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Happy New Year: Welcome to 1984, 30 Years Late; But Our Thoughts are Free

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Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free! 

Die Gedanken Sind Frei (The Thoughts are Free) 

Welcome to 1984.

Okay, I know it’s 2014 but bear with me, I figured that the first post of the New Year should be about the reality that has been with us for years but most people didn’t recognize until 2013. The NSA revelations though shocking to many shouldn’t have been because almost every countries intelligence services are attempting to do similar things. Likewise the private sector both aids and abets the government intelligence and security services and do similar things themselves to their customers.

Technology is a great thing and we love it. We depend on it. Smart phones, internet, text messaging, blogs, electronic banking, finance and commerce, e-books, and even gaming technology has revolutionized the way that we live.

Technology itself is neutral, it can be used for good or evil and every point on the morality spectrum in between. Thus it can be used for good, for convenience and holds much promise for most people, even as a minority uses it to commit acts of terrorism as well as all sorts of criminal activity against otherwise honest and law abiding people.

The tension that exists between the good and evil uses of technology, especially after the attacks of September 11th 2001 has prompted different reactions from both civil libertarians and people trusted with security of nations, businesses and infrastructure networks.

The fact is I can understand and argue for a strong civil libertarian response as well as the security response. Honesty I wrestle with the tension between civil liberty, including the right to privacy and the need for security. I want both but the reality is that the world has changed since I grew up.  It is not that people, governments and businesses didn’t seek to impinge on personal freedom or privacy and that others did not seek to kill or disrupt the lives of others in times past. The difference is the vast advances in technology which enable all of them to have ever more influence over our lives.

Technology has made possible what George Orwell only imagined when he wrote 1984. Governments, business, the banking industry, private security firms, internet service providers and search engines, as well as criminals gather information for good and for bad purposes. For our security we use Passwords and Pins which others seek to crack, while those delicious Cookies that are planted on our computers when we visit different websites contribute to our convenience while enabling others to collect incredibly detailed information about us.

It really is amazing and unfortunately I don’t have any answers because I am a realist. I am not a fan of the National Security State, nor am I a fan of the way business and other organizations collect information. That being said I also know that there are those in the world who desire to use the technology that we are so dependent on to kill or harm people or disrupt society.

Back in the day when terrorism was simply a matter of relatively small bombs, assassinations, hijackings, kidnappings and postal or wire fraud it was a nuisance. It was bad if you were in the path of it but for most people it was not a real threat. I lived with it in the 1980s in Germany with the Red Army Faction, the Baader-Meinhoff gang  and Libyan agents blowing up American and West German facilities and kidnapping and killing soldiers. We lived with it, daily searches of our vehicles at the front gate and extra guard duties, my wife and I almost were at the Frankfurt PX when it was bombed in 1985.

But with the advent of technology even small and seemingly insignificant groups have unprecedented power to kill and destroy. The attacks on the Twin  Towers, the Tokyo subway system, the Madrid commuter trains, London transit system, the Moscow Subway system and theaters, hotels, restaurants and train stations in Mumbai India and the recent attacks on the Russian city of Volgagrad show our vulnerability to groups that use technology, old and new.  Likewise the ability of criminal organizations or individual criminals to use technology to gain access to massive amounts of financial data as was demonstrated in the breaking of Target’s retail system demonstrates our vulnerability.

We want absolute freedom, privacy and security. However absolutes are no longer possible. Absolute freedom has never been possible, though we like to imagine it, yet absolute security can only be achieved by sacrificing all freedom. Now days security usually trumps freedom especially when the potential losses in lives, property and treasure are so great.

My inclination is toward civil liberties and privacy but such in the modern world may be on way to extinction and not all because of technology. Yes the technological part is big, and as a realist I do not think as long as the capabilities that technology provides us exist and advance that we can go back to a point that they cannot be used against individual liberty, life or property. Again, they technology itself is neutral, but how it is used makes all the difference.

The more worrisome issue for me is the way that the freedom of thought is being extinguished not in the name of security or freedom but for efficiency. Various parties including government, political, religious, scientific and business interests all seek to control thought for their own purposes.

