Friday, July 4, 2014

Winning by Losing: US & the World Cup

It was good for Belgium to beat the United States at soccer (or football, as the rest of the world insists on calling it.) Not because a loss to a tiny European country that in population and area is smaller than Pennsylvania will force the United States to really invest in soccer and build a strong program - quite the opposite.

Let the rest of the world have soccer – the United States is the greatest country ever. I mean great in its true sense, great – big – large. We do things on a bigger scale, whatever it may be, than anyone ever has before. We also are, on the whole, pretty good (or at least we try.) We are most certainly not perfect, but I would argue that we are the least bad great power ever. Few would seriously trade American hegemony for the alternatives. We get into trouble when we press the point too far. Unfortunately it is in our national character, our fatal flaw if you will, to do exactly that. The late Robertson Davies, a Canadian novelist, in speaking against NAFTA observed:
…the extravert is one who derives his energy from his contacts with the external world; for him everything lies outside and he moves outward toward it, often without much sensitivity to the response of that toward which he moves…. The extraversion of the United States is easy to see. It assumes that it must dominate, that its political and moral views are superior to all others, and that it is justified in interference with countries it thinks undemocratic, meaning unlike itself. It has also the unhappy extravert characteristic of seeing all evil as exterior to itself, and resistance to that evil as a primary national duty. Americans are generous to a fault…the Americans [are] charming, extraverted, certain of their acceptance everywhere…
(Aaron, you cite a Canadian novelist on international affairs a lot, which is odd, particularly since Davies himself had so little interest in politics which he called “external things: only a fool gives his soul to them.” 

Me: True, and that’s kind of the point, Davies was interested in what really mattered and sometimes those things are not subject to traditional analysis, not what truly moves us.)

The point here is that the United States is enormously powerful and rich and – on the whole – a force for good in the world. I'm writing this under an American flag, waving on my front porch - I think the US is awesome.

However, imagine if, in your own life, you had a supremely talented, charming, and wealthy friend. This friend helps you all the time, while also regularly besting you at most things (and perhaps is less than humble about all of it). Might you not resent this friend just a bit (and perhaps the fact that the friend is so generous makes your own resentment grow?) You might begin to suspect your friend’s motives. You might, alternatively, tell your self that your more modest, but well-appointed home is in fact much more comfortable and pleasant than your friend’s rather gaudy mansion. You might convince yourself your friend, for all of his outward success, has no interior life and is not truly happy. You might focus on your friend’s failings.

You will almost certainly gather with other acquaintances and gossip about the overbearing friend – focusing on all of these things and reinforcing your resentments. You might also, REALLY, REALLY enjoy seeing this friend lose or fail at something – especially if it is to you. That’s us and, if we can be objective, we can see why other countries – even ones with which we have innumerable shared interests – might resent us on occasion.

Having some failings and weaknesses makes the US easier to take. In the big picture, losing to Belgium – a small, lovely country with a rich history and complex identity of its own, that also makes fantastic beer and chocolate – is kind of a win.

(That's me at a beer festival in Brussel's beautiful Grand Place - because there is a lot more to life than politics.)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

High Priest as Moses' VP - the destiny of Aarons?

I remember, as a little boy, my excitement on stumbling upon a biography of Aaron Burr.  The only other famous namesake I had was Moses' brother. There was Hank Aaron, but he was really Hank. Now, almost forty years later the list of famous people named Aaron remains short.  I have to add Aaron Copeland and a whole bunch of actors. Not a great bench.

Of course Aaron Burr was a world-class creep who killed the former Secretary of the Treasury (Alexander Hamilton) in a duel and flirted with treason, spearheading a plan to carve out a new nation in the Louisiana Purchase.

The ranks of renowned Aarons is thin enough, that my aspirations to join are not completely unrealistic (or maybe it is a message that peope named Aaron are simply not fated to greatness.)

This weekend, on Shabbat, the portion of the Torah read was Shemini, in which two of Aaron's sons are burned to a crisp for offering alien fire at the altar.  (Occasionally religious studies inform my academic work see here and here.) As a friend delivered a lesson about the interaction between Aaron and his brother Moses, I was struck.  I am named Aaron. The Aaron the High Priest played second-fiddle to Moses.  He spoke for Moses and handled the ceremonial duties. But he didn't have the gumption or vision to lead the people out of Egypt.  When the Israelites started constructing the Golden Calf, Aaron couldn't stop them - he could only try to influence their actions on the margin and make it less offensive to Hashem.  Moses was one who hurled the thunderbolts.

Aaron was like Moses' vice president.  And then, the other famous Aaron of history was in fact a vice president (a rotten one, but still...)

Was I somehow destined to study Vice Presidents - the close, but not-quite great?

