Sunday, January 24, 2010

Democracy was a nice idea

It seems I need to preface these comments by saying something about why I think democracy has mostly worked pretty well. It keeps coming back to my basic projection of my love of freedom. I like to make my own choices and control my own destiny, and democracy is the system that makes that possible for more people. Amusingly enough, I don't think it's the highest percentage of people, but the largest absolute numbers of people. As you go backwards in time, when you arrive at a primitive hunter-gatherer society, then you can argue that everyone has absolute freedom--but none of the other comforts of civilization. However in terms of the old utilitarian approach, civilization creates a lot of happiness for a lot of people. I think the costs (such as governments and taxes) are worth the benefits (such as larger populations with more interesting and longer lives), but you can argue that is just my personal bias. As it applies to democracy, if it's actually working, then everyone should feel like they have a stake in the pie, even if their own preferred leaders didn't win the latest election.

However, that isn't how it's working out in America these days. I would say that democracy is being destroyed from two directions, and we had sterling examples of both attacks in this last week, one in the special senatorial election in Massachusetts and one at the SCOTUS in Washington, D.C.

The first attack is the transient rise of populist stupidity. You don't have to fool all of the people all of the time to persuade them to vote against their own best interests and against the best interests of their nation. That's the bow to Lincoln's 'all of the people' (though there's some doubt he actually said it). You don't even need to fool 51% just on Election Day, per 'most of the people'. It's even worse than that. There are large blocs of voters who are known to vote in certain ways, so all you need is to fool enough people to reach 50% + 1 voter on Election Day, which is a rather small chunk of 'some of the people'. Maybe the real cause of the stunning neo-GOP victory wasn't stupidity and very short memories. In that case it would appear to be pure vicious selfishness. Take your pick, but it's pretty hard to see as a victory for the wisdom of crowds. What this election apparently proves is that the voters have already forgotten how the neo-GOP ran the country into ditch, and now the neo-GOP can prevent anyone from fixing the mess they created. (As a political party, the existing neo-GOP is most like Lenin's Bolshevik's and nothing like the GOP of Teddy Roosevelt or the progressive Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln--but now the neo-GOP party is joining the Teabaggers, who most closely resemble the Russian anarchists who gave the czars so much trouble. Pretty hard to find anyone who would claim that either of those groups made any constructive contributions to Russian history...)

The other prong of the attack is the amazing SCOTUS ruling that allows corporations to donate as much as they want to any political campaign. Perhaps it's kind of inconsistent, since I actually regard money as a pretty pure motivation--but that's only true when all the parties to the transactions know everything that's going on. Absolutely safe to say that this is not the situation as regards politics, even in the relatively open American system. Of course Exxon is going to say they donated $50 million out of love, and it was purely coincidental that 6 months later the politician in question decided to kneecap and eliminate all of those pesky alternative energy projects. If hypocrisy was a fatal condition, Obama would get to nominate five new Justices, because those five would have exploded their own heads. Or maybe they don't know that the strong from of the claim of corporate personhood was actually a mistake, basically an opinion inserted into the official record as the SCOTUS deliberately evaded the issue.

Anyway, I did feel that democracy contributed a lot to the success of the United States over the years, though I don't feel it was the only factor. I'm actually inclined to think the main factor was the infusion of pure wealth from the real estate that was simply taken without any value-related payment as the native Americans were exterminated. Probably be a few centuries before historians and economists reach any kind of consensus on these topics, and as of this writing, I'm absolutely convinced that the United States won't last that long. I feel like the country has been racing towards a cliff, and the leading fools are squabbling over who's holding the steering wheel without even thinking about the lead foot on the gas pedal.

President Obama is about to make his state of the union speech. Every president says the state of the union is "strong". That's become pretty meaningless, because the strengths that exist are being overwhelmed by weaknesses that no one wants to face honestly. If he wants to be honest, I think he has to say that the state of the union is "insane, and quite possibly incurably insane."

