Anarchism / barbarism / terrorism: ISIS and Europe

To me, it is impossible not to look at the horrors of the past few weeks as history. As soon as they happen, they join a long train of horrors stretching back to the beginning of recorded history.

It is said that there are two types of racist: those who recognize their racism and those who don’t. I think it is the same with barbarism: there are peoples who recognize the barbarities in their history and those who don’t. It’s hard; the very word, derived from the ancient Greek term for the Other, implies that we ourselves are not capable of it.

It is tempting to see Western Europe as a traditional champion of civilization and humanitarianism. Because I’ve been reading Colleen McCullough’s massive series on the last century of Republican Rome, let me mention that the Romans–founders of the Western world– were inordinately fond of crucifixion to execute individuals of lower rank, particularly slaves, including thousands of followers of Spartacus after the slave revolt was finally put down in 71 BC.

Like the Romans, our former colonial masters, the British, traditionally had what was regarded as a more dignified punishment for the nobility: beheading, as opposed to hanging. If you’ve seen the Wolf Hall series, you’ve seen Anne Boleyn waiting bravely for her noble end. Today, judicial decapitation, even by the supposedly humane guillotine, seems inhumane to the West and is regularly practiced only in Saudi Arabia, though beheading is regularly practiced by non-state actors in the Middle East. Capital punishment itself has been abandoned everywhere in the Western world except the United States.

Let’s skip the gory details, but the historically minded can think back to the Spanish inquisition (which originated in 13th-century France), the devastating Hundred Years War (which lasted 116 years), the forced conversion or expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in the memorable year of 1492, Spanish exploitation and enslavement of Native Americans, many colonial powers importation of slaves, Belgian King Leopold II’s enslavement of the Congolese, the infamous atrocities of Hitler (invoked daily in our press and politics) and Stalin (read The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn), the final collapse of French colonialism in Algeria (see The Battle of Algiers), Serbian atrocities in Kosovo, and for almost a century a campaign of civil war in the partitioning of Ireland, including bombing campaigns in England in 1939-40 and again in the 1990’s. (Please remember, I am not exonerating anyone else, just dwelling on the European countries, since they seem to be on the receiving end right now.)

The French, to their honor, have always had a critical eye for abuse. In a famous passage of Voltaire (1759), the traveler Candide comes upon a black slave stretched out on the ground in the Dutch colony of Surinam.

“Good God,” said Candide in Dutch, “what dost thou here, friend, in this deplorable condition?”

“I am waiting for my master, Mynheer Vanderdendur, the famous trader,” answered the Negro.

“Was it Mynheer Vanderdendur that used you in this cruel manner?”

“Yes, sir,” said the Negro; “it is the custom here. They give a linen garment twice a year, and that is all our covering. When we labor in the sugar works, and the mill happens to snatch hold of a finger, they instantly chop off our hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off a leg. Both these cases have happened to me, and it is at this expense that you eat sugar in Europe….”

When the West points at atrocities in the Middle East, we cannot escape our own histories, but must recognize and try to at last rise above them. The Germans have been doing their best, and for all its issues, the European Union has succeeded in preventing the savage wars that regularly laid waste to Europe from antiquity through 1945.

Jordan Olmstead, “Five Keys to Understanding ISIS,” Pacific Standard, originally 12/29/14, points out that terrorists are not (much as they may seem so to us) crazy, but aim to subjugate populations by apparently unstoppable brutality.

The Islamic State is renowned for its ruthlessness…. But that doesn’t mean the group is driven purely by nihilistic sadism. Committing reprehensible acts of violence can be instrumentally rational for terrorist groups, meaning it can sometimes represent the best means for achieving a group’s ends.

ISIS PSMag 12-29-14

ISIS proclaims that it is building an “Islamic caliphate” in the war-devastated areas of Iraq and Syria, while it rather contradictorily practices anarchistic attacks on other countries, including the Russian airliner bombing in Egypt and the horrendous attacks in Paris.

Anarchism or non-government, the age-old idea attributed to various 18th-century thinkers that “That state governs best that governs least,” moved into a violent phase in Europe in the decades before and after 1900 when, like terrorists, due to their lack of political and military strength many anarchists began to see violence as an effective means of asserting their influence and precipitating world-changing convulsions. Their victims included Tsar Alexander II, president Sadi-Carot of France, and rulers of Italy, Portugal, and Greece.

The most infamous example of anarchist influence was the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian imperial throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914 by the Serbian terrorist group The Black Hand, whose goal of a united South Slavic country was achieved after the unimaginable sufferings unleashed in World War I.

