23 May 2015

CITIES IN TIME

This morning the news programs in the US were all excitedly reporting on the opening of the new observation deck atop the 1 World Trade Center tower, and some of the visual technologies on the way up appear to be quite impressive. But the claim some made about new and unique vistas is simply untrue. Perhaps they weren’t around when the first World Trade Center stood there, because the view is essentially the same as that of the original. I still can’t relate to this one because I recall too much of what is missing. 

From a pier in Brooklyn I watched the twin towers rising downtown and when they were completed, spent a lot of time there over the years either in offices, the concourse, or the Windows on the World restaurant and the bar at the opposite side. All are now gone, along with the church next to the towers where I was married, and unforgettably, the thousands of innocent souls who perished in that terrible attack. 

Yet the city rebounded  with renewed enthusiasm and real estate continues to rise, but nothing goes up indefinitely, and can easily head in the other direction. For it was not that long ago that a majority of the people living here said they would move somewhere else if they could, at a time when the path towards decay and decline then seemed inevitable. But these days people again think that New York is the greatest city in the world, and to the west and south there are only provincial places, but that in itself is also a kind of parochial  viewpoint. It is also seen as the center of the world, especially for those who have come here from somewhere else. 

What is true is that if you came back to NYC after a decade or so, you would find things different due to the constant building and rebuilding going on, and it is in large measure sustained by that constant reinvention and renewal. But there are other places, such as Detroit or Baltimore, that no longer seem to have a purpose, and could be headed towards the same fate as some of the ancient city ruins I recently visited. But neither applies to Venice, which was finished long ago, and remains intact even after many years of decline. It is a place you could revisit after decades and find nothing changed, not to mention settings that appear as they would have centuries in the past. It was once a republic that lasted over a thousand years, but today it is basically a dead city, a museum, that exists almost entirely for tourists. Nothing else happens there anymore. The population is only 60,000 and falling as well as aging, so that it is projected that no Venetians will be left by 2030, when in any case it may be flooded by rising seas. 

Other cities, like Athens and Rome, have existed for thousands of years, undergoing periods of sharp decline, but then rebounding, because although they contain ancient ruins, they are still living cities with people engaged in a wide range of activities. From ancient times onwards cities have been sacked, populations slaughtered, and temples destroyed, but often they would rebound and build a new temple, and sometimes the ruins we see today are the second or even third incarnation of what was there originally.  

Other times cities would be totally and deliberately obliterated, like Carthage, with little left to suggest they ever existed.  Some simply fade away for other reasons. I recently visited the ancient Greek cities of Ephesus and Miletus on the coast of what is now Turkey. It was there that philosophy began and rational thought was applied to explain natural phenomena previously attributed to divinities and spirits, thus providing the foundation for science. They were once important cities, with commercial harbors, but as rivers silted up over time they were left in an inland location, resulting in the loss of economic vitality and depopulation. The same thing happened in other places, such as Pisa in Italy. 


We can never know what the long term fate of our cities will be. Will they decline beyond recovery, will they transform into something else, or will they still remain vibrant? In any event we cannot assume that the world we live in now will be the same a few hundred years from now, any more than we resemble the world of a few hundred years past. But whatever record we do leave will likely only be found in cities or what remains of them. 

04 May 2015

JFK AIRPORT TRAVEL MISERY

Every time I return from a trip abroad I dread the miserable process of passing through JFK airport in New York, which continues to a be a national embarrassment, especially when you think that this is the first thing people from other countries experience when they come here. It is says a lot when it is an even worse experience than traveling to Venice, where I just returned from.  

Venice is notoriously difficult to come and go from as you either have to travel via a water taxi, or haul your luggage to your destination from the furthest point a train or bus from the airport can take you. From there you have to cross canals, and since this will involve dragging suitcases up and down the steps of a series of bridges to get to your hotel, it is well worth paying a porter to take care of that for you. But with canals instead of streets everywhere, these difficulties are at least the result of unavoidable physical conditions.

