was followed by three days of “thanksgiving” celebrating their good fortune. This feast produced the image of the first Thanksgiving that we all grew up with as children. However, things were doomed to change.

Until approximately 1629, there were only about 300 Puritans living in widely scattered settlements around New England. As word leaked back to England about their peaceful and prosperous life, more Puritans arrived by the boatloads. As the numbers of Puritans grew, the question of ownership of the land became a major issue. The Puritans came from the belief of individual needs and prosperity, and had no concept of tribal living, or group sharing. It was clear that these heathen savages had no claim on the land because it had never been subdued, cultivated and farmed in the European manner, and there were no fences or other boundaries marked.

The land was clearly “public domain,” and there for the taking. This attitude met with great resistance from the original Puritans who held their Native benefactors in high regard. These first Puritan settlers were summarily excommunicated and expelled from the church.

I had assumed that those who had been saved, had been helped, by the natives, had turned against them. It seems that wasn’t the case.

In later days, different types of Thanksgivings would occur:

In 1641, the Dutch governor of Manhattan offered the first scalp bounty; a common practice in many European countries. This was broadened by the Puritans to include a bounty for Natives fit to be sold for slavery. The Dutch and Puritans joined forces to exterminate all Natives from New England, and village after village fell. Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches of Manhattan announced a day of “thanksgiving” to celebrate victory over the heathen savages. This was the second Thanksgiving. During the feasting, the hacked off heads of Natives were kicked through the streets of Manhattan like soccer balls.

The killing took on a frenzy, with days of thanksgiving being held after each successful massacre. Even the friendly Wampanoag did not escape. Their chief was beheaded, and his head placed on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts — where it remained for 24 years. Each town held thanksgiving days to celebrate their own victories over the Natives until it became clear that there needed to be an order to these special occasions. It was George Washington who finally brought a system and a schedule to thanksgiving when he declared one day to be celebrated across the nation as Thanksgiving Day.

Pleasant, no?

I don’t generally dwell on the fact that the US and Canada are countries based on the destruction of the original inhabitants of the land. Genocide, for all that we act as if it were suddenly invented in the 20th century by the Nazis, or perhaps by the Turks, is nearly as ancient as recorded history. The Roman destruction of Carthage, perhaps the most famous genocide of ancient history, was hardly the first. Nor is modern weaponry necessary, as both Genghis Khan, who had entire cities slaughtered, and the Hutus, with their slaughter of half a million to a million Tutsis, primarily with machetes, could attest. Sharp objects don’t run out of bullets, after all.

Yet, there is no question that the natives would have been wiser to have never helped Europeans learn how to survive in the new world–even if one can argue that in the end, the result probably would have been the same.

Still, I come back to this: The Puritans who were helped by the Native Americans resisted the destruction of their benefactors to the point of excommunication. At the time, such a penalty was the equivalent of being ostracized from their communities–other Puritans were forbidden to have any civil comunication with them whatsoever, including eating with them.

Here, of course, is the point in an essay where I’d normally draw a lesson, but I don’t know that I have one. What I do know, from my own personal experience, is that many people aren’t even as thankful as those pilgrims–helping someone often creates resentment. And certainly one should never expect thankfulness as the result of an indirect extension of assistance. But the effect of gratitude runs both ways. As a child one of the first full novels I ever read was Ernest Thomas Seton’s “Rolf In the Woods,” a book about a white teenager effectively adopted by a Native American in early 19th century America. The Native American helps him, and then, as Seton notes, feels both kindly towards him and a sense of responsbility for the young man’s continued well-being.

We tend to look favorably upon those we’ve helped, especially if they respond with gratitude and make good use of what we’ve given, whether it be knowledge or material goods. Helping people makes us feel better about ourselves. Empathy, the ability to feel another’s pain, is as naturally human as is callousness (not to mention the actual enjoyment of others’ pain, empathy’s dark twin). Feeling another’s pain, we either wish to relieve it, or we close ourselves off to it. To do so requires making that person, or those people, into something other than ourselves. It’s much easier not to feel for those who aren’t like you, who are lesser, who are, indeed, nothing but uncivilized beasts or savages–little more than animals.