It is somehow comforting to think so.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Funny Data-Point: The VP as comic-in-chief

I suppose I should be writing about Ukraine or Syria - big things are happening in the world. But my mind is elsewhere. I found an intriguing new datapoint for my dissertation. Influential vice presidents are funny, and can make the president laugh.

Mondale is funny, it did not translate into a broader appeal, but people who worked with him always remarked on his quick and ready wit, which he happily turned on himself. When asked how he thought one of his speeches went he answered, "I don't know, I fell asleep half-way through."  After losing the 1984 Presidential election he said, "All my life I wanted to run for the Presidency in the worst way. And that's just what I did."

He is also a big Monty Python fan.

George H.W. Bush, according to people I interviewed, loved a good joke. They used to circulate funny memos around the office (at their lunches, Reagan and Bush told each other jokes.) As President, when he learned that Saddam Hussein intended to try him in a "people's court" he sent a memo to White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray instructing him to go to Baghdad an defend him. At the height of a crisis he had time for a little fun with his advisors.

Gore, by many accounts was really, really funny.  My interviews have mentioned it, as did several White House memoirs.  George Stephanopoulos reports that Gore could always make the President laugh, delivering daily briefings on the John Wayne-Lorena Bobbit affair, and poking fun at Clinton when he was frustrated prepping for press conferences.

I don't know about Quayle, but there is substantial evidence that Cheney had a good sense of humor.  In his memoirs, Bush mentioned Cheney's dry wit. A few weeks before leaving office, there was a conference of White House chiefs of staff to meet the incoming chief of staff - Rahm Emmanuel. Cheney had been Ford's chief of staff. Each one offered their advice to Emmanuel. Cheney suggested, "Whatever you do, make sure you've got the vice president under control."

The vice president has long been the target of humor, but this is different.  I don't have many datapoints here (but my whole research project is pretty small-n). But, the ability to make the President laugh - particularly at himself - is a real asset. Both in building the needed chemistry between the POTUS and the Veep, but also in managing the inevitable and massive stresses of the top office.

Too bad Spiro Agnew couldn't make Nixon laugh - they both could have used it. And ultra-serious Henry A. Wallace almost certainly would have been well-served by a good sense of humor in dealing with the breezy, witty Roosevelt.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Appointing Donors as Ambassadors: A Colloquy

Recent Obama appointments to Ambassadorial spots around theglobe have blundered through their confirmation hearings.  Naturally, Republicans have leapt on this as a political issue accusing Obama have handing out ambassadorships to big unqualified big donors.  Of course the Republicans do not have exactly a clean record on this – although one Bush 43 donor/diplomat (Dopomat? Diplor?) observed that he was well briefed for his hearings.  This seems more like an operational failure.  Anyone with the chops to be a major campaign fundraiser ought to be able to manage a comfortable diplomatic appointment (they are going to places like Argentina and Norway.)

But this raises a deeper question.  The Foreign Service Association is pressingfor more stringent standards for Ambassadorial appointments.  They don’t reject political appointments. They just want to avoid the patronage for big donors.  Understandable, but as long as the President has the power to make political appointments, it will be difficult to screen out appointments based on patronage from the well-qualified, non-foreign service appointments.

Why can’t major campaign contributors be banned from diplomatic appointments?

First you’d have to answer the question of what’s a major donor?  Imagine a long-time friend of the President who, having run a major international corporation, would be well qualified for a diplomatic spot.  Would this good friend of the President be forbidden from making a campaign donation to his friend?

No, we just want to stop the bundlers – the big-time fundraisers - from buying Ambassadorships.

Sure, but the funny thing about campaign finance is that there are always work-arounds.  If our big-time bundler knows what he or she is doing the bundling can occur under someone else’s name, but everyone will know who was really the solicitor.

OK, fine, so the question is why not just rely on the Foreign Service for Ambassadors?

First, for all of the gaffes of the big donor ambassador-candidates, we haven’t seen much evidence that they do any harm.  They get sent somewhere quiet, pleasant and safe.

On the other hand, many distinguished individuals have served capably as Ambassadors to critical countries.  Japan, in particular, has received a steady stream of extremely distinguished elder statesman including former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, and now Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.  Japan is a major ally that often does not get the attention it needs.  Sending such a highly regarded figure is a good way to honor a critical ally in a way that sending even the most senior and experienced FSO cannot.  

The appointment of Max Baucus to China fits in that realm as well.  While Baucus admitted that he is no “China expert” as a former U.S. Senator (and chair of the Finance Committee) he brings a great deal of relevant expertise to his new position.  Further, he will have a sense of how things will play back home  - while also honoring Beijing with a distinguished emissary.

Another figure that comes to mind is the great Bob Strauss, a long-time Democrat who served President George H. W. Bush as Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Russia. (And this list is NOT exhaustive.)

