Thursday, March 31, 2011

On April 4th, come to the “We are One” rally at Metro in Denver at 12:30 and all across the country

On Monday Apri 4th, there were be a worker, student, faculty rally/teach in at Metro in front of the Plaza building on the lawn (across from Arts; near the King Center) at 12:30 pm, It is organized around the legacy of Martin Luther King, who gave his speech, “Breaking the Silence” on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in Harlem, see here and here, and who was assassinated a year to the day later, in Memphis, supporting a sanitation workers strike organized by AFCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers). That union was founded in Wisconsin in the 1930s and is under attack – the huge demonstrations in Madison for collective bargaining – right now. A worker from AFSCME will be one of the speakers, along with a representative from SEIU (the Service Employees International Union) –the opening of the demonstration will be a march of custodians in SEIU from 17th and California, beginning at 11:30 and arriving at campus for the rally/teach in at 12:30.

The teach in will be hosted by Mario Solis Marich, who has a lively program on AM 760 at 4-7 weekdays, Henry Roman, head of the Denver Classroom teachers association, Jeremy Bermudez and Sonia Gutierrez, two students from Paz (Politically Active Ztudents) on students in the immigrants rights movement and the fight for the ASSET bill (to permit undocumented students who have lived and been schooled in Colorado to go to college here at in-state tuition), Jeff Engelheart, a student in Iraq Veterans against the War, a worker organizing against Sodexo at the University of Denver (SEIU is doing the organizing there and around the US against this French multinational), will talk about how this multinational corporation based in France, for instance, does not allow cooks to take a break at work and penalizes them unless they come in sick – it is frightening that universities here cede such matters to corporations over which they have little influence unless unions organize; turn around, and think of how workers, students and teachers in North Africa – say Tunisia or Algeria – feel about such French companies, or of course those in Iraq, Afghanistan, Latin America and others, feel about American versions like Kellogg, Brown and Root, Halliburton or Blackwater/Xe corporation…See here.

Andrea Merida of the City Council will speak on cutbacks on education, me (on King and the “demonic sucking pump of war" extracting not only health care and benefits from workers but the basic right involved in collective bargaining, the dignity of working people…), Rob Duray, of New Era Colorado, an organization that works on Renter's Rights for the 50% of Denverites who now rent, and others. The teach in is being organized and sponsored by the Metro State Political Science Students Association, all these unions, MoveOn, the AFL-CIO, and will be announced on AM 760 and KGNU as of now. It will be an unusual event, a broad, multiracial gathering of protest at the Auraria campus, one that involves a similarly diverse group of students who are the heart of American demoracy (in contrast to the mostly millionaire lawyers who compose America’s political elite).

This demonstration is part of the “We are One” marches all over the country, including an evening one at Civic Center Park in Denver, against the attack on collective bargaining - yesterday extended by the Ohio state senate below - and the criminal spending of our government on militarism and levying no taxation of the top 1/10-% - not a regressive tax, but effectively no income tax (apparently a number of major corporations like GE paid no taxes last year or “overpaid” and were paid back by the government) while in Michigan, an authoritarian governor cuts half the teachers, so that on NPR two weeks ago, one said: “30 students I can teach. The 60 I will have next year, I will just have to warehouse.” In Florida, the governor cuts medicare so that people will be forced to go to his own private hospitals... Obama is an unusual President for the United States, but many of the things that the ruling elite is now doing make a “banana republic” look up from here…

Please feel free to announce this march in classes or contact people you know (in Denver and nationwide). There were 4000 workers at the State House in support of Wisconsin Saturday 3 weeks ago; this event may be quite large. I was invited to help organize this march by Russell Bannan, an organizer for SEIU and AFT, from South Carolina. It was a very diverse group; I went to an organizing meeting at SEIU headquarters of some 20 people, 4 of whom were white. If one likes democratic, multiracial gatherings, this is the place to be.

In London, last Saturday, half a million people turned out (see the LA Times story below) to protest Cameron’s massive cuts. Interestingly, there was but a photo on p. 12a of the Sunday New York Times with a paragraph under it, and no mention in the Denver paper (Americans might get the idea…).

The Tories want to get rid of public health and a decent educational system, to change Britain. Prating about the “Big Society,” Prime Minister David Cameron wants private charity to take over for public benefit – mandated by democracy – that people earn (as the unreconstructed Scrooge says, “are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?). Call what Cameron (and the Republican authoritarians and Blue Dog Democrats) want a society of peonage, with no middle class, a tiny gated community of the ultarich protected by privatized security and fire departments and armies, and privatized prisons for the rest (Pottersville in “It’s a Wonderful Life” or the desolate London on “V is for Vendetta,” or the many societies in the world, ruled by the “free" market, in which orphans live in garbage dumps and hunts for scraps to sell…

In place of the wreck of Detroit, the former center of the world auto industry, generalized, we demand a decent standard of living for all (what might make possible for some what used to be called “the American Dream” which, with the cancellation by the Obama administration of federal housing programs, will no longer include, for most, owning a home). Not $708 billion (last year’s official Pentagon budget) and some 1,280 military bases abroad (many poor young men, urban and rural, become “all that they can be” in the imperial military) but decent spending on ordinary people who deserve it and have earned it – that is what we demand.

Yesterday, my student introduced me to her friend, a Chicana worker in SEIU, She has been cleaning buldings in Denver for many years and her shoulder gave out. Cleaning many floors of a downtown building in a very limited time (couldn’t take breaks), she would be called back by a boss to get a spot of water on a floor in an otherwise clean (spotless) room, or being small, to show a boss how far she could stretch to get a spot above a mirror. This is with a union. If there is no union, she said, there is no dignity. Imagine the cruelest and most sadistic person who has ever had authority over you and how you felt, and you will get a taste of what many people must endure with multinational corporations. How do people at Sodexo in Algiers or Baltimore get decent treatment? A union, and even with a union, often a long fight…

Most SEIU workers expend their lives in difficult and physically hard jobs, cleaning for the bosses. They are in the shadows and exploited (often including sexual harassment for young women). If you want to see the America that takes advantage of and exploits hardworking people who are immigrants (the theme song of the Republican party and some Democrats, echoed sadly by some working people who cruelly attack others and lose out, economically and in terms of how they spend their lives – in racist bitterness - themselves). SEIU will be and speak forcefully at this rally. I too will stand with them and many other workers. In Denver, or wherever you are, join us.

Thursday, March 31, 2011 by the Associated Press
Ohio Legislature Passes Bill Limiting Collective Bargaining Rights; Unions Vow Fight
by Julie Carr Smyth

Ohio lawmakers have had their chance to vote on a bill limiting collective bargaining rights for 350,000 public workers across the state. Next will be the public's turn.

Even before the contentious Senate Bill 5 — in some ways tougher than Wisconsin's — had cleared the Legislature late Wednesday, unions and Democrats in this once-proud labor stronghold vowed to put it on November's ballot as a referendum.

"O-H-I-O! S.B. 5 has got to go!" protesters chanted ahead of a final Senate vote of 17-16 that sent the bill to Gov. John Kasich for his signature, expected this week. The vote followed a day filled with Statehouse demonstrations by about 750 people, who raucously chanted and shouted throughout the process. After a House vote of 53-44, opponents spewed expletives at House members.

The vitriol wasn't limited to the Statehouse.

Leo Geiger, 34, a Republican who works as a sewer inspector for the city of Dayton, said he's "deathly afraid that this is going to affect me, my family and the entire state of Ohio in an incredibly negative way."

He believes the bill is political payback for unions' support of Democrats in November's election.

"I find this to be loathsome," he said from Dayton on Wednesday night. He didn't attend protests because he couldn't take the time off. "I find this to be disrespectful to Ohioans and disrespectful to the process of democracy."

The measure affects safety workers, teachers, nurses and a host of other government personnel. It allows unions to negotiate wages and certain working conditions but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. It gets rid of automatic pay increases, and replaces them with merit raises or performance pay. Workers would also be banned from striking.

A ballot challenge would stall implementation of the law that Republicans championed as vital to Ohio's economic future. Backers have 90 days after Kasich signs the bill to gather 231,148 valid signatures from at least half Ohio's 88 counties to get it on this fall's ballot.

"This state cannot pay what we've been paying in the past," House Speaker Bill Batchelder said during a news conference ahead of Wednesday's vote. "Local government and taxpayers need control over their budgets. This bill, as amended and changed, is a bill that will give control back to the people who pay the bills."

He said House Republicans were launching a website, sb5truth.com, to correct what they see as falsehoods about the measure.

Republican Gov. John Kasich has said his $55.5 billion, two-year state budget counts on unspecified savings from lifting union protections to fill an $8 billion hole.

During House debate, state Rep. Robert Hagan, a Democrat from Youngstown, took issue with the notion that the bill was aimed at saving money.

"Don't ever lie to us and don't be hypocritical and don't dance around it as if it's finances, because you know what it is: It's to bust the union," Hagan told his fellow lawmakers.

Democratic state Sen. Charleta Tavares, a recent Columbus city councilwoman, called the bill "paternalistic, patronizing, disrespectful and condescending" to city leaders who balance their budgets annually, not every two years as Ohio does.

Pickerington teacher Patricia Kuhn-Morgan said she was confused by connections being drawn between the bill and job creation.

"As teachers, the best way we can have to job creation is to educate the public," she said.

She predicted Wednesday's votes will hurt GOP lawmakers on Election Day.

"I've spoken to a lot of educators who are typically straight-ticket Republicans that have said to me that they won't ever vote for another Republican because of how this bill's been pushed through and the democratic process has been abused," she said as she awaited the Senate's vote.

Though protests were much larger in Wisconsin, Ohio unions claim they hold the hearts of a majority of voters in their political swing state. Republicans say polling indicates a high number of voters, though perhaps ones not as vocal as union supporters, favor the collective bargaining changes and would uphold the new law.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill this month eliminating most of state workers' collective bargaining rights. That measure exempts police officers and firefighters; Ohio's does not.

