Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why I Don’t Believe in Conspiracy Theories

I recently asked conspiracy believers to relate any personal, first hand evidence they had to justify believing, say, that their own government would fly airliners into buildings. Not what they read or heard, but what they actually saw. It would be really fascinating to discover what, exactly, leads conspiracy believers to draw the conclusions they do. And after asking the same question in many different places, I have not found a single person who can give me first-hand evidence, nor anyone who can actually articulate how they came to believe in conspiracies.

Well, fair’s fair. Let me tell you why I don’t believe in conspiracy theories.

They Lie

Back when I was in high school, I spent a lot of time browsing the science section of my local library. I discovered there were two kinds of books. There were the ordinary science books about stars, rocks, cells, and so on. Then there were far more exotic books about great catastrophes, close encounters between earth and other planets, and so on. And all the exotic books described heartbreaking tales of how the Scientific Establishment suppressed any unorthodox ideas. It made me really angry.

Then I went to college and started learning some real science, and I discovered that in every single case, those exotic theories were pure rubbish. Generally, the ideas in those books were so trivially easy to refute that no real scientist would waste his time on them. The ideas weren’t being suppressed at all. They were just irrelevant to real science. All those persecution accounts were lies. Lies told specifically to get the reader angry and on the side of the author. If I’d been angry before, finding out I’d been lied to and manipulated made me ten times angrier.

It was also about this time I discovered Martin Gardner’s classic “Fads and Fallacies,” where I first learned just how widespread the intellectual counterculture was. I developed an interest in crank theories as a scientific and social phenomenon, and I quickly noticed a pattern. Crank theories, almost without exception, have a paranoid tone and accuse some evil “Establishment” of conspiring to suppress their revolutionary ideas. This was the late Sixties, and I also noticed that some kinds of crank writings, specifically occult writings, held a lot of appeal for the radical counterculture of the day, which was also pretty paranoid (not entirely without reason). That turns out not to be coincidence.

This was also about the time that plate tectonics was revolutionizing geology, and the more entrenched it became in mainstream geology, the more strident its opponents became and the more likely they were to accuse mainstream scientists of ulterior motives and unfair treatment. One prominent hard-line opponent was editor of a leading journal, and he simply waived quality control when it came to anti-plate tectonic papers. It is safe to say that, under his aegis, that journal published some of the worst junk ever published in an otherwise mainstream scientific journal. And the tone was scarcely distinguishable from crank literature.

I concluded that a belief in conspiracies and a paranoid outlook are the single most reliable indicators of the crank, whether it’s astrology, creationism, dowsing, UFO’s, Bigfoot, or the Apollo moon landing hoax. In almost every case, the claims are false, intended to agitate the reader, lash out at authority, and justify the crank’s ideas in his own eyes. Lashing out at authority is a major element in most conspiracy beliefs.

Real Conspiracies Have Sensible Goals

The world is full of real conspiracies: drug cartels, terrorist organizations, organized crime, financial scams, malware creators. And for the most part, they’re rational. What they want is very clear. Mostly it’s money. Drug cartels want to control drug traffic and keep out rivals. Organized crime and financial scams want to siphon money out of the economy either by direct extortion or by fraud. Terrorists want to bring down a regime or seize power. Nobody pretends ISIS or the Cosa Nostra are actually fronts for fracking or imposing global socialism or confiscating Americans’ guns.

Two of the most massive secret operations in history were the Manhattan Project and the cover operations for D-Day. They managed to maintain secrecy because the people in charge were extremely rational and committed. True, they kept their subordinates highly compartmentalized, so that while everyone, friend and foe alike, knew something was afoot, and even in a general way what it was, very few people knew the big picture. But the fact that the entire group was highly committed meant that, even if information did leak to lower levels, it had a good chance of stopping there. (Military secrecy has one advantage. It doesn’t have to deceive everybody, just the guy at the top. There were numerous leaks of Germany’s plan to invade Russia in 1941, some very accurate. Stalin refused to believe them. Likewise, even after the Allied landings in Normandy, Hitler refused to believe that was the main attack.)

Real Conspiracies Use Sensible Methods

One of the most infamous real conspiracies was the Tuskeegee Experiments, where black syphilis patients were systematically denied proper medical care to allow doctors to observe the long term effects of syphilis. But the goal is easy to see: gather medical data (using flatly immoral methods). And the means to that end was fairly straightforward. The experimenters went to considerable lengths to track the subjects and intervene to prevent them getting proper care. But the methods were wholly ordinary: telephone calls and letters. Nobody has ever alleged a plot to topple American society by spreading syphilis, or trying to breed a new super-bug, or that the experimenters recruited psychics to track the subjects.

Bogus conspiracies, on the other hand, use Rube Goldberg methods to achieve objectives that any sane person could accomplish far more easily. (For those not old enough to remember Rube Goldberg, think of those insanely complicated domino-toppling or mechanical videos on YouTube.) For example, there are anti-fluoridationists who accuse the aluminum industry of promoting fluoridation as a means of disposing of waste fluoride. The aluminum industry is the single largest consumer of fluorine, so why would it “dispose” of something it uses in vast quantities? Actually, the aluminum industry recycles its fluorine. And the amount of fluorine used in drinking water is trivial compared to the amount used in smelting aluminum. It’s like accusing the lumber industry of promoting the sale of hamsters so they can sell wood shavings, or the silver industry of pushing sugar so they could sell silver for dental fillings. It's interesting that none of them accuse the electronics industry, which also uses a lot of fluorine in the refining of silicon.

So, sure, there was a gunman up on the grassy knoll in Dallas. All your top assassins pick vantage points out in the open where people will be milling around and they can’t be sure someone won’t be behind them or get their picture, or block their getaway route. (Oswald, in contrast, picked a hidden perch with escape routes.) We faked the moon landings by building 400-foot tall rockets that launched in full view of thousands of people. And, despite our rivalry with the Soviet Union, we somehow convinced them not to release telemetry data that would reveal the fakery. And the government brought down WTC 7 several hours after the Twin Towers, even though there were no people inside and no advantage to be gained by wrecking an empty building. The Sandy Hook school massacre was completely imaginary. We just picked two dozen families, created imaginary children for them, plus imaginary friends. It’s not like there aren’t a lot of people pushing for gun control already. And if the government wanted to spray us with mind control chemicals, you’d think they could come up with something a little more subtle than leaving long white streaks in the sky. Like maybe putting chemicals in the water that make rainbows in the sunlight (Yes, that is a real thing on YouTube).

Real Conspiracies Leak

Watergate broke when a night watchman noticed that latches on the office door of the Democratic National Committee had been taped so the door would not lock. You'd think someone like Gordon Liddy could train his minions to pick locks. Police arrested five burglars who had cash traceable to a slush fund operated by the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Security at every level was laughable, allowing investigators to follow the links right up to the White House. And this was an operation run by well trained people with access to enormous power. And it leaked like a sieve.

Iran-Contra was blown when an Iranian opposed to dealing with the U.S. leaked the story to a Lebanese newspaper.

In contrast, imaginary conspiracies are vast and air-tight. None of the astronauts in the Apollo Program has confirmed the hoax theory of the moon landings, let alone any of the thousands of people who built the rockets and landers. The Trilateral Commission, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Bilderberg Group, the Stonecutters, all control the global economy in secret. To which one critic of conspiracy theories said, “Great; let’s have people in control that can get things done.”

But any hobbyist with a computer can ferret out the conspiracy. Supposedly, dozens of witnesses to the JFK assassination have been hunted down and killed, most after they told the FBI everything they knew. If I thought there were really a conspiracy that ruthless, I’d paddle a canoe up the remotest headwaters of the Amazon and hide, not blog about it. A lot of conspiracy belief seems to be a Walter Mitty fantasy of a lone David bringing down a Goliath.

