26 November 2014


Most people have a set of values which inform the way they see the world, and which provide the foundation for their sense of right and wrong. This accounts for many of our political differences because the sense of what is good is not completely in synch. When that occurs we sometimes try to resolve things rationally by marshaling facts which we believe will support our position through an objective, impartial reading. But as Bertrand Russell pointed out: 

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. 

Thus it is not so much a matter of “having our own facts,” as Senator Moynihan once said, but rather the extent to which we are willing to admit them.

However when beliefs are dearly held they may be impervious to evidence. For example, those who believe the bible to be literally true and the word of God will not be moved by any conflicting information. For the true believer, even if something isn’t true it ought to be. But the true believer is not just the religious fundamentalist but anyone who sees the world primarily in political terms, because their “side” must be right. 

In the incident in Ferguson, Missouri some people reached conclusions based upon where their sympathies took them, either in favor of the police officer or the man who was shot. In doing this they treated it as an “issue” rather than as a particular situation in a particular place where only an impartial, disinterested party can get to the truth of the matter reliably. In this instance it was a Grand Jury, which reached a conclusion based upon evidence and eyewitness testimony. The negative reaction to this determination is based not on the actual truth, but on claims that were made previously, which was what what some people wanted to be true. Nothing can satisfy those committed to the notion that something must be true under any circumstances. 

The fallback position is that the process was flawed, and therefore cannot be given credence. The problem with this is that if the decision was in accordance with their beliefs they would not make this claim. The American legal system is by no means perfect, but it is certainly checked by disinterested, randomly selected citizens, whose judgement we ought to respect. All of us need to avoid prejudging incidents we do not have accurate information about, which leads us to succumb to our prejudices instead of accepting that we were wrong.

12 November 2014


Vladimir Putin is deliberately escalating tensions with the West by sending bombers not only to European borders, but to the western hemisphere where they are traveling from the Arctic to the Caribbean. While much of this is saber rattling, it is a dangerous game that could end in catastrophe. There have already been near misses with commercial aircraft, and this aggressive posturing heightens the risk of mistakes. The Chinese appear to be on board with this and both Russia and China perceive the US to be weak and the Europeans even weaker. China is in a dispute with Japan over some islands that are basically rocks in the ocean, and her again a wrong move could lead to war. In the absence of resolve and firm resistance, if they calculate they can get away with something they will. 

All of this indicates the extent to which we are dependent upon the sanity and judgement of political leaders for our own survival. International cooperation is dependent on good behavior on their part. The more tensions escalate the more we are exposed. A cascading series of mistakes led to the carnage of World War I, and the unexpected is always present. There is no reason why the US and Russia should be in conflict, but Putin is pushing the envelope in an attempt to regain territory once held by the Soviet Union, and his recklessness is a cause for concern. He presides over a country that is losing population and is dependent on natural resources, especially oil and gas, for revenue. Falling oil prices are bad news for his government as well as various scoundrels around the world. But this weakness also causes him to lash out with what assets he has, namely a large military. The problem is that this ups the odds for mistakes happening, or miscalculation in terms of response. 

He has also whipped up a virulent nationalism and has widespread support for his aggressive actions. But he is not going anywhere any time soon given his grip on power, meaning that the West will have to deal with him for the foreseeable future. There was some degree of legitimacy in his claim for Crimea, which was always Russian until 1954. Russians and Ukrainians have common origins, but that does not translate into a choice for political authority. The European Union, with no appetite or capability for military action stirred the pot by attempting to extend itself to Ukraine, thereby provoking the Russians, who also blame the US despite the lack of any evidence indicating our involvement. But while gratifying in the short term, these actions are not in the long-term interests of Russia, which can only have a future as part of the European world. 

Given the precarious nature of wide-ranging force deployments there is increased likelihood that powers are going to bump into each other whether intended or not. Furthermore the US has a network of alliances and obligations that could force us into war unless adversaries know for certain that we will go to war. Things are most dangerous when there is uncertainty, vacillation, and when weakness is perceived. At the very least there has to be a concerted effort to reduce flashpoints before they erupt and drag us all to somewhere we don’t want to be.