The Ohio bill has drawn thousands of demonstrators, prompted a visit from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and packed hearing rooms in the weeks before the Senate passed the earlier version of the measure. Its reception in the House had been quieter, as unions resolved themselves to its approval and shifted their strategy to the fall ballot.

Democratic state Sen. Joe Schiavoni said the way the bill had been rushed through the legislative process without union input was unfair — but he said voters would have the last word.

At the ballot box, he said, "all Ohioans will get the opportunity to right the wrongs they committed in the last election, and, ladies and gentlemen, that is fair."

Associated Press writers Ann Sanner and JoAnne Viviano contributed to this report.


Saturday, March 26, 2011 by Los Angeles Times
London Marchers Protest Massive Spending Cuts in Britain
It was one of the biggest demonstrations since rallies in 2003 against the Iraq war.
by Henry Chu

LONDON – Tens of thousands of demonstrators whistled, chanted, drummed and marched their way through the heart of London on Saturday to protest massive government spending cuts that threaten to leave almost no part of British society untouched.

Over 500,000 Brits turnout for the anti-cuts march in London, Saturday, March 26, 2011. Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA

It was one of the biggest public demonstrations in Britain since 2003, when antiwar rallies were held across the country before the invasion of Iraq. Organizers said up to 500,000 people participated in the march, whose carnival-like atmosphere was briefly marred by black-clad anarchists who smashed a few shop windows, flung paint bombs and attacked luxury icons such as the Ritz Hotel.

The protesters gathered here from all corners of Britain to express their outrage over a whopping $130 billion in cutbacks that the government insists are necessary to tame a runaway budget deficit. The retrenchment is expected to result in a radical shakeup of bedrock social services such as welfare and healthcare and in the elimination of nearly half a million public-sector jobs.

"It's our right to march and to say we don't accept any of this," said Corinne Drummond, 37, a nurse from East London who joined several colleagues for the demonstration, which began in the morning and lasted for hours.

On a gray and occasionally drizzly spring day, a huge of column of protesters snaked its way along some of London's best-known streets, past landmarks such as Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and through Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus.

They were a motley crowd of civil servants, environmentalists, prison officers, academics, feminists and young parents with toddlers on their shoulders. "Don't believe in the deficit," some placards exhorted, while other signs and T-shirts called for a "general strike now" and exhorted Britons to "make tea, not war."

In Hyde Park, the leader of the opposition Labor Party ridiculed Prime Minister David Cameron's vision of a "Big Society" full of citizen volunteers who plug the holes left by cuts in government spending.

"You wanted to create a Big Society. This is the Big Society, the big society united against what your government is doing to our country," Ed Miliband said in a speech that invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement. "We stand today not for the minority. We stand today for the mainstream majority of Britain."

The Labor Party, which was kicked out by voters in May after 13 years in power, acknowledges that some cuts are unavoidable to shrink a deficit built up largely under its watch. But it says the scale and pace of the austerity plan put forward by the Conservative Party-led government will strangle Britain's fledgling economic recovery and hurt the most vulnerable members of society.

Effects of the belt-tightening will begin to be felt more acutely next month, when libraries start closing down, youth programs disappear, social workers get laid off and fewer buses ply the streets. In the northern city of Manchester, police are bracing for the elimination of nearly 3,000 jobs – a quarter of the department's workforce.

Analysts say the spending cuts could change the fabric of British society in a way not seen since the free-enterprise revolution of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

"It's changing the whole ethos of everything," said nurse Rikke Albert, 37. "That's not what I signed up for when I did my training."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The civil disobedience of Socrates, part 2

Blinn's next comment on my post on "The Apology's Cave" - see here for his last one - takes up matters of great political significance:

"Blinn Combs said...

[BTW, I'm "Random User." Apologies for the mid-stream name change. I did some blogging a while back that, at the time, needed to remain anonymous.] Socrates' remarks about the just man having no chance for survival in politics have, as you note, a tortured (largely anti-democratic) history. Sadly, his case is not particularly compelling, even by classical Athenian standards. See, e.g. Woodruff's piece on Socratic courage. As you also note, there is a really remarkable tension between the context of the Republic and that of the Apology is that the Republic is constantly rebuffing Socrates' denial in the strongest terms, by drawing an exact analogy between philosophy and (justifiable) political rule. I tend to disagree that Socrates is a defender of democracy; I would instead say that his life was based around the avoidance, so far as possible, of injustice, and a practiced mode of skeptical investigation--and consequent shaming--of his contemporaries. Even his bouts with known politicians are explained, not via any concern with politics more broadly, but with the wisdom commonly attributed to politicians. His brush-ups with the state were--at least as Plato depicts them--always incidental to his Delphic mission.

Nor do I see him as a particular advocate of civil disobedience, at least as the term is commonly employed. As you note, he does refuse to follow any command to quit practicing philosophy, but that is, as he explains, driven by the imperative to obey Apollo. He follows the state's orders--so long as doing so doesn't conflict with that higher command, and there's simply no reason to think that he spends a moment's thought about, e.g., just war or the problems of Athenian imperialism. (It's curious, though, that even the portraits Plato paints of his battle heroics involve retreat rather than attack; I suspect that this is of a piece with his perplexing activity of searching in admitted ignorance, thus refusing to venture his own answers).

Unlike 'civil disobedience' in the modern context, which as I understand it functions to change specific unjust state practices, Socrates' disobedience is entirely self-centered, his refusals are not of any general rule applying to everyone, but of specific edicts making demands on him. Even the case of the trial of the 10, he acted so as not to commit the very literal injustice of disobeying the standing law that each person be granted individual trial. His refusal to play along with the 30 was not so much a political objection to their actions as an unwillingness to cooperate in an unjust execution. He did not, e.g., speak out against it; he simply went home.

I think this otherwise perplexing feature of his avoidance activity *is* somewhat enlightened by a look at Plato's cave. Socrates does tend to suppose that people make decisions in ignorance of their consequences, and (obviously) in the absence of any robust sense of justice. So their individual decisions tend, ceteris paribus, to be more or less random so far as justice is concerned. Of course, how then he is entitled to his obvious hierarchy of authority, with Apollo, the state, and its laws, remains something of a mystery. Kraut takes a worthy crack at it, but I simply fail to find Plato's portrait very convincing. I suspect that he was pulled between two desires--first, to depict Socrates as a hero of a sort of acetic ideal of philosophy as he imagined it, and second, to portray him as a hero to the state. I just don't see any convincing way to square that circle. Of course, that's today."

First, on civil disobedience or satyagraha, Socrates was of course not a practitioner of a term and particular conceptions that emerged 2300 or 2400 years later. But Blinn decries Socrates as selfish or self-centered (something I see no evidence for) and restricts civil disobedience to mass movements to change the government. But consider Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience. He is a majority of one, as he puts it, in opposing the US aggression to seize much of Mexico (Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, part of Colorado) and the Constitution’s legalization of bondage. He says roughly that the Constitution which purports to be the slave’s constitution and mine cannot be mine. To be an individual resister as Thoreau is in refusing to pay taxes and going to jail, does not yet do anything centrally for others except say no to injustice and murder. That is exactly what Socrates does in resisting the command of the Tyranny of the Thirty. The tyrants Critias and Charmides (Plato's relatives) cannot implicate their teacher in their crimes. Socrates will not allow it.

But Thoreau also defended John Brown, and his efforts in Massachusetts contributed to widely publicizing Brown’s martyrdom for the raid on Harper’s Ferry and the coming of the Civil War (see David Reynolds' John Brown: Abolitionist, the Man who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War and Seeded Civil Rights, WEB Dubois, John Brown, and Stephen Vincent Benet,"John Brown's Body"). This is not nonviolent (nor was Socrates, a soldier, simply a precursor of nonviolence).

Still, Socrates’ thought “it is better to suffer injustice than ever to do it” is a far more distinctive precursor to Gandhi’s and King’s nonviolence - as both saw - than to Thoreau’s civil disobedience. In addition, Gandhi emphasized that a Hindu satyagrahi must be prepared to die to defend a Muslim against a Hindu mob. The Gandhian way of living as a civil disobedient includes preparation for or at least a willingness to die (that one takes the violence of the oppressors on oneself in order to stop them and perhaps, to change them). Martin Luther King used to say to his wife that he would never reach the age of 40. Gandhi was, in this respect, far closer to Socrates than Thoreau…

Blinn comments that Socrates “never gave a thought” to war or Athenian imperialism. I would be careful about saying what Socrates didn’t think about, since many of the mysteries of what he or Plato thought are a long time to be arrived at. Concern about virtue or a just life on which he questioned so many Athenian citizens in the Apology would seem to be centrally concerned about the city, and hence, inter alia, the justice of its conquests. In the Republic, he says that Greeks should not enslave other Greeks (Aristotle reasserted this point but then argued for an alleged, dramatically mistaken form of just war directed toward enslaving "barbarians" against Plato and Socrates in the Politics – see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1). Socrates suggests that even Pericles was not so great a war leader (what should one think of a horse trainer who makes a horse more unruly?) in Menexenus, for example. Socrates probably concurred with Pericles' counsel, reported in his second speech in Thucydides' History, not to wage war on two fronts. But he may have gone further. Some thought here, too, about the justice and public consequences of war- Athenian decline - is at issue.

In addition, in the Meno, Socrates offers an argument on aletheia – un or not-forgetting (see here) – which suggests that through questioning any of us – any slave whom Meno provides – can recover, for instance, an advanced theorem of Euclidian geometry. We have this knowledge, Socrates suggests, from eternity, both when we are in human form and not. See here and here. This is a very radical egalitarian and abolitionist argument. That he would likely have been killed for organizing about it – he did not seek his death for this, but found it anyway for doing philosophy – does not mean that his thinking was only about himself in any problematic sense…

Blinn does offer the brilliant insight that Socrates is depicted in battle by Alcibiades in the Symposium (though not so much in the Apology) in retreat and that this is in some sense allied with his questioning (I am not sure skepticism is such a good term for it, since he lived a life with a strong sense of what is right, for him, to do in each situation). One might add: he most exemplifies civil disobedience when on the defensive, when tried for his life.

