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Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Home Authors Posts by Andy Schmookler

Andy Schmookler


A Tale of Two Warriors: Part I– The Problem of Power

the parable of the tribesIt is just over thirty years since my book, The Parable of the Tribes, was first published by the University of California Press. My editor there and I searched for months for the right cover art for the book, and ultimately it was he (Jack Miles, who would later make a very big splash with his own book, God: A Biography) who came up with the winning idea: a most ancient rock painting from the Sahara in Algeria.

Here's the cover of the book (image on the right).

The subtitle of the book, as you can see, is "The Problem of Power in Social Evolution." And the core idea of the book is that the inevitable lack of regulation of the interactions among human societies, after the breakthrough to civilization, led inevitably to the spread of "the ways of power" (i.e. whatever cultural forms give a society an advantage in the intersocietal struggle for power) throughout the human system.

Here, in that ancient rock painting, we see clearly illustrated that problem of the struggle for power, with the landscape divided between the bold and more numerous pursuers and the harried and fewer pursued. It serves as a good illustration of the point I make at a pivotal juncture in the presentation of this "problem of power": "Imagine a group of tribes," I wrote, "living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace?"

The book designer then made the excellent decision to take one of the attacking group of warriors, rotate him slightly, and put him on the spine of the book as the book's emblematic figure.

This warrior, even by himself, stood as a fitting emblem of the problem I was writing about, the problem of power facing humankind over the millennia of the troubled evolution of civilization.  

A Clear Sign Obama & Co. Are Looking to Take Out ISIS

There are a variety of indications in recent days that the Obama administration is gearing up to mount a war of sorts against ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Here's one more indication that, so far as I know, has not elsewhere been interpreted in this way.

The first paragraph of a Huffington Post article reads:

Ben Rhodes, the White House's Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications & Speechwriting, said that journalist James Foley's execution at the hands of the Islamic State, the militant group formerly known as ISIS, constituted a terrorist attack.

The spokesman goes on to make a reasonably plausible case for regarding that killing as "a terrorist attack" against the United States. Rhodes notes that ISIS committed this "brutal execution" explicitly because Foley was an American, and declared that this constitutes "an attack on our country, when one of our own is killed like that."

While it is not unreasonable, then, to regard it as a terrorist attack, the important point to note is that this spokesman of the administration has gone out of his way to make that case.

The only explanation I can think of representing the murder of one journalist in this expansive way is that he is making the case -- to the American public, and to Congress -- for regarding this killing as a provocation to which the suitable response is to revive the "war on terror," at least to a degree and with suitable authorization, with ISIS as the enemy.

Suing the President: Another UnAmerican Step for Today’s GOP

This piece has just appeared in newspapers in my conservative 6th Virginia congressional District. This is part of my practicing what I preach when I say that Liberal America should be bolder in calling out the  Republican Party for the destructive, dishonest, and disgraceful force it has become in our times. In my newspaper op/eds, I try to challenge the supporters of the Republican Party in terms that will not be easy for them to dismiss.

Any genuine conservative, any real American patriot should be outraged at the way the Republicans are treating the President of the United States. Our founders did not envision any president being treated this way.

The latest affront is the lawsuit the House Republicans have brought against the president. That suit should ring an alarm bell for conservatives because it is unprecedented in American history. To a conservative, what is unprecedented is inherently suspect: There's likely a good reason it has not been done before.

But this suit is just the latest episode in a disgraceful story.

Never before has the party in opposition made its top priority to stop the president from accomplishing anything. And, with the House of Representatives controlled by the Republican opposition, never before has a Congress accomplished so little. Republican obstructionism has intentionally prevented the system our founders gave us from dealing with grave challenges. This is a record no patriot should celebrate.

Lest anyone imagine that Republicans have obstructed because the president's proposals are extreme, note that Republicans in Congress have blocked measures - on gun control, immigration, minimum wage - that are supported by large majorities of Americans, favored even by majorities of Republican voters. Republicans have also regularly opposed their own ideas once the president favors them.

It is only at the superficial level that the object of the Republican assault is President Obama. This is an attack against the system of government our founders gave us.

Serving the Wrong Master: Understanding the Corruption of Today’s “Conservative” Justices

When we think of corrupt judges, we usually think of someone being bought off - money under the table to fix a case. When we look at the decisions being handed down by today's so-called "conservative" justices  - particularly, but not only, on the Supreme Court -- we see a corruption of an altogether different sort.

This is not the corruption of straight-out bribery but the corruption of having Supreme Court justices serving the wrong master. Instead of serving the rule of law, or justice, or making America a better place, these justices are serving America's mightiest component in its insatiable drive for power and wealth.

Looking at the contorted reasoning behind the recent decisions - in Citizens United, in Hobby Lobby, in striking down part of the Voting Rights Act, and most recently by the two Republican-appointed justices on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in a ruling to devastate part of the Affordable Care Act - who can believe that these GOP judges were trying to serve the rule of law or the Constitution?

