Archive for September 2013

The Council Has Spoken: September 27, 2013

Council Winners

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Republican Rebels

In a comment on another thread one of my long-time friends wrote, “When Bush won a second term, you wrote a blog post titled, “Better red than dead”. It was a clever turn on the original phrase. But it got me thinking. The way the phrase is structured suggests that you weren’t really quite as enamored with the Bush Administration as you seemed to be. But rather thought it was your only choice given the alternative.” His opinion was probably also influenced by this post, “Dear GOP: Give Me a Reason To Stay” where I recommend the GOP leadership to do unmentionable things with an object due to their idiotic stances regarding the NSA and Syria. My friend was sensing that I wasn’t happy with the Republican party.

I’m not. I absolutely hate it – at least the national party and its leadership in Congress. If I could, I’d take John McCain, Eric Cantor, John Boehner and any Republican senator who has served more than 2 terms, put them on a starship and send them to whatever planet Reince Priebus is from.

Like most people my opinions and beliefs evolve and change with time, and I choose a political party that reflects those opinions and beliefs rather than the other way around. Born a Democrat as I grow older lower taxes, smaller government and a stronger defense resonated with me more than they had in the past, so I switched my party affiliation to the GOP. But it’s becoming clear to me that the party in Washington has lost these ideals; worse they have lost touch with people like me who hold them.

So when I listen to Rand Paul or Ted Cruz I am surprised and amazed. These guys get me. They understand what it’s like to send your kid to a sub-par public school system, hope for the best, and pray that your ancestors forgive you for turning your back on a Catholic education. They sympathize with a guy who hears about twenty-somethings on disability who are too disabled to work but able enough to get pregnant, and seethes at an IRS and NSA run amok. They recognize that like most Americans I just want to be left alone to pursue life, liberty and happiness as the men who founded this country intended.

I have a child who is at the cusp of adulthood. I am terrified for his future. College has turned into an overpriced day care run by left wing zealots. Corporations ship jobs overseas and game the system in their favor by flooding Washington DC with cash. The wealthy are happy with the direction of the country as they pull up the ladder of success that got them there, proudly turning the meritocracy of the United States into the stratified class system of Europe. The medical system is imploding. Lifetime employment is now an oxymoron, bringing with it a sense of insecurity that hangs over your work everyday no matter how good you are at your job.

Where is my son going to learn the skills to succeed in life that I can’t teach him? What jobs will be there for him, ones that provide him a solid income while developing talents within him that he doesn’t know are there? Where is the medical system that my wife wants to practice in, one that pays her to spend the time her patients need? Where is the economic growth my community needs to help keep us all afloat?

These are all serious issues to me, yet the Democrats just right me off as a right wing lunatic. They are more concerned with erasing our national borders, keeping America one of only four countries in the world that performs late term abortions, and promoting marriage to gay people while discouraging it for everyone else. The GOP meanwhile is busy whining about a mainstream media that isn’t fair (it’s not – deal with it: Reagan did) and trying to prove they really aren’t all that bad really when it comes right down to it. Ignore those nasty tea party and libertarian people.

I don’t agree with Rand Paul’s isolationist philosophy, and I’m sure that when I look deeper into Ted Cruz’s ideas I’ll find some that I disagree with. And I won’t care because these guys understand that the GOP can only survive the way the Democrats have. The Democrats didn’t win in 2006, 2008 and 2012 by turning into Republicans. Instead they turned into the left wing lunatics they are which is just fine judging by the love my liberal friends on Facebook shower them with. They rose to power with Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, not Republican-looking Dick Gephardt and Zell Miller. Similarly the GOP should skip GOP RINOs like NJ Governor Chris Christie in place of real GOP governors like Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

People identify more with the Tea Party than do liberalism. America remains a center-right nation one that is comfortable with more restrictions on abortion and fewer on guns than those within the Beltway think. Either Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are the future of the Republican Party or the party has no future. The sooner the GOP leadership wakes up to this fact, the better. In the meantime I will send my dollars directly to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz or any other candidate that reflects my opinions and concerns. The RNC and the national party leaders can go to hell.