Their Logic is Just Plain Lousy

I can’t really do much better than this response to Cracked’s article, “5 Reasons Conspiracy Theories Are Destroying the World.”
Manhattan Project
Asbestos from the 1930s to the 1960s
Lead poisoning
Tuskegee experiments
Iran Contra
Cigarettes (defended by the AMA at one point)
Mercury Poisoning
All of these were once conspiracy theories, and all of them have been proven true. OF COURSE there are some conspiracy theories that are batshit insane. But have just one iota of appreciation for history, and maybe take the smugness down a notch.
First of all, there is the vast leap of logic. “Tuskegee experiments, therefore 9/11 was an inside job.” “MK-Ultra, therefore the Apollo landings were a hoax.” “Iran-Contra, therefore Sandy Hook was a false flag attack.” The “therefore’s” need a little more work.

Then, observe the attempt to salvage respectability. “OF COURSE there are some conspiracy theories that are batshit insane….” (and since I acknowledge that, therefore my conspiracy beliefs must be legitimate.) To see the fallacy here, just replace “conspiracy” with something else. “OF COURSE there are some racist theories that are batshit insane….” (but mine aren’t). “OF COURSE there are some extremists that are batshit insane….” (but not me).

No, the real issue is this. Since so many conspiracy theories are demonstrably, trivially unworkable and wrong, prove that yours is an exception to the pattern.

And then of course, we have the “unanswered questions” fallacy. How do you explain how fires can bring down steel frame skyscrapers? (Well, heat weakens steel and thermal expansion stresses and breaks joints.) How do you explain that shadows on Apollo pictures point in different directions? (It’s called perspective.) How do you explain how a mediocre shot like Oswald hit Kennedy? (Because if you visit the site, it’s apparent he could practically have hit Kennedy with a brick from where he was.) Most of the time, there are answers - simple ones - but the conspiracy theorist rejects them. But even if they have a real unanswered question, all that proves is that something is unanswered. And note, by the way, they never agree that their unanswered questions prove that they’re wrong.

seiroehT ycaripsnoC

One of the more interesting tactics by some conspiracy theorists is to flip the label around and accuse their critics of believing in conspiracy theories. A few of the replies to the Cracked article are typical.
“The fact that twenty people with box cutters can simultaneously hijack aircraft and hit 80% (sic) of their targets is a conspiracy theory in itself.”
Well, yes it is. The difference between the hijacker conspiracy theory and the idea that the Twin Towers were brought down by explosives is there’s supporting evidence for the hijacker theory.
“The term “conspiracy theorist” was coined by the CIA in order to influence public opinion and discredit investigation into government misconduct.”
“Conspiracy theorist” is an inherently self-explanatory term. That’s kind of like saying the term “salt shaker” was invented by the Morton Salt Company to encourage people to use salt.
“The most recent poll showed that the majority of Americans no longer believe the conspiracy theory that a species emitting only 3% of the world’s supply of a poor heat-trapping gas are magically cooling the planet… I mean heating the planet…. or wait, I mean causing the weather to change now.”
Now that one is so wonderfully weird I hardly know where to begin with it. Psst, buddy, wanna burn some hydrocarbons and change the climate? Nobody is conspiring to emit CO2. We have people conspiring to deny that it has an effect. Simply saying CO2 affects climate is no more a conspiracy theory than saying that dogs have fleas. But I think this guy simply thinks that if he can apply the label “conspiracy theory” to something he disagrees with, that magically puts the two belief systems on the same level.

I Just Don't See any Evidence

This goes way beyond any shortcomings I see in the theories themselves. I just plain don't see any evidence that the Government would fly aircraft into buildings or stage a massive counterfeit lunar program. I see lots of stupidity and garden-variety corruption, stupidity of a class that would crash any super-secret conspiracy. What I do see is the roads are decent, airplanes get where they're supposed to go without colliding all the time (we go years on end between fatal aircraft accidents these days), the drinking water is safe (Flint Michigan is a scandal precisely because it's an exception, caused by laziness and garden variety corruption), and the mail gets delivered. If you want a real sinister conspiracy, look into the efforts to drive the Postal Service into bankruptcy. When I use a Government printed map, what I find on the ground is what I see on the map. If I served 20 years in uniform, they said I'd get a pension when I turned sixty. The magic day came, and darned if the pension didn't start coming.

I flat-out have never had a personal experience that suggests to me there are vast conspiracies afoot. If you believe in them, you must have had some personal experience or observation that persuades you to believe that way. So what was it? Because I've asked and asked, and as far as I can tell so far, not a single conspiracy believer has any personal experience to justify their beliefs. Comments are enabled for this post. Let's hear it.

And if you don't have any personal observations or experiences, but it's all what you've read, or heard, or how "it all fits together," there must be something that's convinced you that's how the world works. What was it? I've asked this question many times and so far not a single response. As far as I can tell, not a single conspiracy believer has any first-hand experience to justify his beliefs.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

It's Not Guns, or Sex. It's Entitlement.

On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara. What made his case unusual was that he came from a highly affluent background and left detailed video and written manifestos explaining his actions. He was angry because women refused to swoon at his wonderfulness. Ironically, four of his six victims were male. That probably makes sense because he pictured them as unfairly getting all the action.

I like that posters are using the "entitlement" label about this case because that's what the problem really is. Arthur Chu (the Jeopardy guy) had another good one over at Daily Beast. It's not guns, because every home in Switzerland has a military rifle and we don't see this in Switzerland. And it's not sexual frustration, egged on by hyper-sexualized media. Porn is far more available in Europe and we don't see this in Europe. It's the feeling "I'm entitled, and if I don't get it, someone has to pay."

Forget welfare recipients. They may have a sense of entitlement, but they're small potatoes. The problem is the sense of entitlement everywhere else. Like the people who do lackluster work but think they're entitled to a good job, and who harass people who actually do do a good job. The people who merely occupy a house for thirty years and think they're entitled to sell it for a huge profit.

We see it whenever there's a story about a bank making a huge error in someone's favor and then wanting the money back. All the enraged comments about how the recipient is "entitled" to the money. Or someone finds a large amount of money and turns it in, and all kinds of anger is directed against him for being so dumb. See, they'd keep the money if they were in that position, and by turning it in, the finder is offending their sense of entitlement.

Of course that bikini model I met on line wants to date me. Of course that Nigerian prince wants to share money with me. Because I'm entitled to have wonderful things fall into my lap.

There's a story about a guy who prayed desperately to win the lottery, but he didn't win that week. Next week he prayed again, even more fervently. No go. Finally, on his last legs, he beseeched God from the depths of his heart. Again no luck. So he cried out "God, I've prayed to you and trusted you, and you let me down. Why?" And God answered: "Work with me on this, pal. Buy a ticket."

That's why nerds take so much flak. Here you have a whole school full of people who think they're entitled to coast and blow off their courses, and nerds ruin it all by taking things seriously.

It's been a persistent thread throughout U.S. history. We're entitled to all that land. We're entitled to find gold and plunder resources and clear-cut and dump our waste in the rivers. Cliven Bundy is entitled to graze his cows on public land for free. In fact, he's entitled to take your public land because he's entitled, that's all. But you can bet he'll shoot at you if you trespass on HIS land, because he's entitled to. We're entitled to wear our guns in public. We're entitled to have more rights and privileges than that other group. Then there are people who think they're entitled to carry a gun and go out and interrogate people who are just walking down their street. Or stop some other driver for violating their concept of road etiquette. Or correct other people's kids. Or go ballistic on teachers or police when their kids are lawfully corrected. I have a right to kill people if I get "disrespected."

Elliott Rodgers is newsworthy only because he killed six people, but it happens in onesies and twosies all the time, every time some guy can't deal with the fact that he's not entitled to own his ex body and soul, or his girl friend comes to her senses and wants to get out. For at least 50 years people have been warning about an emphasis on rights without responsibility. You get a culture of entitlement.