I might try to elaborate Blinn’s observation this way. Ordinary politics, even in the most splendid state (Athens once upon a time, the America of Barack Obama as President), is a horror. It is extremely difficult to undo extreme injustice (aggressions, a quarter of the world’s prison population held in American facilities, torture extending to Bradley Manning, unending "executive" wars with no attention to the Constitution or Congress (Barack's speech last night was focused on a precise configuration of circumstances which enabled the war to prevent a massacre at a low cost in American lives; he has, in this respect, given American militarism a rare coalitional and moral aspect, which does not alter its basic destructiveness, cf. drones in Pakistan and self-destructiveness). Most of us end up doing what we can. Only rare individuals for whom what one can turns out to be a vocation like John Brown or Martin Luther King are assassinated for it – like Socrates. One can accomplish some things – there is a resistance movement emerging from below among workers in Denver and there will be important rallies on April 4th here (at Metro at 12:30 in front of the Plaza Building across from Arts - more later this week - and at City Park at 5:30) and around the country (the "We are One" protests). But seeing what is right and being able to do something meaningful about it has been extraordinarily difficult since the time of Socrates.

Blinn draws a rich analogy between the depiction of Socrates in battle and Socrates's questioning, his not knowing (I do not know, nor do I think I know). But this recognition cancels any literal advocacy of a philosophical kingship or a philosophical tyranny (a ruler who rules wisely but without laws) here and now. He cannot, on the one hand, not know what justice is, and on the other hand, urge the hierarchical rule of a philosopher-king. In the Republic, Plato has him put the issue tentatively, seeking justice in the individual soul by analogy to justice in the polis (on the face of it, a peculiar analogy). The message is at most, one about the soul, and how an individual, discerning aspects of justice, as we will see below, might lead others to resist the worst when he has gone down into the cave of politics.

“I came to live in the world,” Thoreau says, “not to change it.” But the world comes to us. Thoreau did some powerful things including being vital in the dissemination of the story of John Brown – about Brown's death Thoreau’s colleague Emerson spoke of “the gallows glittering like the cross.” One must live one’s life, doing what one can. Like Socrates...

Centrally, however, Socrates exemplified and defended asking questions (doing philosophy). This is enormously threatening to the powerful, since the “emperor’s new clothes” disappear on the observations of a child, on a question. What Socrates was tried and executed for was doing philosophy. Some of the charges were right in some sense, Plato thinks. But he hardly agrees with the punishment so the conclusion to be drawn from the probing about the relationship of Socrates and Athenian democracy his dialogues suggest is not obvious. Strauss thinks with Xenophon that Socrates committed suicide; I think he understood that facing the trial and standing up for philosophy would have an eternal impact – something that Plato, by writing as Socrates would not except for a few poems that did not survive his death, ensured. That again strikes me as close to Gandhi's thought that going down the line for something right (something one has lived) is a worthy way to die.

Blinn goes too far with Socrates’ obedience to Apollo; Socrates formulates his method of testing the saying of the oracle (the Pythia) to Charaephon that Socrates is wisest of them all. He hears the God but what he does – and what Athens puts him to death for – is no direct command. In his appeal to Apollo in the Apology, Socrates’s provides a powerful rhetorical as well as principled answer to the charge against him of disbelieving in the gods of Athens, but it is Socrates, following his inner voice, his daimon, who, upon reflection, resolves to test out by questioning those who think they are wise, and by showing that they are not, incurs lethal enmity.

Asking questions particularly about virtue (shaming self-important people, as Blinn says) is an important public activity, serves a common good. It is in no obvious sense selfish, though it is as Socrates says amusing (and a bit cruel), That one realizes who one is in an activity - philosophizing, for example - is also not selfish. Fo instance, as Aristotle says of a good friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, book 7 (it is also in Plato’s Seventh Letter), only a person who has love of self, becomes independent, can truly see another person and thus, wish for a friend’s good. He contrasts these friendships with defective ones of less whole people, those made for the money’s or the status’s sake, which we would rightly call selfish (what is shown in the crying of the philosophy students at Socrates's death is from this point of view, an inability to take in Socrates's good; from another perspective,however, one might think, more wisely, that philosophers, too, are human...). Christianity has superimposed its misunderstanding of this contrast in later Western culture. It has opposed an image of altruism (concern for others) with selfishness so any concern with the self, as Blinn's comment affirms, is ostensibly selfish. In contrast, this now unfortunately lost, ancient insight, most developed in Aristotle, is that a healthy love of self is linked to insight into others, compassion and determined concern for others (real altruism).

It is almost the anniversary of King's assassination and, hence, his words in the "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" deserve emphasis. As King says,

"To a degree academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience."

He speaks of the movement in Birmingham as nonviolent gadflies biting a large and sluggish horse, in the somewhat ridiculous metaphor of the Apology. And he says of blaming the victim for the rapacity of the victor or the tyrants:

"...you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn't this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical delvings precipitated the misguided popular mind to make him drink the hemlock?"

I think King has it right. I think Strauss and the Straussians who ignore this miss the point of the Apology entirely. And I think, in a different way, Blinn does, too.

On Blinn’s second point on what philosophizing means in a democracy (whether Socrates opposes and/or ignores democracy), I do not argue that Socrates or Plato is a democrat. I argue that Socrates and Plato both defend democracy against tyranny (see my three posts on the Republic and going down here, here and here). The city in speech, created by Socrates in dialogue with a few students and listeners, is not an idea elsewhere; it is realized here, in this particular conversation or community, one within the many communities in Athens, just as Socrates speaks to his "true judges" or "men who are judges" (o andres dikastai) those who voted for his acquital at the end of the Apology(40a-c). See here. Action is here and now also (Strauss rightly speaks in the name of his last book, for example, of The Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws, even though he gets it wrong that the Athenian stranger, a pseudo-Socrates who did not take the cup of hemlock, is for Plato a positive example). Socrates is a philosopher-king not to rule over Athens and pervert it into the supposed ideal regime in the Republic, but to do right himself (or with his present and future philosophical companions) in the here and now. Since Socrates, once again, said he did not know what the idea of justice was, the story of the best regime – the tentative story offered by Plato's Socrates in the Republic – is not only not something attributable to Socrates in action - in Athenian life - so far as we know (i.e. not in the Apology or The Clouds, and doubtfully something that either Socrates or Plato thought); it was, once again, just a kind of image or idea of justice in a search for understanding – metaphorically – justice in the soul.

But what the relationship of Socrates and his students, or of Socrates and those who love philosophy, is and requires is to fight for democracy – the regime which includes the many communities, many regimes, and thus, the one of the philosophers– against tyranny. This and not to become the tyrant – for the opposite, see Carl Schmitt, “he is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception,” (the opening sentence of Political Theology, 1923) as well as Strauss (who speaks of "the principles of the Right - fascist, authoritarian, imperial" - letter to Karl Loewith, May, 1933 here) as well as the leading “idea” propagated by the neocons (commander-in-chief or executive power) – see Andrew Sullivan here commenting on C. Bradley Thompson's important book, Neoconservatism: Obituary for an Idea here - was what Socrates and Plato urged their students to do. (In this context, Obama ignoring the Constitution and Congress in launching war with Libya also solidifies American tyranny).

Thus, Demosthenes, Plato's student who was murdered for defending Athens against Alexander, not Aristotle (Alexander’s sycophant) was the Platonic model - he who understood. There is a "which side are you on" question here, and Aristotle, Heidegger, and Strauss, the first two brilliant philosophers, the last Heidegger's and Schmitt’s epigone, but a brilliant scholar) are all on the wrong side (and Heidegger and strangely Strauss, a Jew, pro-Nazi).

Any standard misreading of the Republic a la Popper is misguided, because Socrates stood for a democracy modified by freedom of speech in which there could be many kinds of regime, including that practiced by philosophers. That Plato also emphasizes, somewhat snootily, the putative negative (asses bump up against you in the street) in the Republic, does not mean he preferred regimes in which monsters execute you pretty much wherever you are.

This is relevant today because that America has widely supported tyrannies abroad (and is now, for instance, in Bahrain and Yemen). In Israel, it supports such a regime in the occupied territies, and increasingly – given the dangerous, steadily increasing emergence of Israeli fascism see here - even in Israel itself (currently second class citizenship for Arab Israelis, Knesset spying on human rights organizations, all the treatment of the Palestinians. Socrates plainly and even Plato fought against such things.

Blinn thinks Socrates obeyed a hierarchy: Apollo, the state and the laws.

Now, first, Apollo is the tutelary deity of Socrates’ defense in the Apology. I see no evidence that he is the God more generally referred to by Socrates, or the daimon, Socrates inner voice. I see no evidence that Socrates does not invent the test of the Pythia’s words with which he challeges others, shows they are ignorant while thinking they are not, breeds enmity toward himself...

Second, the "state" is actually the polis. The polis at the time was, at its height, a democratic city (one where citizens ruled and are ruled in turn, in Aristotle's formulation in the Politics). There was no standing army, quartered on the citizens (see Lenin, State and Revolution). There was instead an armed citizenry, centered in the rowers for the navy in the Piraeus. This experience founded the long republican tradition of which the Federalist Papers and Marx’s enthusiasm for the Paris Commune are late examples. Of course, the polis held slaves and was, for the slaves, an exact illustration of the state according to Lenin. But the Paris Commune is the hope to remove both slavery and wage-slavery, to create a real democratic regime which does not, either domestically or internationally, treat others as lesser beings. Republicanism is in a profound sense, democratic in the sense of the polis; it is an anti-state. Put another way, anarchy and republicanism including Marx unite on being anti-state (they differ in terms of social theoretical or empirical claims on what the political community, the anti-state entails or to put it differently, their complex moral and political debates begin from a common, uncontroversial moral starting point and are driven by empirical and social theoretical differences - see my Democratic Individuality).