In Spain, the Basque separatist group ETA, which beginning in 1959 killed over 800 people in an underground war against dictator Francisco Franco, struck a decisive blow when it assassinated Franco’s heir apparent, Luis Carrero Blanco in 1973. Although, farther south, Barcelona had been the locale of anarchist and related agitation, culminating in the burning of 90 churches and monasteries in 1909, today’s Catalan separatist movement has been, so far, peaceful.

Osama Bin Laden, who as a Wahhabi Sunni practitioner of jihadist violence inspired AQI, the original basis of ISIS, laid out his views in his 2002 “Letter to the American People.” It is a doleful and humbling experience to read the long train of abuses, decadence, and aggression that he imputes to our own country, followed by his ominous conclusion:

If the Americans refuse to listen to our advice and the goodness, guidance and righteousness that we call them to, then be aware that you will lose this Crusade Bush began, just like the other previous Crusades in which you were humiliated by the hands of the Mujahideen, fleeing to your home in great silence and disgrace. If the Americans do not respond, then their fate will be that of the Soviets who fled from Afghanistan to deal with their military defeat, political breakup, ideological downfall, and economic bankruptcy.

This is our message to the Americans, as an answer to theirs. Do they now know why we fight them and over which form of ignorance, by the permission of Allah, we shall be victorious?

Crusaders Nevsky 15.36

As Jordan Olmstead (above) says, it is a mistake to believe that terrorists are crazy. Rather, in order to combat them effectively, Western governments and societies need to understand terrorists’ goals; but trying to do so outside of a comparative historical analysis that include the West’s own brutalities and how they are slowly been overcome, has not proven successful.

And since history also shows a period of beneficial coexistence of religions under Islamic rule in Spain until 1492 and in much of the Middle East until 2001, perhaps history also offers grounds for some hope for the future.

Images above: 1) ISIS fighters, in Pacific Standard, 2014. 2) Teutonic crusaders approaching the Battle on the Ice as show in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film, celebrating Russian triumph over the Germanic invader, still from a rendition of Prokofief’s music to the film

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Now what do I do with yesterday’s political signs?

Winners exult, losers lament, and all of us wonder what to do with our growing collection of political signs and their metal support rods (AKA wickets).

Yesterday they were so important to sway voters’ minds… maybe… and now??

If your candidate might ever run again for the same office, 6 months or 2 or 4 years from now, save the sign in garage or basement. A little rust won’t hurt; in fact, it makes them more secure in the ground and less easy for evil-doers to pull out.

256px-2008-08-03_White_German_Shepherd_supporting_Barack_ObamaPhoto by Ildar Sagdejev from Wikimedia Commons

You might wish  to keep one sign as a memento of each campaign of historic importance… for a future collage on your garage wall, maybe?


• The sign, perched on its wicket and slanted at a judicious angle, is great for shading delicate plants and transplants.

• It can also temporarily block holes in picket fences where rabbits and rodents might otherwise enter your back yard (e.g., while you’ve removed pickets for repainting).

• The paper or plastic part of signs makes a good paint drop cloth. Add more signs to cover more area. Or cut the plastic signs at the sides and fold them out to twice as large.

• Lay plastic signs on the ground under your eaves to prevent water infiltration, and cover them with dirt or stones.

• In messy weather, use signs to protect carpet underfoot in your car (just be sure not to give a ride to the candidate in question during that time).

• The wicket is excellent for propping up floppy bushes and flowers.

For lower plants, cut or bend the wicket supports. For really tall ones, straighten the metal out.

The collapsible type of wickets, whose two legs are separate, with no link across the top, are a terrible pain in political use (because the legs keep falling off), but the components serve well as individual plant supports (with ties or string).

The type of wicket that looks like a ladder with two prongs extending up into a corrugated sign are great for supporting plants, which are held in place by the arms.

• Here’s a remedy for those clothes hangers that dry cleaners send back pants hanging on, and whose sticky cardboard crosspiece tends to sag on reuse: cut a piece of wicket to the right length and insert it inside the cardboard. That one won’t ever sag again!

• I’ve used a wicket folded triple ply to insert inside a bamboo pole and then into a flag holder whose opening was too small for the bamboo. The metal made a strong and (I hope) permanent link where wood and thinner bamboo had collapsed under the strain. (Still experimenting on this one.)

• To stitch together segments of chicken wire or garden netting to keep off birds and rodents, whether vertically or horizontally: straighten out a wicket (they are surprisingly long in a straight line) and thread the resulting steel rod through the two adjoining segments.

