Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Case for Intervening in Crimea

Business Insider
It is curious how, in all matters of international affairs, a reasonably large and influential portion of our population reflexively chooses to defend the position of America's enemies while ruthlessly criticizing America's own policies. They reach back in the the long-lost depths and annals of time to find historical ammunition with which to vindicate their default defiance with self-righteous certainty, or sometimes they know enough about current affairs to overgeneralize a more recent failure of our government, always infinitely more complex than the simplified theories of intentions imply, and thus prove that the war-hawks running our government are basically a group of psychopaths, gleefully lining their pockets as, with equal glee, they watch the havoc and carnage their plans affect.

The most irksome thing about this group is that I very recently would have counted myself among its number, a symbiotic combination of progressive, libertarian, anti-war sentiments enmeshed in the political psyche of some of our generation. No doubt, there is a romantic attraction to the position of the dissident and the rebel, but notions of civic aesthetics have little to do with the nature of the problem so impulsively opposed, let alone the rightness or wrongness of any proposed action. In this case, the problem is Crimea.

I say the vehement reaction is impulsive and reflexive because the first argument that comes up in casual conversation, without fail, has nothing specific to do with the issue itself. The argument has many names, but equivocation is the most generally accurate one. Sometimes it reaches back to Vietnam, or the Phillipines, or even as far back as the Native Americans. Sometimes the argument is made that Iraq or Afghanistan are essentially Imperialist wars (an untrue statement), which is bad (also untrue, were they correct on the nature of the war), and that therefore we're essentially no better than Russia (granting Russia's guilt on the allegations leveled at America, falsely), and that therefore, we have no right to throw the first stone (pure idealistic nonsense). A straw man this may be to the more sophisticated anti-war intellectuals, but this is roughly the level of dialogue making the rounds on social media in meme form, and actually making a substantial impact. Even if the fatuous premise of equivocation--that only the sinless may throw the first stones--were granted, I don't think America has much to compare with killing off 20 million citizens in a mere few decades, so the anti-war equivocator loses either way. I'm not sure when they stopped teaching the difference between bullying and self-defense to children, but they ought to start again.

The most astonishing argument is the notion that since Crimea voted on who their government ought to be, and 95.5% of the population voted they preferred Russia to be their sovereign owner, we would, in fact, be infringing on democracy in action by intervening on behalf of Ukraine.

Let us be clear here: we do not live in a classical democracy--little more than mob-rule--and we do not support raw democracy in the United States. We live in a particular kind of Republic, a blend of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, with the intent of maintaining as many of the benefits of these three different forms of government while minimizing the detriments. This is a very old concept, first put into practice by Lycurgus of Sparta and expounded upon by Cicero at greater length. Ukraine is a Republic too; specifically, a "unitary, semi-presidential Republic," and defending pure democracy as a stand-alone value against the most effective precedent for nations and their society--which happens to include sovereign maintenance of borders, beyond reach of the flimsy and susceptible whims of popular sentiment--is hogwash.

But there's a more telling side of the story: when Crimea voted for the change in leadership, Russia won by 95.5%. No one legitimately wins a 95.5% majority in politics. Sure, Crimea's government is imperfect, and suffers from corruption and mismanagement, but turning administration over to Russia hardly constitutes a step-up on those issues. Such an absurd landslide victory would hardly be more suspicious if the vote was absolutely unanimous.

In a private moment, Vladimir Putin once asked George W. Bush why he doesn't run for office a third time. Bush was, understandably, momentarily speechless at the abject disregard for political ethics and respect for precedent, but more importantly than Bush's lack of speaking (which we all probably wish we had experienced a bit more of in previous years) is the former KGB agent's revealed attitude towards notions of sovereignty, law, and national precedent.

A significant reason why the world is as peaceful as it is right now--arguably among the most peaceful times in history, according to Steven Pinker--is that the United States looms like... well, a hawk, over the world, willing to cut down aggressors who infringe on the sovereign rights of other nations. It would be wonderful if other countries helped us out in this because contrary to the oil-theft hype and speculative garbage half-articulated by some, it's really an enormous economic drain to maintain the largest, most advanced, and most deployed military in the world. But they don't, so we continue because it isn't in anybody's best interest to see a return to pre-Cold War methods of resolving international disputes. Deterrence works, because not everyone else out there has the same libertarian notions of love and peace that you and I do. In fact, many enemies (most recently Bin Laden) are all too happy to take advantage of our magnanimous inclinations and leverage it to attempt to destroy us.

