The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Saturday, September 29, 2007
History ...

I didn’t have any major thoughts this past week, so all I’m going to do right now is to refer you to an interesting article by Prof. J. Rufus Fears entitled “The Lessons of the Roman Empire for America Today”. Here’s what I get from the good professor: America today is on the edge of converting from a national republic to a world empire, just as the Julius Caesar led the Romans in transitioning from republic to empire in the century before Jesus. Modern America is not yet locked in on that course, we haven’t gone beyond the turnaround point yet — but it’s probably going to happen, like it or not. Big business in America is now very international. Other than the corner laundromat, no real business today can survive on domestic production and consumption alone. So, big business will demand an international empire to protect its international interests. And big business has the $$ to control politics no matter what the common folk might want, as proven by the history of health care reform in America.

That’s going to mean an increasingly strong presidency and an increasingly weak Congress. And indeed, that’s already in the works. The President is well on his or her way to becoming Emperor. Bush has taken it pretty far in his 7 years, but just about every president since Franklin Roosevelt has expanded the power of the presidency. And Congress is clearly going the route of the Roman Senate, becoming mostly an ineffectual figurehead institution. The Supreme Court will be tolerated, more or less; but because its members are handpicked by the President (and rubber-stamped by a subservient Congress), it won’t do anything kooky.

As to our doings in the Middle East: Professor Fears calls the Middle East the graveyard of empires. After reviewing the history of the many ancient empires that got involved in the Middle East,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:07 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Brain / Mind ...

I don’t normally get sentimental over the death of a parrot, but the story about Alex was quite special. It turns out that Alex (short for Avian Learning EXperiment) was being taught a wide variety of language and abstract problem solving-skills by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. He was actually doing stuff that might be found on a childhood IQ test, e.g. identifying combinations of shapes and colors and numbers (e.g., “Alex, find the two red triangles”; Alex may have never before seen a tray with two red triangles, but he knew what two, red and triangle meant). He was even making progress on the abstract concept of zero, zip, nada. Pretty darn good for a bird brain. Too bad he died so young (31 is middle-age for a big parrot like Alex, since they normally last around 50 to 60 years).

According to the obituaries, Alex had a rather interesting personality and experienced some of the more complex and subtle forms of emotions that distinguish humans from wild animals (e.g., boredom, frustration, annoyance and general affection). It is still a very open question in psychology whether animals are “conscious” in the way that humans are. We obviously don’t have a good definition of what human consciousness is or how to scientifically identify it. The best we can do is still the “Turing Test”, which is little better than the US Supreme Court’s pornography test (“I know it when I see it”). From what I read about Alex, he was the kind of animal that could seemingly form and use abstract symbols, had developed an abstraction for his own being, and could intermingle his emotional experiences within the context of that self-image, thus having what is called “qualia”. If Alex could do it with his little bird-brain, then you’d think that it would be a cinch for cats and dogs!

My theory (for what it’s worth) regarding animal consciousness is this: most animals in the wild are not conscious. They go about their day-to-day existence using pre-wired instinctual behavior patterns, versus the abstract analysis of unique situations that humans engage in. They have emotions, but those emotions are very basic, relating to food, sex and danger. Most of the time, a wild animal’s emotional state appears to be blank. No anxiety, no elation, no depression, no existential crises (lucky them). There is appreciable evidence, however, that things change with higher species like chimps and dolphins. Those animals seem to have abstract thinking and communication skills, and do seem to exhibit a broader and more continual range of emotional responses and social interactions.

If that is true, then what about our domesticated pets, especially the late, great Alex? My $0.02 is that they do start “waking up” to self-identity and emotional realization because of their being around us. My theory is well short of a testable scientific hypothesis. I can’t quite identify just how consciousness would “rub off” on otherwise non-conscious wild animals. But it would obviously take time; it probably needs to start at birth. It couldn’t be done with all wild species; only the ones that are calm enough to live in close proximity to humans could qualify.