The Senate does have the power to reject nominees for Ambassador and if they truly feel an appointment might damage U.S. interests they may do so.  (Jesse Helms blocked Massachusetts Governor William Weld from serving as Ambassador to Mexico – although that might have been personal.)  But the cost of sending some political operatives to quiet tourist havens is small compared to the advantage of the President having the authority to send a trusted, capable ally to nations that are particularly important.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Remembering Prof. Barry Rubin: Scholar, Lion, Mensch

No one wrote better faster and no one wrote faster better.

That would be a fitting, but insufficient epitaph for the renown scholar Barry Rubin, who died earlier this week after a long struggle with cancer.

The stories of Prof. Rubin's facility as a writer a legendary.  A mutual friend recalled a chat with Barry, in the midst of which Rubin declared, "Done."

During the conversation, Rubin had dashed off a publication quality op-ed, while still holding up his end of the conversation.

I remember after drinks and hours of talk at a three-day conference, when I was ready for bed Rubin heading to his room to dash off a few pages for his upcoming book about Syria - he'd learned something new and it couldn't wait.

Rubin was a leading scholar of Middle Eastern politics and history, but even that vast topic couldn't contain his energies.  He wrote about U.S foreign policy, democratization, and model trains (and probably a bunch of other things that I haven't heard about - but this post about an adventure as a civil war re-enactor is simply too wonderful not to share.)

This is a photo of my, all too modest, library of Barry Rubin books (he wrote over three dozen - plus innumerable academic and popular articles).  But - and this just exemplifies his approach to scholarship and sharing - he had made over a dozen of his books are available for free online.

But Barry was more than writer/scholar - although dayeinu it would have been enough.

He also built institutions, founded journals, and was a pioneer in using the Internet to promulgate quality scholarship. He had regular access to established media, but embraced new media whole-heartedly.

He had a tremendous talent for explaining the vast complexities of Middle East affairs and in illuminating them he could explain and defend Israel and its actions.  In this he was indefatigable.  I remember him speaking at my synagogue, happily taking questions for over an hour.  This wasn't a tough crowd but it re-energized him to face the hostile audiences that a defender of Israel encounters and that he took on willingly and eloquently.

Every once in a while, it was a great pleasure when, in conversation, he told me, "I didn't know that" or "You've persuaded me."

That it didn't happen often reflects my comparatively paltry knowledge and reasoning skills - not any stubbornness or inflexibility on his part.

But here's the punchline, I didn't know him that well.  He took an interest in me and was generous with his time (and with my modest capabilities I did any favor for him that I could.)  But I wouldn't claim that we were that close, I was one of dozens (hundreds!) of aspiring scholars and activists he helped.

Barry Rubin was a first-rate scholar, a lion in defending Israel, and a real mensch.  He was only 64 when he died and undoubtedly had at least another dozen good books left in him (at least one book will be published posthumously).  But we must be grateful we had him with us as long as he did.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Philadelphia: The Dowager Metropolis

The recent birthday of polymath Benjamin Franklin made me think about the history of his beloved city.  In the colonial period, Philadelphia was the great city of British America - a center of commerce, learning, and - as capital of Pennsylvania - politics.  For a time it was even the second largest English speaking city in the world (after London of course.)

Blocked in by the Appalachians, colonial America's primary lines of communications were north-south and between coastal cities.  Philadelphia, roughly in the center of the colonies was well-positioned to be the hub.  When Franklin arrived, he was the perfect type of genius to take advantage of his city's prime location.  First and foremost a newspaperman, Franklin trained printers who worked up and down the colonies and into the Caribbean.  They sent him copies of their periodicals, allowing him to monitor events and trends throughout the colonies.  From Philadelphia he could also disseminate his work throughout the colonies.

Franklin regularly cited the aphorism, "The Almighty helps he who helps himself."  So there was no small amount of self-interest in Franklin's work as Postmaster, where he improved colonial communications substantially.

Philadelphia could, perhaps, have become an American Paris or London - dominating the rest of the country as the pre-eminent center of politics, business, and learning.

But, when the United States was founded, Philadelphia lost its position as the great American city.  Washington was established as the political capital, Boston emerged as the cultural center, and New York emerged as the commercial capitol.  The decision to establish a new capital city made sense as a compromise between the northern and southern states.  Locating the capital in the major city of one of the largest states might have given Pennsylvania far too much sway over national affairs.  A prudent decision.  Boston's emergence as the intellectual center was primarily due to the presence of the country's oldest University (Harvard of course) and the related emergence of the transcendentalists - perhaps the first truly American intellectual movement.