Stark Choices for Wildlife Conservation in Africa

The news that poachers killed 90 elephants with cyanide in Zimbabwe comes as bad news to those of us who have worked in animal conservation in Africa. But Africa seems full of bad news these days, and it’s tough not to become cynical. Perhaps our distant ancestors had it right, getting the **** out of Africa as soon as they could. If it’s not the diseases or the wild animals, the bad politics and toxic religion will kill you.

It seems to me that the choices for nature conservation in Africa are stark: either the people of Africa have to develop a solid middle class, or we have to take the animals and plants out of Africa and import them into a wealthy society to save them. I have been thinking about this for years ever since I met the Tongwe people, a small Tanzanian tribe that were pushed off their land and saw it turned into a national park where I worked. Poaching in the park was always a problem, and it’s not too difficult to sympathize with people who didn’t get the dollar a day jobs the park and conservation programs offered to those outside the park. Poachers that are actually catching the animals aren’t making much by western standards, and when it’s a choice between a poacher feeding his family or seeing them starve only the most heartless conservationists think they should be jailed or worse, shot on the spot.

Some wealthy environmental and conservation groups have tried co-opting the poachers by paying them better and turning them into guards. Other groups have set up co-operatives that help the locals profit from their natural resources through tourism and research. Most of these initiatives have failed and the few that haven’t continue to struggle.

Being free market oriented I’ve thought, “Okay, why don’t the groups and wealthy individuals buy up the land the animals sit on, then fence it.” But there are several problems with this. It has been tried in Kenya and South Africa with limited success. Fences may keep the animals inside the park, but they don’t keep determined people out. Shooting poachers on sight might sound good to some in Europe and the United States, but all it does is piss the locals off. When this happens they can make life very difficult for conservationists in many ways, from stealing their supplies to harassing their staff, and eventually in some democracies, electing politicians who support their positions. After all, chimps don’t vote but Tanzanians do.

So in order to support conservation of the animals, the foreign groups and individuals have to buy off the politicians. This may work for awhile, but it’s difficult for a politician to stay bought when their constituents aren’t very happy with them. Africa also has a poor track record when it comes to respecting property rights. A chimpanzee conservation group could buy up hundreds of thousands of chimp habitat in the Central African Republic only to see a new government take power and decide that the foreigners don’t own the land anymore. What are the groups going to do? Sue? In which court? The one whose Supreme Court Justice is the president’s brother?

The basic problem is that the wildlife we wish to conserve is in Africa, and the legal and economic systems capable of protecting it are outside of Africa.

In order to protect the animals of Africa we are going to have to import one of those. Either we bring the animals to North America and Europe or Africa imports our legal and economic systems. Since the latter should strike some of the politically correct minded as “colonialism,” the likelihood of Africa developing a thriving middle class and a legal system guaranteeing property rights will take much longer than the animals can survive poaching and habitat destruction. Westerners like to blame the ills of Africa on colonialism, and there were some serious ills like King Leopold II’s atrocities in The Congo, but after half a century of independence are the former colonies of France and the UK better off today than they were before independence? Is it possible that the roots of Africa’s problems do not lay in colonialism, but something else like the corruption that is endemic to the tribal and family-based communitarism?

The conservationists I have met who are serious about saving African wildlife tend to be socialists, and they all subscribe to a top-down model of government control over natural resources, or a bottoms-up communitarian approach whereby a whole village has a vested interest in the stewardship of wildlife resources. They must begin to challenge their own beliefs and either come up with new approaches to save the wildlife or buy it and ship it to wildlife refuges in North America and Europe. But they’d better act quickly, because the elephants of Zimbabwe and the rest of the wildlife on the continent are running out of time.


Council Nominations: September 25, 2013

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Ignore Iran Today – But Not Tomorrow

American diplomacy is a mess. Much of this can be blamed on the current administration who came into power believing they were different from the previous ones, gifted with talent and intelligence their predecessors lacked. But the truth is American diplomacy has always been a mess because honestly, we suck at it.