The same cannot be said for the dismal conditions at JFK which are man-made and entirely avoidable. It is a disgrace, compared to modern and efficient airports in other cities around the world. First you have to walk through an endless dingy corridor to a huge room with a vast series of lines below a huge, truly dreadful mural. Initially there is a line for US citizens, foreign legal residents, and first time visitors, but then the first two pointlessly get merged. Then you have to get on a very long line that snakes back and forth several times, until you finally get to stop number one. Then you go to a kiosk, insert your passport and it prints out a paper with your picture verifying your information, with such new technology apparently designed to speed things up and smooth your passage. But it doesn’t, because you then go to another line anyway, and at this point the confusion is such that I can’t even tell you what department each stop is for, but after that there is yet another line. Then you pick up your luggage and wind up on yet another line, before finally exiting the airport to one mercifully quick last line to get a taxi, by which time nearly two hours have transpired since landing. If you weren’t exhausted after spending eight hours on an airplane you will be after this. 

This can’t be blamed on enhanced security, because oddly, leaving from the same airport took less than half an hour, despite full security checks. Problems returning are instead based upon bureaucratic ineptitude, needless duplication and terrible organization. Clearly no one is looking at things from the customer standpoint. What is clearly needed is an effort to bring this airport into the twenty-first century in terms of physical plant, as well as new and better management. 


I did come across one thing even dumber, in Croatia, one of the countries we visited. For some odd reason the government insists that merchants display prices only in the local currency, which is so obscure you can’t even find it on most conversion tables. In most other countries prices are usually posted in dollar or euro equivalents for the convenience of tourist customers. That is obviously good for business; pricing things in kunas  is definitely not, and local businesses suffer as a result. Clearly government ineptitude knows no borders. 

17 February 2015

THE ISIS POVERTY PROGRAM

A goofy State Department spokeswoman said that we need to address the “underlying causes” that have created ISIS. It seems these causes consist poverty and lack of jobs. But poverty and a need for work characterizes not ISIS, but those poor Egyptian Coptic Christians they beheaded. It is really troubling when the administration is so clueless about not just Islamic radicalism, but extremism in general, which is of course the way it insists on seeing the problem. The problem with the analysis put forward is that it is completely wrong. 

Radical extremists virtually never come from the poor. The poor are too concerned with day to day survival and have little connection with causes of any kind. There are plenty of radicals claiming to represent the poor throughout history, such as the communists. But neither Lenin nor Stalin came from an impoverished background. Bin Laden was very wealthy, and his successor is an Egyptian medical doctor. There is virtually no example of a poor radical extremist throughout history. It may be too much to have expect them to have done any actual research on the problem, based even on their own understanding of it. 

If they really believe the nonsense they have expressed then it would presumably require some sort of antipoverty program to address the problem. But even the Islamic extremists themselves don’t say anything about poverty. It is all about faith, rectitude, religious order, killing infidels, displacing the Crusaders, etc. ISIS wants a caliphate, not a Marshal Plan. 

What about those western converts flocking to ISIS? They are concerned with piety, not poverty. They become alienated from the society they live in, and seek some alternative that will provide purpose, and in a strange way, fulfillment. They are the kind of people who, in a previous generation would have gravitated towards the revolutionary left. They are attracted to the Other; that which constitutes the principal opposition to existing society. From France they are seeking the nonFrance, from America the nonAmerica, etc. This also applies the existing order in many Muslim countries, which fail to conform to their idea of how society ought to be organized, but again with no mention of poverty. 


Thus it is foolish and dangerous to try and base policies upon these misconceptions. Given that these are people who have crucified children, buried them alive, beheaded many others or burned them to death, talking about a jobs program is preposterous. If this is the kind of thinking going on these days we are in real trouble. For ISIS is already has a poverty program. It consists of beheading the poor. Unless we act many more innocent people will die, and die horribly. They cannot be persuaded, they cannot be reasoned with, they cannot even be scared. There is only one solution: ISIS must be destroyed. 

08 February 2015

THE TRUTH ABOUT CHRISTIAN OPPRESSION

There has been an explosion of outrage since Barack Obama made an ill-advised and historically inaccurate statement that appeared to equate ISIS with Christianity. This has resuscitated the notion that he is a closet Muslim. He isn’t. He is a secular-rationalist man of the Left, and views the world through that prism. There is no doubt that he sympathizes with Islam, but not in a way that most Muslims would be comfortable with. He simply expresses the incongruous attitude of many on the radical left who believe that since we are bad, our enemies must either be good or have legitimate grievances due to our misconduct. In this view, we have history of racism and discrimination, and our view of Islam is thus informed by prejudice which must be resisted lest we do bad things to this oppressed minority. Whenever we are attacked they worry not about what we have suffered, but rather that we might react and persecute, which  only confirms what deep contempt they have for the American people. What is truly astonishing is that we have a president of the United States who never misses an opportunity to belittle his own country wherever he is in the world. 