In his writings, Bin Laden told his followers and the world that fighting the Russians had been hard. Fighting the Americans, he said, would be easy, because we didn't have the will to resist. Hitler made the same prediction of France in WWII and won an easy victory because he was correct, in spite of superior French numbers and the advise of all of his own generals not to engage on such a suicidal goal. Unlike France, however, we proved our own bearded Hitler wrong. But it's taken a toll, and our will to fight is diminishing. We have to remember that our security and the relatively peaceful state of the world is very much contingent on our willingness to fight, and when the time arises, we have to demonstrate our willingness by fighting. It is paradoxical, to be sure; to achieve peace by amassing arms. It's easy to see how hippies could conclude that it is roughly analogous to "fucking for virginity," however shortsighted their vision. And there are latent dangers if we do not sufficiently check the military itself. But these claims are not true because they "make sense," but because history has demonstrated that they work.

Vladimir Putin's assertion in the Crimea is not a particularly bold move, but neither is it timid. Imagine a child, carefully and watchfully putting a toe over the line he was told not to cross. Whether we should have gone into Syria or not, we failed to act when we claimed we would, and now our bluff is being called once more. Will we step in and protect little countries from big neighbors? If, in the future, we want our word to be taken seriously, and thus hold violent combat off at superior arm's length, we have to regain the credibility we've lost and reassert our willingness to fight. And our willingness to fight doesn't begin in Congress, but in the people. It's a hard-sell to convince enough of a nation that the willingness to go to war has a pacific effect on the international community, but the alternative is a lot more murderous and bold toe-crossing in the future, when it becomes more certain the the lesser parts of humanity that, no matter the illicit and murderous nature of their actions, no one will stop them because no country has the stomach any longer to do what is necessary to preserve peace.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Theory on Liberals and Conservatives

In the American court of law, a criminal prosecution is conducted with both a prosecuting and defending lawyer. The reason both of these are guaranteed is that the guilt or innocence of the accused cannot be presumed by fiat, though we do hold people to be innocent until proven guilty as a measure against vindictive accusations and false imprisonment. An objective advocate taking the side of the client and throwing up the best possible legal defense, regardless of his guilt or innocence, is the basis for our ability to claim that the defendant is, in fact, guilty, as Alan Dershowitz acknowledges is almost always the case. Nevertheless, sometimes the defendant is innocent, and the defense attorney's importance is more obvious still.

So too in politics, we can roughly think of the Democratic and Republican parties as analogous to defense and prosecutorial attorneys, respectively. As the axiomatic proponents of change, it is almost always the progressives who have come up with the ideas and defend them in the name of the advancement of society and the human condition. Conservatives conversely defend the status quo, and generally look to the potential threats and dangers of the new ideas being proposed by liberals.

Now, it would seem from this perspective that conservatives are merely holding back the engines of progress, except that just as the vast majority of the accused are, in fact, guilty, the vast majority of liberal-progressive ideas are wrong. Some of them are dangerously wrong. This does not mean that liberals are evil, are stupid, or are obstinate beyond hope. Many of them are brilliant. They merely suffer from the same problem that afflicts inventors, theorists, and creative individuals of all kinds: limited knowledge. Our narrow scope of experience and understanding makes stumbling upon genuinely good ideas an extremely difficult undertaking, and one where success is more often a factor of luck and the best measure of success is not whether it "sounds like a good idea" or "makes sense," but by the test of trial and error.

But even in this allegation--that liberals are usually wrong--lies a latent praise for sometimes being right, and for throwing out all these ideas in the first place. Indeed, all of the principles and policies Conservatives defend today, most of them being or having been "good ideas," were the one-time product of liberal minds. The men who forged the United States were, by all accounts, among the most radical progressives of their day. The fact that they are now defended by conservatives against the ideological attacks of liberals like Howard Zinn is not a betrayal of ideology, but conformity to the important role of that mindset in our system.

