Thursday, September 18, 2014

Who Lost Scotland?

Today Scotland votes on independence: a fifty-fifty referendum on leaving the United Kingdom. It's gone from a long shot to a statistical dead heat, and nobody can say for sure how the vote will go. But what's certain is that Scotland's old relationship with the rest of Britain is finished. The Scottish independence movement will not just go away if they come up a couple percent short; they're never going to give up now that they've gotten this close. And if a united United Kingdom squeaks by, Scotland will expect to be given much more autonomy than it's had so far. In fact, this week the leaders of all three major parties have had to promise them that autonomy. So no matter how the vote goes, it's fair to say that David Cameron and his Conservative Party have managed to lose Scotland. They should pay a price for that.

The format of the vote is Cameron's fault. Cameron insisted that the most popular middle-ground option, so-called "max devo" or maximum devolution, which would have kept Scotland inside the United Kingdom but given it more power over its own affairs, be kept OFF the ballot. He made sure that it was an all-or-nothing vote: accept the status quo or leave the nation entirely.

I'm sure Cameron viewed this as masterful strategy: getting what he wanted by allowing no other workable option. You can choose between having it David Cameron's way and having this delicious shit sandwich. But it's backfired. Given a choice between a radical break and Cameron's status quo, many Scots would clearly prefer a radical break. Some of the most persuasive arguments I've heard  for a "Yes" vote on independence have been from people who said that what they really wanted was max devo, and that they were given no choice.

Pro tip to David Cameron: when people would rather eat a shit sandwich than spend time in your company, you're in no position to play the tough guy.

Now, of course, the danger of secession is so high that Cameron has had to troop up to Scotland with the Labour and Liberal party leaders and promise something close to max devo anyway. But many Yes voters hear that as an empty promise. For good reason, too: there are no specifics about what these "new powers for Scotland" would mean, and it's a promise to do something the voters want if the voters agree to give up all their leverage first. A promise like that isn't worth the paper it's not written on.

On the other hand, if No squeaks by, Cameron is in the position of having more or less promised to give Scotland the thing that he didn't want to give them and that he made sure was not on the ballot. So instead of exactly what he wants or an unpalatable alternative, he now faces a choice between exactly what he doesn't want and an unpalatable alternative. It's a kind of strategic masterpiece, carefully orchestrating his own defeat. It's a shit sandwich David Cameron prepared for himself, with his own two hands.

Now, most of the Scottish voters are far to Cameron's left, and he may think his Conservatives will gain politically if a whole region of Labour voters leave the country. But that's almost the definition of short-sightedness, and Conservatives who collude, even indirectly, in the breakup of the United Kingdom have failed at everything their party stands for. No one will admire a Conservative Party that allowed the dissolution of Great Britain. How could they? Churchill famously said that he hadn't become Prime Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire. David Cameron now risks being the Tory MP who presided over the dissolution of Britain itself.

I'll admit that in my heart I'm hoping for a No, and a continued Great Britain. That's not because I'm a great Anglophile. (I'm from Boston, after all, where declaring independence from Britain is considered a heroic tradition.) But history, as I best understand it, suggests that Scotland will be dominated by its larger, wealthier southern neighbor no matter what, simply because that neighbor is larger and wealthier. Union, on balance, probably allows Scotland better terms in that relationship.

Remember how England took over Scotland: the King of Scotland inherited the English throne. After many decades of anxiety that the King of England would somehow get the Scottish throne and take over the country, the reverse happened. The King of Scotland took over England, and that ultimately put Scotland under England's power. For the last four hundred and eleven years, captive England has led conquering Scotland in chains, because the fundamental power difference is about things that no treaty can change. It's political gravity: the smaller country falls into the larger one's orbit. That underlying fact won't change with today's vote. But the strength of England's hold on Scotland will, win or lose.

cross-posted at Dagblog


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Obama's Mission

Barack Obama was elected because the American people were tired of being bogged down in unwinnable foreign wars. He was elected because a majority of American voters had come to view the Iraq war as a mistake. This is a basic, bottom-line political fact. Therefore, it is not (and cannot be) Official Beltway Wisdom.