Having the ability to talk your way to get what you want is only useful for someone who is weak. In the hundred years or so after America’s founding when it was relatively weak to the Great Powers in Europe, we were far enough from the fray to not really matter, and the Europeans only took interest of us when they thought they could use us in their schemes against their primary European opponent. Thankfully American administrations heeded Washington’s advice to avoid foreign entanglements, and were content with expanding power across the continent.  At our weakest point, the years of the Civil War, when the European powers had the opportunity to sway the outcome of the war, it was only a blunder by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to bully the European powers using cotton exports to European textile mills as his primary bargaining chip to attain diplomatic recognition of the Confederate states, and the Union’s more benign and positive support of free trade and past military cooperation with Britain and France that convinced these powers to stay out of the fray. Had Davis been more diplomatic and the European powers more interested in the goings on across the Atlantic, chances are good I’d be writing from my seat in the Confederate States of America.

Things changed after America achieved its “manifest destiny” of spreading across the continent, and began following in the footsteps of the European powers in constructing an empire. During this time diplomacy didn’t matter; what mattered was brute force and the ability to wield it, first in Mexico then throughout the Central America and the Caribbean as it displaced first France and later Spain. But America came late to the game, so its empire was small and inconsequential compared to the great empires of France and Great Britain, and the world wars that followed in the 20th century exposed the danger of empire building as well as the limitations of diplomacy. The Europeans chewed the fat with Hitler for years and it didn’t stop him from taking over continental Europe. Had Neville Chamberlain advised the King to select Lord Halifax, whom he liked and was the popular choice at the time, instead of the unflappable Winston Churchill, it’s quite possible Hitler would have held it.

Americans came closest to learning the art of diplomacy during the Cold War when military supremacy was far from assured while mutual destruction was. This was a decades long learning curve, and during that time the Soviet Union and the United States stood at the brink of war, most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But these lessons have limited value in today’s world where there is no superpower to challenge us. Worse, the Cold War proved the Soviets were “rational actors”, something that isn’t assured by countries like North Korea, Iran or terrorist organizations like al Qaeda.

American foreign policy in the Middle East has never been handled well. After World War 2 America imported British policies in the region, then tailored them to fit the realities of the Cold War. These policies favored stable dictatorships that were either friendly enough to host America forces sent to guarantee the West’s oil supply, or at least were friendly enough not to host Soviet forces. The Soviets weren’t stupid, of course, and the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt who assumed a neutral stance towards the superpowers offered them an opportunity to expand their influence throughout the Arab world. Although officially non-aligned, the Egyptians followed policies that for all intents and purposes matched those of the Soviets, provoking the Eisenhower administration to isolate Nasser by supporting the Saudis as a counter-weight in the region. Thus began the alliance between the Saudis and the Americans, an alliance that has dictated policies by both governing parties over the next 50 years.

Has this policy benefited the United States? The Saudi monarchy and its supporting administrations have proven to be master diplomats. They’ve had to be because they have a valuable resource in a dangerous area and have limited means to defend it. The Saudis took power in the Arab peninsula by first co-opting the Wahhabi preachers prevalent in the area, then kept them under control by providing them a portion of the oil wealth they could use to spread their version of Islam around the world.

Wahhabi Islam is the most intolerant religious sect in the modern world. Imagine the Westboro Baptist Church with tens of millions of followers and billions of dollars yearly at its disposal, and even this analogy is limited due to the WBC’s non-violent teachings compared to the exhortations to violence that regularly appear in Wahhibi sermons and commentary. Yes WBC hold signs at military funerals stating “God Hates Fags,” but they don’t execute suspected homosexuals as the Wahhabis do.

Islam is a conversion-based religion, spreading throughout Asia and Africa and laying siege to Christian Eur0pe first in Spain and later in Eastern Europe. As Islam spread it changed as most conversion based religions do, incorporating customs and traditions of the natives, thereby making it more desirable to the locals at the expense of doctrine. Also lacking a central authority unlike Christianity, numerous strains of Islam appeared, making the Islam of Indonesia different from the Islam of India, which was different from the Islam of Iran which itself differed from the Islam of the Arab nations.