The Puritans who had personally been helped by, feasted with, and befriended the Native Americans couldn’t do this. And the natives who had befriended the Puritans couldn’t do it either. They had been made aware that both sides were like them, were human. The Puritans felt grateful, the Native Americans, benevolent.

But those who came afterwards, those who benefitted from the knowledge the natives had given, had never dealt with the natives as humans. Therefore, they could feel superior. They could afford to be ignorant of the fact that the natives had assisted their predecessors, and that, in exchange, the original Puritans were able to help the Native Americans by giving or trading with them for steel, iron goods, and other advanced European items. To the late-comers, the natives were nothing but animals, who didn’t own the land and were savages fit for death.

There was no room for empathy, for a bond of thankfulness, or for the reciprocity of favors and affection that leads to friendship.

And so those Native American tribes were virtually destroyed–and yet we still pretend we are thankful for what they gave, when the record shows that the only people who were thankful were a few hundred Puritans who were rewarded for their faithfulness by excommunication.

Every Thanksgiving, I’ve thought of those who died, a sour smile on my face. But in Thanksgivings to come I’ll think also of those who didn’t break faith. A bitter silver lining perhaps, but I find in such things the true gold of the human spirit, untarnished, even in failure.

(Originally published for the 2007 Thanksgiving.)

Examining Turkey’s Shoot Down of a Russian Jet

First, the ostensible reason for this incident is the Turkmen rebels in Syria. Erdogan summoned the Russian ambassador earlier this week to warn against strikes against the Turkmen in Syria.

Second, it’s worth considering that much of this is about Turkish domestic politics. Erdogan is playing to the crowd, in the same way done by jingoistic politicians all over the world.

Then there is Putin’s statement:

This event is beyond the normal framework of fighting against terrorism. Of course our military is doing heroic work against terrorism… But the loss today is a stab in the back, carried out by the accomplices of terrorists. I can’t describe it in any other way. Our aircraft was downed over the territory of Syria, using air-to-air missile from a Turkish F-16. It fell on the Syrian territory 4km from Turkey.

We will analyse everything, and today’s tragic event will have significant consequences, including for Russia-Turkish relations. We have always treated Turkey as a friendly state. I don’t know who was interested in what happened today, certainly not us. And instead of immediately getting in contact with us, as far as we know, the Turkish side immediately turned to their partners from Nato to discuss this incident, as if we shot down their plane and not they ours.

So, Putin is saying that Turkey is the “accomplice of terrorists.” Because the preponderance of evidence is that Turkey has been keeping supply lines open for ISIS, I would tend to agree. But something being true, and something being stated by the leader of a Great Power are two different things. Putin calling Erdogan an accomplice of terrorists is a big deal.

Russia can retaliate in a number of ways, from the obvious (shooting down a Turkish jet in a “tit-for-tat”), to the brutal (cutting Turkey off from natural gas this winter) to the subtle (taking the Turkish PKK under wing and becoming their new sponsors, while providing the Turks in general with equipment such as man portable anti-air missiles and anti-tank weapons).

Bear in mind that the Turkish military is very large, with a pile of tanks. They have, however, spent their recent history mostly in anti-insurgency efforts (burning Turkish villages, rape and torture, the usual), and anti-insurgency tends to degrade militaries.  It is also an open question how much the purges of the officer corps have affected the military.

NATO and President Obama have both made supportive sounds, so Russia and Putin are likely to lump in the West with Turkey in this matter.

I feel I should point out the obvious, once more. Russia is still a nuclear armed state with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world multiple times over. A confrontation between NATO and Russia is not acceptable to anyone even remotely sane.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not the Russian jet was in Turkish airspace. The Turks claim it was (for a few seconds), the Russians claim it wasn’t. I certainly don’t know which is true.