Thus even history is twisted, as Orwell wrote: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” It used to be that conservatives complained about liberals doing revisionist history, but as a historian I find what I see coming out of some conservative circles much more frightening as history is twisted for the most gross political, religious and social ends. We allow half witted poorly educated loudmouths like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck to think for us, promote fake history and conspiracy theories while giving credence to fake historians like David Barton. If there is a danger to any real freedom of thought it is because we as a people have allowed ourselves to taken in by such charlatans. Likewise the corporate state uses academics and intellectuals to prop itself up but once it has them it refuses to let them function independently.

Chris Hedges wrote of the corporate state:

“It is one of the great ironies of corporate control that the corporate state needs the abilities of intellectuals to maintain power, yet outside of this role it refuses to permit intellectuals to think or function independently.”

While Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451:

“Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”

I believe that in such an age that freedom of thought is the most important thing, even more than freedom of speech. Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”

In college I learned the words of the old German song Die Gedanken Sind Frei (The Thoughts are Free). It is an ancient song that during the days of Metternich was popular among student fraternities in Austria and the various German states. After the 1848 revolutions it was banned by many governments in their crackdown against democratic movements. It was a song close to many of the anti-Nazi resistance groups including the White Rose movement led in part by Sophie Scholl. In light of the terrifying possibilities of repression that exist with the technology of today and what will certainly come into being in the coming years it is important to realize that our liberty must always come from within. The third verse of the song goes like this:

And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls apart: Thoughts are free!

Bertram Russell wrote of the freedom of thought:

“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth — more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid … Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”

It took some time but 1984 is finally really here. That is the new reality, but do not lose hope so long as your thoughts remain free.

Happy New Year!

Peace

Padre Steve+

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All In or Stay the Hell Out: Syria, the United States NATO and the Middle East, the Guns of August All Over Again

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The Balkans aren’t worth the life of a single Pomeranian grenadier.”  Otto Von Bismarck

The terrible civil war in Syria appears to be reaching its crescendo as someone, probably the Assad Regime or its allies, or possibly the Syrian rebels are using Chemical weapons to kill non-combatants and rebel combatants. The evidence that the weapons have been used is apparently convincing enough for the UN to send in inspectors and for the US Secretary of State John Kerry to state that it is certain that they have been used.

Now NATO allies as well as representatives of Jordan and the Gulf States are meeting to decide what to do in response. Since most experts believe that the Assad regime is culpable for these attacks the belief is that the United Sates, NATO and the Arab Allies could be preparing for some kind of attack Syria. The Russians, long time supporters of Syria are pushing back against this and the Syrians are promising that any attack will result in a war that envelopes the region.

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What is happening in Syria is a tragedy and must be stopped. War crimes have certainly been committed by all sides in Syria and the direct involvement of Hezbollah and Iran on the side of the Assad regime and Al Qaeda affiliates on the side of the rebels complicate any response. However, that being said the question must be asked “just whose responsibility is to stop it?”

Some say the United States and NATO, others the Arab League while others the various factions of Syrians themselves.

My heart cries out for intervention in Syria if for nothing else but on humanitarian grounds. But the fact is intervention in Syria has to be much more thought out and organized than intervention that we have conducted since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It will not be a cake walk and quite likely will lead to consequences far worse than the average citizen or boneheaded Congressman has never given a cogent thought.

Syria is an incredibly complicated country. It is multi-ethnic and multi-religion. Arabs, Kurds, Druze and others live in patchwork communities and regions even as various sects of Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Salafist Moslems vie for power while the divided Christian minority , Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and others hope to live and remain in their own country.

As far as others in the Region besides Iran and Hezbollah, various Sunni and Shia Iraqi insurgents have crossed over into Syria, while Israel teeters on the bring of being drawn in to the conflagration.

No matter what happens there will be no winners in what is happening in Syria. There is a high probability that the Syrian civil war will overflow the borders of that unfortunate country and drag the region and possibly major world powers into the war. If that happens there are no winners, only losers. The biggest question is who will be the biggest loser?

That being said even tonight there are reports of military movements in the region even as NATO and Arab coalition partners gather to discuss a response. I am resigned to the fact that the Syrian Civil war will overflow Syria’s borders and draw in the powers of many countries. Just who I am not exactly sure at this time. In the US there is a marked tepid feeling among voters about getting involved. That may be a good thing. It may temper our response and make us deliberate the consequences of military action or inaction.

Bertrand Russell once said that “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” I wonder if anyone in any of the nations currently involved or possibly that might be engaged in the war actually things about what Russell said.