Why Are Both Political Parties Indistinguishable?

Possibility 1: You're a Shallow Thinker

You really don't see any difference between George W. Bush and John Kerry or Al Gore? You really didn't see any difference between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale or Jimmy Carter? You really thought Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were pretty much the same? Would Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern have been as politically able to open relations with China as Richard Nixon? Would the Civil Rights era or the Vietnam War have run the same course if Barry Goldwater had been elected in 1964 instead of Lyndon Johnson? If you answer "yes" to any of the above, do us all a favor on election day and stay home.

Not seeing a difference between Democrats and Republicans is like thinking Limburger cheese and a chocolate malt are pretty much the same because they're both dairy products, or filet mignon is pretty much like liverwurst because they're both meat.

Possibility 2: You Belong to the Lunatic Fringe

The other reason some people see the two parties as identical is they're out on the planet Mongo, so far from earth that even huge differences shrink to the vanishing point. These folks are so far removed from reality that they expect things that no rational political system can offer.

Leftists: buy a clue. We are not going to seize the wealth of the top 10% of the population and pass it out among everybody else. First, it wouldn't go all that far. Second, once it was spent, there would be no more. See Chile, 1974 for additional information, or take notes during Zimbabwe 2007-. We are not going to cure poverty by printing a million dollars for everybody. See Germany, 1923 for details. We are not going to disband the FBI, the CIA, the Armed Forces, or the police, and we are not going to open the prisons.

Rightists: get real. We are not going to pay off the national debt by selling poor people to be ground up for cat food. We are not going to divvy up the national parks for vacation homes, and even if we did, do you think you'd stand a chance of getting anything? We are not going to declare your particular cult (not denomination, cult) the State religion or round up the particular group you think are enemies of the State. We are not going to abolish taxes or go back to gold coins. So if you wonder why none of those ideas ever get a fair hearing, it's because they already have, and they flunk the most elementary common sense tests. Occasionally somebody in Washington thinks of one of those ideas, but once the pink rabbits go away, the shakes stop and the hangover quiets down to a dull throb, they get over it.

And you folks out in the weird antipodean realm where right and left meet, I have news for you. You will never convince a court that the government has no power to collect taxes. You will never convince anyone that you are a sovereign citizen not bound by the law. Regardless of your citizenship, if you are on a country's territory, you are bound by its laws. Everywhere on Earth. Even Antarctica, because every country with a presence in Antarctica has laws enabling it to prosecute crimes committed there. Go ahead. Post a YouTube video of you kicking a penguin and see how fast someone turns up at your door with a warrant.

There's a broad consensus about a lot of things in American society. We need paved roads and schools and some sort of plan so old people and the handicapped can survive. We need people to make sure foods are clean and airplanes don't collide and toxins don't get dumped in the rivers and radio stations don't try blasting each other off the air on the same frequency. Politics in America is played between the 30-yard lines. If you want to suit up and wait in the parking lot for someone to throw you a long pass, lotsa luck. There are a lot of dumb voters, but there are enough sensible ones to keep a lot of ideas where they belong - on the lunatic fringe.

I am never going to vote for the kind of candidate than many non-voters seem to want, and neither are any of the other voters I know, Democratic or Republican. So if you want a radical alternative to the candidates now running, you raise money, collect signatures and get them elected. It is not my job to fix your dissatisfaction with the system.

Treason of the Intellectuals, Volume 3

Treason of the Intellectuals

Treason of the Intellectuals was the title of a 1928 book by Julien Benda, originally published in French as La Trahison des Clercs. The term Clerc has an obvious similarity to the word cleric, and Benda used it in the sense of people who devoted their lives to ideas and thought, without necessarily being concerned with practical applications. Benda was distressed at the way intellectuals of the early 20th Century had been increasingly seduced by the appeal of power, and by the possibility that men of ideas might have a real role in shaping human events. Some devoted their energies to justifying nationalism, others to fanning class rivalry. One group would soon furnish an intellectual basis for fascism, the other had already been swept up by early Marxism, dazzled by the Russian Revolution. Benda presciently warned that if these political passions were not reined in, mankind was "heading for the greatest and most perfect war the world has ever known."

Society and intellectuals had been jointly responsible for this process. Particularly in Germany, universities had been redefined as institutions for producing skilled scientists and engineers, and the increasing success of science and technology in producing practical results had led to a shift from a belief in knowledge as good in itself to knowledge as good for practical purposes. Universities discovered that people who doled out money grudgingly for abstract knowledge were quite happy to spend money for knowledge with practical uses. The intellectuals of whom Benda wrote had aspirations of being philosopher-kings. Not philosopher-kings in the ancient sense, kings who used the insights of philosophy to rule more wisely and justly, but philosophers who also happened to be kings and who would be able to use the power of the state to advance their own philosophical agendas (and presumably quash opposing views).

Volume II: Marxism

Volume II, of course, would be a study of the way Western intellectuals prostituted themselves to Communism during the Stalinist era and the Cold War. Innumerable books on this subject have been written. Most of those of Cold War vintage were derided as mere anti-Communist hysteria or, ironically, "anti-intellectual." Norman Podhoretz' Breaking Ranks is a recent account of how one former radical came to be disillusioned.

When I was growing up (some people argue that using the term "growing up" in any context involving me is a contradiction in terms, but never mind) in the 1950's, I got a fairly standard view of the horrors of Communism. By the mid 1960's, I had come to regard a lot of that information as mere propaganda. Then, early in my college career at Berkeley (1965-69, no less) I got a revelation. I was browsing in the library stacks and came across a section on Soviet history. I discovered that everything I had been taught to regard as propaganda was in fact true, and moreover, the documentation was massive and easy to find. Then I read Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and discovered that what I had been told in the 1950's wasn't the whole truth. The reality was far worse. Only the most massive and willful denial of reality could have accounted for the mind-set of Western intellectuals.

The Soviet Union is gone, and while nominal Communism lingers in Cuba, China, Vietnam and North Korea, Communism as a global magnet for intellectuals is gone. One preposterous claim, seriously advanced by some intellectuals, is that they played a role in the downfall of Communism, when in fact they obstructed and ridiculed opposition to Communism at every turn. But surely the most wonderful irony is that the CIA set up front foundations during the Cold War to fund leftist intellectuals and thereby provide an alternative to Marxism. Bertrand Russell, the archetypical anti-Western Cold War intellectual, was actually covertly subsidized by the CIA. I love it. Russell, to me, symbolizes everything that made the Twentieth Century a scientific golden age and a philosophical desert, a thinker whose reputation was based solely on his own hype machine. With his colossal ego, he never for a moment suspected that his funding was anything other than richly deserved. The irony is beautiful.

Volume III: Islamic Fascism

But a new magnet for intellectuals is emerging: radical Islam. It's not that intellectuals are likely to embrace radical Islam themselves anytime soon - for one thing, the requirement of believing in God would deter many of them. But what they can do is obstruct efforts to combat radical Islam and terrorism, undermine support for Israel, stress the "legitimate grievances" of radical Islamists, and lend moral support to the "legitimacy" of radical Islamic movements.

This is a phenomenon at first glance so baffling it cries out for explanation. Both fascism and Marxism censored, harassed, and imprisoned intellectuals, but they also gave lip service to intellectualism. Russia and Germany both had great universities. Both fascism and Marxism appealed to their respective nations' cultural heritage in support of their ideologies. Our mental picture of fascism is now mostly colored by images of Nazi book burnings and bad art, but before World War II fascism was quite successful at passing itself off as a blend of socialism and nationalism.