But over-fussiness about a few seconds strikes me as absurd. The US routinely violates virtually every country in the world’s airspace. Turkey and everyone else in the region routinely violates Syrian airspace, while Russia actually has permission to be there.

I believe that countries should not violate each other’s airspace. And I would be willing to support that principle in a world where that was the practice, but it is not.

That said, the real rule of airspace is: “Can you shoot me down?” And Syria’s answer is: “No.” But Russia’s answer Russia is: “Yes,” and Russia could decide to defend Syria’s airspace from Turkey at the request of the Syrian government.

All of this is vastly complicated by geography. Turkey can close off the Black Sea from the Mediterranean any time it wants. This means that Russia’s supplies to Syria must go through either Iran and Iraq, or it must come the long way around from the Baltic Sea.

By and large, however, this entire exercise stinks of hypocrisy. The fact is that despite all the screaming and the rhetoric almost no one actually wants to defeat ISIS. Turkey definitely doesn’t want to, the US doesn’t want to because its allies like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel in varying degrees support ISIS, and the West in general doesn’t want to (as with France bombing empty depots in response to the Paris attacks; sound and fury accomplishing nothing.)

Russia wants to support the Syrian government, and the first thing Russia wants to do is seal the Turkish border in order to cut off ISIS’s main supply line and source of recruits.

That is what this is really about. Turkey wants what remains of the Syrian state to collapse or to become a puppet (thus “Assad Must Go”).  The goals of the two states are in direct opposition. And Erdogan has just made it clear in how much direct opposition.

This particular incident is about ISIS only indirectly, but be clear: The only people who really want to defeat ISIS are Russia, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, the Kurds, and Iraq. No one else of significance does.

Your deaths in Paris and elsewhere, children, whatever hypocrisy Western leaders like Hollande may spew, are acceptable collateral casualties to your masters. They will turn Europe into a police state in an attempt to root out ISIS cells (and because they wanted a police state already and this is a great excuse), but they are not actually serious about defeating ISIS.

(Addendum, Obama’s statement:

President Obama noted that it was important to ensure that Russia and Turkey continue to talk to each other, but went on to say: “This points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operation, in the sense that they are operating very close to the Turkish border and going after moderate opposition supported by Turkey and a wide range of countries.”

Anyone who says “moderation opposition” is either abysmally stupid or lying. (Again, no Western country is serious about defeating ISIS.))

(Addendum #2, Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoy:

Now the General Staff is elaborating additional security measures for the Russian airbase.

First: All the activities of the attack aviation will be carried out only under cover of fighter aircraft.

Second: Air defence will be reinforced. For that purpose, the Moskva cruiser equipped with air defence system Fort analogous to the S-300 one will go to the shore zone of Latakia. Russian Defence Ministry warns that all the potentially dangerous targets will be destroyed.

Third: Contacts with Turkey will be terminated at the military level».)

Ouch. AKA, “Don’t try that again unless you want an actual fight.”)

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Turkey Shoots Down Russian Jet

Turkey claims it was in Turkish airspace, Russia claims it was in Syrian airspace.

Remember, ISIS gets a lot of its supplies and recruits through the Turkish border, which the Turks have kept open for them.  Remember also that Turkish air strikes in Syria have primarily hit Kurds fighting ISIS.

Turkey is not “anti-ISIS,” quite the contrary.

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If You Wanted to Ban Foreigners from the US to Stop Terrorist Attacks—

you should ban French and Belgian visitors.

Because, as Marcy points out, all the Paris attackers were Europeans. None of them were Syrian refugees.


Bombing, Air Power, and “Winning” in Syria

Let us speak today of what should be done if someone wanted to actually bring peace to Syria.

First: Airpower not in support of ground troops is largely, though not entirely, worthless. This has been demonstrated over and over again since, and including during, World War II. It does not significantly degrade the your opponent’s fighting ability, and disproportionately harms civilians.