The fact is that what is going on in Syria is the proverbial “Tar Baby.” There is no clean easy solution to the situation. Lobbing in a few hundred cruise missiles and launching airstrikes in support of the rebels is unlikely to have a profound strategic affect. Instead, unless NATO and its allies are willing to risk an actual ground war after the missile and air strikes then the fact of the matter is that those strikes will have little long term effect. If a ground invasion happens it will be bloody and not the cake walk that so many in Western Governments, media and populations that rely on a very small number of military professionals to fight their wars think it will be.

If by some chance the United States and its allies get drawn into the Syrian Civil War than all of them had better think of what the consequences of that involvement will be, for the region, the world and our own countries. The fact is that a major war in Syria will drag the rest of the region into it. This is not 2003 Iraq or 2011 Libya. The fact is that Syria is heavily splintered into various regional, ethnic and religious groups, most who have lived among each other for millennia and most of whom hate each other.

I cannot speak for other governments around the region and the world, allied to the United States or not. However I do know that our Constitution has in it the formula of who should committed the country to war and that, despite our recent history is not the President by his executive authority Commander in Chief but by Congress after due deliberation and a vote to declare war.

My thoughts are that if we in the United States are serious about this, that we believe that Syria and Assad need to be taken down then fine. Let us call Congress back to Washington now and have them debate the issue. If they vote for war then they need to do two things, the first is that Congress needs to be called away from its vacation and get to work debating the issue. If the President backed by a declaration of war from Congress and a repeal of the sequester that is gutting the country and the military.

If they cannot do this then let’s stop the bullshit and tell the work that the situation in Syria is terrible but the consequences of going to war without either an end in mind or analysis of the costs involved is criminal. Bismarck said it well in regard to the Balkans and his comments should be taken to heart by the United States and its allies.

The situation in Syria cries out for action, but that action must be action that helps the people of Syria, the region and the world and is not just an action to salve our collective consciousness and say that we did something. Simply throwing some cruise missiles at Syria accomplishes nothing unless there is a plan of what we intend to see happen. William Tecumseh Sherman said: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

My thoughts on this are to make going to war difficult. If the President and his cabinet determines that they believe in consultations with our allies that war is the last and best of the worst case options, the Congress needs to cut short its vacation. Republican and Democrat leaders need to gather and a decision has to be made. If we go to war it can no longer be done under the very loose and terribly vague rules of the War Powers Act because any attack on Syria will certainly escalate beyond a short term military strike done “on the cheap.”

There is no cheap or easy to Syria. If military action is the only way to solve the problem then Congress must convene, make a formal declaration of war and also repeal sequestration. A war in Syria will be costly in blood and treasure and will likely pull in many other countries. The human costs in the region, not just Syria will be beyond imagination while the costs to the world economy will be severe and quite possibly push the world into another recession or possibly depression.

The military power alone of the United States has been used far too many times as our governments under successive Republican and Democrat leadership have opted not to use the full measure of our diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic power to solve problems. Instead we fall back to the easiest and most ready means to satiate our need for a quick solution to complex problems, the military option. Military power alone, especially if it is incapable of ending the conflict and bringing a just peace is not an answer in Syria.

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The fact is that we Americans do not know the world nor do we understand it. Americans have become simple and lazy when it comes to dealing with complex issues. We deal in sound bites and tweets, the more fiery the better even as we stick our heads in the sand as to what is happening in the world. Ask how many people are more interested in the beginning of the College and Pro-Football seasons in the next couple of weeks versus those interested in really important issues of war and peace and you will get your answer on our priorities as Americans. We have no sense of history and are quite ignorant of the world around us and the political, cultural, religious, philosophical, ideological and economic factors that make up our world so our first response is almost always the sword.

If the President and Congress feel that it is absolutely necessary to go to war over the atrocities being committed in Syria let them make that decision, but only after considerable debate, consultations with allies, the United Nations and the Arab League followed by a vote on an actual declaration of war, the repeal of sequestration and a major stimulus to prevent the economy from tanking when the cost of oil goes through the roof and cripples the world economy.

Winston Churchill cautioned leaders “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” 

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To paraphrase Bismarck, Syria is not worth the life of one American or Allied Soldier unless our governments are willing to do it right. All in or stay the hell out and don’t go in without counting the real and the potential costs.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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