Tyranny, on the other hand, creates a force of foreign mercenaries to oppress the people (see Xenopohon, Hiero or On Tyranny). Tyranny is like a modern state, over and above the people, and often murders them for gain with insatiable zeal…

The Apology, as I show here, underlines the possibility of modifying the democratic city. Athens could, Socrates says, have had a four day rather than a one day trial for a capital charge (a customary matter rather than a question of natural justice, as Aristotle would later say); it could have allowed Socrates to live out his “scrap of life” as he had lived till 70, and die a natural death; it could have learned to tolerate philosophy or at least not commit the crime of murder against philosophers (Aristotle left Athens to prevent a “second crime” against philosophy).

Interestingly, Plato’s writings are not meant primarily (except the Apology and, to some extent, the Crito) to convince democrats that they should tolerate philosophy. They are meant to convince would-be philosophers, after many struggles and false starts, not to become tyrants or lackeys to tyrants (i.e. Aristotle, Heidegger, and today the neocons and many Straussians). The complex method of writing Plato chose enabled some of initially reactionary sympathies, like the aristocratic boys who followed Socrates or became students in the original Academy, to curb their initial anti-democacy or favoritism to tyranny (see the opening page of the Seventh Letter), to become democrats. Plato’s writings often fail, however, to cure some, even Heidegger and Aristotle.

Thirdly, Blinn invokes the Crito and the speech of the laws. The laws are the highest human thing – the rule of law - except, as Martin Luther King says, unjust ones. Socrates will not obey the unjust decisions about or application of the laws: for instance, forbidding him to ask questions, do philosophy. The laws in the Crito say: obey or persuade us. But as Strauss emphasizes, Socrates would have been killed for challenging the laws in this way. In fact, he was killed at the trial (since he tried to persuade the people – he almost did, a shift of a mere 30 votes out of 500 - but failed). Note again however that the whole emphasis in Plato’s account, contra Strauss, is that Socrates, something surprising to him since he expected death, might have won. Democracy with, say, four days for a trial involving capital punishment, as in other cities or a shift of a few votes, could have done something different and decent. This thought provides a reason to modify unjust laws with what we now call civil disobedience. It holds up or projects an idea or ideal of democracy, even though Athenian democracy disgraced itself with the trial, the verdict and the execution of Socrates.

The arguments given by Socrates in the speech of the laws are faulty: for instance, the discussion that drives out Cephalus in book 1 of the Republic rejects the thought that what is traditional – the word of fathers, and more terrible than fathers, the laws – must be obeyed (see also Aristophanes' The Clouds; it is the point that everyone knew about Socrates, forgotten in his panic by his old friend Crito). This is the beginning of philosophy in the Republic (the discussion with Cephalus is Cephalus prating, not a philosophical argument, not questions and sometimes tentative answers, not a mirror for what Socrates and Plato do, alone, or by themselves, or in philosophical conversation. The discussion is merely relevant to philosophy - Socrates’s questioning, which is actually philosophical, disturbs Cephalus as a symbol of the obscurantist dominance of tradition, drives him out. The discussion is not yet philosophy.

Thus, the speech of the laws persuades Crito who can speak no more, but does not persuade Socrates who has other reasons for his fealty to law which one must think out for oneself. Socrates only in this dialogue tells Crito he can ask more questions, but he will not convince him (he hears the droning murmur of the argument as the Corybants, participants in the mystery religions, hear the flutes: overwhelmingly, comparable as in the mystery religions, to a drug-induced passion, but beyond this), Socrates is further along a path of arguments which the reader is invited, after the silencing of Crito, to consider…

I suggest Socrates’ reason for fealty to the democratic laws of Athens (if modified to give a philosopher a chance to die naturally) is an intrinsic relationship of each person to just or good laws. See here. Just laws are a good thing. As King suggestions in his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," a civil disobedient has the highest respect for just laws. John Rawls offers a profound formulation on civil disobedience, where it is not revolutionary (as it was in Egypt or perhaps in occupying the “State” house in Madison in a fading kind of democracy):

"Civil disobedience is resistance to an unjust law within the context of overall fidelity to law." (see A Theory of Justice, sections 53-59).

This idea in Rawls is modeled on King, but applies resonantly to the Apology and the Crito.

If Socrates's notion is of philosophical kingship as leadership in doing what we call civil disobedience, going to his death for the right (democracy and toleration of philosophy versus tyranny), the difficulty Blinn emphasizes about authoritarianism or what he takes to be philosophical kingship dissolves. But that perhaps requires King to be philosopher-king. He knew a lot about philosophy, had thought seriously about Hegel, but I have no interest in qualifying King as “fully” a philosopher. Nonetheless, leadership based on insights into the right, even “true opinion” in Socrates’s terms, is more than enough to sustain civil disobedience, to make it an incarnation of what Socrates refers to as the idea of justice one might seek. Socrates, one might recall, questions and has no full answers about justice. So perhaps what civil disobedients do is close enough.

Now Blinn is right that Socrates does not normally question for political reasons or to defend democracy (nor does Plato). Philosophy for each of them is a long, complex, ultimately mystical journey (Socrates does not know what death is...see here), winding beyond what is hinted at, at most, in the dialogues. What Socrates does do is rise to the defense of philosophy within democracy against tyranny, including the tyrannical acts of a democracy, hence, Aristotle’s notion of it as a defective regime – ruled in a particular interest – as compared to a polis, which serves a common good. Socrates in the Apology rightly defines what such a democracy could be – its potential toleration of philosophy, a prototype for wider, equal freedom of conscience in the modern sense – against tyranny long ago, and here and now.

Monday, March 28, 2011

On the cave and resistance: a conversation with Blinn Combs, part 1

Blinn Combs wrote three responses to my post on the Apology’s Cave here and here which raise some important differences about what Plato and Socrates think and how to interpret Plato. Roughly, one difference is over whether a flickering invocation of an image in an earlier dialogue - shadows or shadow-boxing in the Apology - reveals or illustrates the same thought as a developed image – the cave metaphor in the Republic - in what we think of a later dialogue. Blinn actually gives more evidence than I of the similarity or literary resonance between the two dialogues, but then argues, in I think in an overly scholarly rather than attentively literary vein, that chronology, as we now understand it, establishes that Plato had only the full idea later on and, I guess, that one shouldn’t be drawn to the mutual resonance (though a comparison may be “independently interesting”).

The more important difference is that Blinn reads the dialogues somewhat differently, emphasizing general philosophical arguments or interpretations which he thinks Plato primarily meant; I tend to think that the actual philosophical and notably political meaning, often not quite on the surface, is given by a whole literary structure and is more difficult to discern, is sometimes a general philosophical point but more often a stance toward life, and in and perhaps for a particular situation as when Socrates decided to go to his death. I think it is easy, even common, to go off on a wrong track with Plato: Heidegger, a brilliant reader of Plato, see here, here, here and here, falls off the cliff into fascism; arguably, Aristotle, another great reader, got Plato wrong with Alexander the Great; and of course, Leo Strauss. My line of thinking takes in Socrates’s comments in Phaedrus, and is concerned with what Plato intended the dialogues to mean for his aristocratic students, who often worked with him for many years in the Academy (Aristotle for some 20) or devoted, in the long future, many years to reading, rereading and figuring out:

"Socrates: Writing Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and it is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak and to whom not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled, it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself."

"…in my opinion, serious discourse about them [justice and similar subjects] is far nobler when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless but yield seed from which there springing up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever and which make their possessor happy, to the furthest possible limit of human happiness.” Plato, Phaedrus, 275d-277a. See here.

I agree with Strauss that hidden writing or the art of writing is important in Plato, but disagree sharply about what it is that is hidden (Strauss’s interpretation is much closer to Blinn’s, makes Plato an anti-democrat simply and even a reactionary or proto-fascist). Socrates and Plato had fierce criticisms of democracy as Blinn thinks. They were not partisans in any obvious sense. But against tyranny including that exercised by democracy, they were fierce opponents. That is what it means to go down. And when tyrants attempted to replace democracy, both Socrates, as the Apology indicates, and more surprisingly, Plato stood up against this. This, of course, is relevant for how a Socrates or Plato might have responded to current imperial and police state trends in America today.

Here is Blinn’s first comment on the article and my initial response and his first rejoinder:

"Random User said...

While I really like the imagery you've used here, there's nothing to suggest the cave metaphor in the Apology. "Skiamachia" is just a Greek term for "shadow-boxing." Of course, the cave metaphor features shadows, too, and it is independently interesting to compare the two scenes; but it is something of a stretch to think that the mere use of the a term denoting shadows must be an allusion to what is, according to all our best assessments, a much later dialogue. I'm also not sure I see the point of your transition from the survival of a just man in politics to current events. Perhaps I'm simply a natural skeptic, but I see no reason to think that *any* well-known historical figure would come close to meeting Socrates' notion of such a figure.

But again, as always, an interesting read. Thanks.

March 12, 2011 8:18 PM"

"Alan Gilbert said...

Thank you very much for the perceptive comments. I didn't know about shadow-boxing as a sport, just took it to be a reference to fighting with shadows. Nonetheless, the accusation of the Old Accusers seems very much the sort of thing that the Republic indicates happens in the cave; Plato is a writer who ties many things together; the fact that "we" think one dialogue was written much later than another does not mean that Plato did not connect one image and another (that seems a pattern in much of his writing, and he is a startlingly literary author). On the transition, King and Gandhi too, inter alia, met deaths in politics for doing the right thing. I was trying to capture a difference between mainstream movements and later satyagraha, inter alia. King and Gandhi saw the connection (and Greek orthodox Christianity makes it strikingly visible for Jesus). I also doubt that Socrates would have found any of them an inadequate candidate to be considered a good man. One might suppose that he favored being a philosopher - and so any politician, even a nonviolent one, would not count. And if one could make such a case, then the connection would only go one way (which would still be striking; King emphasizes it but Strauss and Heidegger, misunderstanding Socrates, do not). But I doubt that Socrates meant that a good man (and any good man who might show up novelly, say a practitioner of nonviolence) must be a philosopher. What do you think is Socrates' sense here?