So, if you want to do something even remotely productive or effective in Syria, you need ground troops.

However, foreign ground troops have not been able to bring peace to Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s safe to say that Western ground troops, while good at open field battle, are terrible at creating peace. The reason for that is too long to go into, but let’s not pretend otherwise; there is an extensive track record.

Right now, the French are bombing abandoned buildings in Raqqa (doing nothing of significance).  If they actually tried to bomb ISIS they would kill civilians, a non-productive response to ISIS killing French civilians.

So, air power must be used in support of ground troops. The other consideration, if you want to defeat ISIS, is that you have to support its enemies. This means supporting the Syrian army, Hezbollah, the Kurds, Iran, and Iraqi troops.

Notice that this is essentially the strategy Russia is pursuing.

You also can’t play both, or all sides. Being against Assad and against ISIS, and allied with Turkey, who hates the Kurds and bombs them (when the Kurds are some of the most effective people fighting ISIS) is crazy.

Make an alliance and stick with it.

The West is caught between multiple allies with different interests. The Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel all want Assad gone, for different reasons.

But Assad wasn’t executing terrorist attacks in France, was he? Nor was he bombing those nations who have supported ISIS and various al-Qaeda affiliates, the people who are sponsoring attacks in the West.

Strategic confusion is the core problem. The West wants to eat its cake and have it too. The people who are fighting ISIS are people the West mostly doesn’t want to support, the people supplying ISIS are mostly people the West regards as allies.

The West is confused. Does it want ISIS (and al-Qaeda) defeated more than it wants to be rid of Assad or not?

This is a choice which must be made. The West can’t have both.

(Nov 18: Article corrected to indicate French bombing empty facilities.)

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Obamacare Failures Are by Design

Look, this is not a mistake by Obama. This is how Obamacare was designed:

for many consumers, the sticker shock is coming not on the front end, when they purchase the plans, but on the back end when they get sick: sky-high deductibles that are leaving some newly insured feeling nearly as vulnerable as they were before they had coverage.

“The deductible, $3,000 a year, makes it impossible to actually go to the doctor,” said David R. Reines, 60, of Jefferson Township, N.J., a former hardware salesman with chronic knee pain. “We have insurance, but can’t afford to use it.”

Obamacare was a way of bailing out insurance companies and for providing catastrophic insurance coverage, which is meant to protect hospitals. If someone requires many thousands of dollars of care in one go, the hospital doesn’t have to eat it.

Meanwhile the high deductible, plus the relatively low percentage of premiums which the plan should be designed to pay out, are intended to keep insurance companies in business, as they were becoming less and less profitable.

In-network vs. out-of-network rules and deductibles also make the insurance hard to use in many parts of the country, and, again, this was by design.

Obamacare was never designed to make sure everyone had health care, it was designed to help insurance companies and hospitals—to get money to  people who matter.

I strongly suspect it was also intended to preempt the logical plan of simply extending Medicare to everyone. Obama went out of his way to make sure there would be no public option, as well, trading it away right at the beginning.

Obamacare is a corporate subsidy. Some ordinary people get helped, but that is a side-effect.

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Ethics and Responsibility in Relation to Paris

To say that the Paris attacks are terrible is easy. To follow the consequences of that statement is hard.

First, let us start with responsibility. Those most responsible are those who commanded the attacks take place, and those who carried them out.

This seems evident.

Let us make another statement: Absent the Iraq war, there would be no ISIS. If ISIS is responsible, then no Iraq war means no Paris attacks.

The Iraq war was an attack on a country which had not attacked the US, Britain, or any other coalition member. It did not threaten any coalition member. It did not have “WMD” in any meaningful sense of the words.

No Iraq war, no Paris attacks.

If you want to punish those responsible for the Paris attacks, on that list are George Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tony Blair, among others.

Nor can a case be made that they did something defensible which had unfortunate consequences. The crime they committed was the same one for which the Allies hung most Nazis: starting a war without caususbelli. At Nuremburg, that was held worthy of death because of all of the crimes that follow logically from war.