Marxism in particular offered an intellectual framework that many intellectuals bought into. Marxism presented a facade of support for culture and science, paid intellectuals highly and created huge academic institutions. True, intellectuals in the Soviet Union were well paid mostly in comparison to the general poverty of everyone else rather than in real terms, the economy was so decrepit that the money couldn't purchase much of value, and a lot of the academic institutions were second-rate in comparison to any American community college, but at least the Soviet Union could put forth an illusion of fostering intellectual inquiry. (I once sent a letter to the Soviet Embassy inquiring about films on the Soviet space program. This was after word-processors had become universal in American offices. I got a reply - a couple of years later - typed on a manual machine that looked as if Lenin had typed his high school term papers on it, and the embassy was still using the same ribbon.)

But radical Islam is openly hostile to intellectual inquiry. Iran under the Ayatollahs banned music. In the United States, the work Piss Christ ignited a fierce debate - not over whether such work should be allowed, but whether it should be publicly supported. In parts of the Islamic world, dissident works invite not debate over public funding, but death sentences. Fascism and Marxism at least offered the illusion that they supported intellectual inquiry. Radical Islam offers intellectuals nothing.  It openly aims to destroy all intellectual life except for a barren form of Koranic pseudo-scholarship. So why aren't Western intellectuals whole-heartedly behind any and all diplomatic and military attempts to combat radical Islam?

Hatred of Democracy

When we try to discover what fascism, Marxism, and radical Islam have in common, the field shrinks to a single common theme: hatred of democracy. Despite all the calls for "Power to the People" from radical intellectuals, the reality is that no societies have ever empowered so many people to such a degree as Western democracies.

The problem is that people in democratic societies usually end up using that empowerment to make choices that intellectuals hate. How can we reconcile the fact that the masses, whom intellectuals profess to support, keep making wrong choices? I've got it - they've been duped somehow. Those aren't their real values; they've been brainwashed into a "false consciousness" by society. If they were completely free to choose, they'd make the "right" choices. But of course we have to eliminate all the distractions that interfere with the process: no moral or religious indoctrination, no advertising or superficial amusements, no status symbols, no politically incorrect humor. "False consciousness" is a perfect way of professing support for the masses while simultaneously depriving them of any power to choose; a device for being an elitist while pretending not to be.

The post-Soviet version of "false consciousness" is "internalized oppression." If you're a woman who opposes abortion, a black with middle class values, or a person with a lousy job who nevertheless believes in hard work, those aren't your real values. You've internalized the values of the white male power elite and allowed yourself to become their tool. You don't really know what you believe. When the enlightened elite want your opinion, they'll tell you what it is.

Democracy confronts radical intellectuals with a threat more dangerous than any censor, secret police, or religious fatwa - irrelevance. An intellectual working on behalf of a totalitarian regime can imagine himself as an agent of sweeping social change. If he ends up in a labor camp or facing a firing squad he can at least console himself that his work was so seminal that the only way the regime could cope with it was to silence him. He made a difference. A radical intellectual in a democracy, on the other hand, finds the vast majority ignoring him. They never heard of him. His most outrageous works go unknown or are the butt of jokes. He watches in impotent rage as the masses ignore art films and go to summer blockbusters. Worse yet, things that are noticed get co-opted, watered down and trivialized. Works that are supposed to shake the System to the core are bought by fat cats to decorate corporate headquarters or stashed in bank vaults as investments. Fashions that scream defiance of everything the society holds dear end up being the next generation's Trick or Treat costumes. Protest songs end up being played on elevators twenty years later. Eric Hoffer, the longeshoreman-philosopher, nailed it perfectly:
The fact is that up to now a free society has not been good for the intellectual. It has neither accorded him a superior status to sustain his confidence nor made it easy for him to acquire an unquestioned sense of social usefulness. For he derives his sense of usefulness mainly from directing, instructing, and planning- from minding other people's business- and is bound to feel superfluous and neglected where people believe themselves competent to manage individual and communal affairs, and are impatient of supervision and regulation. A free society is as much a threat to the intellectual's sense of worth as an automated economy is to the workingman's sense of worth. Any social order that can function with a minimum of leadership will be anathema to the intellectual.
We can see the hatred of democracy most clearly in criticisms of the economic world. We hear that the automobile creates pollution and urban sprawl. Megastores undercut local merchants and produce armies of low-paid workers. Agribusiness drives family farms out of business and puts agriculture in the hands of corporations. (Actually what is driving the family farm out of business is the family farm - people in Western societies have been moving off farms for the last 800 years.) Aquaculture results in marine pollution and mixing of cultivated fish with wild populations. Every single innovation that provides the masses with more freedom or material goods is a target for intellectual disdain. You'd think people who are concerned with poverty would be delighted by more abundant and cheaper consumer goods, or that people who are concerned about hunger would be thrilled with cheap, abundant food. Exactly the opposite. You'd think that people who are concerned about the dichotomy between rich and poor countries would be ecstatic over globalization and the spread of jobs to underdeveloped countries. Surely people who are concerned about peace would glory in seeing the leaders of the industrialized world meet to discuss how to better integrate their economies. Yet every economic summit is besieged by protestors railing against globalization.

One recent target of opponents of globalization is outsourcing of jobs to Third World countries. This creates real suffering for displaced American workers. But for years, we have heard how grossly unfair it is that the U.S. has such a disproportionate share of the world's wealth and consumes so much of the world's resources. Now the rest of the world is catching up. Jobs, opportunities, and wages are moving into less developed countries, and those countries are increasingly competing with the U.S. for markets and resources. What did you think it would be like, people?

Most of these folks simultaneously demand government programs to alleviate poverty and hunger, mass transit so the poor can get to where the good jobs are, and international aid to the Third World. In short they want structured, paternalistic programs that address needs defined by the intellectual elite. They are bitterly opposed to innovations that merely give the masses more goods, food, or money and leave the decision making to individuals.

  • First, the money has to be taken by force from the wealthy. Voluntary contributions don't count. Taxation at a level that the wealthy will consent to doesn't count. Any approach that recognizes the wealthy as having rights is unsatisfactory. Even worse is any recognition of philanthropy and the idea that some of the wealthy have social consciences.
  • Second, the programs can only address needs defined by the intellectual elite. We won't provide cheaper cars; we'll force people to use mass transit. One volunteer aid group once did a study of Third World needs, concluded that one of the most pressing needs in Third World countries was transportation, then excluded automobiles from consideration because they felt that automobiles had a negative effect. When mass transit doesn't work in the low-density U.S., we'll try to compel people to live in higher density housing.
  • Finally, the distribution of resources cannot have anything to do with individual responsibility. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." In other words, if you're smart and industrious we expect you to work for no reward.
One of the best examples of paternalism is the story of Victor Gruen, father of the American shopping mall. Gruen envisioned recreating the central plazas of European cities where people would gather, interact, linger and socialize. Gruen finally returned to Austria, depressed at how the idea had turned out in practice, and died in 1980. He apparently never figured out that Americans spend most of the day working and the people who have the time to linger in malls are exactly the sorts of people most likely to deter others from coming to malls. But even more, it never occurred to Gruen, or to all the other people who propose European style solutions to American problems, that if Americans wanted to live like Europeans, they would already be living like Europeans. Gruen's story leaves me uncertain whether to pity his naivete, or feel anger at his arrogance. What gave Gruen the right to decide that Americans need a European lifestyle?

Here's a radical idea. If our cities are plagued by flight of the middle class to the suburbs, why not return control of the cities to the middle class?

The Time Ghetto

There's no more effective social filter than time. By the late 19th century, tourism was becoming well enough established that even the middle classes could engage in it, and it was to the advantage of railroad and steamship companies to foster this development, just as airlines do now. So how to separate yourself from the rabble? Well, a shopkeeper might be able to afford a round trip to Europe, but not a six-month tour. Only the really rich could afford to travel for six months at a stretch. It's significant that so much intellectual disdain is targeted against any innovation that gives the masses more time. You can always create more goods, food, or wealth, but there are only 24 hours in a day. Uh-oh. It turns out you can create more time. You do the routine tasks faster so you have more time to spend doing what you want, or you drive prices down so people need to work less time to buy things, and have more leisure to enjoy them. So it's not surprising that virtually everything that translates into time saving is fair game for the elitists.