March 15, 2011 12:14 PM"

"Blinn Combs said...

You're certainly right that there's overlap between the Apology scene and the cave; but the cave is intended as a very general description of the arguments and actions of ordinary people; it will, a fortiori, apply to Socrates' circumstances in the Apology. (He uses the same verb, skiamacheo, tightly connected with dreaming--onar--at Rep.7.520c, to describe current cities very generally). His use is obviously in each instance metaphorical, but a general connection between falsehood or other forms of irreality to shadows, death, and dreaming is a regular feature of Greek thought well before Plato. The opening scene in the Protagoras, for instance, contains clear allusions to Odysseus' venture to the underworld, and uses similar metaphorical language. Further, the katabasis imagery of the cave is very likely of Orphic origin, and Heraclitus famously compared the common lot to somnambulists. Plato was startlingly literary, and there's no reason to suspect that he wouldn't have been able to draw fascinating parallels between the two scenes. My point was merely that there's no reason to suspect that the compresence of shadow-imagery in the two works is by itself sufficient to make a case for conscious allusion. And if our chronologies are even close to correct, such allusion would only be possible via an act of rather late and curious revision. A much simpler explanation is just that shadows are commonly (metaphorically) connected with falsehood and false representation, and trials (metaphorically) with battles; As luck has it, they are. The political point merits separate comment."

In one respect, Blinn’s comment is plainly true. Plato articulated the full story only in the Republic. Further, the image probably goes back to the followers of Orpheus and the underworld as he suggests, and is not distinctively Platonic. Yet in contrast to Blinn, Plato varies every tradition and image. To understand him as a literary figure, one must see how the image changes, magically, as it were in Plato’s hands. He does not simply repeat as Blinn’s comment might suggest; in fact, it is the different way he sees what is well known among Athenians – i.e that politics, in fact, the most intense politics. is often a dream or sleepwalking or shadow-boxing - which gives his stories or myths their particular resonance. In the Republic, a coincident image is of sleep (the daylight world, for Plato, is actually the underworld in which no one but the blind prophet Tiresias sees as in the Odyssey) and waking. See my comments on this in the Meno here and the Symposium here.

Thus, in another respect, Blinn’s comment is doubtful and misses a central point. The trial is a cave, as strikingly in Athens as at any point in Plato’s lifetime. Athens unjustly executed its wise man, Plato’s friend and teacher – and drove, as Plato describes in the Phaedo, all the students to tears (“unmanly” as Socrates suggests; I sent the women home, he says, and notably does not cry*). That execution is the low point of the democracy (it is not the regime which had flourished and long dominated, and in which Socrates had lived for 70 years, but was defeated, finally, in the Peloponnesian War in 404 bc; the trial and execution of Socrates were 5 years latter, in 399 bc). If this is not the real cave or realm of shadows or underworld Plato was thinking of in the Republic - the metaphor already resonant in the Apology - there is no example…

The cave was also, for Plato, the Athenian defeat in the quarries of Syracuse as my student Rich Rockwell has shown. And that suggests, contra Blinn, that Socrates and Plato did think a lot about how imperial democracy, through crazed expansion as Thucydides suggests, would die. But this paradigm, though very important, was a less significant example for Plato than the trial and certainly not one that governs every dialogue (forget the trial and execution of Socrates and few dialogues will make any sense to you; this is the context of every word Plato wrote). Yes, as Blinn and I both think, Plato is an amazing literary or poetic figure (good at stories, not only at argument). He had some semi-conscious if not self-aware (though it may have been) understanding that Socrates in the Apology goes into the cave. Blinn assumes that the point of the story in the Republic is a general argument about the way all ordinary people are with regard to justice. He is not wrong that this is an implication – and he puts it very well – but it was not, for Plato, the point. The metaphor of the cave is about what happens to Socrates, or a philosopher, who goes down. What happened with Socrates – who had risked death as he says in the Apology under the Tyranny of the Thirty and thus sided with the democrats, and yet the Athenian democrats then put him to death, incensed Plato (my considered guess as to who the writer was) at the beginning of the Seventh Letter. What happened to Socrates is a theme of every dialogue (hardly cancelled by the Phaedo’s metaphor that a philosopher apprentices to learn how to die, to free his soul from his body, though he must not commit suicide, a quasi-Xenophonian view). The cave metaphor is already there strikingly in the Apology. Though the full tale, plainly referring to the philosopher who goes down, sees more sharply than other citizens, but is profoundly threatening to leaders, misunderstood, slandered, tortured, and put to death (the Republic), is written down fully later by Plato, it is not different…

*Socrates (and Plato) also learn about the idea of love and beauty from Diotima in the Symposium, and imagine women as guardians. So Socrates is quite mixed on his vision of women (though it is also not incidental that the men turn out to be “women” at Socrates’ death….).

Friday, March 25, 2011

Poem: Memphis

what


is

low

is
I haveseen

lifted

storm y
soakstheLor rain e

promised

I may not get ther e

what is low



Ihaveseen

ever yvalley


lifte d

w i t hyou

camethet h u n d e r


up

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Monsters to destroy

War is a pleasure party for kings and tyrants, Immanuel Kant suggested in 1795.* He or she can waste the lives and wellbeing of subjects, frivolously, at whim. The hope of a republic (or a democracy) is that an informed citizenry can decide, after debate, whether to engage in war. The likelihood is that those faced with the loss of their own or of their loved ones’ lives and with paying the costs, would only engage in wars of evident self-defense against aggression. In accord with Kant and the enlightenment, the American Constitution vests in Congress the power to declare war. Even candidate Obama said the President must react swiftly only in cases of self-defense. But as John Quincy Adams warned,** and Steve Walt below underlines, Obama now flails out in search of monsters to destroy:

"When you have a big hammer the whole world looks like a nail; when you have thousand of cruise missiles and smart bombs and lots of B-2s and F-18s, the whole world looks like a target set. The United States doesn't get involved everywhere that despots crack down on rebels (as our limp reaction to the crackdowns in Yemen and Bahrain demonstrate), but lately we always seems to doing this sort of thing somewhere. Even a smart guy like Barack Obama couldn't keep himself from going abroad in search of a monster to destroy."

Obama has abandoned this broad tradition of democratic thinking and his role as a Constitutional or democratic leader in deciding, all by himself, to "join in" or, in reality, lead the multilateral air attack on Libya.

There is a long tradition of disdain for ordinary people in the elite, revealed in imperial/Presidential going to war. Candidate Obama rightly feared “dumb wars” like the one in Iraq (humanitarian justifications there were not to the fore, mainly lies about "wmds" and Saddam’s supposed ties to Al-Qaida). In Between Two Ages: America's role in the Technotronic Era, written 40 years ago, before becoming President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski talked about keeping the people out of politics and identified the vast American empire of bases abroad:

"There are more than a million American troops stationed on some four hundred major and almost three thousand minor United States military bases scattered around the globe." (p 32; h/t Aaron Ferreira).

By this standard, the invisible empire of American militarism or the war complex – invisible to American citizens - has today shrunk to 1280 bases (see Nick Turse here, Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, ch. 6 and here). But this is huge and once again, growing. Further, the US government has a long history of backing tyranny in the Middle East, arming Mubarak in Egypt with $1.3 billion per year of American military equipment for 29 years, for example, or the murderous dictatorship in Bahrain exercised over a Shia majority. Bahrain is home to the American 5th fleet and American-armed Saudi proxies just marched in...

That fleet along with the 6th (stationed in Rota in Spain here) just moved into position to fire off tomahawk missiles at Libya (at 3/4 of a million dollars per missile and 81 missiles the first day, $86 million for this alone – see below). Supposedly, the US is taking a secondary role to France – first air strikes in to stop Ghadhafi’s forces from reaching Benghazi – and Britain. Admiral Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that the US and Britain had jointly launched missiles, but it turned out, under questions from the press, that Britain had only one submarine…

This strike is more multilateral than “the Coalition of the Willing” - more like Bush the first, whom campaigner Obama identified with - but not much, especially with no active Arab input and immediate Arab chafing (Amr Moussa, head of the compliant Arab League of tyrants, waffled the first day...).

I used to suggest satirically that W. should send a couple of thousand troops to Darfur. It would be perceived, to some extent. as an imperial exercise by Africans, but also a) it would save innocent lives from mass murder, and b) there was no obvious imperial interest like oil. Such an intervention would at least confuse the rest of the world about the belligerent (unilateralist), oil-hungry, and feckless (didn’t even control the oil, bankrupted the country and threw millions into joblessness, foreclosure and poverty) policies of the American government But imperial authoritarians, Bush and Cheney, unwisely had little care in how they were perceived: do what we say for the next 20 years or we will blow you up right now; Bolton, the UN ambassador, added that it might be good to “blow ten stories off the UN” as well…

In his campaign and Presidency, Obama sought to correct this by returning to negotiations and moving with a genuine coalition and, in this case, some respect for international law (American murders by drone missile in Pakistan, by way of contrast, have none…). Security Council approval, though with five abstentions out of 15 including Germany (one of the leading opponents of the Iraq war), seemed to give this air invasion an aura of legitimacy. In addition, Obama chose Samantha Power as an advisor because she urged a new moral bent to American wars. The US government must intervene to protect the innocent, as it failed to do, under Clinton, in Rwanda. Her book, A Problem from Hell, bizarrely leaves out vast American military aid to Saddam Hussein, treating his genocide toward the Kurds as a local problem. The poison gas with which Saddam murdered ome 1,500 people at Halabja was provided to him, in exchange for cash, by the United States; much American foreign “aid” and diplomacy – including some 6,500 people employed by embassies abroad according to Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback, is part of furthering the war complex’s arms sales around the globe.