The Wahhabis took their opportunity to re-establish purity and achieve Mohammed’s dream of a global Caliphate by sending well-funded (thanks to Saudi money) missionaries to set up Wahhabi mosques and schools throughout the world, paying special attention to countries with large communities of Muslims. The Wahhabi missionaries would arrive in a community flush with cash, then set up a new mosque and madrassa preaching Wahhabi teachings. These mosques and schools could provide education and services that outcompeted the existing mosques and schools since these relied upon local funding to survive.  The result has been the radicalizing of Muslims in previously multi-religious societies throughout Africa and Asia. Countries where Muslims and Christians had lived intermingled for years suddenly experienced religious strife such as has happened in Indonesia and most recently Kenya and Tanzania.

American foreign policy seems filled with ironies, and none is perhaps as ironic as the fact that the United States supported the Saudis to fight the existential threat of communism during the Cold War, only to create the existential threat of religious intolerance-bred terrorism.

The only thing that has kept Saudi Arabia from appearing on the list of states sponsors of terrorism has been its alliance with the United States. This alliance goes very deep, and the likelihood of its rupture is minimal. The Saudis have built deep personal ties with American leaders in politics, business and academia in their effort to sway American policy to favor their kingdom. The relationship has weathered Saudi sponsored terror attacks including 9-11 and the funding of Sunni militias in Iraq that killed hundreds of American soldiers. So far these ties and the influence that comes with it have convinced the Americans to defend Saudi Arabia from Saddam in Iraq and an Iranian regime seeking nuclear weapons.  In a private comment released by Wikileaks former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the Saudis were willing to fight the Iranians to the last American, yet American leaders have been more than willing to give Saudi Arabia a pass on its sponsorship of terrorism while focusing on such sponsorship by its Shiite nemesis Iran.

Into this complicated situation America has elected its most inexperienced, arrogant and incompetent leader since before the Civil War. The Obama administration’s policy failures in the Middle East, from its failure to secure the peace in Iraq, through its naïve support of the Arab Spring to the gross mishandling of the civil war in Syria has destabilized the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. The selection of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran has presented a tempting diplomatic opportunity for the United States, one that President Obama seems to be entertaining, as Rouhani makes tempting noises in the press about normalized relations with the West.

Is a normalized relationship with Iran worth entertaining? First, there is no doubt that Iran is a sponsor of terrorism, whether through its own Revolutionary Guard or through its support of Hezbollah. There also is no doubt Iran has American blood on its hands. But Shi’a Islam is nowhere near as intolerant a sect of Islam as Wahhabi Islam. Iran is much more tolerant of other faiths than Saudi Arabia, and has not built an industry out of sponsoring mosques and madrassas to inspire hatred of other faiths and sects. Traditionally Shi’a Islam also has something roughly akin to a separation between Church and State, something that the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei have downplayed in order to maintain clerical supremacy of Iranian society. In the long run it is unlikely that Iran would present the existential threat to the United States that the Saudis have through their support of Wahhabism, and would likely be more amenable to taking a slower track towards nuclear weapons.

This is what Obama likely sees, and its a vision that in the eyes of a worthy leader could change history for the better. But Obama is not that leader.

Obama is desperate for success, and like any man who is desperate he will reach for anything. The Iranians know this which is why they are making gestures towards the current administration. They smell Obama’s desperation, and see an easy opportunity to separate the United States from its traditional Saudi and Israeli allies. They will negotiate from a position of strength, guaranteeing any diplomatic successes will only be attained through great cost by American negotiators.Is the Saudi relationship on the table? Perhaps not wholesale but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to put some daylight between the Saudis along with the Israelis and the American regime.

Given this administration’s track record, such offers should not be surprising. Look at the deal Putin got out of the President. The diplomatic community hasn’t seen a come-down like that since Carter tried rescuing the hostages in 1980. Obama’s idea of political horsetrading is making a speech. He’d be unable to get a good deal on a used car lot let alone in the international arena where regimes like the Saudis, Israel and Iran are fighting for their very existences.