But it is not just the US, but now christendom that must be admonished. We must get off of our “high horse” regarding radical Islam because after all Christianity has been guilty of many sins as well. The audacity expressing this equivalency is breathtaking, and not just flat out wrong but preposterous. Unless your hatred for western civilization is implacable, it ought to be obvious that there are no Christians anywhere in today’s world committing atrocities in any way comparable to ISIS. Then they will tell you that Christians did much the same to Muslims in the past, notably during the Crusades. Even if that were true how many centuries back are we going to reach? 

But it’s not even true. Historically most of the atrocities committed by Christians were perpetrated on other Christians, as in the 17th century when Europe was torn apart by religious warfare. Heretics were considered to be in league with the devil and were treated accordingly and in a most unChristian way. The nonchristians who were persecuted for centuries were not Muslims but Jews. As for those fabled Crusades, for the most part they were attempting to recover territory that previously was part of the Eastern Roman (now called Byzantine) empire which was conquered by Islamic forces. But again the people who got the worst of it were the Christians, as in the 4th crusade. Instead of making war on the Muslims, the Crusaders were transported to Constantinople by the Venetians, who were nominally still under the Byzantine emperor, purportedly to install a pretender to the throne who promised them a great deal of money. When that failed to materialize the barbarians ravaged the city, destroying everything. The Venetians at least had some appreciation for art, and grabbed whatever they could, and took it back to Venice, where it still resides. But the crusaders simply broke or melted down ancient statues and set a fire that destroyed 100,000 homes as well as a library that was the last repository of Greek civilization. The greatest city in the world, which once held a million people was reduced to only 50,000 by the time the Turks finally conquered it two centuries later. The Pope excommunicated these crusaders for their crimes, at least for a time. This was a catastrophe for the west. With the Greek Christians of Byzantium so weakened, they no longer provided a buffer protecting the west from Turkish incursions and Muslim forces poured into Europe, usually massacring or enslaving whoever was in their path. Fear and terror gripped Europe for centuries.


So where is the Christian suppression of Muslims? What history actually shows is centuries of aggression and conquest by… the Muslims. There is no moral equivalency here; none at all. But it is in the past now and no one in the west in walking around holding a grievance about this. But that will probably be news to the conceited ignoramus in the White House. 

07 February 2015

EUROPE, UKRAINE AND RUSSIA

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Hollande went to Moscow like supplicants to plead with Vladimir Putin regarding Ukraine. They appear to have gone wobbly about his actions there, leaving the US in a growing confrontation with Russia in a conflict the European Union  largely instigated in the first place. It was the EU, which notably lacks any military force, that initiated this problem by seeking to expand to Ukraine, giving Putin the excuse he needed to respond militarily.  This is not the first time European allies have done something like this. When Slovenia broke away from Yugoslavia, Germany, in what was lauded as its first independent foreign policy move, unilaterally recognized them. The rest of Yugoslavia then blew apart in bitter ethnic conflict and it fell to the US to intervene militarily and sort it out. This must not happen again.

The US congress has passed an ill-advised bill to provide Ukraine with military aid, while stiffening sanctions against Russia. Following through with this could have catastrophic, and yet avoidable results. This has not been thought through carefully in terms of consequences that may arise. If we start providing military aid,  just how far are we prepared to go? This puts the US in the position of actively supporting military action against the Russians, on their border no less. What are we going to do if this situation escalates?  It only plays into Russian paranoia and puts the US in the position of actively seeking to pry Ukraine from the Russian orbit, which was never our intent, notwithstanding suspicions in the Kremlin. Meanwhile our erstwhile allies are abandoning the field and revealing, much to the delight of Vladimir Putin, a split in the alliance. Thus he has managed to outmaneuver the west, at least for the moment. 

This situation has to be diffused. While Putin may be pining for the lost provinces of the Soviet Union, it is not clear how far he is prepared to go. Hitler sought to bring all the Germans in other countries to the east under his reich. Does Putin feel that way about all the countries on his borders that have a Russian minority population? That is unlikely but he will do whatever he feels he can get away with as opportunities, such as Ukraine, arise, especially when there is a less than resolute west. 

