Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trying to wedge historical context...

into a tiny, aging brain.

So, while the Peloponnesian War was being waged, and miswaged, with all of the drama, and intrigue, and sex of an HBO Series
(Spartan military pederasty makes Oz look like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood)...
what else was going on?

(image from Wikipedia)

The Jews had rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. (Sad story)

The Nanda Empire was the regional hegemon in India.

In China, it was the Warring States period. The reforms of Lord Shang were still a few decades away... here's an extra credit project. Was Lord Shang the original incarnation of Josef Stalin? During the NEP, I mean? Discuss, including references to Pol Pot, the Cultural Revolution and the Jacobite Terror.

In Mexico, the Olmec teetered on the edge of collapse...

the Celts were running Western Europe, the Scythians were running Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Ateus had just taken the throne of the Second Scythian Kingdom), the Balts had made the East Coast of the Baltic into their homeland, proto-Slavs (the Neuri?) were east of them...

North America had the Adena culture in the midwest, and Pueblo culture further west.

It was the Patrician era of the Roman Republic, Carthage and Syracuse dominated the Western Mediterranean, the Nok were present in Nigeria (and I can't find anything out about them *snarl*), The Kushites maintained a wealthy Kingdom in Sudan, southeast of them the kingdom of Axum must already have been founded...

the big boy on the block was the Persian Empire. Despite having been driven off from Greece twice, it was still overwhelmingly the largest, most powerful Empire on Earth until that time. It would remain so for another two generations, until Alexander conquered it. It stretched from Turkey to the Indus, and included Egypt.

You can see why I use the term "wedge". I've got two short things to read next, one book on the construction of ethnicity (I WILL get to the bottom of this tribe thing), and then a 1500 year digression to the Epic of Gilgamesh.

I'm not looking forward to that, even marginally. My memory of it is that it's unreadable. Not at all a potential HBO series.

Friday, March 26, 2010

BiBi's Bullets

I was a big supporter of Israel's last incursion into Southern Lebanon...

I'm pretty sure it was unwise to punitively destroy the Lebanese infrastructure. I understand that Israel hopes to turn the rest of the Lebanese population against Hezbollah, but they'd have been better served limiting their attacks to the people who ambushed their troops. It's not as though the other players in Lebanon tolerate Hezbollah by choice.

But no sovereign state can allow its troops to be attacked, killed and taken prisoner by a paramilitary group based just across its border. It'd be as though a Mexican drug lord jumped an ICE patrol and dragged the survivors to Juarez. The execution of the operation was a disaster, but it was undoubtedly the right policy.

I have less sympathy for the Gaza incursion. A timeline (p.72)
of the 2008 ceasefire makes it clear that 1) the Israeli's were engaged in a deliberate policy of economic blockade against the population of Gaza, with the intent of delegitimizing Hamas. (Precisely the tactic employed in Lebanon). 2) The utter harmlessness of Qassam rockets. The launch of what are essentially ambitious model rockets (they have precisely the same guidance system) into the Negev Desert cannot be construed to constitute a national security threat to the Jewish State. They've managed 22 fatalities in the last 10 years with this junk.

Nevertheless, I believe in results. Following the invasion of Gaza, incidents of rocket fire from Gaza have been effectively reduced to zero. The inhabitants of Gaza continue to suffer a grinding poverty, and the Israeli/Bush Administration objective of fostering resentment and anger towards Hamas by its constituents proceeds, although I can't find any polling of Gazans later than Feb. of '09.

But this latest crisis...

I define terrorism as the deliberate targeting of non-combatants. In no way shape or form was Mahmoud al-Mabhouh a non-combatant. But the inevitable, foreseeable result of that assassination was going to be the firing of more Qassam rockets at Sderot, one of which might actually defy the odds and injure a non-combatant.

What does one call an organization that takes actions which will obviously and inevitably result in terrorism?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ravings of a Madman...

No, not me...

I've got too much stuff going on here, as usual. I'm trying to add entries to a bibliographic database I'm working on, but I got sucked into the Wikipedia article on Turgot and now I've got a bunch of new stuff to read.

I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never, ever, be well educated. But none of this is made easier or faster by having Glenn Beck on the radio. I feel the need to check in with the demagogues once in a while, but it's not conducive to multitasking. There's also the rumor that listening to Beck makes you dumber, which isn't helping me index de Toqueville, if true.

The day after a big Democratic win is usually the easiest listening, because the demagogues are apoplectic. Glenn seems less angry than I thought he'd be, but he's got that giddy Seroquel giggle. He's made some blunders, too...

he made a concrete prediction, which is always a bad idea for these guys; it provides an opportunity for the interested listener to test the demagogue's assertions. Beck asserted that Obama's approval rating would fall. This is a falsifiable proposition that will be tested in the next 2 weeks. If he's wrong, (and he will be. MY hypothesis predicts his approval will rise in the next two weeks. Hold me to it.) then his credibility suffers.

