"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 9, 2016

Too Many Generals In The Trump Administration? We Need More Not Fewer

Military rule has always been problematic.   It is by nature autocratic, and its autocracy always leads to abuse and arrogation of power.  Yet military rule can be an important, if temporary, solution to governance when civilian rule fails.  Pakistan, notorious for its succession of corrupt civilian administrations has periodically turned to the military to restore order, discipline, and a measure of limited authoritarian rule.  

The military in Egypt, despite Western exceptionalism and insistence on popular democracy, has been instrumental in inhibiting Islamic radicalism and maintaining civil order. 

In many countries the military has been the most efficient agency with which to institute social programs.  In Central America, for example, international agencies recruited to assist in improving public health, often turned first to military hospitals, clinics, and dispensaries to implement programs to fight HIV/AIDS.   Once the military authorities understood the threat of the disease and how it could debilitate its fighting forces, they applied all their hierarchical authority, command and obedience, and efficient administrative structure to carry out prevention programs.

Extended military rule – as contrasted to temporary authority and/or participation in programs of national interest – has always been problematic. South America, known for its long history of military governments starting with Bolivar, is an example of how governments have opted for discipline and authoritarian order over the messiness of democracy, and have paid the price.  The military is as subject to arrogation of power, corruption, and misrule as civilian institutions, and democracy has always been a countervailing force to such misrule.

The military will always lobby for more power, influence, and resources; and will exaggerate the threat to national security in order to secure them.  A professional soldier corps, organized, trained, and managed to fight and kill the enemy can never be satisfied with peace and harmony; and as such poses its own threat to world order.

It is normal, therefore, for politicians to be chary about military officers – active or retired – in civilian government.   Once a soldier, always a soldier, the politicians protest; and soldiers will always look to military solutions in the most civilian of contexts.  Not only that, dissenters claim, but that retired generals can never be free from the culture and ethos of authority, command, and absolute discipline  learned in the military.  Civilian democratic governance requires debate and compromise and the challenge of authority as a necessary instrument of participatory rule.

Yet these politicians and their constituents by focusing exclusively on militarism overlook the importance of military virtues – strength, courage, camaraderie, discipline, order, respect, duty, and patriotism.

Looking at the recent presidential campaign and American electoral politics in general, many observers have suggested that focus is wrongly placed on image, cachet, allure, and artfully-crafted policy.  Americans should assess candidates on their honesty, rectitude, principle, and moral judgment.  An intelligent man or woman operating from a strong moral and ethical center would at least guarantee a modicum of correctness in government.  Regardless of the successes and failures of their administrations, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were saluted as men of moral principle.
Reagan challenged the Soviet Union not because it was just in America’s geopolitical interest, but that Soviet communism was wrong.  His fight for small government was not simply an anti-bureaucratic distaste, but a belief in individual enterprise and the spiritual value of freedom.

Jimmy Carter’s compassion and religious faith were obvious, and no one – especially Carter – ever denied that his particular moral rectitude and principled moral philosophy guided his political decisions.

In his own way George H.W. Bush was cut from the same principled mold.  A man of inherited wealth and privilege, noblesse oblige was a duty.  Bush served his country as combat aviator in WWII, served in Congress and dutifully and responsibly carried out the responsibilities of high office – Director of the CIA, Ambassador, Vice-President, and President.  He had his many critics, but few could argue with his honesty and sense of duty.

While service in the high ranks of the military does not automatically confer such moral vision, it helps.  No military officer who has commanded troops in battle will eagerly send young men to probable if not certain death.  While good officers will always follow the orders of the President and his civilian advisers, they object to political policies which cause unnecessary casualties, protract war when it can be won quickly, and mandate battlefield approaches designed in Washington.   In other words, wars are for winning quickly and decisively.  If they cannot be, then they should not be fought.

What better candidate to run a key government department than a former general who, by dint of his training, character, and experience is committed to following the orders of his superiors, carrying them out efficiently and expeditiously, assuring cohesion and discipline among his employees, and commanding respect from them?

As importantly military officers understand the nature of large institutions and how they must be managed for efficiency and purposeful focus.  Commanding thousands or tens of thousands of men and women deployed in an array of technical and operational disciplines all interrelated and depending on universal efficiency and coordination, requires consummate management skill.

Therefore if a member of a presidential cabinet has these attributes – a sense of discipline, order, respect, and purpose -  is motivated by patriotism and moral rectitude; and understands the intricacies of managing large public institutions, why shouldn’t he serve as a high-ranking official of civilian government?

Of course such former generals can become befuddled, frustrated, angry, and undisciplined when faced with a venal and self-serving Congress, a brutally partisan political opposition, and the infighting that always and inevitably occurs within presidential administrations.   A man who has always given orders and seen them followed may not take lightly to even loyal opposition; and might turn vindictive and hostile.   The very strengths that make good military leaders may be their undoing in civilian rule.