But this whole scenario is wrong. The notion of Russia vs. the West went out with communism, despite what Putin would like to think.  For in the long run there is no place for Russia to go but to the west, given a country with a declining population under 150 million, a weak economy, and internal revolts brewing, i.e. in the Caucasus. Russia needs to be brought into Europe, not be cut off from it. This will take patience and foresight, and we need to see all this from a long term perspective. This means that no other former Soviet republic should become part of the EU, and certainly not NATO, unless and until an accommodation is reached first with Russia. At the present time, for Ukraine to be free, we must assuage Russian concerns by making it clear that we have no intention of ever expanding NATO to Russia’s borders. That’s the kind of “reset” we really need. 




05 February 2015

IRAN, ISRAEL AND THE WEST

In the normal course of events we should usually line up with our government when it comes to international affairs. But the fecklessness of this administration makes that impossible, given a president who, among other things, does not hesitate to badmouth his own country when he is abroad. Can we and the rest of the western world trust him to negotiate effectively on our vital interests when he has shown no capacity to negotiate even with the congress? This comes to mind as the administration moves forward on negotiations with Iran regarding its continuing nuclear development. 

A competent leader would make some effort to assuage the concerns of the congress as well as other allies in the region. But in keeping with the demonstrated incapacity to compromise or seriously consider the reasons for objections from other parties we cannot discount reports that they are making reckless concessions in order to get whatever deal they can. Given that Iran has made no secret about not only their desire, but their intention of wiping Israel off the map, Israel is right to be concerned about this. Any agreement must include a renunciation of that position, as well as an ironclad means of making any such threat impossible. In other words it must include an understanding that Israel is on the map. 

Benjamin Netanyahu has written perceptively about the ongoing threats not just to Israel but the whole western world. His ideas on these matters ought to be taken seriously.  But we have a president who cannot even convince the Republicans, let alone Israel, that he is pursuing the right course. Now it is no secret he loathes Netanyahu and believes Israel is being intransigent, never mind that Iran has been implacably intransigent all along. Even if it were true that Israel was an impediment, the smart thing to do would be to consider why that is the case.  A wise leader would make some effort to bring interested parties into the process, and try to get them on board by incorporating their concerns before moving forward. But that isn’t what has happened, and it is a foolish course that is being pursued because it only makes it more likely that the deal will be scuttled by the Republican congress.  

Opposition comes not just from Israel but many of the Arab states as well. What could be more telling that not one friend in the region is on board with this? This does not mean that the west should never try to reach an understanding with the Iranians, but it has to be reflective of the concerns of all interested parties. Failing to take these into account in our own position will never produce a satisfactory solution. On this matter Benjamin Netanyahu is far more trustworthy than Barack Obama. 

03 February 2015

ISIS MUST BE ANNIHILATED

We are tired of war, and justifiably reticent to become entangled in foreign conflicts. But the actions of ISIS are of a different order altogether. The continuing beheadings and now the horrible burning death of a Jordanian pilot represent an unspeakable evil that the world can no longer tolerate. We must act,  and when I say we I mean the entire international community. It is not because they threaten us at the moment. They probably don’t even have the capability for that, yet, but no doubt if they could exact these same punishments on every one of us, they would. We must act because the human race cannot allow such terrible evil to exist and to continue massacring innocent people with impunity. 

There are no subtleties here, no shades of nuance, and no considerations that need to be weighed. This is not like a conflict where there may be some reasonable basis for what the enemy is doing, nor is there any room for “empathizing” with them. They are devoid of any decency or compassion. There is no possibility of redemption, and no chance that their brutality will lessen. There is nothing there but pure, unadulterated evil. We must annihilate them, completely. Every last one of them must be wiped out, lest this reign of terror resurface and continue unabated. Unless, and until we act they will continue to use the most odious means of slaughter on unfortunate people who simply happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. 


They are at war with the better part of the human race, and yet they do not rise above the status of vicious bandits; despicably evil, but still basically bandits. They seize hostages and then execute them by the most vile means. Such savagery cannot be permitted to exist in our world. There is not a state or people anywhere that has any sympathy for them. They lack even the most minute sliver of legitimacy. They must be totally eliminated not because they threaten our interests, but because they offend our fundamental sensibilities as human beings. This has already gone on too long. This despicable cruelty must be stopped. It is nothing less than a moral obligation of the civilized world to respond. If human dignity is to have any meaning in our time the world must do whatever it takes to obliterate them.