• In art works. No kidding, I’ve seen in museums what looked to me like vertical clumps of campaign wickets with pieces of wood or corks jammed onto them. Adaptive reuse at its most esthetic. I keep meaning to try this one.

How to cut regular metal wickets by repeated bending? Be careful; use gloves and eye protection. It can be done by brute hand strength, or by pliers, to bend repeatedly until the metal fatigues and breaks. Hack saws take too long; this is tough metal! I guess a bolt cutter would work.

If all adaptive reuse fails, of course wickets can be recycled as metal or sold to the scrap yard for a few pennies a pound.

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Cows / freedom / West Chester’s community rights amendment

E. B. White’s essay “Poetry,” written in 1939, starts out:

A friend of mine has an electric fence around a piece of his land, and he keeps two cows there. I asked him one day how he liked his fence and whether it cost much to operate. ‘Doesn’t cost a damn thing,’ he replied. ‘As soon as the battery ran down I unhooked it and never put it back. That piece of fence wire is as dead as a piece of string, but the cows don’t go within ten feet of it. They learned their lesson the first few days.

Apparently this state of affairs is general throughout the United States. Thousands of cows are living in fear of a strand of wire that no longer has the power to confine them. Freedom is theirs for the asking. Rise up, cows! Take your liberty while despots snore. And rise up too, all people in bondage everywhere! The wire is dead, the trick is exhausted. Come on out!

800px-020Crieff,_Puslinch,_OntarioPhoto posted unchanged from “Cow’s on Farm in Crieff, Puslinch, Ontario.” 16 July 2014, by Laslovarga at Creative Commons.

I’m intrigued by the idea of cows strolling free out from behind the imaginary electric field, and also by the idea that cows are so smart that they learn from experience and pass their wisdom along to future generations—but not, come to think of it, smart enough to test out their own beliefs in a new generation.

George Orwell shows in Animal Farm that after the farm animals have expelled the farmer, it’s not easy to create an ideal new society. The English schoolboys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies don’t do so well at it either.

But if we, as voting American adults eager to improve our society, realize we can walk out of the usual barriers—which can be consumerism, political and legal dogma, or any other abnegation of the uniquely human ability to reason—we can start thinking in new ways.

A new way of thinking (comparatively new, since over 100 Pennsylvania communities have thought the same) is what I see in the declaration of our right to clean air, clean water, and clean energy contained in the Community Bill of Rights being proposed to the residents of West Chester. And that is why I support a Yes vote on that ballot question in the Borough on Tuesday November 3.

Borough voters need to understand that the legalistic language that appears on their ballot is an inadequate and even hostile summary that is not part of the actual amendment and that will NOT itself become part of the Borough’s Home Rule Charter.

You can read the much more detailed wording that WILL become part of the Home Rule Charter at the West Chester Community Rights Alliance site.

Change in our fossilized political system is slow. Women’s vote and gay rights took a long, concerted movement to be recognized. This amendment is part of such a movement in environmental and energy rights.

The amendment calls for respecting the state constitution’s declaration (section I.27) that:

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

The Harrisburg bureaucracy has not been adequately maintaining those rights and resources in the area of gas extraction (e.g., fracking) and transmission (e.g., siting of pipelines and pumping stations) or clean energy (incentives wax and wane).

So concerned citizens can either roll over or do what they can to assert their constitutional rights.

The proposed amendment reasserts our rights. If you live in West Chester Borough, please vote Yes (note: in some precincts it’s on the BACK of the ballot).

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Jeb Bush and the great Republican name-calling tradition

Later note: “Jeb Bush Apologizes to France for Workweek Remark in Debate” by Dan Bilefsky, New York Times, 11/4/15. Good, Mr. Bush (not, as far as I know, Mr. Barrar) has listened to the many critics at home and in France who took issue with his uninformed slur against a foreign nation.

Really, it’s annoying. With so many abuses in the world, so many problems, Jeb Bush uses his waning time on the national stage to malign a people who blockaded the English at Yorktown so we could win our independence and who have been our allies ever since.

According to “Bush’s Jab at France Keeps Up a Tradition in G.O.P. Politics” by Dan Bilefsky, New York Times, Bush tried to score some points against Marco Rubio’s spotty Senate attendance record by declaring:

“I mean, literally, the Senate, what is it, like a French workweek? You get like three days where you have to show up?”

I guess he figured he’d win some sympathy by dumping on the French. Not from me!

The article says that in fact, the French average a 38.9-hour work week (which would be three 13-hour days, in case Jeb needs some math help) and that their labor productivity is higher than the European Union average and than our former colonial masters, the United Kingdom.