Obama also had a mandate to save the country after the economic crash. And he had some mandate to fix health care, which he had campaigned on doing, although this was not nearly as important as he thought. A lot of Obama's early political problems can be ascribed to the fact that he overestimated how much the country cared about health care and underestimated how much the country cared about financial reform and getting the troops home from Iraq. He would have been better served with bolder steps on the economy and a quicker timetable to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. But even when he has misunderstood the voters' exact priorities at a particular moment, the voters' priorities have been real.

President Obama's address to the nation Wednesday night shows that he still remembers his mission. We're going into Syria to fight ISIS, but only with an air campaign and not with ground troops. Obama was immediately criticized by various talking heads and political opponents (in fact, was criticized even sooner than immediately, because the complaining started in advance of the speech) that Obama ought to commit ground troops, or not rule out committing ground troops, right away. They complained that Obama needs to be Serious, which means putting American soldiers and Marines in harm's way. But the American people made Barack Obama President specifically so he would not send troops to this kind of war. He is carrying out the mission we gave him.

There's been a lot of criticism in Washington about Obama's strategic maxim "Don't do stupid stuff." Hillary Clinton, who would be President if she had not voted to let George W. Bush do stupid stuff, has joined the criticism. But all this wise Washingtonians miss the basic fact. Obama was elected to keep the country from doing stupid stuff. And most of what passes for strategic wisdom in Washington these days is pretty stupid.

Committing ground troops into Syria is stupid. It is not even remotely a strategy. Sending our troops into a war zone with no plan for getting them out, or even a picture of what victory would look like, is not strategy but stupidity. And we've already lost too many American lives to stupidity like that.

People who want to invade Syria argue that supporting the moderate rebels is not enough, because the moderate Syrian rebels are not strong enough to win. Let me point out that if there is no existing force on the ground in Syria strong enough to beat ISIS even with our air support, then there is no force on the ground for us to hand Syria over to when our troops leave. It is the same problem as Iraq and Afghanistan. Going in with ground troops means going into a situation that will collapse again shortly after our ground troops leave. Staying in Syria until Syria is stabilized means occupying Syria forever.

If we don't have an ally that can win without our ground troops, then we don't have an exit strategy for our ground troops. Don't do stupid stuff.

More importantly, don't get American soldiers and Marines killed doing stupid stuff. That is our Commander in Chief's mission. Let him do it.

cross-posted at Dagblog

Monday, August 18, 2014

Let's Review the Michael Brown Case

Let's review some basics from the Michael Brown case:

If a police office kills an unarmed person for jaywalking, that is murder. 

If a police officer kills an unarmed person for shoplifting five bucks' worth of cigars, that is murder. 

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who had smoked marijuana sometime that week, that is murder.

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who turns out to have wanted to be a rapper, that is murder.

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who has given the police officer some lip, that is murder.

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who is running away from him, that is murder. 

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who tried and failed to get the officer's gun before running away, that is murder.

I think you might detect a pattern here. The point is that killing someone who is not a clear (as in obvious) and present (meaning immediate) danger to someone else's life and safety is murder.

No one has suggested anything close to that kind of situation. The Ferguson Police Chief, who will clearly do everything and anything in his power to make excuses for his officer, has not been able to say that the shooter was in danger of his life. And there is no other excuse.

Can I imagine circumstances in which a police officer might use deadly force? You bet I can. But I don't even need to. I was raised by a police officer from a police family. I grew up around lots of police officers. And I do know a police officer who has killed someone in the line of duty (or rather, who was among the officers who killed someone in the line of duty; I don't think any of them want to know who fired the fatal bullet.) Why did they do it? Because a suspect was shooting at them and trying to kill them.