Power describes Romeo Dallaire, the heroic General in charge of UN troops in Rwanda who defied Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali's obscene order to withdraw, calling a Clinton official about aid to prevent genocide toward the Tutsi (as well as Hutu moderates), and getting the following, abhorrent comment: “One American casualty is worth 85,000 Rwandan lives.” See here on Dallaire. This remark reflected Clinton-covering himself politically after the debacle in Somalia. But note how much like Bush and Rumsfeld – the Pentagon did not keep track of Iraqis murdered or displaced - this Clintonian statement is. 1 American life is worth an unknown but vast number of Iraqi lives. Bush and my student Condi did not claim at the time that it was a humanitarian intervention; such ratios make such claims farcical…

Like Obama, Power opposed the Iraq aggression (it was one step too far, built simply on lies). But she and Obama agree that America should not value the lives of its soldiers in terms of a multitude of other - one might say nonwhite, though many Americans who serve are also nonwhite – lives.*** The international community has increasingly recognized a “responsibility to protect.” As a friend of mine who writes on US foreign policy recently note about my last post (here):

"Dear Alan,

A small note re your post on the Goldhagen debate: the phrase is 'the responsibility to protect' (referred to in shorthand as R2P or RtoP), not 'the right to protect'. R2P is contained in the 'Outcome Document' of the 2005 UN World Summit, paras. 138 and 139. As Michael Doyle notes (in "International Ethics and the Responsibility to Protect," International Studies Review 13:1, March 2011), the Outcome Document is a General Assembly resolution and thus is a recommendation rather than a "binding international law obligation on the Security Council." Hence R2P does not revolutionize international law, but the fact that Ban Ki-Moon cited it in connection with the Libya resolution is nonetheless significant, I think.

L”

Obama was no anti-imperialist. He did not intend to wean, and does not see the necessity, even in the midst of a depression, of weaning America from militarism. But he did aim to give a new and genuine moral component to American war policy.

In the Libya decision, Obama was initially – for sound reasons probably, not wanting America to co-opt, pervert and make an enemy of the cause of Arab democracy – against attacking. But several advisors, notably Power and UN ambassador Susan Rice, joined by Hillary Clinton, urged military action to save lives. And Obama did in Benghazi. That was, taken by itself, a good thing. Ghadhafi is a murderous tyrant (the rebels are for him “outsider Al-Qaida” forces as Jon Lee Anderson discovers here.

But curiously, Obama slipped into an alliance with the neocons (for whom no American aggression or slaughter is ever unjustified, even the murderous debacle in Iraq no reason to think that the US is not a “benevolent” hegemon, and in official Washington and the corporate media, they continue, no matter how many times wrong, to be welcomed as “experts”). Obama here did something good (as Bob Kagan, close to a war criminal on Iraq, nonetheless did in his early support for a very limited Egyptian democracy). But Steve Walt aptly emphasizes below the close kinship of the neocons and the liberal think-tankers and advisors – the neo-neo-cons. They are two sides of the same thuggish, militarist and self-destructive coin…

In the larger context internationally, the US could intervene in Libya as opposed to Bahrain where the decadent tyranny is slaughtering protestors or Yemen because its military aid and ties to Khadhafy are recent and slight. The partial or somewhat good impression Obama hopes to create in the Middle East, comes from the fact that the US isn’t just seeking oil as in Iraq, is not just expanding its military bases, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, has not just sunk 1.3 billion per year in military aid for 29 years, into the military as in Egypt. Here is America, and the international community exercising the responsibility to protect. It is not as good for this purpose as my satirical suggestion about Darfur and Bush once was - Libya, and in fact, Benghazi have oil - but it saves lives. In this respect, Obama decided to make a new precedent: to use American power, in a multilateral intervention, to do something good.

Now the African union had opposed any military strike against Ghadhafi. But the Arab League had called for it. So seemingly the coalition was broad enough to sustain this invasion as something other than a Western imperial exercise. Seemingly – the Arab League dropped out after the first missile strikes and reports of civilian casualties (see Andrew Sullivan’s comment on Hilary Clinton’s warmongering two days ago: dumb, dumb dumb dumb - though unlike her role in Egypt here, this was, if deeply misguided, at least a gesture at decency...). Of course, Arab tyrants and their lackeys are not the people making Arab spring...

In addition, the Sunni tyrant in Bahrain is viciously suppressing the majority Shia population, even tearing down the monument in Pearl Square because it symbolizes the demonstrations. He is joined by 1000 troops and arms from Saudi Arabia, where the center of the world’s oil supply and the biggest tyrant, is quivering. Those troops are American armed (see Obama's "success." the recent $65 billion in arms sales, subsidized by American tax payers, to King Abdullah). In Egypt, Obama had finally turned against Clinton (the last supporter of Mubarak) to support the “power of nonviolence” in an eloquent speech about Mubarak's fall. See here.

He perhaps sees that praise of nonviolence and democracy, his warnings against tyrants shooting civilians, the right of people to assemble freely, and the Tomahawks sent against Libya as simply of a piece. Out of context, they are. He can say to himself – I am a decent President, better than the alternatives (not hard when the competition is Bush or Cheney or Hilary or Palin or Romney or Pawlenty…). But he is not a wise or transformational President (he could have been) who provides the leadership, even from an American elite standpoint, that this dangerous situation requires.

In context, Obama goes against Ghadhafi, whom America had not armed to the teeth or tolerated until 2003. Ghadhafi, unlike Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, is thus not a major American client as every person in the Middle East knows. The United States still arms to the teeth corrupt dictators like the Saudi rulers or the tyrant in Bahrain or in Yemen or the generals in Egypt (it remains to be seen what they will do, although the referendum two days ago was a heartening step toward parliamentary democracy) all over the region. It has escalated a hopeless war in Afghanistan, murdering 9 little boys while “General” Petraeus blames their mothers for putting them – gathering wood for their families – in the US army’s way (that Petraeus has not been forced swiftly to resign for this bit of grostesque racism by Obama is perhaps the ultimate testimony to American militarism and decadence****). But the bombing of Ghadhafy’s forces will not confuse most Arabs who are fighting for democracy. Only firm action toward stopping Israeli harms toward the Palestinians in the occupied territories could really change some minds about America in the Middle East (see here and here). The impression American imperial militarism – one has but to look at the fifth fleet off Bahrain, the sixth fleet off Spain – creates in Arabs, and for that matter Europeans, is strong, justifiably frightening and angering, and will not easily be altered.

Now a danger in this multilateral Western attack is to curtail or even reverse Arab uprisings for democracy. Fortunately, the Tunisian and Egyptian people, who overturned two American/French supported dictatorships, are not easily turned around (Sarkozy’s "leading" of war in Libya is linked to his government’s disgraceful support, until the very end, for the Tunisian tyrant Ben Ali). But Arab spring is continuing in Yemen. There the dictator Saleh had 59 protestors murdered in Sana'a last Friday. As a result, the military chief Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar came over to support the people as did many soldiers (see below):

"Anti-government protesters based at Sana'a University were ecstatic to hear of the general's defection. Soldiers moved freely in and out of the protest camp, drinking tea, posing for photographs and receiving kisses from demonstrators who have camped there for more than a month demanding a change in regime."

Yesterday, according to the BBC, Saleh announced he would resign and have parliamentary elections. This is like Mubarak’s attempt to hang on in Egypt. Class struggle and democracy from below are having their way with tyrants despite the interests and efforts of the “world’s greatest” military belligerent. Martin Luther King was right in his speech April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church to speak of" my government, the most violent in the world." He said that of Lyndon Johnson who had been a leading proponent of civil rights (someone King had mistakenly supported in 1964 against the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, but here broke with) and he might well say it of Obama now. But ordinary people, and democracy, today in Yemen, are changing the face of the Middle East.

In addition, as I emphasize in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, there is a profound anti-democratic feedback at home from American wars. Obama has now strengthened the American tyranny created by Bush and Cheney: trashing the Constitution and the rule of law. As Glenn Greenwald here and Andrew Sullivan both emphasize, the debate about going to war was of Obama’s advisors and Obama. No effort was made to persuade the American public that another war in the Middle East was a good thing. Obama just promised to be out in days (perhaps this is a self-delusion; such attacks are never short). Some may respond to the decency of saving lives, given the short time frame, if there is no long aftermath. But Obama’s utter inattention politically or as a democratic or constitutional leader is shocking. Among liberals like Kucinich who called for his impeachment as well as serious conservatives, he is isolated. Few support the way he did the war, except the neocons who arrogantly chortle that he is now a hesitant supporter of their imperial dementia. In the US, this new war,unless the US presence ends swiftly, gives signs of being a political disaster for Obama (that he is a thoughtful Sarah Palin or John McCain or Hillary Clinton will not help him in the next election…).

One might add: there is already a depression. Americans cannot afford the $81 million of tomahawk missiles sent up Saturday, let alone the billions in getting them there, basing, and the already two losing occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the aggression in Pakistan...The Republicans stand for extreme authoritarianism for a tiny capitalist elite – the union busting of the Koch Brothers, the Chamber of Commerce and Scott Walker, a sort of unreconstructed Scrooge on steroids. The latter now alone make Obama promising for reelection, though one might add: why does Obama fire missiles and do nothing except cautious statements about the firing of teachers?

As in Cairo, the people have protested in Wisconsin, and are now demonstrating in Michigan and Ohio and Denver (big labor demonstrations on the theme "We are One" are called for April 4, and I will speak at one at Metro at noon joining janitors from the SEIU, AFSCME, immigrants rights groups advocating for the right of young people born and/or schooled in America to go to college, other AFL-CIO unions, and students and teachers…It will honor and recall Martin Luther King).