The traditional Chinese system is an authoritarian kleptocracy with a merit-based bureacracy, and they just change the name of the ruling dynasty from time to time. Right now its the so-called communists, but things in China haven't really changed that much if you look at the big sweep of history. The Chinese view has always been that China is the center of civilization. It's just that they have a few bad centuries from time to time--and think they are just getting back to normal after one of those 'little' slumps. It troubles me to think that I may well live to see the contest decided, and the overwhelming evidence seems to be that China is smarter and tougher at playing these big games.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Soccer Zen and nice guy Dennis Rodman: Part the Tiger Woods

Soccer Zen and Nice Guy Dennis Rodman:
Part the Tiger Woods

'Soccer Zen and nice guy Dennis Rodman' is actually something of an ancient meme relative to my 20 years in Japan. It was surely something I thought of before Rodman retired in 2000 (courtesy of Wikipedia in my Internet lobe). Therefore I conceived it at least 10 years ago, and probably during my first 10 years in Japan. Though Rodman had joined the NFL even before I came to Japan, it took him some years to establish his reputation as a 'bad boy'.

The soccer zen part is related to my own very limited athletic experiences with soccer. Though I played for many years, I was never much good. However, there were a few flashes of zen moments when I was able to put all the pieces together, transcendent moments when I was really into the game. In my case, those moments were mostly when I was tackling the top striker of the enemy team, one Steve Martella. (I met Steve again at our 25th high school reunion in 1999, after he'd already retired from delivering mail.) Our confrontations were mostly back in the fifth grade, when I was in Mrs Clarke's class, and we basically played class on class against Stevie's class. I was too slow and too poor a ball handler to do much, so I was usually hanging around the goal waiting for Stevie to break out and came a rushing. I'm sure that he beat me most of the time, but I also and more vividly remember those times when I had the dream state and was able to strip the ball off him. It wasn't a matter of thinking or planning or trying, it was just a matter of doing. On those occasions, it was like my feet knew what was up and where to go, and I was just along for the ride. He was fast enough to go around me and skilled enough to take the ball through my legs, but there were those times when he couldn't do either. I didn't really appreciate it at the time, and my limited soccer skills actually got relatively worse over the years as the other players improved much faster than I did, but upon reflection, those were my moments of highest athletic involvement, what I would now call moments of soccer zen.

My belief is that a good athlete must feel like that for much of a game. A professional athlete probably has to be in that state for entire games at a time, competing against other professionals who are functioning in very much the same zen state. Then you have to think about the very top athletes, people such as Dennis Rodman in his prime, who are able to go even farther. Upon my poor foundation, I can only imagine levels upon levels until you reach those skills.

Of course there is a physical aspect to sports, but in the end, all of the top professional players are pretty much similar in their bodies. There are lots and lots big, strong people who can't become professional athletes at all, and there is always fierce competition from many healthy youngsters trying to become professionals and star athletes. If the body was all that mattered, you'd expect professional players to be lucky to last a season or two before they got beaten out by a youngster. It wouldn't matter what the peak age was, there would always be a large number of potential professionals reaching their physical peaks every year, whereas the reality is that the best players tend to last many years.

The important differences are clearly mental. There has to be something special about the mental condition of someone who can excel over and over again while playing against the best opponents, and for years at a time. In the case of Dennis Rodman, my fuzzy recollection is that he was especially strong on the boards. That means that he possessed outstanding abilities to figure out where the ball was likely to go in the future, to get there first, and then to fight off other athletes who were also experts with very similar skills and very similar bodies. My recollection is that he also got a lot of fouls, including some technical fouls, but he was obviously able to keep the fouls controlled to the degree that he was able to stay in the games and make important contributions. Lots more details in that Wikipedia article.

Dennis Rodman worked hard to earn a reputation for non-nice behavior, but my contention is that the wrong scale is being applied. It is completely unrealistic to expect above-average performance from average personalities. I'm being a bit hyperbolic to call him a "nice guy", and I still wouldn't want anyone like that as a neighbor, but if I was a basketball fan (which I'm not) and if I was buying a ticket to see the best possible game of basketball played by the best professional basketball players, then a great competitor is a "nice guy" of sorts, regardless of the peripheral considerations, and especially regardless of that player's antics away from the court.