Perhaps the process starts when the animal relates the sound symbols that we give it (e.g., “Alex”). At first that sound may be programmed in the animal’s head as “food call”, in a stimulus-response fashion. But after a while, the wide variety of contexts with which we use the animal’s name (e.g. food, punishment, affection, teaching, danger warning, etc.) starts challenging the beast’s gray matter to go beyond the stimulus-response model, into a more flexible “mental state” situation. Perhaps by observing our never-ending use of word symbols for the many things around us, the whole concept of “abstraction” somehow gets hot-wired into the animal’s otherwise non-abstract thinking brain. Not that the beast will ever understand our many abstractions, e.g. quarks, square roots, social injustice, oil futures, etc. However, it may be able to turn a rudimentary abstraction ability inward upon its own sensory and emotional experiences; at that point, perhaps the spark of consciousness and self-awareness begins.

(Side point: can an animal with “domesticated consciousness” pass it on to its progeny, in the absence of human presence? I would guess not. The next generation is back to the biological square one. I’ve read that humans have trained chimps and other primates how to count and use sophisticated language symbols; but they in turn are not able to pass those skills on to their children. The kids need to be trained afresh by humans. I suspect that human language skills are closely tied to consciousness, and the non-transferability of human language in animals implies the non-transferability of proto-consciousness).

Again, all of this is not a well-formed professional hypothesis, but only a semi-educated layman’s hunch. However, if it does hold any water, then it has an interesting corollary regarding artificial intelligence. If we can “train” our pets to have a rudimentary version of self-consciousness, then why can’t we train our computers too? At present, computers still have very limited abstraction ability. Your desktop PC today basically has none. In the labs, however, neural networking researchers are making progress in giving computers the ability to form usable concepts and generalizations from “fuzzy data” (i.e., in allowing computers to learn inductively and think creatively, as we do in our better moments). From what I’ve read, a few more breakthroughs are needed, but these will likely come.

These “thinking computers” may not immediately go to work on string theory, but they might at least be able to appreciate some environmental properties (color, heat, depth, sound qualities, movements, weight) relative to their own vulnerabilities and the need to protect their energy input resources. And once they get that down, they can focus their thinking skills upon the behavior of their human benefactors.

So, kids today might well live to see and deal with computers that have roughly the same sensing, learning and “feeling” capacity as Alex did. And they may adopt them as pets and students; and also as friends. And when these pet machines inadvertently break down and die, then instead of cursing them like we do today when a motherboard fries (“stupid piece of garbage”), our kids may get just as choked up inside as we do today when reading about Alex’s last words to Dr. Pepperberg: “Be good, I love you, you’ll be in tomorrow.” Hats off to you, Avian Learning EXperiment, from a fellow eternal student.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:32 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Art & Entertainment ... Society ...

I recently watched a video of Linkin Park’s “What I’ve Done” and found it to be quite interesting. It actually seems anti-patriotic, perhaps somewhat of a protest song. Wow, the popular music culture hasn’t done anything like that since maybe 1974 or so. The most daring scene is towards the end, showing a group of children waving American flags – followed by a child in the Middle East holding a gun. Amazing; they imply that waving American flags is not a great idea anymore, perhaps even a stupid idea. It looks like young folk are finally moving away from the unquestioned patriotism of the last 25 years; e.g., I don’t hear Van Halen’s “Yankee Rose” on the local rock station anymore.

Lots of other heavy imagery in this video – atomic explosions and industrial wastelands and melting polar ice and birds in oil slicks and starving Africans. Soldiers at war and a junkie readying his arm for the needle and an aerial bombing run, maybe from Vietnam. And my favorite juxtaposition – the remains of an old Roman Empire temple, followed by a shot of the World Trade Center.

If the Linkin Park video is any indication, then American teens and twenty-somethings are quite disgusted about being handed a future that will surely include terrorism, continuing warfare in the Middle East (with continuing US involvement), environmental degradation, possible catastrophe from global warming, nuclear proliferation, gross economic inequities, resource depletion, etc. They appear not to like the idea of inheriting a world that has been used up and sucked dry by the previous generation or three.

Well, I think that’s good. They should indeed blame my generation. We really should have thought more about what would be left behind for our kids. But no, we kept living the high life and burning up the future. And now the burned-out future is coming into sight, and sharp musicians like Linkin Park are making a buck playing off the disgust of those who see what’s in their future.

Unfortunately, Linkin Park is unrelievedly dark. They offer no hope at all, no “we can make it happen” endings. Ultimately, they’re just there to entertain, to make some cash and enjoy it while they can.