The New York-Philadelphia rivalry was settled on geography.  Before trucks and trains, waterways were critical conduits for goods and people.  New York was built where the Hudson River meets the ocean.  The river is a critical North-South waterway that nearly links to the St. Lawrence in Canada.  The St. Lawrence reaches the Great Lakes, allowing New York trade to reach north-south but also east-west.  As the Appalachians were conquered the United States spread west.  In the early 1800s there were innumerable plans for canals the facilitate east-west trade.  The building of the Erie Canal, which linked New York to the Great Lakes effectively placed New York at the hub of American commerce.  (The Great Lakes reached throughout much of the then West.  Further, from the Great Lakes it is just a jump to the Mississippi River system.  Chicago was built at a crucial point where the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River are close.)  There were plans to build canals to link Philadelphia to the West, but they were too little too late.  New York City and State boomed in the early 1800s.  For a period in the first half of the 19th century they represented a greater proportion of U.S. population than any other state since.

Philadelphia had a last gasp at being America's financial center.   The Bank of the United States was based in Philadelphia and if Andrew Jackson had not broken it, Philadelphia would have emerged as the financial capital of the country.  Chestnut St. not Wall St. would have become synonymous with international finance.  Considering the way in which NYC became the dominant city in international finance and commerce, this dissolution of power might not have been a bad thing.  But it was not to be.

Philadelphia did not disappear, of course, it has remained a vibrant important city.  Until the emergence of Chicago it was the country's second metropolis.  But its moment of greatness has passed and somehow the past weighs heavily on the City of Brotherly Love.  Perhaps it is akin to Athens - still a major city, home to millions of individual stories - but no longer where the action is. 

(Aaron, interesting article, but, um, aren't you in India?  Why are your writing about Philadelphia?)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Deep Thought 42: Life, the Universe and Everything

Last year around this time, I wrote about how computers are getting smarter and how that would lead to enormous prosperity, but it would also reduce the need for people.  If computers can drive and perform a huge number of tasks usually done by people,what would be left for people to do?  Compared to scrabbling around for bare necessities – which was the lot of nearly all of mankind for most of human history – this doesn’t seem like a problem.  But without a purpose, people would lead idle lives.  I envisioned a dystopia much like a huge welfare colony, where everyone has just enough to getby but no one has much to do so they pursue hobbies like hooliganism.  (Alternately, we’d all become professional hobbyists, working at what we loved.)

I expect the conclusion is somewhere in the middle, life will on the whole get more comfortable.  Perhaps something will be lost as life becomes softer and smoother.  Too quote Woody Allen, “The heart wants what the heart wants.”  The stakes may become lower, but people will still be caught in difficult, painful situations and have to muddle through.  Passions will trump reason at awkward times and tussle, as they have since humanity arose.

The scale of changes being made in the human condition is awesome and unparalleled in our history.  Something huge is afoot.

A few years ago (while going through some pretty serious personal stuff – a subject for another time), I read Martin Amis’ NightTrain.  I like British novelists, with their crisp use of the language and social backdrop that is intelligible – but just alien enough to give me pause.  Night Train turned out to be a police procedural set in the United States – not what I wanted.  But it grabbed me.  Jennifer Rockwell, a beautiful and brilliant young astronomer had committed suicide.  Her police brass father could not accept this and had one of his best detectives look into it.  She interviewed the dead woman’s boss, a world renown astronomer who describing their work trying understand the scale and nature of the universe admitted:
The truth is, Detective, the truth is that human beings are not sufficiently evolved to understand the place they’re living in. We’re all retards.  Einstein’s a retard.  I’m a retard.  We live on a planet of retards.
Amis' book was written in 1998.  In the relatively modest span of time since then, we have seen astounding leaps in computational capabilities – capabilities that are only increasing.  Predictions are that relatively soon all the computational power in the world will match that of a single human brain, but it is not so far in the future after this that computing power will exceed the computing power of all the human brains in existence.

I don’t want to argue that we are close to all the answers.  But we are building powerful tools to ask and at least attempt to answer these questions.  But will we understand the answers?  What will be our place in this vast computing architecture?

Amis' astronomer says:
And do you know what a black hole is Detective? Yeah, I think we all have some idea.  Jennifer asked me: Why was it Hawking who cracked black holes?  I mean, in the Sixties everybody was going at black holes hammer and tongs.  But it was Stephen who have us some answers.  She said” Why him?  And I gave the physicist’s answer: Because he’s the smartest guy around.  But Jennifer wanted me to consider an explanation that was more-romantic. She said: Hawking understood black holes because he could stare at them.  Black holes mean oblivion. Mean death. And Hawking has been staring at death all his adult life.  Hawking could see.

Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul is often referred to by its Latin title, De Anima, meaning that which animates.  If we are building some sort of massive hive mind that can contemplate to the edges of the universe, we are what moves it.  The same wonder and awe that led us to build Stonehenge and the Pyramids, has led us to this as well.  If we are building this massive hive mind, we may not understand it (does a cell in our body understand the enormous, marvelous thing of which it is part?)  But we will remain essential, we are what sets it into motion – we will be the soul.