The bending and twisting of the law reveals that it is the conclusions that dictate the reasoning, rather than the other way around. Rather than let the law, precedent, and the Constitution dictate the direction, it seems that it is the destination -  the result - that these Justices take as the given.

And the destination, in turn, is what advances the interests of the masters they are serving.  

Everything One Loves Under Threat

I was born less than a year after atom bombs leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, like all my generation, I grew up with the knowledge that everything I love might be destroyed-- my family, my nation, the heritage of human cultures, the web of life on earth.

With the end of the Cold War, that threat has receded -- at least temporarily -- if not altogether disappeared.

But once again, I have that same feeling: that everything I love is under threat. The same, but different.

While we lived in the world of Mutual Assured Destruction, there was a particular mega-event that would or would not occur. And we would either be able to continue on as usual, or we would speedily descend into a fiery abyss.

The destruction was hypothetical (and only during the Cuban Missile Crisis did it seem possibly imminent). And meanwhile the world went along essentially intact.

Now, the rise at the center of the American power system of a force at once so destructive and so powerful, so benighted and so thoroughly enmeshed in the nation's political and economic systems, and in the minds of a large component of the American people, has once again put everything I love under threat.

I don't know if my children and grandchildren will live in a democracy, or in a plutocracy as ruthless and unprincipled and dishonest as the current machinations of the Koch Brothers.

The Abdication of the Press and How It Harms America

I have claimed that America now faces one of the most profound crises in its history, but unlike with the other major crises, this time our national conversation has not focused on discussing what's gone wrong and how it might be set right.

If I'm right, what does that say about the performance of the press?

Our founders instituted special protections for the press not because they had a love for journalists, but because they recognized that a free press is necessary for the maintenance of a free society.

I have claimed that a force more destructive and dishonest than anything before seen at center stage of American politics has taken over one of our major political parties and is wreaking great damage on American civilization.

If alerting the American people to such a portentous development is not precisely what our founders had in mind, when they enshrined protections for a free press into the Constitution to protect the democratic system they had set up, what would be?

I had an opportunity to experience this "abdication of the press" first hand, in 2011-12, when I ran for Congress as one of the two major-party nominees in the District in Virginia where I live.

My campaign motto was "Truth. For a change." And I explained why I had jumped into the political arena, despite being too straight-forward for politics under ordinary circumstances, saying: "Nowadays, the lie so often defeats the truth that I figure this is a time when truth-telling needs its champions."

My opponent was the 20-year Republican incumbent Bob Goodlatte (now the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee), and I spent much of the campaign calling him out on the many falsehoods in his communications to the electorate. Not that Mr. Goodlatte was a special case of lying. He was just continually spouting the Republican Party line which, in our times, is almost habitually dishonest even by the standards of the usual politics.

Here's where the press let me down. Or rather where they let down their readers and viewers, as well as the noble standards of good journalism.

The press would cover what I said, and they would cover what Mr. Goodlatte said. And they'd stop there. Although our claims were in direct conflict, the press did nothing to help their audience to judge which of our claims was valid and which false.  

Why Is the World “a Mess”?

"To put it mildly," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the other day, "the world is a mess." With crises in the Ukraine and Gaza and Syria and Iraq, among other places, it is hard to quarrel with Ms. Albright's assessment.

Which raises the question: Why? What is it that accounts for a marked rise in the level of disorder in the world?

Let us consider first those possible explanations that emphasize the American role in this growing disorder. The premise here -- and it is one I think is substantially valid -- is that the United States has played such a pivotal role in the creation and management of the order of the world since World War II that anything that damages the American performance in that role can readily ramify into problems in the international order.

One theory is that this disorder is the result of the inept conduct of foreign policy by the man who has been president of the United States for the past five and a half years, Barack Obama.

This is the theory pushed by the Republicans, of course. But as I argued in a recent piece, "You Can't Tell Time by a Stopped Clock, we can discount whatever the Republicans say against this president, because they attack him over everything.

However, it is not only Republicans who have expressed criticisms of Obama's handling of foreign policy. Other more honest critics have faulted his handling of the Israeli-Arab problems-- and if one ends up distrusted by both sides, that does seem a sign of less than brilliant diplomacy. Criticism from serious people has also been directed at Obama's handling of the Syrian civil war.

My own assessment -- as one who worked in the international relations field in an earlier era, but who does not have in depth knowledge of world affairs currently -- is that Obama's performance has been adequate overall, if not masterful. (I'd guess he deserves something like a B-.) It has rarely been obvious to me that, whatever the difficulties with the course the president has taken, there were any better options available to him.

In any case, Obama's performance in navigating the United States in world affairs has plainly been far superior to that of his predecessor, George W. Bush (and his for-a-while de facto foreign-policy-president Dick Cheney).  

Glenn Beck as “The Music Man,” Playing on the Fears of Parents

On Tuesday, July 22, Glenn Beck spoke from some 700 movie screens to Americans who paid admission to hear him attack the "Common Core." The "Common Core" consists of standards, offered to the states, defining the knowledge and skills that American school-children should learn at each stage of their education.