It’s hard to tell how many deaths the Iraq war has caused, but put it from hundreds of thousands to well over a million.

Those people are just as dead as the Parisians. Most of them were civilians.

It should be, but isn’t, an unexceptionable statement to say that the people most responsible for their deaths are the people who ordered those deaths, and the people who killed them.

“Just following orders” should be out of style as an excuse, but it isn’t.

Legitimate violence, to many, is violence sanctioned by a state. Since Bush and Blair were heads of state, their violence is legitimate.

Yet the International Criminal Court regularly tries and imprisons Africans for killing people with the power of the State.

This ethical spiral goes nowhere good. It is impossible not to conclude that what matters in violence is only who commits it. We kill civilians in large numbers. We say that our soldiers are only following orders. We are still killing large numbers of civilians in foreign countries.

We would never accept this excuse of someone who carried out the attacks in Paris, that they “were only following orders.”

There is no way to cut through this knot that does not involve an appeal to authority, that does not come down to: “We’re okay with killing people with whom we don’t identify.”

ISIS claims to be a state, and claims the right to order violence. It claims the right to kill innocents. So does the West. The history of medical sanctions or of direct attacks on civilian infrastructure like sewage does not allow the argument for “collateral” casualties to be taken seriously.

I am unable to see, on the basis of any ethics that isn’t tribal, particular, or supine to authority that the Parisian attacks are more worthy of condemnation than either similar attacks that occur regularly in the Middle East. I am also unable to see what difference it makes to the dead if they are killed by a “terrorist’s” bomb or bullet, or a bomb or bullet used by a “soldier.”

Either civilians are off limits, or civilians aren’t. Either war crimes that got Nazis hung are war crimes for everyone, including Americans and British (or French, in Libya) or the Nuremburg trials were simply victor’s “justice”; simple vengeance.

We should expect propaganda from the state. We should expect hysteria. But we should not allow our own thinking or sympathy to fall subject to it.

The Paris attacks are terrible. They are not more terrible, or less terrible than other attacks of similar sort, no matter who carries them out.

I will accord “the West” the ethical upper-hand when I see Bush, Blair, and their cronies on the dock for their crimes.

Because I will tell you this: While every life has value, and every murder is a tragedy, more murders are worse than less murders.

If we want to avoid the next Paris attack, we will try our own criminals and cease our violent meddling in the affairs of other countries.  Because, for the time being, we will not, the regularly scheduled tragedies, here and abroad, will continue.

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The Reason for the Paris Attacks

So, 128 dead so far, and over 200 injured in multiple attacks across Paris. ISIS has claimed responsibility, though nothing in their communique shows any knowledge not in the news, so it may or may not be them.

In a sense it doesn’t matter who it is. The task of any group which seeks minority support is to “heighten contradictions,” as the old Marxists used to say. You commit atrocities precisely because you want backlash against an identifiable minority. The more they are oppressed, the more they will turn to you, the less they will inform, and so on.

“Terrorists” and western Governments have become co-dependent. Many in the West want further excuses for internal repression (which is usually justified as just being against a despised minority, then spreads), and for more war.

Hollande has used language which indicates he may be about to invoke NATO Article 5. If so, he would presumably want significant Western military action where ISIS is—Iraq and Syria.

This is a potential disaster, given the Russian presence, and given that the Russian presence, in part, was to forestall a NATO “no fly zone.” With public opinion inflamed, the West may tell Russia to “step aside, or else.” What if Russia doesn’t?

Even if Russia does withdraw, welcome to another quagmire, ending in a failed state. (Yes, Syria is a failed state now, mostly, but if you think Western intervention will fix that you haven’t been paying attention.)

Let us hope sanity reigns. And let us remember that attacks of this magnitude are reasonably common in Iraq, Syria, and other failed states. To be sure, it is a tragedy. It is no more of a tragedy, nor less a tragedy, than a similar attack in Baghdad.

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