It therefore makes perfect sense that freedom of speech was largely a creation of the left, and is now primarily under attack from the left. It makes sense that the conservative mindset historically defended monarchy and now defends limited government. Liberals create and destroy, while Conservatives block and defend. It was a good thing that Liberals succeeded in creating our modern understanding of freedom of speech in the United States (by conservative surrogate, Oliver Wendell Holmes) in 1919. It was also a good thing that liberals succeeded in destroying the institution of slavery. So too was it a good thing that Conservatives successfully blocked the spread of communism in the 20th century, and successfully defended the same policy of free speech when it has come under attack from the same liberal party that redefined it a century before.

There is much confusion about who was where and which party said what, when, but the foundational attitudes are timeless. Conservatives are skeptics, cautious and mindful of the lessons of history. Liberals are dreamers, the inventors of the future. As a conservative myself, I tend to be skeptical of new solutions, as most have a tendency to make the problem worse and often come with horrendous unexpected side-effects, but I simultaneously recognize that we have these same liberals and their ideological ancestors to thank for the principles and values that we hold now. Sometimes--more rarely than they like to admit, but sometimes--they are right.

But liberals need to understand that the role conservatives play is not merely a matter of something as petty as "social justice," (an as-yet undefined or definitionally flexible term), but can be as serious as life-and-death. Take a moment to imagine what America might be like today were Communism to have successfully spread as it was beginning to, and had not been shut down as it was. There's no reason to assume it would have been as lethal as Russia or China or North Korea, leaving tens of millions dead from starvation and secret prison camps, but the threat wasn't a historical hallucination. The sexual and religious minorities they defend so vigorously now could have easily been the targets of populist hatred, as they were in those parts of the world they most vocally admonished the West to emulate, including that subject of liberal adoration (of the time), the socialist nation of Germany in the 1930's. Talk about a bad idea with consequences.

Multiculturalism and deconstructive theories today are close relatives of communism. Both are philosophically Marxist and aim at setting fire to the traditional order. Communism was economic, while the new radical left theories are largely social and cultural, but both result in the rejection of the principles that made the west so successful: the notions of limited government, individual rather than collective sovereignty, property rights, and an understanding of human behavior that stresses personal responsibility. More specific to modern times, multicultural doctrines of tolerance also open the gates for a theocratic Trojan Horse from the middle east in the form of militant Islam. Muslims advocating war against the West have been guest-speakers at university since long-before 9/11, and left-leaning academics at these universities have since claimed that it was the despair of economic poverty, not Islamic Jihad (as explicitly stated by the bombers themselves), that was the root cause of these attacks. If you don't believe that there is a civilizational threat lurking here, than you probably do not understand the nature of this particular brand of Islam.

It isn't a bad thing when the left fails to acknowledge that they're wrong, or even a threat to civilization, because if they were to stop coming up with ideas to push civilization forward, it would stagnate. The suppression of bad and dangerous ideas--through argumentation and refutation--is what conservatives are there for, and a good thing they do it too. The real threat is in liberals bypassing conservatives in their ideas. Imagine, by comparison, the institution of trial by one-sided litigation. The search for truth is over.

It was with this threat in mind that I chose the picture for this particular post: Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of the first and greatest orators and rhetoricians, and conservative defender of the Roman system (along with Cato the Younger, the indirect namesake of the Cato institute) from Julius Caesar. Their failure eventually culminated in failure to prevent the civic and subsequently more literal collapse of the entire civilization. Historians disagree over exactly how many centuries it took for Europe, North Africa, Western Asia and the Mediterranean to return to standards of living similar to those under Roman times, but 1,000 years is a reasonably conservative estimate. Some areas still haven't quite returned to their level of success attained under Roman rule, most notably in regions of what is now Tunisia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

These are the stakes, and while liberals pave the path towards a better and brighter future, they also carry the latent ability to completely destroy America (a country they themselves created in a previous life, to be fair). Their largely pure motives don't lessen that danger; destruction by malice or by ignorance are still both destruction. If conservatives can learn to understand that liberals created everything that they cherish, and that liberals will continue to give their children hope for an even better future, and if liberals can learn to appreciate that the vast majority of their ideas are wrong and that conservatives are often times the only thing between themselves and unintentional societal and cultural suicide, much more serious politics and discussions might be possible on the merits of policies, rather than on baseless allegations of evil intentions and narrow, one-sided definitions of what America is all about.