Archive | March, 2018

Trump in Korea, and some more personal reflections

14 Mar

There’s no doubt about it, North Korea has been a knotty challenge for American foreign policy, not¬–mind you–that I’m a fan of that foreign policy, which has long seemed, shall we say, excessively bellicose. Until quite recently President Trump simply amped up the aggression and seemed entirely too sanguine about the prospect of war with North Korea. Then, all of a sudden, Trump tells us that he’s accepted an overture from Kim Jong-un to talk about Korea’s nukes.

What? Just like that! That’s a good thing, no?

That’s what I felt for maybe a day. And then I began reading commentary by those more deeply informed in such matters than I am. These worthies were not at all encouraging. Quite the contrary, they’ve been rather discouraging and disparaging.

Forget about Trump’s many personal flaws – lack of impulse control, narcissism, megalomania, etc. (Not to mention his misogyny, though that doesn’t seem directly relevant in this matter.) It’s not that these aren’t issues, they are; but let’s just set them aside. Rather, this just isn’t how these things are done. The right way to do this is to have underlings and deputies has things out for months and even years, ironing out all the kinks, and only then bring in Trump and Kim at the very end. They do a bit of sniffing about, find that it’s all good, and sign on the dotted lines their deputies have drawn. Very cautious, very deliberate.

Besides, for Trump to agree to talks with Kim is to give away half the game, or more, at the very start. Regardless of what the talks produce, if they produce anything at all, Kim wins prestige and legitimation points both at home and abroad. But is that so bad? Who knows, maybe that would settle him down. And maybe not.

But the fact is, business as usual – which is what the worthies want – hasn’t been working all that well, has it?

* * * * *

Meanwhile, I’ve had one of those moments I seem to have been having every few weeks or months. It’s generally during the night when I’m neither fully awake or fully asleep. They don’t last long, a matter of minutes at most. And they’re difficult to characterize.

It’s as though my mind were trying to detach itself from my person and become Mind Itself and thereby grasp the World Whole, if that makes any sense. On the one hand the world is what it is and cannot be escaped. It is utterly necessary. And at the same time seems utterly contingent, as though it could easily have been otherwise. All we need is for that butterfly over China to flutter its wings and history is changed. But what if it’s nothing but butterflies all the way down?

There’s so much human diversity in the world, so many different ways of life, so many different individual life histories. Taken individually, one at a time, each in its socio-historical context, they seem fixed and determinate. But when you consider the differences, each seems utterly contingent and arbitrary.

What if we could circulate minds freely from one to another?

* * * * *

Does The Donald have such moments? What I’ve just said seems rather too abstract and too intellectual for him. If he has such moments, they wouldn’t manifest in such terms. They terms would be different.

Is that what was going on in his insistence that more people attended his inaugural day than any other? In his absurd insistence that the photographs of people on the Mall were FAKE NEWS? Sure, his narcissism, his need to assert his power by forcing his deputies to participate in his delusion. All that.

But beneath it all, was he attempting to find a bit of freedom?

Count me among those who believes he didn’t really want to win–noting that there are various ways one can interpret that. But he won and now THUD! he’s stuck with the job. He’s trapped–in the White House, with all these obscure and difficult responsibilities. His world is changed, utterly.

What’s he think he can do sitting across a table from Kim Jong-un? Two men, with nuclear arms between them, and the world on their shoulders. Is that how they wrestle with the Real?

* * * * *

If I were a religious man I’d be praying for them to find peace in a handclasp.


The longue durée of human history is complicated

3 Mar
Conventional wisdom has it that over the course of, say, the last 50,000 years or so, human society evolved from small egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers through a series of stages of ever larger and more unequal forms of social organization as we moved through the agricultural and then the industrial evolutions. We are thus stuck with inequality forever. David Graeber and David Wengrow challenge this in an important article in Eurozone, How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened). Here’s their final paragraph:

The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.

These paragraphs will give you a feel for their argument:

Why are these seasonal variations important? Because they reveal that from the very beginning, human beings were self-consciously experimenting with different social possibilities. Anthropologists describe societies of this sort as possessing a ‘double morphology’. Marcel Mauss, writing in the early twentieth century, observed that the circumpolar Inuit, ‘and likewise many other societies . . . have two social structures, one in summer and one in winter, and that in parallel they have two systems of law and religion’. In the summer months, Inuit dispersed into small patriarchal bands in pursuit of freshwater fish, caribou, and reindeer, each under the authority of a single male elder. Property was possessively marked and patriarchs exercised coercive, sometimes even tyrannical power over their kin. But in the long winter months, when seals and walrus flocked to the Arctic shore, another social structure entirely took over as Inuit gathered together to build great meeting houses of wood, whale-rib, and stone. Within them, the virtues of equality, altruism, and collective life prevailed; wealth was shared; husbands and wives exchanged partners under the aegis of Sedna, the Goddess of the Seals.

Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

Perhaps most striking, in terms of political reversals, were the seasonal practices of 19th-century tribal confederacies on the American Great Plains – sometime, or one-time farmers who had adopted a nomadic hunting life. In the late summer, small and highly mobile bands of Cheyenne and Lakota would congregate in large settlements to make logistical preparations for the buffalo hunt. At this most sensitive time of year they appointed a police force that exercised full coercive powers, including the right to imprison, whip, or fine any offender who endangered the proceedings. Yet as the anthropologist Robert Lowie observed, this ‘unequivocal authoritarianism’ operated on a strictly seasonal and temporary basis, giving way to more ‘anarchic’ forms of organisation once the hunting season – and the collective rituals that followed – were complete.

Scholarship does not always advance. Sometimes it slides backwards. A hundred years ago, most anthropologists understood that those who live mainly from wild resources were not, normally, restricted to tiny ‘bands.’ That idea is really a product of the 1960s, when Kalahari Bushmen and Mbuti Pygmies became the preferred image of primordial humanity for TV audiences and researchers alike. As a result we’ve seen a return of evolutionary stages, really not all that different from the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment: this is what Fukuyama, for instance, is drawing on, when he writes of society evolving steadily from ‘bands’ to ‘tribes’ to ‘chiefdoms,’ then finally, the kind of complex and stratified ‘states’ we live in today – usually defined by their monopoly of ‘the legitimate use of coercive force.’ By this logic, however, the Cheyenne or Lakota would have had to be ‘evolving’ from bands directly to states roughly every November, and then ‘devolving’ back again come spring. Most anthropologists now recognise that these categories are hopelessly inadequate, yet nobody has proposed an alternative way of thinking about world history in the broadest terms.

Toward the common GOOD (Global Organization Of Democracies)

2 Mar

The big world conferences on climate every 20 years (1972 Sweden, 1992 Brazil, 2012 Denmark) have failed. Bill McKibben and are raising consciousness and prodding consciences daily, but the big lever of “world opinion” needs a pivot point or fulcrum, a forum or year round parliament of small and responsible democracies so that all the rapidly growing threats to species and cultural diversity can be addressed rationally and continually. I believe that dramatic steps toward nuclear and general disarmament are both necessary and possible at this time. This will open the way to much reduced or eliminated “war budgets” and a release of funds for rapid reforestation & permaculturing of the planet.

Since I witnessed Biafra going under in the 1960s, the UN has never stopped a war, or an “ethnic cleansing,” or an “administrative massacre” (Hannah Arendt’s precise term replacing ‘pogrom’, see her Eichmann in Jerusalem), or an “attempted genocide.” Many wars by states against nations (e.g. U.S.A. against the Six Nations confederacy, China against Tibet and nation peoples of Sinjiang Province, Russia against Chechnya) have gone on for centuries. Described very precisely by Bernard Nietschmann (“The Third World War: Militarization and Indigenous Peoples” Cultural Survival Quarterly 11(3), 1987) many are still ongoing a quarter of a century later. From Nietschmann: “Every nation people that has resisted state invasion has been accused of being terrorists: Karens (all 5 million), Miskitos, Kurds, Palestinians, Basques, Irish, Oromo, Tamils, and so on. From the state point of view only terrorists resist state ‘integration’.”

This “war on terror” became World War Three immediately after World War II (circa 1948) when Burma invaded 5 nations within its borders, India invaded Nagaland, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran divided up Kurdistan, Israel was given a piece of Palestine, etc. etc. etc. etc. and now World War Three has become the unwinnable War on Terror again. None dare call this progress.

War doesn’t work anymore. Big expensive tech is easily destroyed by low cost tech. Think roadside bomb. An old mortar can destroy any nuclear power plant. The greatest aircraft carrier is undone by a half ounce of anthrax, bioengineered smallpox, bigpox, or by radiation, or by chemicals. Think drone attack blowback. Any one person can use all three kinds of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Finally, big states, power politics, growing populations have come up against walls of limited resources and vast pollution. The American Empire or “global economy” will shrink steadily or collapse quickly, whatever we call it. China, all other states (and nations trapped within them) face limits to growth and limits to destroying Nature.

Smaller democracies like Denmark, Costa Rica and Vermont are doing well. The Swiss Confederation is doing very well. Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine/Lebanon could figure out how to share water, basic resources, and thrive economically as Confederations. Indigenous nation peoples all over the world require something like the Swiss confederate model to survive in peace and prosper.

This proposal aims to conserve both species and cultural diversity on this planet:

For the Common GOOD

To stop the ecocatastrophe and build world peace processes a Global Organization Of Democracies (GOOD) supporting the International Criminal Court (ICC) could coordinate efficient regional police to help prevent “administrative massacres” and terrorism, thereby enhancing the security of all peoples and encouraging states to redirect a growing portion of their military budgets to economically sustainable and resilient problem-solving over time. Continue reading