That is what what we're talking about. That is justification for using your weapon. None of this other stuff is even on the same planet as a real reason.

Almost every day we hear some fresh "revelation" about the young man killed by the police in Ferguson. Every day that revelation is offered up as if it changes the question of whether his murder was justified. And every day that revelation is utterly ridiculous. It says nothing about the real questions. It does say a lot about the moral compass of the person bringing it up.

If you're discussing an unarmed and completely defenseless man being shot to death and you bring up five dollars worth of stolen cigars, what you are saying is that you are too morally depraved, your moral judgment too impaired, to understand the value of human life. 

If you bring up marijuana residue or rap music, same thing. You have announced your idiocy and depravity for all to hear. And you have insulted your listeners by presuming that they too were moral idiots.

(Remember the Eighties, when you kept hearing stories about how young black gang members were so morally bankrupt that they would shoot someone to death for a pair of sneakers? Shooting someone for a hundred-dollar pair of shoes would mean your moral compass was broken. But what would shooting someone over five dollars of merchandise mean?)

Mike Brown was endowed by his creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All three were taken away from him on the street, with no process of any kind, by a paid officer of the law. 

Michael Brown had a right to due process. He had a right to his life. There are no other questions. Whether or not you would have liked Mike Brown is not the issue. Whether or not you approved of Mike Brown is not the issue. Mike Brown's right to his life was not conditional on your approval, or mine, or any government authority's. He could only forfeit that right by endangering another life, and even then only while he posed an active danger. But Mike Brown was no danger to any living soul when he was killed. He had nothing in his hands but his own life. That was given to him by God. It was not for anyone else to take.

If you ask yourself whether or not Mike Brown deserved life, you are a lost soul. No one has set you to judge who should live and die. No one will and no one should. Mike Brown was a citizen like you, a human being like you. His rights are not subject to your little moods. If you will not defend his right to live, then you are no longer a citizen. I leave the question of your humanity to another judge.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams and Making Live Comedy Live

Robin Williams was funny, lightning fast, and a gifted improviser, but what really set him apart as a comic was that he let his audiences share the experience of what doing standup comedy feels like. He didn't do that explicitly. It probably can't be done explicitly. But he did it, maybe better than anyone else ever has. It was the core of his gift, because a great comedian is not merely funny. A great comedian creates a relationship with the audience, and the relationship Williams created with his live audiences was something fundamental and profound.

Performing standup is a frightening and disorienting thing, even for pros. Standups talk about their art form as analogous to boxing, saying that if you don't stay in training you can't -- don't dare -- get into the ring.  A live performance is always in danger of spinning out of control. You can lose the audience in a split second. Any comedian who's performed enough to learn even the basics of the craft has had the experience of bombing out in front of a live audience -- dying, as comics always put it -- dozens and dozens of times. An extremely original comedian has died even more often. That is a miserable experience. And even experienced pros, even stars, still sometimes have a performance come totally unglued. They have all learned to keep that from happening by maintaining firm control of the performance at all times.

Comics learn, gradually and painstakingly, to conceal their fear and anxiety from the audience. And it is right that they should. Watching a comedian fail on stage is depressing and embarrassing, without any hope of insight or catharsis. Comedians do their best to shield themselves from that public humiliation. They learn to project confidence to the crowd and to keep their failures of confidence hidden. The audience should never catch any scent of flop sweat, no whiff of the performers' insecurities or fears of humiliation. The art form, like every art form, works best when it is grounded in emotional truth, but creating comedy requires concealing the emotional truth of how creating comedy feels.

Williams was absolutely in control of the room. Audiences ate out of his hand. Watching him was nothing like watching an open-mike novice falling apart. But watching him live, when he first emerged on the standup scene in the late 1970s, was also a bewildering and disorienting experience. The speed at which he changed direction, leaping from one bit to another and then back, was then something totally new and unexpected. People were often under the impression that his entire act, every single word, was improvised. (Of course, it wasn't.) It can be hard to remember, thirty-five and nearly forty years after Williams emerged, how radically new he seemed. But he did. It was like he was free associating at lightning speed.