In the “What I’ve Done” video, young musicians jump around and emote at an impromptu concert stage out in the middle of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. What’s more ironic than their intended irony is that their performance co-opts the ways of the broken world they condemn. They are surrounded by towers of lights and amplifiers and speakers, all needing lots of electricity. They utilize guitars and drums made of high-tech plastics and composites, and wireless microphones utilizing the latest chip technology. Their performance is tightly woven within the techno-establishment (now there’s a phrase from the 60’s – “the Establishment”) which they blame. They don’t stop to wonder how much greenhouse gas their musical excursion produces. Their video rightly implies that everything ties together – war, terrorism, famine, American greed, lack of concern for the rest of the world, environmental collapse. But Linkin Park themselves seem immune from their own equation.

Overall, however, they do have a point. I’m not sure if “the center can hold” for America very much longer. Just a quick example: Iran is now preparing to bomb Israel if anyone tries to stop its nuclear weapons program.

“Let mercy come, and wash away – – – – WHAT I’VE DONE”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:02 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Current Affairs ... Society ...

Let me admit it; I’m a “Baby Boomer”. That’s something to be rather sheepish about these days. My generation (remember that song by the Who, “Talking ‘Bout My Generation”?) was supposed to “change the world, rearrange the world”. And it didn’t. It turned out that we were an extremely self-centered generation. We liked being young and sexy and wild and crazy, but now we’re not. But we’re trying to still pretend that we are, and that we’re just as “hip” as the young folk.

The young trendsetters are now called Generation ZQYBX or something like that. They have the right to quote one of our mottos back at us: “WHY DON’T YOU ALL FADE AWAY, DON’T TRY TO DIG WHAT WE ALL SAY” (yes, indeed, that line is from The Who). We didn’t in the end offer them any lasting wisdom about life to latch on to. We got all upset in the late 60s about how terrible the world was being run. But that was mostly because Uncle Sam was sending too many of us to Vietnam, a war-gone-bad like today’s Iraq war (but about 10 times the magnitude); and was arresting us for smoking pot. Once we got past all that, we wanted tax cuts and SUVs and McMansions and welfare reform (elimination). That’s how we rearranged the world.

I took a look recently at some of the “networking” web sites that attempt to cater to Baby Boomers. These include Eons.com, Rezoom.com, Multiply.com, Boomj.com, and Boomertown.com. I’m not including links to any of them here because I don’t think that they – or the Baby Boom generation in general – are worth it. Not that the young digital generation has any wonderful alternatives – MySpace and Facebook get me dizzy and make me nauseous. And all that stuff on them about accumulating “friends” and being popular – how phony is that?

But when I see all those pix of graying people with big smiles and great bodies and interesting lives on the Boomer sites, it doesn’t do my stomach any good either. I look at the services offered and topics discussed – health, lifestyle, dating, travel, vacations, investments, real estate, mortgages, careers, celebrities, spiritual living – and it all seems so self-centered. It’s so Bill Clinton. Why aren’t there pages for FAILURE. SELF-DISAPPOINTMENT. REGRET FOR NOT DOING MORE FOR THE FUTURE. LACK OF COMMITMENT. STUPIDITY (INCLUDING OUR ONE-TIME ATTITUDES ABOUT SEX AND DRUGS). NEW-FOUND RESPECT FOR OUR ANCESTORS. LONG-DELAYED REALISM. MEA CULPA WORLD, WE WEREN’T SO SMART AFTER ALL. And finally, WHAT CAN WE YET DO TO LEAVE SOMETHING POSITIVE BEHIND.

That’s the Baby Boomer web site that I’ll sign up for. It would have to be certified Bill Clinton Free (I’m still hoping that Hilary will redeem the family name). I’ll take it seriously if you don’t have to give away a bunch of personal information to register, as you do with the typical Baby Boomer web sites. Obviously, the folk who run those sites know that Boomers have $$$, and info about them can be sold for marketing purposes. Yea, the Boomer sites are just so Boomer-ish. Yep, that’s “My [hypocritical] Generation, Baby”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:10 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Food / Drink ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... Politics ...