Or suffers with any critical listeners he has. There must be some.

He also said something (unintentionally) hilarious; he was describing the elaborate machinations of the Democrats to pass healthcare reform, and he got to the part where "and then, they got him (Massa) to come on my program..."

someone must have signaled him in the studio, because he tried to recover. "Well, I reached out to him..."

it made all the commercials worth it; the vision of a conspiracy so capable, so nefarious, so omnipotent that it could determine the booking of guests on Beck's own program. And there are so very many commercials, most of them featuring actors with fake southern accents and country music. I haven't timed this, but it feels like there's more time spent on commercials than the actual broadcast. I'm not even counting the time Beck spent reassuring his listeners that the recent drop in gold prices didn't mean his indefatigable flogging of his gold sponsor had been misguided.

Okay, now Rush is on. Maybe he'll elaborate on his threat to emmigrate to Costa Rica if healthcare reform remains in place.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I've been thinking about financial bubbles...

the latest Lehman revelations were a complete non-surprise. I obviously didn't know that they were using repurchase agreements to exaggerate their assets. But I knew the accounting was wonky. The accounting is ALWAYS wonky in these things. You can't believe anything a company says about its balance sheet, because while they're probably telling you the (rough) truth, they don't HAVE to tell you the truth, because they pay the auditor, you don't. Ernst and Young signed off on those reports. They were incompetent, negligent or lying. And they made a ton of cash off of Lehman they wouldn't have made if their audit had been accurate.

Remember Enron? How did they get away with it? Arthur Andersen assured us that Enron had a profitable company based on a legitimate business model. They ran the same scam for Worldcom. Deloitte Touche covered for Adelphia. KPMG shelled out $125 mil to Rite Aid shareholders, although they maintain they did nothing wrong. Price Waterhouse insists that they're above board, despite a $225 mil. payout to outraged Tyco investors.

Alexis de Tocqueville said it well, "...each man is haunted by the fear of sinking to a lower social level and by a restless urge to better his condition. And since money had become the sole criterion of a man's social status, but has also acquired an extreme mobility, that is to say it changes hands incessantly, raising or lowering the prestige of individuals and families - everybody is feverishly intent on making money or, if already rich, on keeping his wealth intact. Love of gain, a fondness for business careers, the desire to get rich at all costs, a craving for material comfort and easy living quickly become ruling passions..."

He meant under a despot. Draw your own conclusions about the nature of American Government since the advent of the National Security Presidency.

Machiavelli regarded a kleptocratic financial elite as the final proof of a society's corruption and imminent demise, but I can't find my copy of Discourses on Livy to provide you with a good quote. It may have been a mistake to shelf the paperbacks in a double row. Quadruple, really. They're stacked.

My view is this; the financial system is rigged. That doesn't mean one cannot make money in it. One can make money in a rigged game, for a while. But you are gambling with people who are incented to cheat you, and whose career success demonstrates their willingness to do so. The earnings claimed by the corporations you invest in are almost certainly exaggerated, and may in rare cases be completely fictitious. And the people charged with verifying the claims of the corporation make more money if they enable any deceit.

Incidentally, history provides some guidance for dealing with these rapacious parasites. After the South Sea Bubble burst, the fortunes of the company's directors were confiscated and the proceeds distributed to victims of the fraud.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wikipedia v. Crack

Three hours ago, I accidentally hit the Wikipedia bookmark instead of the NYT bookmark...

someday, Kathy's going to come home from a trip and find my dessicated mummy slumped over this computer. And on the screen will be the Wikipedia article about some obscure species of hummingbird, or flax cultivation, or the hydraulic principle. Or maybe she won't; I could live a long time off my fat.

I got hit in the eye with today's lead article and I was a goner, sucked into links about Scientology and Operation Snow White and E-meters and the New Religion Movement and the biographies of a couple different academics labeled "cult apologists" by their critics.

I don't know how I ever did research without Wikipedia. Badly and half-assed, I suppose. I promise you that the first time I read History of the Peloponnesian War I didn't look up the name of every single obscure tribe, city, region of Greece and ruler. I have this time, though.


if you look up Boetia you get sucked into the article on Thebes, and then the Cadmus fable, from there to Linear B Mycenaean characters and then (being the cheery guy I am) the Late Bronze Age Collapse.

It's a sickness, I know. But what did they think was going to happen when they started giving away information for free? It's not my fault, it's my enablers. They don't even make me go to the library to score the stuff, anymore...

of course, once you're hooked, you need more, and bigger. It is apparently impossible to score Arnold Toynbee's 12 volume A Study of History anymore. The best Amazon can do is a two volume abridgement (of a 12 volume set! What'd they do, cut out 5 of every 6 words?).