But now Obama has launched yet another war. Yes, there are some people saved (if America can get out quickly, the no fly zone may prove a decent, though politically unviable thing). But if the war goes on as is likely, the issue of the pain – and widespread opposition to all the wars – will come to the fore against Obama. The imperial President acted, listening to his advisors, and ignoring the American public. Catering to militarism is a tight rope, and Obama seems in this respect, to have, unacrobatically, flopped off (Obama is not arrogant or lordly, but the hubris of being President has gone, in this respect, to his head, too).

More deeply, in England, Prime Minister David Cameron took his decision to go to war two days ago to Parliament. Obama is in Brazil. Democracy, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are now things America urges on others, having increasingly, even under Obama, abandoned them (Note collective bargaining is sanctioned under UN agreements as a leading example of freedom of association, the highest law of the land (the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, Article 6 section 2, also makes treaties signed by the United States, the highest American law). Collective bargaining has long rightly been urged on others as in Reagan's support of Lech Walesa and the Polish solidarity; yet American "Governors" can operate against the law and decency and US foreign policy in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey and survive for at least a time in the corporate media.

Bradley Manning is now being tortured by Obama. See here and Jack Balkin on the National Surveillance State here. Sadly, Obama's moves are a degeneration or further emergence of the American police state, even compared to the corrupt doctrine of “state secrets” put forward previously by the administration. Fortunately, in a triumph of civil rights, a three judge appellate court ruled unanimously that a suit to go forward against the FISA amendments' vast expansion of warrantless government investigation of emails and telephone calls of Americans. That court is playing its role in checks and balances, moving, to an extent. to restore the rule of law. But in contrast to his campaign, Obama is now no friend of the rule of law; he is actively subverting the separation of powers. See Greenwald here.

Bill Mckibben wrote a powerful article in the Guardian this weekend on the fragility of our technology and the dangers, as we continue in the same path, to the planet (below). Ian jared Miller, who taught in Japan, emphasized in "Bitter Legacy, Injured Coast" in Sunday's New York Times the weakness of all of Japan’s sophisticated technological preparation against earthquakes and tsunamis here. He describes the beaches named for the Pure Land of Buddhism because of their beauty. He describes reaching with his young students the marker, high in the mountains over the coast, where the 1896 tsunami reached. In 1986, he points out, technology protected against a tsunami. This month it did not, and the nuclear plant managers, to preseve them, did not act swiftly to prevent the fuel rods from being exposed, burning off the sea, releasing radiation into the atmosphere. All the comments from Japan in the Times, though some indicate the great resoluteness and creativity of the Japanese people, also underline this arrogance. See James Carroll's "Silent Spring" here.

Obama once promised to do something about global warming. Now he does little except position himself (against horrifying opponents) to be reelected. But can the world survive endless American militarism even if, once in a while, it is used, in part, for humanitarian purposes? The oil flooding the Gulf from BP was last year’s news. Today it is radiation from Japan. In this context, even if multilateral military efforts to protect lives succeed, will this make American militarism, stumbling blindly toward collapse, survivable?

Tunisia and Egypt and Madion, and the demonstrations in Missouri, Ohio, and Michigan are all – whether reported or not in the corporate press – harbingers of a renewed international democratic movement. But the dangers of imperial arrogance – the increasing police state mode – of “the world’s greatest democracy,” even headed by Obama (I would still emphasize what his promise meant) coupled with the increasing destructiveness of technology – the sorcerer’s apprentice fairy tale, or in Heidegger’s idiom, the “standing reserve,” which is now increasingly out of control – are frightening.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 by The Independent/UK
Yemen's President on Brink as Army Switches Sides to Join Rebels
After Friday's massacre of 52 protesters, military is now lining up tanks to protect crowds calling for end of 32-year reign
by Jeb Boone in Sana'a

Yemen's embattled President was hit by a wave of defections among his generals yesterday as tanks from rival factions took to the streets of the capital in a setback to his attempts to stay in power.

The regime vowed to counter any attempts at a coup after the country's top military commander switched sides and joined the protesters calling for end to the 32-year rule of Ali Saleh.

President Saleh appeared increasingly isolated after some ambassadors, religious and tribal leaders and sections of the military all turned on him. The military defections put more than 50 per cent of the military on the side of the rebellion.

Anti-government protesters based at Sana'a University were ecstatic to hear of the general's defection. Soldiers moved freely in and out of the protest camp, drinking tea, posing for photographs and receiving kisses from demonstrators who have camped there for more than a month demanding a change in regime.

The defections appeared to be in response to the regime's decision to use increased violence to fight protests against President Saleh's rule. Rooftop-based snipers loyal to the regime killed 52 protesters on Friday, prompting the President to sack his cabinet and declare a state of emergency.

The top commander, Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a former close ally of the President, yesterday condemned the Saleh regime and declared his support for the revolution on behalf of the military. "Repressing peaceful demonstrators in public areas around the country has led to a cycle of crises which is getting more complicated each day and pushing the country towards civil war," he said.

The general's forces on Sunday took up positions around a protest camp at Sana'a University. Once in position, he declared that his men would now protect the anti-government protesters from further attack. The general also sent tanks to the central bank and other strategic centres.

Following the defection, the Defence Minister, Mohammad Nasser Ali, claimed that the army still backed the President. "We will not allow an attempt at a coup against democracy and constitutional legitimacy, or violation of the security of the nation and citizens," he said.

An elite military force of Republican Guards led by the President's son and one-time heir apparent deployed tanks and armoured vehicles outside the presidential palace.

However, many feel that General Ali Muhsin's defection means the end of the Saleh regime. "There is a 60 per cent chance that this will become a bloodless coup," said one Yemeni government official.

Protesters were jubilant. "The army is with us. Praise God," said one, speaking on a stage at the university camp.

One soldier loyal to General Ali Muhsin guarding the protest camp wore a sash over his uniform that read: "For a better democratic society." Another rallied thousands of protesters, chanting: "Long live Yemen and long live the people's revolution."

Muhammad Qa'id, a 32-year-old unemployed teacher, said: "We welcome Ali Muhsin and his men to the revolution. They are not joining us as the army but simply as Yemenis joining hands with their brothers in revolution."

The defection forced a hasty reappraisal of General Ali Muhsin's role. The general's portrait had hung alongside photos and cartoons of President Saleh and other ruling party officials on the side of a tent and labelled: "criminals". Protesters yesterday scrambled to remove his picture from the line-up.

"If he wants to play a major part in a new Yemen, he can," said Adel al-Sarabi, one of the student organisers of the Sana'a University sit in.

The French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppé, yesterday became the first Western leader to call publicly for the President to stand down.

"We say this to Yemen, where the situation is worsening. We estimate today that the departure of President Saleh is unavoidable," he said.

David Cameron told Parliament yesterday that he was "extremely disturbed" by what was happening in Yemen. Western countries are concerned about the unrest in Yemen given the absence of a clear alternative leader and their view of the President as a bulwark against al-Qa'ida in the Arabian peninsula.


What intervention in Libya tells us about the neocon-liberal alliance
Posted By Stephen M. Walt Monday, March 21, 2011 - 11:16 AM

Last Wednesday I spoke at an event at Hofstra University, on the subject of "Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." The other panelists were former DNC chair and 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean and longtime Republican campaign guru Ed Rollins. The organizers at Hofstra were efficient and friendly, the audience asked good questions, and I thought both Dean and Rollins were gracious and insightful in their comments. All in all, it was a very successful session.

During the Q & A, I talked about the narrowness of foreign policy debate in Washington and the close political kinship between the liberal interventionists of the Democratic Party and the neoconservatives that dominate the GOP. At one point, I said that "liberal inteventionists are just ‘kinder, gentler' neocons, and neocons are just liberal interventionsts on steroids."

Dean challenged me rather forcefully on this point, declaring that there was simply no similarity whatsoever between a smart and sensible person like U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and a "crazy guy" like Paul Wolfowitz. (I didn't write down Dean's exact words, but I am certain that he portrayed Wolfowitz in more-or-less those terms). I responded by listing all the similarites between the two schools of thought, and the discussion went on from there.

I mention this anecdote because I wonder what Dean would say now. In case you hadn't noticed, over the weekend President Obama took the nation to war against Libya, largely on the advice of liberal interventionists like Ambassador Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and NSC aides Samantha Power and Michael McFaul. According to several news reports I've read, he did this despite objections from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance. Both groups extol the virtues of democracy, both groups believe that U.S. power -- and especially its military power -- can be a highly effective tool of statecraft. Both groups are deeply alarmed at the prospect that WMD might be in the hands of anybody but the United States and its closest allies, and both groups think it is America's right and responsibility to fix lots of problems all over the world. Both groups consistently over-estimate how easy it will be to do this, however, which is why each has a propensity to get us involved in conflicts where our vital interests are not engaged and that end up costing a lot more than they initially expect.

So if you're baffled by how Mr. "Change You Can Believe In" morphed into Mr. "More of the Same," you shouldn't really be surprised. George Bush left in disgrace and Barack Obama took his place, but he brought with him a group of foreign policy advisors whose basic world views were not that different from the people they were replacing. I'm not saying their attitudes were identical, but the similarities are probably more important than the areas of disagreement. Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn't really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.

So where does this leave us? For starters, Barack Obama now owns not one but two wars. He inherited a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and he chose to escalate instead of withdrawing. Instead of being George Bush's mismanaged blunder, Afghanistan became "Obama's War." And now he's taken on a second, potentially open-ended military commitment, after no public debate, scant consultation with Congress, without a clear articulation of national interest, and in the face of great public skepticism. Talk about going with a gut instinct.