Robin Williams wasn't the first comic to improvise on stage. He wasn't the first to do strange or emotionally raw material on stage. To be honest, his success was never about the material per se; there were much better joke-writers in his generation. And he was definitely not the only 1970s comic disguising his act's formal structure; that had been going on for decades. But what Williams's performances did was turn the basic relationship of live stand-up inside out. His disorienting speed and rapid changes of direction created an exhilarating and slightly scary experience for the crowd. They became the ones who had to live with their fears and accept that the room was out of their control. But they also got to feel the energy of that, too, the nervous excitement that performers channel into their stage act. Watching Robin Williams in person was basically sharing his performance-night adrenaline high.

One thing this did was free Williams to admit his own anxieties, the worry driving the comedy, without relinquishing control. If you listen carefully to his classic Live at the Met album, the phrase you will hear him say most is "Oh, no!" He says it dozens of times in that set, as a segue, as a punctuation mark, as a space-holder to cover an audience laugh. But what he is saying, over and over, is still, "Oh, no!" (The second most common phrase is "Don't you see?") During Williams's first appearance on The Tonight Show (then an important rite of passage for any comedian), he openly talked himself through his anxieties between doing bits. ("Okay ... you're on television ... he [Johnny Carson] means you no harm.") The streak of anxiety in Williams's comedy was never a secret. He was sharing it with us all along.

But the more important thing was that Williams's approach allowed him to build a deep emotional bond with the audience. Live comedy is about a relationship between the comic and the crowd, because the crowd is a crucial element of the performance. A standup act is not the same if it is done for only one person. A tiny audience mutes the comedian's effectiveness. But as the crowd grows larger, so does its power, and the more audience members there are the more they can set each other on to laugh. Standup is a fundamentally social art form. When a comedian has successfully worked a crowd, it creates a powerful feedback loop, with the audience's laughter feeding the comedian energy and confidence, which she or he uses to make the audience laugh harder, until the laughter becomes irresistibly contagious. The comedian has a microphone, but the audience is the amplifier.

Great comedians bond with the audience on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Williams created an exceptionally deep bond with his audiences, because he shared with them a core truth, the scary excitement of performing live comedy, that other comics had to deny. Williams could not talk about that directly either, but he communicated it to his audience by making them feel the same things he did. That was what made him electrifying on stage. His entire act was about the experience of performing. He was the livest of all live comedians.

And what Williams's act implicitly said was, This is a little frightening, but it's fun. And here we are doing it! He created an act that felt unpredictable and kept the audience off balance, but also created the sense that if they didn't know where any of this was going they were still all in it together. That is a powerful and intimate bond. Williams's live act, in his younger days, felt utterly chaotic, but audiences gave themselves permission to enjoy it, because Williams made the chaos feel safe. He was the benign lunatic. He could do anything on stage, because he had earned the audience's absolute trust.

In his early days, Williams used to close his shows with a quote from the great cult comedian Lord Buckley, who had used it to close his own act:

People are the true flowers of life, and it has been a most magnificent pleasure to have temporarily walked in your garden.

I wish I had the chance to tell Robin Williams the same thing tonight. Thank you, Mr. Williams, and rest in peace.


Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Other Two Sides in Israel and Palestine

It is not only hard to write about the bloodshed in Israel and Palestine without taking sides. It is impossible for most people to read about the violence in Israel and Palestine without taking sides. So the debate bogs down into questions of justification and self-defense and proportionality: that is, into the utterly useless question of whether Israel or Hamas is more in the wrong. It may well be that one side or the other is more justified, or more culpable. But since the answering that question will not prevent even a single death, the question is meaningless. Taking the Israeli side or the Palestinian side does not matter, the real merits of those causes notwithstanding, because the conflict that matters is not between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Neither side can actually win that conflict, and everything those two sides are doing right now puts resolution further out of reach. The two sides that actually matter are not the Israelis and the Palestinians but the peacemakers and the warmakers. That struggle can be won, but not by the side that's currently winning.