Othello was one of the greatest generals Venice had ever seen – a battlefield leader, a strategic genius, and a man who commanded the loyalty and respect of his troops and his civilian masters.  Yet the very traits that made him such a consummate general betrayed him at home.  He was so used to battlefield loyalty that he never learned to read the more complex motivations of men left to their own devices.  While Iago might have been an ideal lieutenant in wartime, he was anything but in Venice.  Othello had never learned to look for ulterior motives, malicious intent, or murderous plotting; and as such was vulnerable to Iago’s evil.  In fact Othello knew nothing about women either and missed completely Desdemona’s independence, sexuality, and will.

Yet these are no reasons to reject a former general for high government office.  Particularly in a country which in many ways has lost its collective moral bearings and has drifted far from the principles espoused by Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and their colleagues, choosing someone who at least in principle should embody them makes perfect sense.

Cato the Elder developed a curriculum for the future military and civilian leaders of Ancient Rome.  In addition to the more practical aspects of governance, Cato included the teaching of moral principles – courage, duty, respect, honesty, and compassion – for he understood that no civilization had survived without the incorporation of these principles in its leadership. 

If there is any institution which has continued to respect and incorporate these principles, it is the military. 

This is not to say that militaries have not abandoned these principles and have fallen into the same corrupt, irresponsible, and immoral ways of their civilian counterparts.  It is only to suggest that the ethos of military is still a good one in principle and one which has important applications to civilian life.

If a cabinet Secretary or Administrator has retained the principles learned and applied in the military, then his or her technical qualifications for the post are of lesser importance.  Smart people learn quickly and delegate efficiently; and former military officers know how to delegate and to retain authority and discipline.  They will be loyal to the President and loyal to their Departmental troops.

It is worth a try.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Our Need For Miracle, Mystery, And Authority–So Much For Free Will

Ivan Karamazov in the Grand Inquisitor sections of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, challenges the returned Christ for having betrayed mankind.  In rejecting Satan’s temptation in the desert to make bread from stone to satisfy his hunger, Jesus replies that man cannot live by bread alone, but “on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).  He further rejects the Devil’s offers for great wealth and power for the Kingdom of God knows no such needs.

Ivan  admonishes Christ for suggesting that man should use his free will to reject, as he did, the temptations of evil, and to choose righteousness and the way of the Lord.  Nonsense, says Ivan.  Man only wants miracle, mystery, and authority.  He wants to witness the changing of water into wine, the curing of lepers and the restoration of sight to the blind.  He wants the mystery of the ceremony, the transubstantiation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, chants, incense, sacrifice, and incantation.  And he wants to be ruled and to be freed from the impossibility of choosing between right and wrong, to be guided along the path to redemption and salvation, and to purified from sin. 
Thou didst desire man's free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems.
'So that, in truth, Thou didst Thyself lay the foundation for the destruction of Thy kingdom, and no one is more to blame for it. Yet what was offered Thee? There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and to hold captive for ever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness those forces are miracle, mystery and authority.
Ivan goes on to say that instead of relieving man from hunger, want, and penury, he offered only the promise of salvation.  Not salvation itself, a place in paradise, and eternal joy; but only the possibility of it.  In so doing he enabled the rise of the Church – a venal, exploitative, and arrogant institution concerned only with increasing its own power and treasury.

Worst of all, Christ through his promises, condemned innocent children to lives of brutal punishment and abuse.   Too young to even know what free will is and dependent on their parents for guidance and protection, they are unprepared and totally vulnerable to the worst of human nature.

Dostoevsky was writing about religious morality and the foundations of Christian faith, but his observations about miracle, mystery, and authority are universal.  Most people prefer authority and discipline to independence and the expression of individual will.  Most are seduced by the miraculous and the mysterious, and prefer to live in a world of undisciplined faith rather than sort through the spiritual, moral, and ethical issues they face.

Pope John Paul II was openly scornful of those Protestant evangelical religions which preach an immediate, unmediated, miraculous encounter with Jesus Christ as the only path to salvation.  Such subjective, irrational, and melodramatic conversions are tantamount to heresy and rejection of Augustine, Aquinas, Clement, and Irenaeus.  The way to salvation is indeed faith, but only through the logical and rational search for Christ and a profound understanding of his divinity can one finally attain it.

John Paul’s words have fallen on deaf ears and even those more accessible sermons of Pope Francis reinforcing the traditional Catholic belief in the same unity of body, mind, and spirit found in Jesus Christ have been ignored.  Protestants and Catholics alike continue to prefer ceremony, epiphany, and the miracle of conversion. 