Of course you should be able to see where I'm going with this as regards Tiger Woods. However, over the years I've noticed many professional athletes who have been criticized for mental aberrations of more or less sincerity. If I had a separate "Part the " for each of those stories, I'm sure I'd have more sequels than the worst of those recidivist movie franchises.

Still, we have to admit that the Tiger Woods episode is especially interesting in several ways. His game, golf, is especially mental compared to most sports, but most of his income was actually peripheral to the game, in the form of product endorsements. In addition, much of the value of his endorsements was based on a carefully cultivated reputation for really being a "nice guy", an image of Tiger Woods as a polite gentleman of the nicest sort. The reality turned out to be very different, that he was a rather wild philanderer, dallying with many women at the same time as he was pretending to be a faithful husband and a good family man and role model.

I actually don't feel like he should be criticized so much on moral grounds. I suppose a lot of it would depend on how much he lied to his wife BEFORE they got married. In retrospect, it now seems very likely that he was playing the field--the non-golf field--for some years, and probably going back before they got married. If he fooled her, too, and pretended that he was not seeing many women, then that's quite a different thing than if he told her that he was already playing around quite a bit. My own feeling is that she doesn't seem dull-witted, so she probably knew about his past before they got married, and in that case the big question is whether or not he promised to reform and be faithful. It sounds pretty sordid if you put it that way, but I have to regard her as pretty foolish if she actually expected a leopard to change its spots.

On the other hand, there's certainly plenty of foolishness to go around here, and I think the lion's share is clearly the Tiger's. Apparently there were at least a dozen other women involved here. How long did he imagine this could remain a secret? It's hard enough to trust one mistress, but a dozen? Even if all of them were sincerely discrete, he was just scattering too much evidence around too widely. Someone was going to figure it out sooner or later. It also appears that he had developed an adversarial relationship with his wife, which kind of boggles my mind. Before he got married was the time to check for jealous tendencies, and he certainly had a buyer's market to shop for a reliably tolerant spouse.

Maybe it just comes back to the mental aspect again? Maybe he needed the extra tension of the illicit sex to give him the extra tension on the golf course?

Where we are now, Tiger Woods is apparently regarded as financially the most successful professional athlete in history, the first athlete to gross over $1 billion, of which about $600 million has been converted into his personal worth. Not being a golf fan, I have to recycle the old joke about 'Not bad for chasing a little ball around with a stick.' Tiger has announced that he is taking a break from the game, but that was predicated upon becoming a better husband and father and rebuilding or somehow saving his marriage, and that seems to be a rather forlorn hope at this point. So far he hasn't missed any major tournaments, and if his marriage is really toast, it might be best for him to agree to a quickie divorce, and get back to his games of quickie lovers and golf.

The frequently repeated theme has been that his continued success on the golf course would salvage as much of the situation as can be salvaged. After all, the primary basis of his reputation is that he has the potential to be the greatest golfer in history, and the nice guy stuff was just frosting on the endorsement contracts...

Now it's time to elevate the analysis to a higher level, to the relationship of these professional athletes to the main theme of this blog, the "Distant View of America's Fall". My focus here is on the breakdown between the hard reality of these imperfect humans and the faith-based desire for perfect role models. This has actually become part of the national delusion that is destroying America. There is no Superman coming to the rescue, not on the athletic field and not in politics. This is actually a theme that I've addressed from a number of perspectives, but right now President Obama is becoming increasingly handicapped by the widening realization that he, too, isn't Superman flying to our rescue.

The dynamics of contemporary American politics are such that many of the supporters of any candidate regard their candidate as some sort of divine savior. In Obama's case, the themes of hope and change are now coming to haunt him. I want to believe that they are only bluffing and that they will think carefully in future elections, but disillusionment is a powerful negative emotion, just as many people feel disillusioned when professional athletes turn out not to be the role models they were marketed as. From that perspective, at least Dennis Rodman didn't market himself as a nice guy in the way that Tiger Woods did--and I think the result of that disillusionment may well manifest itself in the future in disruptive shouts on the golf course when Woods is competing, unwelcome distractions which may well prevent him from focusing in the way he needs to win.