When the Security Council passed Resolution 1973 last week and it was clear we were going to war, I credited the administration with letting Europe and the Arab League take the lead in the operation. My fear back then, however, was that the Europeans and Arab states would not be up to the job and that Uncle Sucker would end up holding the bag. But even there I gave them too much credit, insofar as U.S. forces have been extensively involved from the very start, and the Arab League has already gone wobbly on us. Can anyone really doubt that this affair will be perceived by people around the world as a United States-led operation, no matter what we say about it?

More importantly, despite Obama's declaration that he would not send ground troops into Libya -- a statement made to assuage an overcommitted military, reassure a skeptical public, or both -- what is he going to do if the air assault doesn't work? What if Qaddafi hangs tough, which would hardly be surprising given the dearth of attractive alternatives that he's facing? What if his supporters see this as another case of illegitimate Western interferences, and continue to back him? What if he moves forces back into the cities he controls, blends them in with the local population, and dares us to bomb civilians? Will the United States and its allies continue to pummel Libya until he says uncle? Or will Obama and Sarkozy and Cameron then decide that now it's time for special forces, or even ground troops?

And even if we are successful, what then? As in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, over forty years of Qaddafi's erratic and despotic rule have left Libya in very poor shape despite its oil wealth. Apart from some potentially fractious tribes, the country is almost completely lacking in effective national institutions. If Qaddafi goes we will own the place, and we will probably have to do something substantial to rebuild it lest it turn into an exporter of refugees, a breeding ground for criminals, or the sort of terrorist "safe haven" we're supposedly trying to prevent in Afghanistan.

But the real lesson is what it tells us about America's inability to resist the temptation to meddle with military power. Because the United States seems so much stronger than a country like Libya, well-intentioned liberal hawks can easily convince themselves that they can use the mailed fist at low cost and without onerous unintended consequences. When you have a big hammer the whole world looks like a nail; when you have thousand of cruise missiles and smart bombs and lots of B-2s and F-18s, the whole world looks like a target set. The United States doesn't get involved everywhere that despots crack down on rebels (as our limp reaction to the crackdowns in Yemen and Bahrain demonstrate), but lately we always seems to doing this sort of thing somewhere. Even a smart guy like Barack Obama couldn't keep himself from going abroad in search of a monster to destroy.

And even if this little adventure goes better than I expect, it's likely to come back to haunt us later. One reason that the Bush administration could stampede the country to war in Iraq was the apparent ease with which the United States had toppled the Taliban back in 2001. After a string of seeming successes dating back to the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. leaders and the American public had become convinced that the Pentagon had a magic formula for remaking whole countries without breaking a sweat. It took the debacle in Iraq and the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan to remind us of the limits of military power, and it seems to have taken Obama less than two years on the job to forget that lesson. We may get reminded again in Libya, but if we don't, the neocon/liberal alliance will be emboldened and we'll be more likely to stumble into a quagmire somewhere else.

And who's the big winner here? Back in Beijing, China's leaders must be smiling as they watch Washington walk open-eyed into another potential quagmire.

Wars: Not Cheap
Andrew Sullivan 21 MAR 2011 09:02 AM

Exum does some math:

A Tomahawk Missile cost $569,000 in FY99, so if my calculations are correct, they cost a little over $736,000 today assuming they are the same make and model. The United States fired 110 missiles [Saturday], which adds up to a cost of around $81 million.


Sunday, March 20, 2011 by The Guardian/UK
Japan's Horror Reveals How Thin is the Edge We Live On
Climate change may not be responsible for the tsunami, but it is shrinking our margin of safety. It is time to shrink back ourselves
by Bill McKibben

It's scary to watch the video from Japan, and not just because of the frightening explosions at the Fukushima plant or the unstoppable surge of tsunami-wash through the streets. It's almost as unnerving to see the aftermath – the square miles of rubble, with boats piled on cars; the completely bare supermarket shelves. Because the one thing we've never really imagined is going to the supermarket and finding it empty.

What the events reveal is the thinness of the margin on which modernity lives. There's not a country in the world more modern and civilised than Japan; its building codes and engineering prowess kept its great buildings from collapsing when the much milder quake in Haiti last year flattened everything. But clearly it's not enough. That thin edge on which we live, and which at most moments we barely notice, provided nowhere near enough buffer against the power of the natural world.

We're steadily narrowing the margin. Global warming didn't cause the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Miyagi coast, but global warming daily is shrinking the leeway on which civilisation everywhere depends. Consider: sea levels have begun to rise. We're seeing record temperatures that depress harvests – the amount of grain per capita on the planet has been falling for years. Because warm air holds more water vapour than cold, the chance of severe flooding keeps going up and in the last year countries from Pakistan to Australia have recently ended up on the wrong side of those odds.

Those changes steadily eat away at that safety margin. With less food stored in our warehouses, each harvest becomes critical. With each massive flood, we have to spend more money rebuilding what was there before: there are still as many as 4 million homeless from Pakistan's floods, which means "development" has given way to "getting a tarp over your head". Even rich countries face this trouble: Australia cut much of its budget for renewable energy to help pay the recovery bill for soggy Queensland. Warmer temperatures are helping dengue fever spread; treating one case can use up the annual health budget for a dozen people in some Asian nation, meaning that much less for immunisations or nutrition. Just the increasing cost of insurance can be a big drag on economies: a study by Harvard and Swiss Re found that even in rich nations such as the US, larger and more frequent storms could "overwhelm adaptive capacities", rendering "large areas and sectors uninsurable". The bottom line was that, "in effect, parts of developed countries would experience developing nation conditions for prolonged periods".

There have always been natural disasters, and there always will be. For 10,000 years the planet has been by and large benign; you could tell where the safe margin for civilisation was because that's, by definition, where civilisation was built. But if the sea level rises a metre, that margin shrinks considerably: on a beach that slopes in at 1 degree, the sea is now nearly 90 metres nearer. And it's not just a literal shrinkage – the insecurity that comes with smaller food stocks or more frequent floods also takes a psychological toll: the world seems more cramped because it is more cramped.

We can try to deal with this in two ways. One is to attempt to widen it with more technology. If the Earth's temperature is rising, maybe we could "geoengineer" the planet, tossing sulphur into the atmosphere in an effort to block incoming sunlight. It's theoretically possible. But researchers warn it could do more harm than good, and maybe this isn't the week to trust the grandest promises of engineers, not when they've all but lost control of the highest technology we've ever built, there on the bluff at Fukushima. The other possibility is to try to build down a little: to focus on resilience, on safety. And to do that – here's the controversial part – instead of focusing on growth. We might decide that the human enterprise (at least in the west) has got big enough, that our appetites need not to grow, but to shrink a little, in order to provide us more margin. What would that mean? Buses and bikes and trains, not SUVs. Local food, with more people on the farm so that muscles replace some of the oil. Having learned that banks are "too big to fail", we might guess that our food and energy systems fall into that same category.

Imagine, for instance, a nation that got most of its power from rooftop solar panels knitted together in a vast distributed grid. It would take investment to get there – we'd have to divert money from other tasks, slowing some kinds of growth, because solar power is currently more expensive than coal power. We might not have constant access to unlimited power at every second of every day. In the end, though, you'd have not only less carbon in the atmosphere, but also a country far less failure-prone. The solar panels on my roof could break tonight – and I'd have a problem if they did – but it wouldn't ramify into rolling blackouts across the continent (and no one would need to stand in my driveway with a Geiger counter). Such changes wouldn't make the world safe: climatologists promise us we've already put enough carbon out there to raise our planet's temperature two degrees in the decades to come, which will make for a miserably difficult century. But they also promise that if we don't stop burning coal and oil, that number will double, and miserable will become impossible.

With Japan's horror still unfolding, there's nothing to do for the moment except watch, pray, and try to find some small ways to help people caught up in forces beyond their control. But the lesson we should learn, perhaps, is that it's time to back off a little. Suddenly squat and plain words – "durable", "stable", "robust" – sound sweeter to the ear.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, co-founder of 350.org, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book is Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

*“The republican constitution, besides the purity of its origin (having sprung from the pure source of the concept of law), also gives a favorable prospect for the desired consequence, i.e., perpetual peace. The reason is this: if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared (and in this constitution it cannot but be the case), nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war. Among the latter would be: having to fight, having to pay the costs of war from their own resources, having painfully to repair the devastation war leaves behind, and, to fill up the measure of evils, load themselves with a heavy national debt that would embitter peace itself and that can never be liquidated on account of constant wars in the future. But, on the other hand, in a constitution which is not republican, and under which the subjects are not citizens, a declaration of war is the easiest thing in the world to decide upon, because war does not require of the ruler, who is the proprietor and not a member of the state, the least sacrifice of the pleasures of his table, the chase, his country houses, his court functions, and the like. He may, therefore, resolve on war as on a pleasure party for the most trivial reasons, and with perfect indifference leave the justification which decency requires to the diplomatic corps who are ever ready to provide it.” – Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” 1795

** In 1821, John Quincy Adams gave this remarkable warning:

"And now, friends and countrymen, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of mutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind? Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama [the potter's field in which Judas was buried] the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit....

[America's] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice."

Or consider John Jay writing in Federalist, 4:

"But the safety of the people of America against dangers from foreign force depends not only on their forbearing to give just causes of war to other nations, but also on their placing and continuing themselves in such a situation as not to invite hostility or insult; for it need not be observed that there are pretended as well as just causes of war."

"It is too true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it; nay, absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans. These and a variety of other motives, which affect only the mind of the sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people."

***The American government forces blacks, through poverty, disproportionately, into the military and onto the front lines as in Nam. The observation is a case of US elite racism toward Americans and greater racism, toward Rwandans.

****It is of a piece with General Westmoreland's infamous statement that the Vietnamese "do not value human life." Only a genocidal American general, I guess, knows the value of a human life...

Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan - the aggression is as nakedly murderous and racist now as then. Petraeus is a competitor for becoming a war criminal many times over. See here. He will be lucky, if historically speaking, he and his statement are forgotten.