There will come a time when America can strike a deal with Iran that will benefit both nations, but now is not that time. Such a time will only come when the situation is reversed, when America is negotiating from a position of strength and the Iranians are weak. Such a deal would likely see the United States freed from Saudi influence of its policies, allowing it to see the existential threat that the oil rich kingdom has unleashed on the world for what it is. Such an event would inevitably lead to the downfall of the House of Saud which is the policy Americans should have been pursuing all along since the end of the Cold War.

Now is not that time.

UPDATE: As usual Michael Totten explains why we should “Beware Persian Leaders with Masks” better than me, pointing out that Rouhani is not the leader of Iran: “Seriously, getting excited about Rouhani is a like foreign heads of state swooning when the United States gets a new Senate Majority Leader.”

The Council Has Spoken: September 20, 2013

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Council Nominations: September 18, 2013

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Memento Mori – The Art of Abandonment

In South Philadelphia row upon row of abandoned naval ships are moored together, stripped of their fittings and rusting silently. A short way down the Delaware River sits the rusting hulk of the cruise ship SS United States, a once majestic liner, completely gutted of anything of worth leaving only a hollow shell, whose memory of better days fade as one by one those who sailed on her pass on. Anyone who has ever worked in Philadelphia and driven past these silent sentinels regularly during his commute must appreciate their presence. These abandoned ships inspired me whenever I passed them. What battles did they see? What great men served on them? What ports did they call at?

Photographer Walter Arnold specializes in what he calls the “art of abandonment,” photographing scenes of collapsing buildings and rusting machinery, finding beauty and meaning in places and things that have been ignored or forgotten. These scenes are at once sad yet beautiful, like mournful poems or the contemplative serenity one might find in an old cemetery. He briefly describes the genre below.

I discovered Arnold while roving through the art galleries in Asheville North Carolina. When you’ve seen thousands of photographs and paintings of mountains and rivers a photograph of a barber chair in an abandoned prison catches and holds your eye.

Arnold emphasizes the ephemeral nature of his subject matter by using a technique called high dynamic range imaging in which several photographs of different exposures are combined to increase the level of detail and to increase the difference between light and dark regions of a photograph. He also prints his photographs on sheet metal, which brings out the highlights while breaking down the formal barriers between viewer and subject matter created by frame and matte.

He also captures the abstract geometry of a scene. A cubist fantasy in “The Matrix“, a photograph taken at a derelict lace factory in Scranton. Conch-like circles in “Beneath the UFO“, an image of a play structure beneath an empty school in St. Bernard Parish Louisiana. Parallel lines and intersections in “The Ruin of Harlot’s Hall“, a photo of an abandoned brothel in Hot Springs, Arkansas. A diving board looms like an abstract sculpture above an empty pool in “I’m Still Here,” a folded piece of origami among lines racing away into the distance.

Time and Nature are critical players in his photographs, and the photos remind the viewer like a Roman general’s slave whispering in his ear that regardless of our successes in life, we eventually fall to both. The motorcycle in “From the Earth” seems to burst out of the photograph while at the same time fights being swallowed by the earth. As the viewer we know which will ultimately win. In “Encroachment,” a photograph taken at the Majestic Hotel, a modern-looking and clean hotel room is under siege with the first tendrils of vines writhing across the carpet and up the walls. It’s only a matter of time before the straight lines of the room and bright white walls are softened and sullied by Time and Nature. Perhaps the finest example of this is arguably his most famous photograph, “The Final View,” an image of a plane’s cockpit taken in an airplane graveyard in Florida and the inspiration for a short film by Ron Howard, “When You Find Me.

As a photographer who is somewhat new to the medium, having picked up a camera in 2006, Arnold is still exploring other subjects such as nature and portraiture. He even shoots weddings. These are technically very good and appealing in their own ways, but the images of abandonment are what haunt me, whether imagining the last song played on a broken piano, the final ride of a Ferris wheel or the last joy ride taken in an old car.