So I'm thinking... Google scholar. I think I can handle the strong stuff.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Can anyone confirm this?

Not sure how I even twigged to this, but I can't seem to find any FOX coverage of the pro-healthcare protest in DC yesterday. I checked their website, and did searches for "protest" (lots of teabagger stories) and "Howard Dean" (he spoke to the rally) and I've turned it on the tube, but nothing yet.

I got into a friendly shouting match with a Glenn Beck acolyte a couple of months ago, to the annoyance of my brother. I was not surprised at the goofy stuff he believed to be true, but I was surprised at his complete unfamiliarity with the counter-arguments. I knew what he believed; I could have finished his sentences for him except Nathan was already embarrassed by me. He had no idea what I believed.

Asked to attribute a motive to people calling for reform, he couldn't get beyond a sinister desire to control people's lives; he didn't know why. Given hard facts (verified by the mortified Nathan), he asked in frustration, "If that's true, why don't I hear about any of this?" The answer is obvious, and has been extensively commented on by people more articulate than myself. He can select his own "facts", all of which support a particular cluster of public policy preferences, simply by leaving his TV on FOX news.

We keep hearing that the American people don't support this healthcare bill. The truth is that probably half the country (the half that can't tell you the name of their Congressman) doesn't HAVE an opinion. They will articulate a view to a pollster, because a pollster will find a way to fill in the responses on the form, even if it requires listening to a 5 minute meander with an ethereally tenuous relationship to the box that gets checked. Such "opinions" are extremely volatile, they can completely reverse with the introduction of a single new "fact".

The remaining part of the country is locked into their view. They have a lot of "facts", actual or perceived, on the topic. The majority of these citizens are convinced that every responsible American is opposed to healthcare reform. They have no idea that a pro-reform protest was even held, or that the protestors attribute deficiencies in the system to insurance executives.

Anyway, I'm turning off FOX. They're covering Obama's remarks with the President of Haiti, but when Preval took the podium, the FOX anchor said that Obama passed the "mantle" to Preval. And she's wearing shoulder pads. I guess the 80's never ended on FOX.

I'm going to feel really silly if someone points out that FOX did cover the protest.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

More from Thucydides...

From the chapter on the Corcyran Civil War:

Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programs which appeared admirable - on one side political equality for the masses, on the other side the safe and sound government of the aristocracy - but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves...

The nature of the Hellenic political institutions was of course radically different from our own. But both political cultures give an essential role to public discourse. Consequently, both our own and Classical societies face a threat from demagogues. Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly are merely the latest voices in a lineage going back through Morton Downey Jr., Father Charles Coughlin all the way to Cleon of Athens.

Any demagogue is an entrepreneur, seeking elite status within a particular subculture or identity community by espousing the defining values of that group. It's a form of display behavior somewhat more sophisticated than throwing dirt and sticks into the air, and one which requires the exploitation of identity cleavages.

We all identify with multiple communities, with the salience of all of our identities changing with the social context in which we find ourselves. To the extent a demagogue can make a particular common identity salient in their audience, they succeed. And the best way to make someone focus on a particular identity is to convince them there's a threat to the community on which that identity is based. The hyperpartisan atmosphere which results can result in the complete disintegration of a society; examples are the American Civil War, the Rwandan Genocide and the Yugoslav Civil War.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

From Thucydides

Cleon (the speaker) was a contemporary of Thucydides.  In fact, I believe he was actually present for this speech.  

..."What you do not realize is that your Empire is a Tyranny over subjects who do not like it and who are always plotting against you; you will not make them obey you by injuring your own interests in order to do them a favor; your leadership depends on superior strength and not on any goodwill of theirs."...

This is a form of the 'peace through strength" argument, or deterrence, if you prefer.

...that lack of learning combined with a sound common sense is more helpful than the kind of cleverness that gets out of hand, and that as a general rule states are better governed by the man on the street than by intellectuals. These are the sort of people who want to appear wiser than the laws, who want to get their own way in every general discussion, because they feel they cannot show off their intelligence in matters of greater importance, and who, as a result, very often bring ruin on their own country. But the other kind - the people who are not so confident of their own intelligence - are prepared to admit that the laws are wiser than they are...

Anti-intellectualism didn't originate with Sarah Palin, either.

People are fond of claiming that "You can't change human nature." I'm a Behaviorist, I think people can be socialized into doing anything. But in the absence of contrary socialization, memes, mores and values persist indefinitely.

Incidentally, Diodotus' response to Cleon demonstrates the same phenomenon. His refutation of the deterrence value of execution holds up perfectly well 2500 years later.