I’ve been dealing with some heavy topics lately, including global warming and the war in Iraq. Perhaps it’s time for a beer. Today I’d like to talk about a rather unusual beer — Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat. But before I do, let me say one more thing about Iraq — my gut feeling right now is that the nation of Iraq only works with a repressive, strong-man government. Democracy is just not forceful enough to hold such a crazy mix of ethnic rivalries and religious disagreements and clashing economic interests. Some nations just don’t hold together without dictatorship, as we saw with Yugoslavia and the greater Soviet Union / Warsaw Pact. It’s one of those lessons of history. And in Iraq, the USA seems to be ignoring that lesson with all its might.

Once you do remember that lesson, however, the choices for Iraq become clear, if not very appetizing: 1.) re-install a dictatorship; or 2.) split it up into a Kurd nation, a Sunni nation, and a Shiite nation, each with some degree of viable democracy. Strategically, the first option would be the best for the USA, assuming we could maintain a western-friendly dictator (someone like the former Shah of Iran). Unfortunately, dictatorships are ultimately unstable arrangements. They make too many enemies and eventually get toppled by the combined forces of internal dissent and old age. Eventually the second option will be realized; that’s just like water finding its lowest level because of gravity.

So, it would make sense for the USA to just bite the bullet and cut to the chase. The three-nation solution is not a good one; a Kurdish nation would get Turkey all flustered, and they might threaten war against it. The Sunni nation would be very poor (no oil), and might thus become a haven for Al Qaeda; and the Sunni nation could become a vassal state of Iran (although Sunni Arabs in Mesopotamia probably don’t want to be vassals of Sunni Persians). But that’s pretty much where things are headed; the USA could keep 200,000 troops in Iraq for 20 years, and things would probably turn out the same in the end. Why don’t we just start dealing with the inevitable result, and stop delaying it with American (and Iraqi) lives? We tried something similar in Vietnam back in the 1960’s and early 1970’s and found out that we couldn’t prevent the inevitable. Once the inevitable finally came in Vietnam, we learned to deal with it. By 2003, it seems that we forgot that lesson.

Oh, sorry. Back to the beer. Yes, Leinenkugel Sunset Wheat — a rather strange beer experience. It’s basically a wheat ale — OK, that’s simple enough. But then they ferment it like a lager — no big deal, that’s been done before (e.g., Genesee Cream Ale). But then they add coriander to give it a “witbeer” character. Still not too confusing, just another variation of Blue Moon (which is made by Coors; Leinenkugel is owned by Miller). But then they add a “top note” of blueberry flavor. And that’s what throws this beer into a spin. I’m presently working on a six-pack of it; 3 down and 3 to go (but not all at once!). And it is quite strange, although the third one started tasting a bit better. Perhaps one needs to acquire a taste for this beer. As you sip it, the blueberry and the coriander notes combine into an unfamiliar taste; the closest thing I could think of would be the bergamot flavor in Earl Grey tea. But come to think of it, an Earl Grey wheat beer might not be so bad. Maybe you just have to find the right frame of mind to approach this brew with. It’s substantial enough so that the flavorings, however strange, don’t overpower the underlying grains, hops and yeast. That’s what gives this beer some hope. If it were a thin lager (like regular Coors or Bud or Miller), this arrangement would not work at all.

The web-site reviews for Sunset Wheat are quite interesting. Predictably, they are all over the lot. Some people love it, some think it’s awful, and many are willing to give it a chance. Some people said that it reminds them of Fruity Pebbles cereal (also Trix and Fruit Loops). One unenthusiastic fellow said that it’s like puking up Fruity Pebbles. Others said that they taste the blueberries and some lemon. There appear to be a wide range of reactions to this brew; people taste different things. It definitely has potential as a mind experiment, a project for a student working on a doctoral degree in cognitive psychology. The outcome of such an experiment would surely be happier than the outcome of our nation’s experiment with democracy in Iraq.

It’s a crazy, complicated world . . . . but as people say, “that’s why we drink beer”. Oh, one final example of beer and politics: a recent Oktoberfest celebration in the West Bank!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:00 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Current Affairs ... Science ... Society ...

There’s a strange attitude here in the USA about global warming these days. Almost everyone has given in to its existence. Even the Republican leadership in Washington no longer challenges the scientific validity of the theory that gasses created by human industrial activity have raised the world’s temperature and could cause some really nasty problems later this century. But they are trying to minimize its potential by claiming it to be just another technical problem.