It's very different when much of your base is completely faith-based on every issue. I'm talking about the hard core of religiously-motivated Busheviks that continued to support Dubya to the bitter end, no matter how overwhelming the evidence of Dubya Bush's miserable failures. Now that constituency has evidently transferred itself to Sarah Palin, while many of Obama's more rational supporters have simply become quite disaffected by his stubborn wrestling with harsh realities and neo-GOP obstructionism. My own feeling is that Obama is well qualified, intelligent, and skilled and is probably doing as good a job as is possible under the circumstances he inherited--but we seem to be in a situation where the best hope for the nation is for the GOP to be imploded by its dominant neo-GOP far-right wing, thus giving the Democratic Party the overwhelming leverage needed to fix the divisive problems that threaten to consume the nation.

I can actually imagine the situation getting worse--but not that much worse before it collapses completely. I think we dodged a major bullet in 2008 when the financial markets, again last year when Dubai was bailed out, and the Chinese might be about to throw another spanner into the works...

Friday, January 01, 2010

Can the CIA even protect itself?

Long time, no post, eh? Well, the obvious thing to note is that the apparent lack of readers of this blog is certainly not motivating me to do more work here--and writing well is pretty hard work. If I make you think, then a tip of the hat via a comment would be appreciated. If you have contradicting evidence to cite, I'm especially interested in learning about it. If you agree, that's nice, but I confess I don't really care that much. Basically I'm confident that my views are well considered and well supported by lots of evidence. I'm actually more interested in reasoned disagreement supported by solid evidence--but there seems to be very little of that in American politics these days.

Having said that, the topic of today's scribbling is actually in the category of a thought experiment based on the recent bombing in Afghanistan that killed at least 8 Americans (with a couple more still at risk of dying from their injuries). The solid fact is that the victims were not military personnel, and the reports and some evidence supports their having been CIA employees. This thought experiment is based on the belief that they were CIA people, and that the Taliban bomber went after them for precisely that reason.

The conclusion of my little thought experiment is that the CIA is clearly functioning extremely poorly. It should be obvious that there is no good reason so many potential human targets should be allowed to gather in such a place, and if the CIA didn't understand that, then they are really foolish or incompetent or both. It does not matter at all when the bomber started working for the Taliban. Maybe he was an old member and the background screening failed, but that's extremely likely in the turmoil of Afghanistan. However, I think it probably more likely that his background was completely clean and checked--at the time he started working with the Americans. What happened later to flip him doesn't matter at all. Maybe he regarded himself as a true patriot and started working for the Americans precisely because he knew his background was clean--and then he contacted the Taliban to join up. Maybe the Taliban contacted him, telling him that his entire family was being held hostage and would be killed if he failed to kill the Americans. Those are just the three most obvious intermediate stages of this thought experiment, but the obvious conclusion is that NO Afghan can really be trusted in this context, and the Americans ALWAYS have to operate on that assumption.

If the bombed facility was for exercise, as widely reported, then it should have been divided up by walls of sandbags so that any bomb detonation could never kill more than two or three people at a time. I'd also put big mirrors in a lot of the corners to expose potential hiding places for shooters. Lots of other precautions leap to mind, but the obvious point is that a CIA base in that place HAD to use such precautions, and some more besides, as the old joke goes.

So why did I include a Dubya label for this post? Because I think a lot of the REAL problem is that Obama still hasn't cleaned up ANY of the major messes he inherited. To a degree, that's a natural state of affairs insofar as some parts of some government systems were working pretty well, and even where they weren't, most of the people in those systems were sincerely trying to do their best. Also, it's obviously dangerous to rock the boat when you're in the middle of a river--but the mess left behind by Dubya is more like being adrift in the middle of the Atlantic. I'll explain more when I get around to writing "Soccer Zen and nice guy Dennis Rodman, Part the Tiger Woods", which also belongs to this particular blog as another aspect of the malaise of America...


About Me

My photo
As a blogger from before there were blogs, I've concluded what I write is of little interest to the reading public. My current approach is to treat these blogs as notes, with the maturity indicated by the version number. If reader comments show interest, I will probably add some flesh to the skeletons...