Trashing Tourism

If you want world peace and understanding, I can't think of a better way to do it than to have floods of people visiting other parts of the world. Even given the worst stereotypes of tourists, some people at least go places, learn things, and leave money behind. People on the other end get money, learn things about their own culture as guides, learn other languages, and learn about other cultures by being exposed to them. There has probably been no single greater force for peace in Europe since World War II  than the fact that millions of Americans have lived in Germany with the U.S. Armed Forces and millions of Germans had first-hand contact with Americans. I'm not talking about the troop strength, just the ordinary day to day human contact.

If you have some excess wealth to spend, it's hard to come up with a more constructive use for it than tourism. So it's natural that tourism would be abhorrent to the intellectual elite. It gobbles up land for airports, clogs the skies with aircraft, increases pollution, increases pressure on sensitive sites, and so on. All of that perfectly true.

See, travel was just fine when only The Right Sort Of People had the time to engage in it; when it took several days by train or ship to get anywhere and when it was so expensive that only the Enlightened could aspire to it. But now all the riff-raff are doing it.

First Class on the Titanic

The dream world that anti-democratic elitists inhabit is the first-class deck on the Titanic, where people of breeding admire and subsidize the intellectual elites. Old money only, thank you, none of that tacky nouveau riche behavior. Not the real first class deck (Leonardo DiCaprio's announcement that he was an artist drew sneers from most of his table mates, and that would likely have been true in reality as well) but one that exists only in nostalgic fantasy. Truth is there has never been a society that supported intellectuals better than ours. Tycho Brahe may have had a lavish court, but he was born into the nobility to begin with. If you were a peasant with a brain in the Middle Ages, you might have gotten a break in the priesthood but that was your only chance. In terms of number of people and level of support, nothing in history even begins to approach how Western societies support intellectuals.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Forget RINOS - the Real Problem is CINOS

Unless you've been on an ice floe since the Titanic sank, and just recently rescued, you know what a RINO is - Republican in Name Only. It's an epithet hurled at centrist Republicans by Tea Party adherents, who believe centrists aren't following a sufficiently hard right line. It's a fairly meaningless label for two reasons. First, who's a "real" Republican is pretty much dictated by whichever faction is in control at the polls, and second, defining what a "real" Republican is, is pretty much an exercise in futility. After all, we're talking about a party that once included Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, and now is dominated by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, to the point where even Ronald Reagan would be suspect. Trying to define a "real" Republican is like trying to nail jello to a tree.

On the other hand, the term "conservative" has a much firmer definition. It has a far longer lineage in American politics plus worldwide usage in other political systems. Although the Tea Party stresses liberty, all classical conservative thinkers emphasize that liberty, unconstrained by deeper virtues, is without value, indeed destructive. I think we can assume that Edmund Burke, widely considered a founder of modern conservatism, was a genuine conservative. Some of his opinions on liberty and virtue include:
But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.
There is but one law for all, namely that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity - the law of nature and of nations.
If you can be well without health, you may be happy without virtue. 
Among a people generally corrupt liberty cannot long exist.

The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, — in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity, — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. 

Liberty must be limited in order to be possessed.
To me, the core values of conservatism are honesty, frugality and stewardship, and personal responsibility. And the real problem isn't RINO's, but CINO's - Conservatives in Name Only. Or, as David Brooks put it in "The Republicans’ Incompetence Caucus" (New York Times, Oct. 13, 2015):

By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible. Conservatives of this disposition can be dull, but they know how to nurture and run institutions. They also see the nation as one organic whole. Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love.


Men are qualified for civil liberty.... in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, ... in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves.
One requirement of honesty is self-appraisal. If you don't have expertise in a subject, you have no right to an opinion on it. You get to comment on climate change when you have enough scientific training to understand climate, to be able to tell sound credentials from fakes, and to be able to tell sound arguments from fraudulent ones. You get to comment on evolution when you know enough biology and geology. If you're about to object that evolution contradicts the Bible, then you'd better have enough Biblical scholarship to know whether evolution actually does contradict the Bible, as determined by real Biblical scholars and not just your old Sunday School teacher. Basically you get to argue with the experts when you are one of them. If you don't have enough time to become an expert yourself, you don't have time to have an opinion. Democracy does not mean your mere opinion equals somebody else's professional training.

Exhibit A is "Lord" Monckton, climate change denialist. Except, he actually has no credentials in climate science and, oh, guess what. He isn't even a real lord. The British House of Lords sent him a cease and desist letter for pretending to be one of them. At least "Colonel" Sanders doesn't demand salutes.

Exhibit B is a mailing I got a decade ago from the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, in Cave Junction, Oregon. That was of interest to me because I'd actually been to Cave Junction. And there's nothing there. No industry, no university. Inside the mailing was a very authoritative looking scientific paper debunking global warming. Distinctive type fonts, paper stock, the works. Except it lacked the one thing all scientific reprints have - a citation. All real scientific reprints have a citation, usually on the bottom margin, telling where and when the paper was published. I finally decided someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make an authentic looking counterfeit. As indeed they had - the "paper" exactly duplicated the style of the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences, which took the unusual step of issuing a disclaimer of any connection to the "paper."

Included with the "paper" was a letter from Frederick Seitz, one-time president of the NAS, who had a distinguished career, retired, and found a second career writing junk science for the tobacco industry before moving on to climate denialism. Now I suppose you could argue that Seitz' legitimate accomplishments give credibility to his work for tobacco and climate change denial. If it weren't for that annoying business about the counterfeit paper.

"I have a right to my opinion" vies with patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel. Legally, yes. Morally, no. You have no right to an uninformed opinion.

Frugality and Stewardship

The Navy pretty much defines this concept.
Use it up
Wear it out
Make it do
Or do without
Because a ship at sea is the ultimate closed system, even though modern ships and supply systems can provide far better logistics than before.

Frugality not only requires fiscal restraint, it forbids waste of any kind. Edmund Burke dependably stressed frugality:
If we command our wealth, we shall be rich and free; if our wealth commands us, we are poor indeed.

Frugality is founded on the principal that all riches have limits.
CINOs are all for frugality when it comes to people on food stamps. But they pretty much refuse to accept any obligation on their own part to use resources wisely or limit their consumption. They think that because they own something, they are free to waste it frivolously. They can afford the gas, so they have a right to a car that has luxury but poor gas mileage. They own the land, so they feel they have a right to pave over a wetland to build a tennis court.

CINOs, rightly or wrongly, are accused of not caring much about resources or the environment because they believe the Second Coming is imminent. But genuine stewardship means that, even if you have incontrovertible assurance that the Second Coming will happen in the next hour, you waste nothing. You do not cut down a tree, kill an animal or pollute a stream without good reason, and short term profit is not a good reason. 

One of the best stories about facing the end of the world happened in 1780, during the waning days of the American Revolution. Vast forest fires in northern New England or Canada sent a thick pall of smoke southward. It would be weeks before anyone knew the cause. In Connecticut, it got so dark at midday that people needed candles and they were understandably frightened. Some legislators asked if it were the end of the world and, if so, should they adjourn? (They probably had unused vacation days). One, Abraham Davenport, replied "The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty." John Greenleaf Whittier commemorated him in a poem:

And there he stands in memory to this day,
Erect, self-poised, a rugged face, half seen
Against the background of unnatural dark,
A witness to the ages as they pass,
That simple duty hath no place for fear.
Can you picture Abraham Davenport approving of despoiling the land in the expectation that Judgement Day would come before it mattered?

