Thursday, August 28, 2014

Have We Become a Nation of Cowards?

Have we as a people, a nation, become cowardly?

I say this because of something that happened to my wife last month. She was traveling, staying at a motel near Flint, Mich. As we both like to do, she went outside to practice tai chi.

Now, tai chi is a martial art, but it is also a form of exercise and physical and spiritual rejuvenation. She practices it as a way of relaxing and stretching and simply enjoying being active. The slow movements are hardly aggressive when she does tai chi. Also, she is a five-foot-two woman who, like me, as reached an age when Social Security looms. She is hardly an ominous figure when she performs the slow, graceful tai chi moves.

But the hotel staff came out and asked her to stop. Some people felt her presence was threatening. She was irked, but consented.

OK, just an incident. How often, however, does irrational fear underlie so much of what we do today? More and more all things are forbidden. Playgrounds ban monkey bars because a kid might fall, But, as others have said, then kids don´t learn how to surmount risk. Nor do they learn they can survive the occasional broken arm.

 How often do groups and the public react with panic at any slight risk? Have we, as a nation, become so fearful that we can´t face real danger?

Do we on the right just sit back and whine when government grabs too much power? Do we fail to challenge gross attacks on liberty?

Dare we cut back excessive governmental spending and activity? Any such suggestion is met with horror. Cutting back even the slightest on governmental spending will trigger economic doom -- or so it seems when such suggestions are made. Confront our real enemies in the world? That thought is met with panicked claims that we are inviting conflagration. Stand up for beliefs and practices that have supported safe, stable life throughout human history? That incites the fear that the Inquisition is about to be reborn.

Faced with real evil, do we dither and fret instead of acting?

Think of how much we want to be protected. We want to be healthy and safe from all injury, yet we wish to be active and involved. We want to be able to eat what we choose but not get fat. We want to be able to reap windfalls in the stock market for our own 401k plans, but we are afraid of sudden drops in stock prices. We want the value of our homes to go up, but we are afraid the price of the next house we want to buy will be be too high. We want to be free but we want to be protected from accidents and harm. We want the benefits that come only from taking risks, but we can´t face risk.

Commentators have noted the drop in entrepreneurial activity in the U.S. One reason may be that we have grown too fearful of risks. That´s just one example of how fearfulness is crippling our society.

As many have noted, we are never challenged. We face little danger. But, like muscles that are never exercised, our ability to cope with danger has grown flabby. We so seldom face real danger that we are not able to cope with it. That distorts our ability to cope with any danger.

Of course, rational fear is essential. My previous post was about the lack of rational fear. But excessive fearfulness is the flip side of this. Unable to cope with minor risks, we can´t even comprehend bigger ones. We are so worried about the supposed oppression by some white American guy cracking a bad joke that we are befuddled and paralyzed by the rise of ISIS. We are so worried that the government will trim the ¨stimulus¨ by a fraction of a percentage point that we are oblivious to the dangers posed by excessive debt and governmental control.

FDR famously said, ¨We have nothing to fear but fear itself.¨ We see again what he meant -- only when we gain courage will we be able to face the truly fearful things confronting us. Today, we can only hope, we are still strong and resourceful enough to beat them.. Only by being less fearful, less cowardly, we will be able to accurately see and thus fight the real dangers facing us.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Obama as 'Grizzly Man' in the Mideast

An explosion of death, terror and chaos in the Mideast brings to mind the sad story of Timothy Treadwell, "Grizzly Man."

Treadwell became so enamoured of the bears in the Alaskan wilderness that he spent years among them. He gave them nicknames and walked right up to them, speaking in what he thought was a soothing voice. He believed he understood them and that they would not attack him. He didn't have a gun or even pepper spray. Which worked for years, until he (and his girlfriend) encountered the wrong bear. Both were killed.

There is something admirable about those who think only the best of frightening and dangerous creatures. But their naivete is dangerous and often deadly.

That comes to mind when I read current news about the Mideast. As Sen. Ted Cruz said, we are now facing pure evil. Our good intentions and soothing words only mark us as prey.

Of course, that's where the analogy falls short: bears usually stay away from us. They are dangerous, but usually only when provoked. Islamic terrorists are stalking us. They are far more dangerous than wild animals.

George W. Bush was derided for his "axis of evil" speech. But every year it becomes clearer he had a profound and essential insight: we are in a struggle with an evil force.

In a way we can't even understand that. Some theologians, if memory serves, believe evil is only nothingness, a shadow of the good, thus in a sense beyond our power to understand, at least in a scientific, liberal sense. We want to like, and can't grasp those who really hate. We want to build, and can't understand those who sole purpose is to kill and destroy.

But we can understand that evil is thus beyond our power to reform or placate. It can only be destroyed.