This embrace of the miraculous and mysterious is as secular as it is religious.  The campaigns of environmentalists to slow climate change, to stop the pollution of wetlands, and rivers, and to halt corporate destruction of forests and open land have as much to do with mystery as they do to science.  Mother Earth is not simply a colloquial term for the planet, but a mystical invocation of Gaia, the sensate, interactive, spiritual nature of the world.  

Those who oppose abortion rely not so much on philosophical principle – the inception of life and its sanctity and the immorality of termination – but on the ‘mystery of life’.  One moment there is nothing – a physical and spiritual empty space – and in the next there is life; and in nine months a thinking, feeling, intelligent being brought into the world.   There can be nothing more elegant than the mystery of creation, pro-life advocates claim. 

Those more classically trained point to the first five verses of the Gospel of John, the most sophisticated, complex, yet simple statement of origins and beginnings in any secular or religious text.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Even greater than the mystery of life is the mystery of creation.  Something out of nothing, yet with the eternal presence of the Word which has always existed before and after creation.

Conspiracy theories are borne from the same desire for mystery and miracles.  It is simply impossible, say many, that we are alone in the universe.  Given its infinitude, its absolute immensity, there must be races other than human in our galaxy and beyond.  And given this infinity of time and space, they cannot possibly resemble us.  The must be either grotesque or sublimely beautiful.  Intelligent beyond any human intellect or as brutally aggressive and territorial as the worst of Earth’s despots. 

Children dream of other worlds, adults wonder what it must be like to live in Outer Space.  Hollywood produces film after film about other worlds, and the mystery of the alien other.  The otherworldly visitors in Cocoon, Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T are benign and friendly.  Those in It Came From Outer Space, Alien, and War of the Worlds are certainly not.


No quantum theory, statistical probability, or intriguing discoveries of an expanding or contracting universe, the existence of gravitational waves, or the proof of Einstein’s theorems can possibly replace the miracle and mystery of an infinite universe filled with an infinite variety of life.

Logic – a subset of free will – is of little use or satisfaction when it comes to probing the mysteries of life and the universe.  Better not to bother at all rather than founder on the rocks.

Which then leaves authority which needs little explanation.  We are a race of joiners, associates, and communalists.  We not only espouse mysterious causes and principles, we feel the need to join like-minded others who are equally passionate, equally taken by the immensity and intrigue of the mystery, and equally faithful to its promise.

The abuse that Ivan Karamazov observed in the Church is common to all hierarchical, influential institutions.  Whether religious, secular; public or private; voluntary or compulsory, these administrative structures are the defining architecture of our lives.  We would be lost without them.  We need their dicta, rules and regulations, and operating principles.

Free will? The evidence for is paltry and the evidence against compelling.  It is hard to believe that free will of any consequence exists given the evidence for genetic and environmental determinism, the overwhelming witness of a predictable, repetitive, cyclical history, and the similarity of all human behavior.

Which is probably why miracle, mystery, and authority have been the mantra of all civilizations before and after Dostoevsky and Jesus Christ.

Waking Up To The End Of The World–Our Need For Armageddon

Not only is the climate warming, say environmentalists, but at such a rate that the Great Plains, the Eurasian steppes, the Sahel and swaths of China, India, and Southern Europe will soon become desert.  Melting polar ice will add so much water to the world’s oceans that Bombay, New York, Miami, the Philippines, Indonesia and every other coastal nation will be inundated and unlivable.

Not only is there an unprecedented concentration of wealth, power, and influence in the United States, but that concentration is growing.  Not only will multinational corporations, their executives and major shareholders control the world’s wealth, but they will share it less and less.  The world’s poor, marginalized, and disadvantaged underclass will sink deeper into poverty and despair.


White American males– sexist, abusive, misogynist, and hateful – encouraged by the victory of Donald Trump will reassert their traditional power and influence.  If there was ever a need for safe spaces, there is now, for newly-empowered and aggressive white men are already mobilizing and militarizing.  Black people will once again become enslaved,  Latinos and Asians penned in WWII-style internment camps.   Diversity will be replaced by race, gender, and ethnicity gulags worse than ever imagined by Stalin.

Oil and gas pipelines will crisscross the nation like never before; and under the Trump’s far-right administration, oversight and environmental protection will disappear.   Oil spills, fracking earthquakes, and the chemical pollution of rivers and streams will increase at an alarming rate.  Old-growth forests will be harvested until the West is nothing but one great clear-cut.  Endangered species will be eliminated.

Worst of all, these dire disasters will all occur at the same time.  Events of The Book of Revelations will be tame compared to what will happen on Earth.
The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.
And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood;
And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.
And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters…(Rev.8)

Disaster movies are always box office hits.  Films about nuclear winter, collision with a giant asteroid (Independence Day, Deep Impact) , the spread of zombie viruses (28 Days Later), and the end of humanity (Children of Men) are so popular that new ones are produced every year and have been since the first days of talkies.  