In fact, the Bible itself sends the message loud and clear in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13). The wise virgins managed their resources responsibly. The foolish ones thought the Master would come before they faced a reckoning. And face a reckoning they did.

Burke had something else to say on frugality:
Mere parsimony is not economy. Expense, and great expense, may be an essential part in true economy.
Burke is speaking here of "false economy," an economy that saves money in the short term but costs more in the long term. Ignoring a toothache that may cost $300 to fix now, or several thousand for dentures later. Ignoring oil changes and burning out your engine. Not buying computer protection and being a victim of identity theft. Not buying travel insurance and getting smacked with thousands of dollars to be transported home in a medical emergency.

And false economy in the voting booth. Voting for politicians who promise to cut taxes by delaying repairs to roads and bridges, or shortchanging employee pension funds. Let's be very blunt: Detroit didn't go bankrupt because of municipal workers' pensions, but because its voters elected people who refused to pay the bills. Only in America do you get to vote on whether or not you pay your debts.
Among a people generally corrupt liberty cannot long exist.
Personal Responsibility
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, — in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity.
Liberals frankly suck on personal responsibility. Many of them define "compassion" as "no consequences." CINOs talk a good game, the problem is they don't walk the walk. Why was Prohibition passed when it was glaringly obvious that Americans didn't want to give up alcohol? Prohibition was backed by industry leaders, who had been sold on the idea that it would reduce employee absenteeism and poor performance. But didn't they realize that it would cut off their own pleasures, too? No. The wealthy never had the slightest intention of giving up alcohol. Prohibition was intended to be a class-bound law, with lower-class alcohol consumption banned but upper class alcohol continuing to flow.

Fast forward half a century. Penalties for crack cocaine were set at 100 times the penalties for powder cocaine (later reduced to 18 times). Partly, the disparity was driven by the violence associated with crack (at least in America. It doesn't make much difference in Colombia or Mexico), but mostly it was due to the fact that crack is concentrated among poor minorities, and powder cocaine among the white and affluent. If CINOs were really concerned about personal responsibility, the penalties should be reversed. Snort coke, and you are kicked off the privileged merry go round. Your career in Hollywood is over. Your job on Wall Street is over. Your career in athletics or politics is over.

One of the most infuriating systemic evasions of personal responsibility is the soft handling of athletes who commit sexual assault. A grimly realistic strip from Tank McNamara, December 7, 2013 nails it.
First Cop: As city cops, we can only go so far to manage sexual assault allegations against ESU's athletes.
Second Cop: We've made a little public service video to be proactive. An ounce of prevention.
College Official: So you air this in the community to help prevent girls from getting into a perilous situation?
First Cop: I guess we could have gone in that direction. This video warns them of what will happen if they file any charges in a college town.
Where are the CINOs who cheer for three-strikes policies when it comes to college athletes? Real accountability would not only send the offender to prison but suspend the program for a few years for creating a culture where sexual assault is trivialized. Real accountability would demand that law enforcement personnel suffer higher penalties for misconduct. There would be no more "professional courtesies" for cops who drive drunk. Prosecutorial misconduct would disbar the offender and send him to jail for a very long time. Politicians who do drugs or commit sexual harassment would be out of office forever. 

Give the IRS authority to collect overdue child support, with maybe a 25% surtax to cover the cost of collection. Now that would be a blow for responsibility. Make stockholders responsible for the actions of their companies. Say, suspend trade in the company's stock for a year every time the company's actions hurt anyone.

Many conservatives will be delighted to know that the underlying principle is Biblical:
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:48)
The principle couldn't be clearer. The higher your station in life, the higher the standards.

But doesn't rank carry some privileges? Absolutely. You get paid more. You have more interesting things to do. You get to shape events. You have more freedom. You do not get to grope your subordinates. You do not get to do drugs or cheat on your spouse. You do not get to drive drunk or dip into your campaign fund. Where are "tough on crime" advocates when the offenders are wealthy and well connected?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Things Even America Can't Do

In an episode of one of those super-soldier shows that aired in the wake of 9-11, one character asked about a particularly daunting mission: "Can we do that?" To which his boss said "Hell, this is America. We can do any damn thing we want." Well, it turns out we can't do any damn thing we want, and here are a couple of things the last half century have shown we can't do.

We Can't Win Against Insurgencies

Sure, we can defeat insurgencies. I'm not counting the Indian Wars, which was not even close. We did it in the Philippines in the early 1900's, and we didn't do too badly in the Banana Wars of a couple of decades later. But there were several reasons for this:
  • War was a lot cheaper. No tanks, helicopters, drones, missiles or air supremacy needed.
  • The forces involved were small and all volunteer.
  • Probably most important: the press was an unabashed cheerleading squad for American imperialism. Since the wars were low key, they didn't get a huge amount of coverage, and what they did get would be resoundingly pro-U.S. (Even so, rough tactics, like an early version of waterboarding in the Philippines, got serious negative coverage.)
The political will to win against insurgencies just doesn't exist in the U.S. The press got excited about the Gulf War in 1991 and has spent more than twenty-five years trying to live down its embarrassment. There's a large permanent population convinced the U.S. is in the wrong in any conflict. Any mishap that costs American or foreign innocent lives will be headline news, and the more precisely targeted weapons become, the more bitterly some people oppose them. Americans want quick victories like the 1991 Gulf War, and then bring the troops home. The insurgents are home, and defeating them means either killing so many that the remnant is too demoralized to fight, or converting them to our point of view.

This mind-set will someday come back to bite us big-time. We can write off Afghanistan and let it revert to a medieval tribal society. It's on the far side of the world and if we really need to do something there we can ring our installations with impregnable security, or just buy off the opposition. But sooner or later there will be an insurgency we simply cannot allow to win, for example a neo-Nazi campaign of assassination in the U.S. or Europe. In that event we will either have to give in to their demands, or spend the blood, time and treasure it takes to defeat them.

We Can't Conjure up Democracy

We're proud, and justly so, of the nation-building we accomplished after World War II, where we treated former enemies benignly and enabled them to become stable democracies. So why can't we do that everywhere?

Because we forget that both Germany and Japan had already been democratic in the 1920's, and both had been overthrown by fascist coups. In both countries there was a significant native population supportive of democracy, and once the fascist grip was broken, the pro-democratic forces could govern again. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some former Communist countries like Poland, then-Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, made an easy transition to democracy. Others, like former Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria, were far less successful. Among the former Soviet republics, only the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, became functioning democracies. In some cases, nations can make the transition to democracy without having much of a democratic tradition, like Spain and Portugal after the deaths of their fascist dictators.

Maybe the first thing we need to do is ask what exactly we want from a democracy. We have no problem accepting Western Europe as democratic, even though its parliamentary systems are quite different from our own. So democracy doesn't necessarily mean all the trappings of the American system. Here are a few things that seem essential. Oh, by the way, there is no perfect democracy anywhere, so don't even waste your time on that point.
  • The Rule of Law: An organized system of rules and institutions that provides reasonably predictable results. If you write a contract or a will, you can be reasonably sure they will be enforced. If you're charged with a crime, there's a good faith effort to see if you actually did commit the crime, and the punishment is reasonably predictable and proportionate. You won't get life in prison for vandalizing a mailbox. 
  • Respect for Human Rights: Mostly these are protected by the rule of law, but not necessarily. Lots of countries have legal systems, which are principally used to violate human rights more efficiently. Respect for human rights includes freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and information, respect for private property and due process. 
  • Self-Correction There are mechanisms in place to report and fix problems and respond to popular discontent. 
  • Public Participation There are mechanisms for soliciting popular input and for permitting people who are so inclined to participate in government. The most common manifestation of this process is election of representatives in competitive elections.
History affords plenty of cases where wise but autocratic rulers achieved those goals. The problem with autocracy is you may have a Marcus Aurelius succeeded by a Commodus. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you don't know what you're going to get. Of course, the Germans who democratically elected Hitler didn't know what they were going to get, either. But if Germany had remained democratic, he could have been ousted or at least neutralized.

