Sunday, September 28, 2014

People vs. Principles

This will be a bit of a departure from my normal subject matter, but with the world in the shape it’s currently in, I know I’m ready to talk about something other than current events—hopefully, you are, too, whomever you happen to be. I’d like to address what I consider a pretty troubling, but sort of fascinating phenomenon: loyalty to people trumping loyalty to principles.

First, let me explain why this is a bad thing. After all, it doesn’t sound so bad—people are actually right here and now, and can suffer, be happy, flourish, languish, etc., so loyalty to people seems like a good thing, and to a point, it is. Principles, on the other hand, are abstractions, just ideas in our minds (unless you’re a Platonist, I guess, but I’m not). So it seems like being loyal to principles instead of to people is damaging and dangerous, and to an extent, that’s also true. Principles should be formulated at least partly based on their impact on other people, and if principles prove damaging to oneself or others, it’s often a good idea to rethink them. But what I’m talking about in terms of loyalty toward people is not some sort of devotion to the welfare of humanity itself, but loyalty toward specific people, or specific groups of people.

 The reason this is so dangerous is because it ultimately means that if a person you’re loyal to tells you to abandon what you believe in, you go along with it. In the abstract, virtually everyone agrees that doing something like that is terrible and indefensible, but that doesn’t keep them from doing it. For instance, the NSA programs under George W. Bush were highly unpopular among Democrats, with a 2006 Pew poll showing that 61% were opposed, and 37% were in support. In a poll from 2013, under Obama, polling showed an almost exact reversal from the Democrats—with 64% supporting it, and only 34% opposed. That’s a swing of 27%; granted, some people who were too young to be counted in polls like this came of age between 2006 and 2013, and some people certainly died in that timespan, meaning the pool of Democrats had altered—but younger voters were the least likely to be friendly to the NSA programs, and older voters were the most likely. So out of the people who were Democrats at the time of both polls, the percentage who changed their views is probably greater, not less, than 27%.

Of course, the Republicans were hardly any better—they supported NSA programs by a three-to-one margin in the 2006 poll, and were almost evenly split on the issue by 2013. What we’re witnessing here, in both cases, is like some twisted game of Follow the Leader, and this issue is just one example of a general rule. In fact, a recent-ish study showed that ultimately, liberals and conservatives have basically the same view regarding authority: when it agrees with their side, it deserves to be obeyed; otherwise, no. That sort of explains why liberals are all right with Obama doing things they would have shrieked about if Bush had (extrajudicial assassination of an American citizen, for one) while conservatives who approved of all sorts of expensive programs under Bush scream about how Obama will bankrupt the country. It’s okay for our guy, but we’ll be damned if the other side gets away with it.

I think it should be pretty self-evident why this is both reprehensible and dangerous, but in case it’s not, let me explain it briefly: when approval of policies is based on liking the person doing them, approval for any given policy can be obtained by finding a likable enough person. In case you can’t see where this is going, I’ll spell it out: have you ever watched a speech by Adolf Hitler? I don’t speak a bit of German, but there’s absolutely no doubting that his charisma was unbelievably compelling. And, sure enough, plenty of people who probably harbored plenty of doubts about his vicious, genocidal policies went along with them because they had a convincing enough spokesman.

I think the instinct to abandon principles in order to be in agreement with people you like exists for pretty much everyone, myself included. The trick is just to teach yourself to overcome it, and realize that liking someone doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they do or believe. I like to think I’ve achieved that—if someone I respect says something I disagree with, I’m certainly interested to hear their argument, and I might end up changing my view if I find it convincing, but I don’t immediately begin rethinking the stance I’ve taken. The people who I’ve generally seen most successfully stay true to their principles rather than follow leaders tend to have a good deal in common—a sort of apathy toward what others think of them, a tendency to form close relationships with a small number of people, and a great passion for what they believe in. I suppose this makes sense—for those who are less likely to feel some close bond with another person, there’s less temptation to abandon their principles because there are fewer people whose opinions really matter to them; and, often, those they truly admire they can continue to admire in spite of disagreements.

There’s not really any big conclusion or solution to this post. Ultimately, the only thing I can do is to warn whoever might read this against allowing yourself to follow people instead of principles. If someone you like or admire gives their opinion on an issue, don’t just decide you agree with it because it’s easier than doing the research and coming up with your own opinion. That sounds like obvious advice, but I can only assume a lot of people aren’t following it—and I know I’ve been guilty of following the people I like instead of really thinking out my own positions, as just about everyone probably has. But, although it can be an easy mistake to make, it’s not always an easy one to fix.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pound the War Drums

I didn’t watch President Obama’s speech about ISIS on September 10, but by the time I got around to reading the text of it online, I mostly knew what was in it. Not much of it is encouraging. I wrote about my concerns about our involvement with the situation in Iraq (and now Syria) before, and, based on Obama’s speech, just about everything that I was concerned might happen is now going to happen. If you’ve both read my previous blog entry on Iraq and watched/read the speech, you probably know what I’m talking about. But for those who don’t and might stumble across this blog post, and just for the sake of putting my thoughts out there in a more thorough manner now, let’s go through the speech and see just what is so concerning.