Instead of thinking of two ethnic peoples, we can think of the Israel/Palestine conflict as a contest between the negotiators and the escalators. There are negotiators and escalators in both camps. The negotiators want to end the violence and reach a peaceful long-term solution. Various individuals envision different versions of that settlement, and the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators each want their own ethnic group to get the maximally advantageous deal. But the goal is still a deal.

The negotiators have been on a long losing streak, and their position is incredibly weak at the moment. But even at their weakest, there is a single fundamental advantage that cannot be taken from them. They are the only side that can win. There is no military solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem. There is no endgame through which either group can win through sheer force of arms.

Neither side can wipe out the other. That is not militarily feasible, politically viable, or morally acceptable. And no one is going anywhere. Israel is not going to be swept into the sea. If your goal is to do undo 1948 and make it as if Israel never existed, then your goal fundamentally cannot be achieved. Nor are the Palestinians going to be expelled. If you think that a nation founded in part by Holocaust survivors can solve its security problems through ethnic cleansing, you need to face basic reality. No One. Is Going. Anywhere.

In the long run, a negotiated settlement is the only endgame possible. But the escalators (who, like the negotiators, exist on both sides of the ethnic divide) are dedicated to prolonging the war as long as possible. Not to win it. Winning is objectively impossible. The real objective is the continuation of the war itself. If military victory were the actual goal, much of the behavior we see on the ground would be futile or even counter-productive. (Hamas's rocket attacks, for instance, don't make a lot of sense as an attempt to weaken Israel's military. But they are not an attempt to to weaken Israel's military.) If we understand the real goal to be provocation, the behavior becomes easily explicable. The violence is not an attempt to defeat the other military, but an attempt to provoke further military action by the opposition. A sudden big offensive is not an attempt to end the fight once and for all. It is an attempt to ensure that the fight does not end.

Some of the escalators are simply refusing to accept military reality, and delude themselves with dreams of victory. Some are driven by their personal ideology or personal hatreds. Some are not thinking straight at all. And some have a vested interest in keeping the hostilities going. Any conflict that goes on for as long as the Israel/Palestine conflict becomes institutionalized to some measure. Structured organizations, both official and unofficial, emerge specifically to wage that particular war. Careers are built around that war. There are wealthy and influential people who rely on the war for their wealth and influence, and power brokers who rely on the war for their power.

There are political figures, Israeli and Palestinian, whose careers are built on taking a harder-line position than their domestic political opponents, no matter how hard a line those opponents take. There are political leaders, Israeli and Palestinian, whose relationship with their constituents is founded on their constituents' fears. There are figures within the Palestinian leadership who have gotten seats at the table by making themselves indispensable to the war effort: the recruiters, the warlords, the money people. At least some of those people suspect that peace would make them dispensable. And on the Israeli side, in somewhat subtler ways (subtler, of course, because the Israeli state is more bureaucratically developed than the Palestinian movement), there are people who prosper in various ways from the militarization of the conflict.

I am not claiming that both sides are equally culpable, or morally equivalent, or any of that. I am not interested in arguing about right and wrong here. Arguments about right and wrong have led to piles of dead bodies. I am interested in arguing cause and effect.

That there are entrenched interests who benefit from the hostilities, on both sides, is not primarily a symptom of individual bad character. It is the inevitable result of a conflict that has gone on this long. A war that lasts two generations stops being just a war. It becomes a way of life. And people will fight to defend their way of life.