But it took centuries for Europe to fumble its way to democracy. The Greeks had it for at most a few generations, and for only a small minority of the population. Rome had a heavily slanted version designed to preserve the privileges of the upper classes, before it finally collapsed into dictatorship. We know lots of ways for democracies to fail, but really don't know how to start them where they don't exist.

The Economist Democracy Index lists the U.S., Canada, much of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand as full democracies. The only non-European or European-descended countries on the list are Japan and South Korea. It appears that developing a democracy requires a long tradition of the rule of law and recognition of the rights of others. There probably is no reason China could not achieve full democracy if the Communist ruling elite could bring themselves to permit it. India is listed as a "flawed democracy," not very far behind Italy, and a substantial accomplishment for a nation of a billion people and a dozen official languages. But parts of the world ruled by tribalism, clan loyalties and "honor" culture will probably have to evolve their own approaches to democracy. That will take time and may lead to forms we might find very unfamiliar.

Regime Change

Creating democracy where none existed before is impossible, and even replacing a bad government can prove extremely tricky. The U.S. has been involved many times at various levels in "regime change," ranging from supplying actual military support to funding to mere encouragement and advice. The myriad coups in Latin America and elsewhere have often been "successful" in that the objectionable regime was ousted and a new one put in place without the country collapsing into anarchy or civil war or economic disaster. It is unfortunate, perhaps, that the coup in Iran that ousted Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 worked so well, because it gave a false impression of how easy the process was. But the coup "worked" because there was already a faction willing and capable of assuming power. Generally speaking, "successful" coups occur in countries where there is a technically competent faction capable of replacing the ousted government. 

When there isn't a viable alternative to the existing government, regime change merely results in chaos and generally makes things worse. In some cases the incoming government is more interested in self-enrichment than governing, like the revolving door coups in South Vietnam in the 1960's. In many cases, the incoming government is more interested in conferring privilege and power on some particular faction or ethnic group, or is incapable of preventing rival groups from attacking each other. In the worst case scenarios, typical of the aftermath of the "Arab spring" of 2011, the only factions capable of replacing the existing government are extremist movements seeking to impose dictatorships of their own.

As of mid-2016, Venezuela seems poised for violent overthrow. The doctrinaire Marxist government is unwilling to institute reforms that might undermine its power, the economy is in shambles, and enemies of the regime are legion. A classic Latin American coup seems imminent, and such coups generally replace one government with another one with enough ability to rule effectively, if not necessarily well. If anyone had told me in 1980 that there would come a day when Colombia was safer and more stable than Venezuela, I'd have said they were crazy.

In Zimbabwe, the decrepit regime of Robert Mugabe has created world record inflation. Zimbabwean hundred-trillion dollar notes are worth more as collectors' items than as currency. Nevertheless, the nonagenarian Mugabe has stated he will not step down to spite his enemies who are hoping for regime change. Biology will soon take care of that problem, and had Mugabe's foreign enemies really wanted to oust him, he would be long gone already. But after Mugabe goes, then what? He may be replaced by followers who seek to perpetuate his policies. But he may also leave a vacuum with claimants scrambling for power, and his rule has lasted long enough that there may no longer be any faction in Zimbabwe capable of running the country effectively. 

The problem is vastly worse in North Korea, ruled by a lunatic with nuclear weapons, where any possible rivals have long since fled or been exterminated. The very best anyone can hope for in North Korea is a coup where a somewhat more rational dictatorship is installed. If anyone is capable of engineering a regime change in North Korea, it would be China, and maybe if the North Korean government does something to endanger China, they might feel the need to do it.

One thing that U.S. experience in the Middle East since 2001 has made all too clear is that even regime change, let alone creation of a democracy, is bound to fail unless there is someone waiting in the wings to provide a stable government capable of keeping rival groups placated and confident of their rights being protected.

Something Else War is Good For

Ian Morris has written a book that will be provocative for sure and definitely infuriating to many. The book is War! What Is It Good For?,(Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and an excerpt was published in The Atlantic (April 14, 2014) entitled War, What Is It Good for For? These Four Things, Actually.

Morris quotes lyrics from Edwin Starr’s Motown classic “War”

    Huh, good God.
    What is it good for?
    Absolutely nothing….

And then proceeds to list four things war accomplishes
  1. The first is that by fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently. 
  2. My second claim is that while war is the worst imaginable way to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way humans have found. “Lord knows, there’s got to be a better way,” Edwin Starr sang, but apparently there isn't. 
  3. My third conclusion is that as well as making people safer, the larger societies created by war have also—again, over the long run—made us richer. Peace created the conditions for economic growth and rising living standards. 
  4. War, then, has been good for something—so good, in fact, that my fourth argument is that war is now putting itself out of business. For millennia, war has created peace, and destruction has created wealth, but in our own age humanity has gotten so good at fighting—our weapons so destructive, our organizations so efficient—that war is beginning to make further war of this kind impossible.  
Current trends suggest that robots will begin taking over our fighting in the 2040s—just around the time, the trends also suggest, that the United States, the world’s globocop, will be losing control of the international order. In the 1910s, the combination of a weakening globocop (Britain) and revolutionary new fighting machines (dreadnoughts, machine guns, aircraft, quick-firing artillery, internal combustion engines) ended a century of smaller, less bloody wars and set off a storm of steel. The 2040s promise a similar combination. The next 40 years could be the most dangerous in history. 
And yet, long-term history also gives us cause for optimism. We have not managed to wish war out of existence, but that is because it cannot be done. We have, however, been extremely good at responding to changing incentives in the game of death. For most of our time on earth, we have been aggressive, violent animals, because aggression and violence have paid off. But in the 10,000 years since we invented productive war, we have evolved culturally to become less violent—because that pays off even better. And since nuclear weapons came into the world in 1945, the incentives in the game have changed faster than ever before, and our reactions have accelerated along with them. As a result, the average person is now roughly 20 times less likely to die violently than the average person was in the Stone Age. 
As the returns to violence have declined, we have found ways to solve our problems without bringing on Armageddon.
Pretty much all of Morris' arguments boil down to war as a deterrent to trivial group violence. When I was in Bosnia in 1996, we were required to travel in four-vehicle convoys. It wasn't until late in my deployment that I saw the briefing document that explained why. The purpose was to avoid hostage situations and, even worse, small unit defeats. If anybody was going to pick a fight with peacekeeping forces, it was going to be a big fight, big enough to require serious second thoughts before starting something. A single vehicle, on the other hand, might easily be overpowered by a couple of angry hotheads or even a lone sniper. And if the occupants successfully fought off the attack, then you'd have people angry over local civilians being killed. It didn't stop the four-vehicle rule from being a royal pain, but at least it became clear it wasn't simply a capricious military regulation.

Lewis F. Richardson, in "The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels," plotted the casualties of conflicts versus frequency and found a power law distribution. At the lower end of the scale, the rate of conflict, extrapolated down to one or two casualties, merged roughly with the crime rate. This prompted the observation that war is simply crime on a large scale, or crime is just war on a small scale. But the deterrent effects noted by Morris suggest that war may be law enforcement on a large scale. Or maybe that violence in general marks the point where deterrence breaks down and the advantages of violence outweigh the risks of challenging deterrence.