Gérard Araud, the French ambassador in Washington, tweeted (in English) according to the French newspaper Le Monde: “The French work an average of 39.6 hours a week compared to 39.2 for the Germans” and then added that “A French work week of 3 days? No but a pregnancy paid leave of 16 weeks yes! And proud of it.”

Maybe there’s some good advice there for both Jeb and Marco? And who’s to say Americans wouldn’t be better off working a 39-hour week? We might have more time as a nation for introspection and taking care of our own problems.

800px-FritesImage posted unchanged from Arnaud 25 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Times article mentions the Bush-era (meaning Jeb’s brother) Republican inspiration of renaming “French fries as “freedom fries.” That all goes back to Republican outrage at France’s refusal to join in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now, lo and behold, even some Republicans think the French were right.

At that time, State Representative Stephen Barrar (R-160, still today representing a chunk of southern Chester County), additionally upset by French disapproval of the death penalty, denounced “France’s disrespect toward American laws and the rights of our citizens” (Daily Local News, 2/15/03). His call to boycott French wines and other products fit into a disturbing political trend of bashing people of other nationalities who dare to be different from us.

The French GDP is the 3rd largest in the European Union (just behind UK), so I guess Mr. Barrar didn’t succeed in putting much of a dent in it.

And what a silly statement: why should the French respect US laws? Why, indeed, should the French crack the work-hour whip as firmly we do on our own workers? Barrar led the “freedom fries” movement in Harrisburg, though it soon fizzled. I hope Jeb’s French-bashing fizzles too. And Jeb himself, for that matter.

Let him and his Republican rivals bash each other, as Mr. Trump has amply shown the way, no problem; but they would be well advised to keep their negative feelings about other countries and cultures under wraps.

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What else Bernie could have said about capitalism

In Chester County, in Pennsylvania and the whole country, we’re all capitalists. Even those who live in their log cabin on a remote western mountain are capitalists, because they own, or think they own, their house and land, and any intruder would find that out in a hurry.

Bernie Sanders is not a socialist; he is a capitalist. But see how he answered in the first Democratic presidential debate:

Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.

And also:

I think everybody is in agreement that we are a great entrepreneurial nation. We have got to encourage that. Of course, we have to support small and medium-sized businesses. But you can have all of the growth that you want and it doesn’t mean anything if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent. So what we need to do is support small and medium-sized businesses, the backbone of our economy, but we have to make sure that every family in this country gets a fair shake.

I agree and I’d like to add a little more historical perspective.

A lot of ink has spilled over capitalism ever since Karl Marx published volume I of Das Kapital in 1867. But he didn’t invent capitalism. Capitalism flourished in ancient Rome, in the medieval European city states and merchant leagues, in the Renaissance duchies.

But capitalism, like greed and strife, goes back even farther; it is really part of the human condition. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society” (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 1755)

The Robber Baron era must be in the back of Sanders’s and Clinton’s minds. The term “Robber Baron” has more history than I was aware of, per Wikipedia:

A robber baron or robber knight is a historical term and title of disdain that was applied to the behavior and practices of a group of unscrupulous and despotic landowners (nobles) of the medieval period in Europe….

In modern U.S. parlance, the term since the mid-nineteenth century had also come to be used to describe unscrupulous industrialists … and stock speculators, who like the Germanic robber barons enriched their own pockets without adding to the common good by adding value.

Some of the traditional big names in American business and politics came to prominence through “Robber Baron” ancestors: Astor, Carnegie, Frick, Harriman, Mellon, Morgan, Rockefeller, Schwab, Vanderbilt, from the list in Wikipedia, also source of this image, whose caption there is:


“The protectors of our industries”. Cartoon showing Cyrus Field, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Russell Sage, seated on bags of “millions”, on large raft, and being carried by workers of various professions.

Our country urgently needs to cut down on the exploitation, the taking of others’ labor without fair compensation, the radical discrepancies in enforcement of basic rights, and the suppression of people’s legitimate aspirations for their children and themselves.

Capitalism, the freedom to make money off others’ labor and at others’ expense, has always been hedged around by rules and limits, but those have weakened here since the 1970’s. We need to strengthen the rules and limits.

Companies have always hoped to fulfill the old capitalist dream of “cornering the market” in areas like gold, silver, railroads, and more recently computer operating systems and life-saving pharmaceutical products. Without regulation, the free market would no longer function. As Karl Marx predicted, capitalism tends toward self-destruction.

Bernie would like to restore the needed equilibrium by leavenino the capitalist system with some “democratic socialism,” as this country did in the middle part of the 20th century and as most of Europe did and retained. Or maybe he really means “democratic socialist capitalism” or “social democracy”? In any case, he wants “social” values in the capitalist mix, and so, as members of that society, should we.