We love existential terror and always have. The Book of Revelation is simply an early Christian version of a Hollywood B-movie script; and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are posters for it.

If the early Christians had not invented the idea of a sulfurous eternal Hell, some other religion would have.  Something about penitential destruction, wrote one Medieval monk, was part of God’s plan and universally understood.

Yet Americans who lived in earlier days of the Republic were not concerned about such existential threats.  Life expectancy fluctuated between 30 and 40 years, death and dying were frequent, visible, common, and normal occurrences in early America.  So common in fact, that death was nothing to worry about.  Not only was it ordained, the gateway to a better world, but there was little one could do about it.  A minor cut from the bread knife could mean systemic sepsis and a quick death.

Soldiers in the Crusades, the Napoleonic Wars, or the Hundred Years War knew that the probability of death on the battlefield was a near certainty.  Tolstoy’s description of the Battle of Borodino are terrifying, but apparently only to the readers of War and Peace because he describes the camaraderie, the almost joyful firing of the artillery and the rain of cannonballs.  A heroic death on the battlefield at 25 was better than dying from the cut of a bread knife at 30.


We seem afraid of everything these days, despite our longevity, institutions, military, and economy.  Safe spaces are needed to protect us from hostile intent and threatening ideas, and from the sexual, gender, and ethnic harassment waiting just outside the gates.  We Purell our kitchen counters, wash our hands after touching doorknobs, triple-belt our car seats, spend thousands for airbags, intelligent danger sensors, and Humvees. 

In a world with so many immediate dangers, it is not much of a leap to worry about the truly threatening – the existential dangers of asteroids, an incinerated Earth, or the spread of a deadly virus.
Yet this does not explain the collective hysteria.  It is one thing to go to bed worried that the world will be ablaze in the morning; another altogether to join movements of the worried.

 Environmentalism is the religion of the day complete with liturgy, communion, tithing, and a spiritual belief in progress through good works.  As in all religions community and brotherhood are central.  Doing good works together adds value to individual enterprise.

Environmentalism, feminism and the movements for social justice, civil rights, and economic equality are religious subsets of the one big church – progressivism.   In fact, according to its adherents, all sub-movements are interrelated, and only by joining in collective, collaborative efforts can progress be achieved.   Economic injustice is behind social injustice.  Financial avarice corrupts civil rights and causes environmental degradation.  Acceptance of income inequality leads to acceptance of all inequality.

While most progressives become conservatives since idealism fades quickly when one is faced with the reality of human nature; and while sooner or later most people turn their attention to issues of mortality, immortality, salvation, or divine retribution and leave secular concerns behind, existential angst is still hard to shake.

Biblical terror, B-movies, longevity, leisure, population pressure and the need for individual distinguishing identity have combined in philosophical-political perfect storm.  We simply cannot sit back and relax.  We should not, and we must not – if progressive advocates are to be heeded.


On the other hand, there are those who are immune to apocalyptic doomsday warnings.  Life has never been a bowl of cherries, likely to end unfulfilled and alone.  Better to be an epicurean, enjoying life as it comes and to the limit. 

The movie Welcome to New York is a fictionalized account of the affair Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an unrepentant hedonist who, despite the pleas of his ambitious wife, did nothing to control his appetites, risking the Presidency of France with glee and defiance.

The  penultimate scene – that of Devereaux (the Strauss-Kahn character) propositioning the maid – is the amoral closure of the film.  He is virile, irrepressible, contemptuous of the bourgeoisie and its myopic values, and subversive of them.  He is reminiscent of Fyodor Karamazov, the father of the brothers of Dostoevsky’s novel, who is as sexually driven, condescending, and irreverent.  Both men are attractive in their will, defiance of the meek, timid, and sexually repressed.


It is hard for those on the amoral Right to understand the emotional commitment of those on the moral Left.  They do not understand the tears and wrenching distress of Hillary Clinton supporters at her resounding defeat.  Nor can they understand how Hillary supporters so easily believe that Donald Trump is Satanic and profoundly evil.  If history has shown us anything, it is that it repeats itself according to the predicable dictates of human nature.  Not a pretty picture, but fact nonetheless.  Morality is a side issue, ethics quite relative, and the pursuit of power, wealth, and influence absolute.  The only thing that varies is how they are pursued.

Shakespeare understood the unchanging cycles of history – the rise and inevitable fall of kings, wars, palace intrigues, plots, and murder – but was fascinated by their diversity.  An amoral genius.

So most Americans belong to one cause or another and define themselves by such associations.  Others, like ‘Devereaux’ live lives of willful excess.  Many more take life as it comes, preparing as best they can for the Final Judgment or at least, as the Jews say, figuring out what’s what before it’s too late to be schmart.