Even some of the more thoughtful writers assume that the success that America has had in controlling atmospheric pollution problems (e.g., CFC’s and nitric oxides) will surely repeat itself with regard to greenhouse gasses. And some of the more fervent “internationalists” support this notion by blaming the USA and western Europe for entirely causing the problem. They thus assume that the force of their United Nations-flavored wrath will stimulate the technological fixes and investments that will cool things down. On top of all that, the idealistic pop musicians are organizing concerts to save the planet, bringing back that good old “we are the world” spirit that makes everyone feel nice and cozy. We’ve admitted our guilt, we’ve put out a concert video, we’ve seen the Al Gore movie, and the problem is solved (other than a few loose ends that the scientists and engineers can take care of).

I recently read a handful of articles hinting that global warming is going to be much tougher to deal with than the public seems to think. There is a group of academic researchers working with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change who put out a study showing that the causes of global warming are more evenly spread over all of the inhabited continents than is popularly believed. The new analysis still shows that the average North American and European citizens have polluted the skies with greenhouse gasses much more than their Asian, African and Latin American neighbors have. But even if the industrialized nations get a handle on the problem with their technology, concentrations of greenhouse gasses could still continue to rise toward a “tipping point” where all sorts of bad stuff will start happening.

That is because of such things as methane emissions from certain types of food production (e.g. rice fields and cattle), crude means of producing charcoal (the most popular form of fuel in Africa and the poorer areas of Asia and South America) and deforestation. Another problem is that the developing nations are hell-bent on industrializing without much regard for the side effects. Thus, India and China are building lots of coal-burning electrical plants and factories without adequate pollution controls. And more and more people in those places are now driving autos and buying larger homes farther from work. They’re taking up our suburban habits, and that’s not good.

Here are some rough numbers from a 2005 article published by some UN-affiliated scientists: if you consider all of the recognized factors that contribute to global warming, the causes of unnatural planetary heating during the 20th Century would be split as follows: OECD countries (USA, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea and western Europe as far as Poland and Turkey) – 38 %; Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – 14 %; developing Asia (w/o Japan and Korea) – 26 %; Africa and Latin America (w/o Mexico) – 22 %. By comparison, the present population of the world breaks down as follows: OECD, 18%; former Soviet Union, 4%; developing Asia, 57%; and Africa / Latin America, 21 %. Some quick math shows that the Russians and their friends did the most damage per person; OECD denizens came in second, Africans and Latin Americans placed third, and developing Asians finished fourth.

What does that say about the future? Well, OECD is the home of technology and wealth. But even so, they can’t (and won’t) turn their capitalistic economies around on a dime. By 2100, perhaps they can cut their “greenhouse footprint” by one-eighth or one-sixth, one-quarter tops. The former Soviet region isn’t doing as well, although they may at least keep their footprint from getting bigger (especially since their population is not growing). As to Africa and Latin America – these places are so poor and so hard to reach, it’s doubtful that they can do much to stop the damage they are causing. And their populations are expected to grow significantly, which means that their “footprint on the sky” could well get worse. As to developing Asia – that’s where future of global warming is going to be determined, simply because of the sheer size of its population (and their continuing although slowing population growth rates).

Developing Asia is quickly increasing its impact on greenhouse warming. Let’s say, however, that over the next 50 years it doesn’t get worse, on a per-person basis, than the 20th Century average for Africa and Latin America. Let’s also say that the OECD nations manage to cut their average impact by one-quarter; that the Russian-zone impact comes down by a tenth; and Africa and Latin America stay the same. Where does that leave us? According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, it leaves our planet fifteen percent worse than today. Instead of leveling off later this century, as the UN reports on global warming assume, global warming would then accelerate, hurling us toward ecological breakdown. The worst case scenarios of 20-foot sea rises and arid deserts across China, the USA and middle Europe, start to look more feasible.

We’ve clearly been saved from our folly thus far by Asia’s poverty. And now they’re starting to figure out how to leave that poverty behind. They’re using the same techniques that we used, which messed the atmosphere up so much in the first place! They’re locking-in on our own bad habits by setting up fossil-fuel intensive economies and competitive ways of life. Unless we here in the west quickly develop some alternatives for living modestly and cooperatively in an ecologically responsible fashion, the developing world is going to pave the road to hell with high-carbon bling-bling, just as we did. And this time, the road is going to go all the way there.