The Council Has Spoken: Sept 13, 2013

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Council Nominations: September 10, 2013

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Stupid Things

The text message came soon after the Wife arrived at work. One of her patients, a 17 year old boy, was in the ICU of a large hospital in a nearby city. She would be late tonight since she was going to make the hour long trip into the city to visit him. Details were scant. He had been in a dirt bike accident with injuries severe enough to warrant being airlifted from his rural home to the city. He is a good kid, right around the age of our child who happens to own a dirt bike.

The typical reaction to such stories is to blame the victim for his (and it’s invariably a “he”) stupid actions that resulted in the accident. But who hasn’t done stupid things as a 17 year old? And whose 17 year old has never done stupid things? Stupid things are what our children do, and most of the time they get away with it.

But sometimes they don’t and when they don’t very bad consequences follow. Nightmarish consequences for us parents.

The dinner will be cold when the Wife returns, and that’s okay. Better for her to share some warmth with her patient and his parents right now. She’s a doctor; it’s what she does.
She arrived at the hospital to the clipped sounds of a helicopter arriving, and by the time she made it to the ICU only a minute remained for visiting hours. She explained she was the boy’s* doctor, and apologized for arriving so late. The nurse smiled and led her down the hall to his room. She explained that over the weekend there had been six motorcycle accidents, six mangled bodies that had arrived along with the boy’s. Only two others besides him remained alive. His prognosis, she asked?  Several surgeries ahead of him. Worst of all likely paralysis.

She walked into the room and the first thing she noticed was her name on boy’s vitals monitor as his primary care physician. Pasted on the monitor was a Fox sticker, a brand of popular off-road clothing and accessories. Then her eyes fell upon her patient, and the lump where his left leg should have laid under the covers was flat. The rest of his body was swathed in various casts with leads and tubes dropping from his body. From beneath it all he smiled and said, “Ah, it’s my doctor.”

His grandmother stood up and welcomed the Wife into the room. She was a stern, strong looking woman who like many men and women her age had been forced to raise not just one but two generations of children. She explained the accident. The boy’s father had given him the bike years ago as a Christmas present, and as he had gotten older he had begun taking it on the road. He knew that dirt bikes were not made for the road. The knobbed tires were made to grip the sides of muddy hills but provided little traction on asphalt. But he had done it so many times that he had lost the sense of danger, giving him a false sense of safety. Early on a foggy weekend morning he took the dirt bike on the road as he had done many times before. This being haying season, large tractors are often found on roads throughout the day, moving from farm to farm to cut, spread and bale the hay eaten by the livestock in the state. By the time Brian saw the tractor it was too late. The bike slid out from under him but caught his left leg, flipping several times before dragging him under the tractor. The shaken farmer called 911.

The wife made small talk with her patient. They talked about how things, and she asked him how much he knew about his condition. He knew it was bad but like a typical 17 year old he knew he would come of it okay. He talked about getting back to school, seeing his friends, who already had begun to appear at his bedside, making the long trip from town. He had a future, and he was going to meet it. She said she’d check in on him in a few days, and left his bedside to speak to his grandmother in the hallway.

The grandmother was not as confident about her grandson’s future. Unlike him she knew what lay ahead, and so did the Wife. She began to cry, and so did the Wife. She is a mother after all too.

She left to the sound of chopper blades landing on the building rising above her, bringing more broken people, mangled dreams, and tears. Would the boy overcome the consequences of his stupidity? She had seen it happen before and would likely see it again. She kept that thought with her as she made the long journey home.


*Names and other identifying features and events have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

The Council Has Spoken: September 5, 2013

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A War Even Hippies Can Love – Thank You President Obama!

Council Nominations: September 4, 2013

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Dear GOP: Give Me A Reason To Stay

This woman begs the GOP to give her a reason to stay after the NSA domestic spying scandal and now supporting Obama’s war to save face in Syria. The party leadership has been tone deaf to the grassroots for years, which is why politicians like Rand Paul and other libertarian party outsiders have been so successful.

In the meantime I’m doing what any disgruntled consumer does when they aren’t happy with a product: I don’t buy it. I’m supporting individual candidates, especially newcomers at the primary level who appreciate small donations. If and when the Democrats run a libertarian, guess what? He or she will get my cash.  The RNC and the rest of the Republican party can go fornicate themselves with a stick.