The whole speech, when examined closely, is pretty incoherent, and that’s particularly obvious with the opening remarks. Obama first talks about how successful our counterterrorism strategies have been since he took office, and how we’re safer as a country. In the long run, anyway, that’s pretty doubtful. The drone war Obama has presided over is certain to breed more anti-American hatred, and likely more terrorism. The fact that we’ve succeeded in damaging al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden does nothing to keep new terrorists from emerging when we’ve bombed and killed numerous innocents in Yemen and Pakistan. Supporting the military dictatorship in Egypt probably doesn’t help our popularity, either; nor does standing up for Israel in the UN. So the idea that the counterterrorism strategy we’ve pursued in the last few years is actually making us safer, at least in the long run, is enormously doubtful.

Obama then segues to talking about ISIS, and how they threaten American interests and Americans. Of course, intelligence experts have pretty much all concurred that ISIS poses no immediate threat to the American homeland, which Obama even kind of admits later on (“we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland”).  As evidence, he largely cites the fact that ISIS leaders have threatened America—but that proves nothing. To grain credibility, ISIS desperately wants us to see them as a threat and despise them; the fact that they make threats doesn’t indicate those threats will actually be carried out successfully. Not to mention their threats have been largely because of our intervention already, which makes the case for greater intervention a little dubious.

After stating that we need to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” ISIS (good luck on that front), Obama begins laying out a plan. Not a very good one, though. The first part is expanded airstrikes that go beyond defense and into offense. There’s pretty broad agreement that airstrikes are not enough to destroy ISIS, as even John Kerry has said. So why, if ISIS is such a big threat to us, are we limiting ourselves to airstrikes? They’ve already beheaded American captives in retribution for our current airstrikes; are more bombings really the answer? Moreover, Obama states that he intends to expand this air campaign into Syria if necessary. But aside from being dangerous (flying over areas of war has this vague possibility of having your plane get shot down, not that there’s any recent event to remind everyone of that), without either UN approval or the Assad regime’s assent, airstrikes in Syria would be illegal under international law. Not that American violations of international law are exactly anything new.

The second part of this master plan is to “increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.” This essentially translates into pouring more military advisers into Iraq and providing more arms to the “moderate” Syrian rebels. Neither of these are particularly good ideas, to say the least. Sending more military advisers into Iraq basically paves the way to sending in actual combat troops—a step which Obama has promised repeatedly not to take, but which, even if he keeps that promise, his successor might be less reluctant about, particularly if we already have American troops in Iraq in a “non-combat” role.

As for arming the Syrian rebels, this seems a particularly counterproductive move. Obama rules out cooperating with the Assad regime, but if ISIS is really so crucial to eliminate, why don’t we try to negotiate some kind of agreement—even a purely temporary one—between Assad and the “moderate” rebels like the Free Syrian Army? Neither of them wants ISIS to take Damascus, and the fact that Assad is still in power after years of civil war is a testament to his army’s abilities. So why continue to aid those who fight that army, diverting it from fighting ISIS, particularly when the arms we provide could end up falling into ISIS’ hands anyway?

Further, Obama doesn’t even mention Iran as a potential ally, despite the fact that it, too, has demonstrated its opposition to ISIS. If ISIS really poses such a threat, why aren’t we turning to regimes that, while terrible, obviously don’t pose a real threat to us? No one with any credibility thinks Iran or Syria poses a threat to the United States, so if ISIS is really such a grave threat, we should be eager to cooperate with them. The fact that we’re not raises some important questions about what our real motivations are here.

The third part of the Obama plan is to “draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks. Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into – and out of – the Middle East.” All of that sounds fine in theory, but none of it really lines up with reality. As previously stated, there’s no credible evidence that ISIS is planning an attack on American soil—if their goal is really to create an Islamic caliphate, it’s hard to imagine why we’d be among their biggest concerns. Of course, the likelihood of their attacking us is significantly higher if we directly involve ourselves in fighting a war against them. And if Obama thinks that waging its third war in Iraq in twenty-five years is the best way for the United States to win the hearts and minds of those who hate us, his understanding of the situation is impressively bad.

Part four is to continue providing humanitarian assistance to those in the region. Fair enough. The United States should provide humanitarian aid, and as I’ve said before, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be involved in some broader plan to deal with ISIS—but the rest of this plan is incredibly badly put together. It’s after laying all of this out that Obama asserts that he has the authority to do all of this without Congressional approval. This is perhaps the most troubling part of this speech—I’ve generally disagreed with Republicans and right-wingers when they talk about Obama being arrogant, but if any move in his presidency shows hubris, it’s this one. This is the president telling us that he’s going to involve the country in a conflict overseas that may, in the words of his own Secretary of State, “take a year…may take two years…may take three years.” And that he’s going to do so without even trying to get Congress’s approval. Even Bush got Congress’s approval before going to war in Iraq. I’ll let that speak for itself.