Only when we understand that will be be able to begin the very lengthy task of resisting and then destroying that evil.

At least some Australian military men agree:

AUSTRALIA needs to prepare for an increasingly savage, 100-year war against radical Islam that will be fought on home soil as well as foreign lands, the former head of the army, Peter Leahy, has warned. ....Michael Krause, a former senior Australian Army officer res­ponsible for planning the coalition campaign in Afghanistan, said he agreed “absolutely” with Professor Leahy. “I have seen these people,” the retired major general said.
“I know how they think. I know how they fight. There is no compromise possible.
Think about that: There is no compromise possible.

Right now our president, good intentions and all, has just encountered a bad bear. Unfortunately, as Treadwell's girlfriend was with him, we're along with the president.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Why Create Our Own Gaza?

I can only look on in bewilderment at what is happening to my country.

Look, I can understand the legal, moral and political arguments for doing something about the millions of people whom our leaders allowed into our country, winking at violations of the law. There are humanitarian, political and humanitarian arguments that can be made.

But to bring in millions more people with no skills,  no proven loyalty to the country?

Look at the Mideast. There are millions of Palestinians living in poverty next to Israel. The history and who is to blame aren't relevant to this. The fact is that there a millions of people who are not Israeli who can only look on Israel with envy and resentment. They do not have a  political leadership that could create a real country and economy; if anything their leaders seem intent on preventing any country from being created.

Such a situation inevitably creates bitter resentment and hostility. I don't speak here of politics or justice; I speak of the human reality of a class of people in an inferior position who are confronted with their inferiority daily. It is human nature to want to blame the more advanced society and to hate one's exclusion from it.

So you have an Israel with a hostile presence right by it -- or in it, if you count Gaza as part of Israel.

That will always lead to war.

Regardless of who is to blame in the Mideast, it could be argued that historical accidents created this scenario, and actions no one foresaw, or could not prevent?

 But then why are we apparently intent on creating the same situation here, when we've seen what happens? Opening the borders to millions of poor people from a different culture, especially when we no longer have the wealth or educational system to bring them fully into the national life, will create our own Gaza.

It is a tragedy that in a land dedicated to freedom and equality that an underclass has grown up. But why in the name of all that is sane are we intent on bringing in millions of people who plainly can only add to an underclass?

At least one columnist has said we should welcome the flood of children and assimilate them. Yet his whole career has been one long and eloquent explanation of how hard it is to sustain a culture, economy and government of both freedom and prosperity.

It is hard. The economist Schumpeter was the most insightful pointing out how the modern age tends to corrode the values that support free markets. How can those values be sustained when millions of people are brought in -- and they are being brought in -- who do not share those values?

And plainly the whole process of transmitting the values and habits of freedom has broken down for even the privileged and the natural heirs of that tradition; how can millions more immigrants be likewise inculcated in the values of freedom? They can't.

We are creating our own Gaza. By all accounts decades ago the Palestinians were by and large ordinary people. Decades of living without a real state, envying and resenting the Israelis, has turned many to hatred and destruction. Don't tell me that most Palestinians want peace: I don't know whether they do, but without a functioning democracy there is no way of ascertaining the real views of the majority; and in any case a vicious minority is running the show, and that's what counts. Over time, such a situation spawns violence.

That's what will happen if our borders are opened. It may take decades; it took decades for Gaza to become what it is today. But it will happen.

I leave aside the question of whether gang members are infiltrating the U.S. this way. Those who say they aren't are lying: They can't know either. That's the terrible thing: We don't know who's coming into our borders. And they are entering in the most dismal situation possible. That's the problem: We can't assimilate them now. That can only mean they will be confined not to a quasi-state but to little enclaves all over -- many little Gazas.

If I live long enough I expect to be questioned about why we let this happen -- and in a democracy, each of us is a legitimate target of such queries. Why did we let this happen? Why did we let the debt crush us? Why did we fail to stem Islamic radicalism? Why ... well, why did we sleep through the end of a civilization?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why I Want Calluses on My Hands

I do some weight lifting and wood chopping. One reason is health. Another reason for the latter is to tidy up the little forest we own.

The other is that I want to look like I work. I remember when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. History records that they took people wearing glasses or without calluses to prison camps where they died from malnutrition or abuse or were just plain shot.

I can't help fearing that someday another mob will come looking for people who look like they aren't working. 

The younger generation is already simmering about the mess they will inherit.

And what a mess it will be:
I calculate that the “fiscal gap” — a yardstick of total government indebtedness that I’ve worked on with the economists Alan J. Auerbach and Jagadeesh Gokhale — was $210 trillion last year, up from $205 trillion the previous year. Thus $5 trillion was the true deficit.
That means your share of the national debt is by my reckoning $670,000. 