I'd add a fifth "benefit." War is often the only way, or the most effective way, to sweep aside obsolete, corrupt and moribund social institutions. Perhaps the pre-eminent example in Western history was the Thirty Years' War. In the classic 1980 version of Cosmos, two episodes re-enact vignettes from the 17th century. The first, in "Harmony of the Worlds," depicts the life and times of Johannes Kepler early in the century as bleak and superstitious. (Sagan quite overdoes it; by this time America had been known for over 100 years, the printing press had been around for 150, and William Shakespeare was alive. It was hardly medieval.) The other episode, "Travelers' Tales," depicts the world of Christian Huygens late in the century. Although a single long lifetime could have encompassed both, the atmosphere of the two is utterly different. The Holland of Huygens is affluent, enlightened, liberated and inquisitive. With due allowance for the change in locale from Germany to Holland and dramatic license, it was a different world. And the intervening years were dominated by the mega-conflict of the day, the Thirty Years War.

The war has fascinating parallels to World War I. It began absurdly, just as World War I did. The ruler of Bohemia began packing his royal council with Catholics. A Protestant mob cornered two of them and threw them out an upper story window. Miraculously, they survived, either by Divine protection (Catholic version) or landing on a dungheap (Protestant version - even though I'm a Catholic, I favor the Protestant version.) Protestants then revolted, prompting the ruler to call for assistance from other Catholic rulers, in turn motivating nearby Protestant rulers to send in troops to prevent a massacre. Like World War I, a minor local squabble sucked one major power after another into the vortex as each tried to keep the balance of power from tipping. How far the war spread can be seen by looking at the four major phases of the conflict: the Bohemian, Danish, Swedish and French phases. Note there was no German phase; it was an away game for everyone and Germany was the playing field. When the war was over, the population of Germany had decreased by a third, Germany was fragmented into over a hundred tiny statelets that wouldn't be unified until 1871. And German historians still refer to this war as "the Great War."

And it was also the last major religious war in Europe. When the war gasped to a final "peace of exhaustion," the peace agreements settled on the formula "cuius regio, cuius religio" - "whose region, his religion." This had been the formula for the armed truce after the religious wars following the Protestant Reformation a century earlier, only then, nobody really meant it. Everyone was merely biding his time, hoping for the day to come when the forces of righteousness could sweep heresy from the face of the earth (label sides to taste). This time, it stuck. The notion of national sovereignty in the modern sense came into being, and the germ of the idea of freedom of religion. Nations might have established churches, but there were guarantees for other groups as well. The Vatican, of course, was not pleased at formal recognition of the legitimacy of other sects. Pope Innocent X railed against the peace settlements and was roundly ignored. (That in itself was probably a good thing and began the political marginalization of the Papacy.) What seems to have happened is that the parties realized the practical impossibility of redrawing the religious map of Europe, plus realizing that the old fear of religious diversity leading to anarchy and civil war was unfounded, and realizing it was in their own best interests to have a general consensus that internal matters were internal. What was this war good for? It broke the back of theocracy in the West.

Did peoples' values change? No, their perception of the facts changed. As C.S. Lewis once observed, if we really still believed that there were powerful malevolent spirits and some people had sold out to them in exchange for power, we would certainly feel justified in treating them as traitors to humanity. We stopped persecuting witches because we stopped believing they had any power, not because we changed our ideas about betraying the human race. Religious wars stopped in Western Europe because rulers began to realize that religious plurality did not lead to civil strife and anarchy. 

And so that leads us to World War I, the quintessential example of a useless war, according to the overwhelming majority of commentators. Millions slaughtered trying to apply antiquated tactics to modern battlefields, a vindictive peace settlement that set the stage for a sequel, the Middle East carved into arbitrary chunks, Russia plunged into civil war and subjugation to Communism. Surely nothing useful could have come out of such a conflict. Except perhaps the dissolution of the ossified empires that were largely responsible for the war in the first place: the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires. And it was pretty much the last war that could produce a pompous twit like Rupert Brooke who could write "Blow out, you bugles, over the rich dead." Given the treacly stuff Brooke wrote about the war, one is left with the feeling it would be a positive tragedy for him to survive. And he didn't. He died of septicemia without ever firing a shot in anger. The karma, it stings. World War I was really the last ancient war in which people could pretend there was anything glorious about battle.

But World War I didn't really sweep away the old. Watch the dining room scenes in Titanic, and then watch The Great Gatsby, and see how similar the social milieu is. The European land empires were swept away, but the overseas empires of France and Britain still lingered, and the empire-building impetus still lingered, to be revived shortly by Germany, Italy and Japan. It took World War II to complete the process. Not only did the attempts to build new empires fail, but the groundwork was laid in India, Indonesia and Indochina for the eventual breakup of Europe's overseas empires as well. Films set in the 1930's seem quaint and remote, those set in World War II seem modern, even those made during the war itself. I am convinced that historians a few centuries hence will see World War II as one of the great watersheds in history.

What happens to people who supported the defeated social institutions? The most positive results happen when people had been forced at the point of a gun to support them, and are liberated from oppression. Nobody really felt much emotion for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so nobody has ever tried to revive it. But if the institutions had wide support, what then? Supporters can be killed off, subjugated, marginalized, discredited, die off or persuaded. Killing them all off is impossible and while persuasion is nice, not all will be persuaded. If they are discredited sufficiently so that they eventually die off, then the cure may be permanent, but any other solution will leave a remnant of embittered losers. As time goes by and the post-war world presents its own problems, they'll romanticize their lost world and may attempt to restore it. Thus we find Russians who idealize Communism, Neo-Nazi groups in Europe and neo-Confederates in the U.S. For that matter, we have neo-geocentrists who assert the Church was right and Galileo was wrong.

One common way to clear out moribund social institutions is revolution. But it's disappointingly uncommon to have "clean" revolutions that don't degenerate into vendettas as bad as the old regime: the French and Russian Revolutions being the prime examples. The American Revolution wasn't as clean as we like to think. Portugal's conflict after the death of dictator Antonio Salazar was refreshingly restrained. 

A social system may pose a serious threat to its neighbors, but preemptive action to topple a regime that is merely crazy or morally repugnant is fairly uncommon. Almost always there are more practical motives involved. An attempt to overthrow the regimes of North Korea or Myanmar would almost certainly kill more of the oppressed victims of those regimes than the regimes themselves do, not to mention their would-be liberators. So full scale wars to overthrow morally repugnant regimes are rare, maybe nonexistent. Modern cases fall under one of two types. A regime may be targeted through a coup or through aid to insurgents. One good example is Operation Barracuda, the 1979 French-led coup that overthrew the lunatic tyrant Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Republic. The other way to attack a regime is through terrorism, which is how Islamic extremists are attacking our system, which they find repugnant.

One of the most common end states is for a dysfunctional social system to trigger a self-destructive conflict. A dysfunctional social system, pretty much by definition, doesn't think straight. The bloodthirsty dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, met his downfall when he attempted to annex a province of Tanzania, triggering an invasion that toppled his regime. More dramatically, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan both allowed their ideologies to lead them into suicidal conflicts. The U.S. Civil War is also an example. Although moral opposition to slavery was a cause, there are a number of avenues the Confederacy could have pursued before fighting. They could have proposed legislation in Congress, or gone to the Supreme Court. They did neither. They wanted a fight. The scene in Gone With The Wind where Rhett Butler tallies the military and industrial balance and is challenged by a young hothead to a duel pretty much tells the story.

The best of all possible worlds is for a decrepit system to collapse internally without major violence, and perhaps the preeminent example in history is the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even better is for a system to evolve, as did Great Britain in the 1830's. The reason the political systems of the U.S. and Canada are so different is that our system is a reaction to a corrupt British system and Canada's reflects a reformed British system. It was during a time of high social unrest in the 1830's that Britain began passing long overdue reform acts. More recently, China and Vietnam have moved away from doctrinaire Marxism to more pragmatic policies. If Tienanmen Square doesn't strike you as "moderate," compare it to Mao's Cultural Revolution.