When I wrote my last blog post about Iraq, I had some grave concerns, but I didn’t expect things to get this much worse this quickly. This is essentially the president unilaterally declaring war, and putting forward a plan that is a recipe for a conflict that will drag on for years, endanger American lives, and probably do very little, if anything, to create a more stable situation in the Iraq-Syria region.  ISIS poses a threat to Iraq, Syria, and other Arab nations in the region—so let them fight their own war. Sure, ISIS should be wiped out, and if we can help protect innocent civilians, great—but this strategy isn’t likely to do much of either. Instead, it’ll probably gain ISIS street cred among other anti-American jihadist groups, and ensure that ISIS will be more than happy to kill Americans when it gets the opportunity.

There are a number of things about this whole situation that are deeply troubling. One is that the president has basically announced that we’re going to war—which he’s unilaterally decided—and instead of being different from the norm, like it used to be, that barely elicits a response. Another is that Obama seems to have prepackaged the War on Terror in a way that has convinced most liberals to at least acquiesce to it. The most disturbing thing, though, is that essentially we’re playing right into ISIS’ hands—they wanted to get a rise out of us, and they did. This is not a good time to be an American. This is not a good time to live on this planet at all. 

Note: Originally this blog stated that the Syrian rebels massacred Christians, and linked to a source. However, I have judged that source unreliable, and have not been able to find a reliable source to back up the massacre it alleged. I apologize to everyone for the error.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Don't Boycott Burger King

For those who regularly follow online news outlets like the Huffington Post (as I do), you’ve probably seen something about how Burger King is buying Tim Hortons, making Burger King legally Canadian, and thus allowing it to dodge taxes in the US. Understandably, there’s a lot of outrage about that—some, including people I like, like economist Bruce Bartlett, have even called for a boycott. And at first, I was on board with that. There’s not too much doubt about the motive here—pure corporate greed. And, obviously, it is pretty bad if corporations can get out of paying their taxes but average Americans can’t. But, the more I thought about it, the less it seemed reasonable to try to force Burger King into paying its taxes.

For everyone who’s outraged by Burger King’s tax dodge, I understand how you feel, but ask yourself an important question: where would the tax money go? Into military aid for Israel, or aid for Egypt’s dictatorship, maybe? For developing expensive new weapons systems that help us fight the ongoing, bloody war in the Middle East? To subsidies for oil companies that help make sure we get involved in any conflict in any oil-rich country, no matter the cost to our security or the people of that country? To enforcing the fascistic War on Drugs that’s been going on for decades? The answer is yes, to all of those. That is what the US government would spend Burger King’s tax money on.

Now, of course, there are good things the government would spend it on, too—education, social welfare, developing greener energy—but, first off, that spending is pretty paltry compared to a lot of the things I just listed. But, more importantly, shouldn’t we draw a line in the sand somewhere when it comes what the government can fund and still deserve tax revenue? Let it put it this way—would you donate to a charity that happened to, on the side, buy guns and arm inner city gangs? No? Then why is our government deserving of taxpayer money when it funds the atrocities it does? In fact, given the choice between taking an easy step to avoid paying taxes or willingly paying them, it’s the second option that seems more morally questionable when you consider just what those taxes are used for.

Now, obviously, Burger King isn’t avoiding its taxes to make some bold political statement. It is, like I said, raw corporate greed. But how is that any different than normal? There are tons of companies that could pay their workers better, or charge their customers less, and stay in business, but choose not to because of corporate greed. Corporations are entities that are essentially designed to make a profit. And, really, if Burger King has decided to increase its profits by avoiding paying taxes to the US government, we should be happy they didn’t do something much worse, like cut their employees’ already-meager pay or charge more for their food, which is often bought by people who probably can’t afford a whole lot better. (That’s not to sound classist—I eat at Burger King, too, but you get the point.)

“But the money has to come from somewhere!” Yeah, sure. But why don’t we demand that that “somewhere” is from the Defense Department, or from corporate welfare, or from ending the War on Drugs? It’s not like there aren’t areas the government could afford to cut spending from. The several million dollars in taxes Burger King is avoiding will barely make a difference to the government, but even if it did, we know where to cut from. So why act like the government just has to go deeper in debt or raise taxes on everyone else? Sure, ideally the government should take those dollars going into military spending or imprisoning non-violent drug offenders and invest it elsewhere, so spending as a whole wouldn’t decrease—but when the government actually shows some sign it’s going to do that, that’s when it’s time to think about boycotting Burger King if it continues its tax avoidance.

Some points I want to be clear on: I’m not saying it’s good that Burger King has done this. Realistically, I think the impact won’t make much of a difference. And, yes, as long as the government is funding horrible things, it’s better if it gets the tax money to do so from rich corporations than from the middle class. I do support closing loopholes and creating taxes that prevent this sort of thing from happening. But my point is simply that, with our current government, paying taxes is not something that should be seen as praiseworthy. With an ideal government, it would be, but ours is not ideal. If I could easily avoid paying taxes to it without legal penalty, I’d do so in a heartbeat—not out of greed, but out of principle. If Burger King does the same, not out of principle but out of greed, I can’t condemn its action, just its greed—and its greed is not unique. Unless you want to boycott every greedy corporation (which is the vast majority of them), then boycotting Burger King is pointless. If there’s an organization to boycott, it’s the government—but good luck on that front.