Imagine you get home one day, open the mail, and get a bill for $670,000. Maybe payment isn't due this month. But when are you ever going have that kind of money to spare?

Most of us are already in hock. Median household debt was $70,000 in 2011. What happens if a typical such household -- of, let's say, four people -- gets its bill for $2.6 million?

Especially as a lot of us are already dodging bill collectors -- maybe a third of households. 
And what difference does it make? to quote a boomer.

It should matter because it is a major structural weakness. That is, a tiny crack in the fan disk in a jet engine is undetectable and causes no problems -- until the engine blows up. (HT to NPR)

There are big cracks in the engine. And it will only get worse as people like me get older.

It scares the hell out of me. I still work, but everything likely will be hitting the fan just when I really will be getting old.

When the old get to be an intolerable burden, what happens?

Take a look at the news. When there is even a crack in the shell of order, all hell breaks loose. A tiny crack in the order can blow up.

I'd like to spend my declining years sitting in a leather recliner watching all the episodes of "The Sopranos" and "Breaking Bad," not to mention the best John Wayne movies, westerns, and Fred Astaire musicals.

But it isn't going to happen. So I take care of my four-tenths of an acre. That's probably an ancient instinct to have my own land, with a clear view in all directions.

I work out. I had better be able to move around, especially as I age. Soon to be gone are the days when we elderly will be carted around. I'm not saying I think we will be rounded up; but we had better be able to contribute to society as long as possible. So we'd better be ready, and staying ready will put some calluses on your hands. Because we have to be ready for anything.

That includes self-defense.

Because society -- even as presently constructed -- can't sustain itself, much less sustain us. (Note that I haven't even gone into the implications of fanatical killers with nuclear weapons or the risks of creating our own Gaza right here.)

Stay fit. Keep those calluses. I'd ditch the eyeglasses but I just could never tolerate contacts, so I try to look as if I could dig a ditch or push a wheelbarrow if my new overlords need me to.

I'd advise everyone else to do the same. We're living in a vacation era. And Labor Day is coming.

Ulp Update

Reasons to worry:

About one out of three Americans is the target of a debt collector, the Daily Caller reports. Ulp.

The real unemployment rate is at least 18 percent.

The typical American family is one-third poorer than it was a decade earlier.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Who's to Blame? The Superman? Or Everyman?

Who's really to blame for our current imbroglio?

The Superman, the Overman, whom all long to me?

The Everyman, who dominates our politics?

Or President Kardashian, who goes from event to event, while actually doing nothing?

Is the fault, to go back to that famous line, not in our stars -- even the stars, the celebrities,  who inhabit the White House and the rest of Washington, but in ourselves?

The world is in chaos, as even liberal apologists admit. The foreign policy of the United States in the past may not have been right, but it seldom if ever has been so feckless and incoherent.

Meanwhile, one of the basic principles of nationhood has been undermined and may be eradicated.

Plus, the economy is still sputtering despite the desperate avowals of the chattering classes, Putin creeps up on Europe, the Mideast is in flames, terrorism revives all over, China struts in Asia. Underlying all of it is national debt that will -- repeat -- will blow up on us unless we tackle it soon.

Yet President Obama continues his rounds of golfing and fundraising. He doesn't even bother to feign emotion. He has checked out.

But is he any different from the Everyman of our Modern Age? Or the American in the Age of Obama?

For in the modern human being has checked out.

Look around. The defining issue of our age is the void in our emotional life. Look at our popular culture, for instance. There is overall an emotional deadness to it all.

That is why movies and TV and music have to hammer at us with the bluntest and heaviest appeals to our emotion. It is like this: they say our taste buds deteriorate as we grow older, which is why us old folks have to so liberally put salt and ketchup and salsa and whatever to be able to give us any state. So our popular culture must continually ratchet up the blood, sex, noise. The culture machine (and in high culture too) no longer is able or even willing to rouse real emotion, so it must as with any drug supply higher and higher doses of substitutes: horror, shock, arousal, confusion.

Compare almost any movie of today with movies of even ten or twenty years  or seventy ago. This is not about quality per se, though of course no really good movie fails to stir emotion. Even a bad movie of the past at least purveyed some emotion -- perhaps in a tired or insincere form, but a feeling nevertheless. Today's movies can can fabricate images of giant monsters or armies of intelligent chimps; they can make us gasp or turn away in disgust and horror, or simply reel from having our eardrums and eyeballs assaulted. Yet they seldom if ever touch us with feelings of warmth, sadness, joy, pity, terror, love.

The same goes for politics and all social life. We are dead to all feeling, even interest. Sure, blowing up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon roused us for a bit, as did a war in Iraq. But we quickly sank back into an apathetic doze.