PS — If you don’t believe me in regard to Asia and global warming, check out Tom Friedman. And thanks to the NY Times for allowing us cheapskates to read him for free once more on their web site.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:04 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... Religion ... Society ...

OK, so Osama Bin Laden is back with a new video. This time he’s giving us a lecture on the errors of our ways. He’s urging Americans to convert en mass to Islam. That guy has some imagination. But he’s not issuing any threats. Well, that’s different. Is this a kinder and gentler Al Qaeda that we’re seeing?

Yea, right. I’m not an expert on Islam, but I do know that Al Qaeda is trying to justify its brand of violent jihad to the “establishment” of imams and Moslem scholars who define and interpret the Qur’an for the faithful. One theory that seems popular in some quarters of the Islamic world is that violence against dangerous infidels can sometimes be justified, but only after they’ve been warned of the errors of their ways. Thus, I can’t help but wonder if Bin Laden has something big up his sleeve, and wants to get the imams ready to take some heat once the blood starts spilling, once the regular citizens and even children who pose no direct threat to any Moslem get slaughtered. (Even some local Moslems might well get caught in the mix, as happened on 9-11).

But who knows. Maybe he’s just going thru the motions; maybe he can’t really get anything big going with US Rangers just a couple of klicks to his west (but a friendly Pakistani intelligence service to his east). Let’s just hope.

The unfortunate thing is that Bin Laden is playing to an audience (i.e., the clerics and scholars in the Islamic world) that we have no idea how to impress, or even how to get a hearing from. If we could get them to sit down and watch a 30 minute video about “the way of the west”, just what would we say?

That’s the problem. Just what do we stand for? Democracy? A government with elected officials is good, but it still leaves a whole lot of woes (as we see in both Gaza and Iran, two VERY democratic nations). Capitalism and wealth? Yes, capitalism has served the western world rather well; but again, not without causing a whole lot of nasty side effects (e.g., poverty in a rich land is sometimes worse than general poverty, given the insult-to-injury factor; the poor start doing crazy things for some “bling-bling”). Liberalism, in the classic sense of freedom, justice and individual rights? Yes, this stuff is good, but again — it also gives you the right to be terribly poor and to be shut out by the wealthy and enfranchised “old guard”. In America, you have the right to buy excellent health care — if you can afford it. Otherwise, so sorry; you stay sick and die early. Liberalism in the other sense, i.e. increased governmental protection against scams and toxic chemicals and pollution and dangerous workplaces and all that? We tried that, but the voters wanted tax cuts.

I wish I could say that there is one really good thing that we strongly believe in here in “The West”. As an “eternal student”, I propose that to be EDUCATION. If we could say to the Moslem world that WE BELIEVE IN EDUCATION FOR ALL, then maybe the other things would start to fit together. I’d like us to be able to say that education is so sacred in “The West” that everyone can get as much of it as they want regardless of their ability to pay, and they get the same quality regardless of economic status or family connections. Education makes all the other stuff fall into place. Education makes better citizens, better workers, better government officials, better entrepreneurs, better teachers. It just plain makes people better. Not just richer, not just more employable, not just more able to play the system and elect better governments and choose wiser religious beliefs. It does all that — but it adds up to something bigger. It adds up to people living fulfilled lives, doing and being at their best. THAT is what I’d like to tell the Moslem world that we believe in. THAT is what I’d say is their alternative to Osama Bin Laden.

(We could thus call the Islamic world to remember it’s own rich scholarly heritage during it’s golden age!)

Once upon a time, we could honestly tell the world that this was true. When I went to college, at a decent state engineering school, the tuition was next to nothing. The State and Federal Governments were so committed to education that literally anyone who could pass the classes could get a degree. But guess what? That was 30 years ago.

Times have changed. Even the state schools have become awfully expensive. You can still get a scholarship if you’re a real goody-goody. But what about those poorer, lazier types who don’t have such impressive high school records? I went to law school with a guy who was basically a lout; he barely got out of high school and went to work in a factory. Between bouts of partying, he took some evening classes in a community college and he hated it. It was back to partying and factory life for him. But a few years later, he tried again. And that time around, he met a professor that “found” him. Then it was on to completing a four-year college degree, and then on to law school. Today he has a very successful legal practice and is a local councilman. That’s what you get when you let people go to college on the cheap.