Beck's move here reminded me of "The Music Man," the con man in the musical of that name who comes to an Iowa town to fleece the good people there. What Beck and the con artist in "The Music Man" have in common is that to accomplish their own hidden aims they tap into the anxieties that parents have regarding their children.

What the Music Man was selling were fictitious musical instruments and band uniforms, and he did it by playing on parental fears of corrupting influences on their children (fears aroused by the arrival in town of a Pool Hall, which starts with 'P' which rhymes with 'T' which stands for 'trouble').

Beck's pitch against the Common Core is selling a different fear: that the federal government is seeking to take control of their children away from their parents for purposes of indoctrination.

I do not know enough to judge whether or not the Common Core would improve our national educational performance. (Despite being the son of teachers, and having myself taught at both college and high school levels, I do not claim to know what is required to greatly improve the education of America's children.) But I do know enough to feel sure that there is nothing nefarious about the proposed national standards. The Common Core seems to be a good-faith effort -- wise or not -- to address a genuine national problem of educational attainment that lags behind that of many other advanced democracies.

But I suspect Beck's campaign is not really about the Common Core, or about the education of our children, any more than the Music Man was offended by a pool table. I suspect there's another reason altogether why he's working on American parents with this particular paranoid pitch.

Who Benefits? Thoughts on the Civilian Death Toll in Gaza

I would like to make just one point about the Israeli-Hamas conflict. It is difficult, I recognize, to isolate a single point, because people have such strong feelings on one side or the other that they tend to color judgments on all the relevant issues. But it's worth a try.

The single point I want to address is this: are we to believe that the Israelis are making a strenuous effort, given their military objectives, to minimize civilian deaths in Gaza? The Israelis claim that they are. Some others have called that into question.

To me, the answer seems clear on the face of it once one asks the question: Who benefits? Who advances toward their goals as a result of the civilian casualties?

Clearly, it is not the Israelis. Before the ground assault began, discussions of the potential costs to Israel focused on the international opprobrium and isolation that would likely punish Israel for the civilian deaths resulting from military operations in the densely-populated Gaza Strip. The carnage of civilians does nothing to achieve any Israeli purpose, while it does much to increase the political price of the military operation.

On the other side, what is costly to Israel is correspondingly beneficial to Hamas. The greater the international pressure on and isolation of Israel - exacerbated by these civilian deaths - the stronger the position of Hamas vis-à-vis their Israeli foe. Hamas can hope for no military gains against the far mightier IDF, but it can hope for a stronger hand in negotiations now and in achieving its long-term goal of the elimination of Israel from the region.

All of which is reflected in Hamas' position in the cease-fire negotiations. Although Israel agreed to a proposed cease-fire, Hamas has rejected it. And it is Hamas, not Israel, that is insisting on political concessions as a condition of a cease-fire. The inference to be drawn, it seems, is that Hamas believes can gain something from the continuation of the current hostilities, with its mounting Palestinian death toll.

So, regardless of whether one believes that Israel has a right to exist, or that any of the parties are interested in achieving the long-sought "two-state solution," or that this military incursion is justified or wise, to this one question the answer seems clear. Israel has every reason - for purely self-interested motives, whether supplemented by compassionate humanitarian concerns or not - to minimize civilian casualties. And for Hamas, it is the civilian casualties, and the international response to them, that are the chief means by which it can gain from this latest episode in this long-running, sad story from the Middle East.

The Fraudulence of the Republican Party, and the Adverse Shift in the Balance Between...

In recent years, I've been deeply troubled by an adverse shift in the balance of power between good and evil forces in America. The evidence for that shift is plain to see in the damage that's been done in recent years to so many of the dimensions of American civilization. Clearly, the forces of destruction have gained ground at the expense of those forces that work constructively to improve the nation.

An important factor in this shift is a stark mismatch between the generally fine values of people like many of my rural Virginia neighbors and the goals and practices of the political force to which they give their support.

Most of my neighbors believe in conservative, patriotic, and Christian values. The Republican Party gains their support by claiming to be a champion of those values. But in these times, those claims are false: what today's Republican Party is serving is the very opposite.

Genuine conservatives, like many of my neighbors, understand that traditions are there for a reason, and should be honored and respected. But today's Republican leaders, though claiming to be conservatives, trample America's political traditions. Meanwhile, they misdirect their followers' attention to a few issues of concern, like abortion and gay rights, that have one important characteristic: they don't get in the way of the Republicans' deeper agenda -- transferring wealth and power from average Americans to those who already have the most.

Our country has had an established way, for example, of dealing with the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling has been raised, as needed, more than 80 times without a crisis because both parties know the full faith and credit of the United States is too important to play politics with. But, today's congressional Republicans swept that tradition aside in 2011, as no real conservatives would, to extort concessions to advance their political goals, and in 2013 they tried the same kind of blackmail again.

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