I submit that is just one symptom of a civilization that no longer feels. But why?

Nietzsche, as in so much else, foresaw it; or maybe wanted it before the rest of Western Civ did. He told of the ubermensch -- the overman or superman. This man would transcend the old, weak, slavish Christian values, the values of the slave. And yet to those of us who followed, including myself, the superman would leave behind all values, he would truly go beyond good and evil.

Modern man, as first clearly manifested in Nietzsche, felt himself to be godlike in his powers over reality; man was conquering smallpox and the plague and dysentery and even syphilis -- though perhaps too late with the latter to save the philosopher. He of course, like so many of the 19th century, still believed in values; he still lived off the trust fund of the Judeo-Christian civilization, which he despised but which continued to cut him checks of order, rationality, beauty, and, in his time, peace. (Lewis Latham was, if memory served, one of the writers who pointed out how we were living off the wealth of our civilization, and not just materially.)

But those of who followed were generations removed from it; and the trenches of Verdun and the Somme, the skulls and survivors of Buchenwald and Dachau, the boredom of life in a smug corporate world, all of the 20th century tended to wring out of us any remaining sense that these values were real things. We were closer to Sartre, living in a time of cultural exhaustion and ennui, of bad faith, with the bitter knowledge of how we had failed.

We thought values were imaginary. We believed there there was no good in substance of the cosmos; there was no such thing as justice and beauty and truth in the DNA of reality. As we could dial up or down the temperature in our split-level houses and West Side co-op apartments, so we adjust reality in the wider world. We thought we could at least dream up new values, which might serve, if we

So it turns out that rather than transcending old values to find new ones, we transcended values altogether. We no longer believe in right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust. But it turns out that we no longer care about much of anything. It turns out we can't do much to establish values if we don't believe values exist; we can't be much good at hunting unicorns, no many benefits unicorns could bestow on us. We no longer feel much either; it turns out that, surprise, human beings can't give a hoot about things they are told are just imaginary and probably even unhealthy, such as morality.

The philosopher might have a moment of bitter amusement to see his superman stride on the scene, and transcend all values, and become a man not a man of superior action and self, but one drained of all. A hollow man, as T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis saw. We seem him and her everywhere. They drift through life, but nothing touches them.

That would at least explain a troubling phenomenon: the apathy of the body politic. A government suborns the tax collection agency, with its frightening power; it allows weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels; it does nothing after American diplomats are murdered; it stands by as allies are overrun; it seems willing to in effect dissolve our southern border. Meanwhile, financial Armageddon looms. Yet American voters are, by and large, unmoved.

I'd suggest that means almost anything will leave them unmoved. As modern men and women, they are poorly equipped to get worked up about danger of the debt or the world or the border.

So don't blame Obama. He is just the typical American of our age -- an age when we all conceive of ourselves as Supermen, invulnerable and omnipotent. Conservatives would hate that, for they want him to be some evil genius; liberals of course want him to be the Superintellectual of their dreams. But he is actually just Everyman, albeit one with a good tailor and a talent for reading a Teleprompter.

As other ages were the ages of Jackson, say, or Lincoln, we live in the Age of Obama. We too are golfing while the world burns. We cannot rouse ourselves to care. Jefferson said something about a democracy being a political order in which the people get the government they deserve -- and, as Mencken famously said (HT Instapundit) they get it good and hard.

But it is also the political system in which the people get the government they are. We look at the presidents after Jackson and through Buchanan and wonder why the people chose men who are mostly ciphers who did little about the obvious crisis looming: slavery. But the people chose them because, in the sum of their wisdom, they didn't want to face the crisis, much less do something about it.

So it is Obama who really is Everyman. Look at him: raised in a fragmented family, mentored by radicals, told by everyone he is No. 1 till his self-esteem at least is superhuman, given a patina of education,  escorted from one fake job to the next, rising all the way, applauded all the while. He is us, like it or not.

At the same time, he plainly likes being a celebrity, in the sense of needing to do nothing but be famous. He is our Kardashian president, but of course it's no longer just a material world, for it is that, but it is a Kardashian world, where merely attaining fame means you will continue to be famous, until you bore the public, that is. For today Everyman demands that celebrities being just ordinary people. Aside from their talent for celebrity, the Kardashians would have trouble holding down jobs at a hamburger stand; so it goes for our other celebrities, from Hollywood to Washington.

So we plainly should not worry so much about Obama. We should worry about the rest of us, and why we cannot stir ourselves enough to protect the world we inherited.

Of course, fantasy can only take you so far. Reality will intrude. We will feel again -- unfortunately, I suspect our emotions will return, at first, in the forms of pain and suffering and regret and horror and rage and terror.