I wish I could tell the imams about that guy, how anyone here in the USA can do that. But no, today that can’t be done. The guy would have needed to sign his life away for an education loan. Forget it, it wouldn’t happen if he had to play by today’s rules. People want their tax cuts. People want to shop. That was George Bush’s answer to the last big attack on our country by Al Qaeda — keep on shopping. And so we did. But can we buy protection against a Moslem world that thinks that’s all we stand for? We shall see.

PS, Bush’s homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend, was on TV today taunting Bin Laden for being on the run and powerless. Senator John McCain tried to inject a dose of reality afterward when he said that Townsend’s comments were “not helpful”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:18 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, September 3, 2007
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... History ...

I just read a short note about the Crusades and the medieval legend of Prester John, and it reminded me of the Bush Administration’s policy towards the Middle East. For those of you like myself who aren’t history majors, Prester John was a mythical character that arose in the 12th Century, when the pope and the kings in Europe were sending hoards of armed peasants to deal with those Muslim Turks and Arabs who had overrun the Holy Lands. These were the Crusades. Overall, they weren’t going quite as well as had been hoped. The Christian soldiers would take Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, Edessa and other places in the Levant, but they couldn’t hold them for more than a few decades.

The First Crusade delivered some shock-and-awe, for a time; but by 1187 the Saracens had retaken Jerusalem. And yet, for another hundred years or so, the Christians just kept coming (and mostly didn’t get very far). The western kings and popes more-or-less knew that they were operating well beyond their logistical and political range. They needed a powerful friend in the East, and so they invented an imaginary one – Prester John. PJ (as we might call him today) was allegedly the king of a powerful pro-Christian state somewhere around India. PJ wanted to kick the Saracens out himself, and allegedly wanted to launch his own Crusades. Before long, letters seemingly sent by PJ started arriving in Rome and Paris and Venice.

Well, obviously this was just what the kings and bishops in France and Italy and Germany wanted to hear! Their Middle-Eastern blunders were going to be shored up just as soon as the western Christians could hook up with PJ’s troops. They finally had a guy who knew how to operate in western Asia. Everything was going to be OK.

Except that Prester John was just a hoax, fed by a whole lot of political wishful thinking and a bunch of jokesters who got a laugh out of writing phony letters and seeing the big guns take them seriously. The Prester John rumor allowed the kings and popes to keep on spilling blood in the Middle East, long after the nobles should have cut their losses and the peasants should have revolted. The Crusades didn’t finally end until around 1290 or so.

Funny how Middle-Eastern history repeats itself. Instead of the cause of Christendom, our present day Prester John’s are based on the noble concept of ‘democracy’. Our government keeps saying that we’ve found allies in the march for democracy (shall we say “crusade for democracy”?). In Iraq there was Chalabi and now there’s Maliki. In Afghanistan we have Karzai. These fellows are a bit more real than Prester John, but not by much. Democracy is an arguably meritorious idea and ideal, but it’s mainly being used by the Bush Administration to prop up a bad idea. America can’t build good government in Iraq or Afghanistan (or Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for that matter) any better than the popes and kings could maintain Crusader states, or the Roman Emperors maintain Babylonian proconsulates. It’s a great idea, a necessary idea, an idea that could defuse the threat of jihadist terrorism — but it’s an idea that will ultimately have to germinate and flower on its own.

Unfortunately, our present day equivalents to the popes and kings have not done the one thing that our own Western Empire can do to insulate itself from the harsh and bloody politics of the Middle East – and that is to use our powerful technology to put an end to the hydrocarbon energy economy. It would not be easy or cheap. But sending and maintaining permanent armies in Afghanistan and Iraq isn’t cheap either. Not to mention all the tax money now spent on homeland security. And heaven forbid what happens once we start mixing it up with Iran.

We should have started the energy independence “crusade” way back in 1980, after we had two economic warnings about our over-dependence on Middle-Eastern oil. But no, Ronald Reagan convinced us that everything was just fine, oil prices dropped, alternative energy research money was re-targeted to support tax cuts, and the party was on. We got another big warning on September 11, 2001. And yet — here we are, six years later, still driving big SUV’s and building huge energy-hog houses and rearranging the geography of our homes and our jobs and our shopping places so that we have no alternatives to automotive transport.

Oh well. Onward Christian soldiers! American Prosperity, like Prester John, will make everything OK . . .

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:43 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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