The escalators can always keep the war going by provoking the other ethnic group. When the opposite side retaliates, it is a pretext for further escalation, and pretty soon peace talks are out of the question again. Whenever things get too quiet, you convince yourself that the enemy is vulnerable and it's time to take advantage. Then, when the enemy strikes back, everyone on your side of the line has to rally to the fight. Things too quiet? Kidnap some hitchhikers. Build some settlements on the wrong side of the treaty line. Fire some rockets. Break a cease-fire. Sure, some of the people on your own official side of the conflict will tell you not to do these things, but once you've done them the other side will come on the attack and then the people who wanted to restrain you will have no choice but to back you.

The thing to realize here is that the Israeli escalators and the Palestinian escalators, while fighting each other on the battlefield, are also working together. They are both struggling to continue and escalate the war. You don't attack Israeli civilians and expect to get away with it. You don't kill Palestinian civilians in your reprisal attack and expect that this will calm the Palestinian side down. Bringing on the other side's reprisal is the goal. It is never stated that way. It could not be. But that is what is actually happening.

The problem is not just that IDF expeditions into Gaza will not stop the rocket attacks. It's that the point of the rocket attacks is to bring the IDF into Gaza. Why would Hamas, or elements of Hamas, want the IDF to invade Gaza? Several reasons, but one of them is that when the Israeli military is on the move, the people of Gaza have no choice but to stand by Hamas. There is no middle ground on a battlefield. And the escalators' main goal is to make negotiating impossible. Their war is against the middle ground.

Most of the struggle between the negotiators and the escalators is political; it is about whose faction is in ascendance, whose policy wins the debate, and whose orders get obeyed or ignored on the ground. But sometimes things actually flare up into intra-Israeli or intra-Palestinian violence. Fatah and Hamas have sometimes exchanged gunfire. An Israeli Prime Minister has been murdered by an Israeli fanatic because a final peace deal started to seem plausible. If the doves get too close to a deal, the hawks on their own side sometimes try to kill them.

But the hawks haven't needed to do anything so blatant lately, because the party of war has been on a roll. The Israeli and Palestinian hawks have worked together in a masterpiece of unspoken coordination, a long series of seamless no-look passes. In this, the escalators have a massive advantage over the negotiators. The Israeli and Palestinian doves need to communicate explicitly with one another, and they need to trust each other. They have to hold talks. In short, they have to actually negotiate. The Israeli and Palestinian hawks don't need to communicate with each other at all. They can simply act. They know what will happen if they provoke the other side. They can count on it. It's not about trust. It's about predictability.

Worse yet, the doves need unity and discipline on their own side in order to function. They need to deliver on their deals. But the hawks can disrupt things through insubordination or disobedience. They can, to various degrees, freelance. Settlers can disobey the Israeli government, but know that the state and the army will eventually have to back them. Palestinians can initiate attacks on Israelis without necessarily clearing it all the way to the top, and some people doing the attacks are not necessarily inside any real chain of command. ("Let's go kidnap a few teenaged Israeli hitchhikers" is not a plan hatched at the top level of leadership.) But the people who go ahead with those attacks know the leadership will not disavow them. An IDF commander can promise his superior that he will use restraint, and then use harsh and provocative tactics once an operation starts. A Palestinian who doesn't like a cease-fire can break it with just a few like-minded accomplices. Last Friday's cease-fire was broken almost immediately by a small group of armed Palestinians. That was not a real attempt to take military advantage, which would require a coordinated set of attacks by a large group. That was free-lancing, one small unit or cell just going out on its own. Your leaders agree to a cease-fire, you go out and shoot at Israelis, cease-fire over. That wasn't a side effect. That was the main point of the attack. 

As long as this behavior goes on (and it goes on, to different degrees, on both sides), the war will never end. The hawks cannot defeat each other, and on some level aren't even trying. But they are committed to driving any hope of peace from the field. And they are willing to frag the doves when necessary. As long as those seeking to escalate the war can continue defying restraints imposed by their own side, the war will go on forever. And that is really the goal.


cross-posted from Dagblog