As Hillary Clinton aptly said in the debate:

…what we have to do every so often in America … is save capitalism from itself…. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system….

And that means scaling back the inequality, the unfairness, the disparities in education and opportunity, that will tear our society apart if we don’t take strong measures now.

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Concern fatigue: “Somehow this has become routine”

Syrian refugees are drowning at sea and will soon be dying of cold as they try to make their way across central Europe. Palestinian teenagers are knifing Israelis and being shot down by police and others. Ethiopians are starving while their cows die of thirst. Ninety Americans (including suicides) die from guns every day. Children in Pakistan (and here too) are dying of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Well, whatever, right?

As President Obama said after the Umpqua Community College massacre:

Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.

It’s only human to develop a self-protective tolerance for disasters, especially when they happen to other people. Meanwhile, we are driven crazy by a barking dog across the street, a too-chatty friend, or a mosquito in the bedroom.

Some people are wired to pitch in to help on causes of principle. But most of us focus on what’s around us or what becomes so vivid that we can no longer ignore it.

Actual progress in this country tends to come when a lot of Americans start seeing a problem in a new way.

After almost 150 women, mostly immigrants, perished (over 50 by jumping out upper-floor windows) in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, the labor union and workplace safety movements finally took off in this country.

In more recent memory, we stamped out smoking in public places and offices when people got tired of breathing others’ smoke, saw children being sickened, grasped the awfulness of lung cancer, and saw tobacco executives repeatedly lying in public and to Congress.

We (mostly) protected our waterways against indiscriminate dumping of chemicals and wastes after fish died and rivers started catching fire from the toxic chemicals at their surface.

Tap water on fireThe scene, from the Gaslands movie, of tap water being lit on fire (see excerpt on YouTube, source of this image) did more to help people see the problem of natural gas fracking than whole shelves of reports. And when people, as is happening now in Westtown, receive easement notices that whether they say Yes or No, a company will be using some of their property to build a gas pipeline, the pipeline issue is suddenly brought close to home.

When people’s children are shot and killed, they see the gun safety issue differently than at a distance, and some of them, like journalist Allison Parker’s father, become overnight activists.

But there are a lot of issues that just haven’t yet made it into the collective action agenda. US-allied Afghan warlords use children as sex slaves. Impoverished inner-city and rural Americans are losing desperately needed social services. American women are faced with seeking illegal abortions as services to women are carved back. Russia and the U.S. point thousands of nuclear-armed missiles at each other. Low-lying Pacific countries are evacuated as the waters rise…. Oh well, “somehow this has become routine.”

People who care deeply about changing our society and world (or preserving them in a livable condition) keep working away to influence public perceptions but public perceptions are slow to catch up with reality.

Now look back to the first paragraph above: those issues do seem today to be reaching the often-mentioned “tipping point.” When such matters of life and death enter into presidential campaign debates, we know that people are finally starting to pay attention and words may soon give way to action.

The lofty principles our nation was founded on demand action when such abuses pervade our national consciousness.

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My theory on why John Boehner resigned

I don’t think it’s that he is so conflict-averse or so afraid of the extremists in his own party. And I don’t think that, as has been rumored, he just wants to play golf now. He’s younger than Bernie and Hillary; why should he retire so soon?

Sometimes a wild guess pays off. I made a good try, or at least so I thought, in 2006, in predicting that then-president George Bush would rescue then-senator Rick Santorum from impending electoral disaster by appointing him US ambassador to the Vatican. I still think that was a good idea, and Santorum might think so too nine years later as he struggles to remain in the GOP outer circle for president. But it didn’t happen.

So here’s my current revelation. No, not that ambassadorship, not as Andy Borowitz imagines to “continue repealing Obamacare from his home in Ohio,” but: John Boehner is resigning to become Jeb Bush’s pre-announced running mate for vice-president.

That would be unorthodox, to be sure, but Jeb needs to do something drastic, or he’ll end up down there with Rick on the warm-up team. With Boehner at his side, Jeb can say they will be campaigning together to bring their party back from the outer reaches of anarchist irresponsibility.

And that would be a good thing to do. This country, with its two-party system imposed by our winner-take-all single-vote elections, has advanced over the centuries through a dialogue of two opposed but basically responsible parties. We don’t have that interplay any more and as a result we are becoming the wonder of the world, not in a good sense.

“Jeb and John for sanity”–not the strongest campaign slogan ever, but one badly needed, and you heard it first here, as they say!

Posted in President & candidates, Republicans | Tagged , , | 2 Comments