Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Hand Me My Shank

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Joseph Stalin making a face at his bodyguard; ca. 1930

Photo by Lt. G. Nikolai Vlasik

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Hobby Lobby SCOTUS Ruling:

The Supreme Court ruling on BURWELL, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, ET AL. v. HOBBY LOBBY STORES, INC. has now opened up the precedent (ignoring how narrowly tailored the ruling was to only contraception) that under the RFRA, even if its a compelling government interest, the state cannot mandate any firm with sincere religious beliefs to carry out a requirement, so long as the government can pick up the slack? It seems like the least restrictive means will always be making the government do it instead and not restrict at all anyone’s religious beliefs.

On page 46 of the opinion, Alito writes: “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.”

This certainly leaves open the possibility that the Court could rule differently on the “least restrictive means” issue in the future, but his language in section V-B, which discusses the “least restrictive means” test, seems to indicate that it is a difficult standard to pass. On page 41 of the opinion, he indicates that “the most straightforward way of [meeting the least restrictive means test] would be for the Government to assume the cost.” He also says that “HHS has not shown … that this is not a viable alternative.” This seems to indicate that if such a challenge were to come up regarding vaccination or blood transfusions, or whatever else, the burden would be on the Department of Health and Human Services to show that it would be impractical for the Government to cover the cost. That would be quite the burden for the Government to prove.

Ginsberg seems to agree with that reading in her dissent. On page 29 on the dissent, she writes, “And where is the stopping point to the ‘let the government pay’ alternative? Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, … or according women equal pay for substantially similar work…? Does it rank as a less restrictive alternative to require the government to provide the money or benefit to which the employer has a religion-based objection?” In addition to indicating that the Court’s logic could prove problematic in the future, she asserts that it is flawed at present, saying, “In sum, in view of what Congress sought to accomplish, i.e., comprehensive preventive care for women furnished through employer-based health plans, none of the proffered alternatives would satisfactorily serve the compelling interests to which Congress responded.”

I agree with Justice Ginsberg on many points here, especially the last few pages of her dissent. Justice Alito attempts to narrow his ruling as much as possible, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered as to the basis for his narrow ruling. To me, the most compelling arguments come from sections III-4 and IV (pages 27-35) of Ginsberg’s dissent. She basically asserts that the Court’s ruling has much broader implications than it intends, and poses quite a few questions about the basis for the narrow ruling.

I am also inclined to agree with her reasoning that the Court should have no business in determining which religious views are legitimate and which are not, and that religious exemptions from generally applicable law should be reserved for groups that are organized “for a religious purpose” and/or “engaged primarily in carrying out that religious purpose”.

The Supreme Court ruling can be found here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-354_olp1.pdf

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent here: http://www.scribd.com/mobile/doc/231974154


What I have learned from studying history:

I think that a lot of people get into military history because of their childhood. Fond memories of plastic army soldiers, and jingoistic, watered down tales of derring-do. I know I certainly was drawn to it for the glory when I was a little kid. War was running around the woods with a stick going “bang”, and the most contentious issues were arguments about who got who. And many people I don’t believe move beyond that.

 

Military history, for many, still remains a mostly clean affair, with the good ol’GI-citizen soldier going and liberating Europe from the clutches of Nazism. We simply forget the abject horrors of war. The dying cries of “mother” or simply “water”. The smell of shit that permeates a battlefield. Widows, orphans, and parents burying their spouses, parents, or sons. And that, of course, is only in wars that are fought with close attention to the rules.

I was listening to an interview given by Shelby Foote, the author of several Civil War books, and she said something that struck me as so perfect:

“There is a general belief that war books promote a love of war, and that is true about bad war books, but every serious book about a battle or about a war, if it’s serious, is bound to be anti-war. […] Because the truth is, it’s more bloody than it is glorious, and the suffering is a far bigger part of it than the patriotism and the glory, and that will come across with an honest writer. Cheap literature hurts everybody, but decent, honest literature will always carry this anti-war message, it’s bound to be there. No matter how patriotic a man may sound, underlying it, if he has a good eye, everybody is going to see through the phony patriotism and the ephemeral glory, and to the real suffering of it and especially the absurdity of it.”

And I couldn’t agree more. War is absurd, and I now find great distaste in books that don’t present that side of the conflict alongside. It is a disservice to everyone to separate the good parts of war from the bad.

I don’t believe people are either good or bad, and studying war, really, has shown me that anyone is capable of reaching both extremes. So what I can say about how studying conflict has affected my outlook on human nature is that it has sobered it. Sure, I still enjoy reading an uplifting story about some brave soldier saving his buddies, but you can’t shake the images of the terrible human cost.


The “Nixon Madman Theory”

Essentially, a key tenet of Nixon’s foreign policy was to make the leaders of communist countries think that he was unstable and prone to use nuclear force. What ensued in his first year in office in 1969 is one of the most fascinating episodes of the Cold War because it really highlights the growing split between the USSR and China and how Nixon tried to drive a wedge between them in order to strengthen the United States’ relative power and influence.

During the buildup to the Vietnam war after the Cuban missile crisis, and prior to Nixon taking office in 1969, leaders in the US and USSR would generally not explicitly threaten each other for fear of stoking another nuclear crisis. Nixon believed that the only way to end the war in Vietnam was to get North Vietnam and China to back down in the face of nuclear extinction, as the threat of nuclear escalation is what brought about a ceasefire during the Korean War. After secret peace talks in Paris to end the war stalled in the first few months of his presidency, Nixon went full ape. If Teddy Roosevelt believed that the United States should speak softly and carry a big stick, Nixon believed the United States should yell incoherently and flail its stick around.

In October 1969, Nixon issued a secret high level alert to his top military brass. He told them to be on standby to use nuclear force against North Vietnam and possibly the USSR and to scramble planes equipped with nuclear bombs to fly near Soviet airspace. This was kept secret from the American public, but was made loud enough so Soviet intelligence would pick up on it. At the time, Nixon wanted to escalate the war in Vietnam by expanding the bombing campaign into the North, which was not popular with the American public and would have likely resulted in fully-fledged war with China. So Nixon wanted the North Vietnamese, the Chinese and the Soviets to think that he would do anything to win the war in Vietnam without actually having to do anything. It was a huge gamble.

But let’s not forget that in the immediate months prior to Nixon’s secret order, the USSR and China were in an undeclared military conflict with each other over a border dispute. Relations between the two communist powers had soured since 1960, which Nixon sought to capitalize on.

Prior to Nixon issuing the nuclear alert, the USSR was considering a preemptive, possibly nuclear attack on China’s nuclear arsenal. The USSR worried that if the United States escalated the Vietnam war with nuclear force and if China responded with nuclear force too, then they would get dragged into a nuclear war with them as well. When a KGB officer approached an American diplomat about the possibility of the USSR striking China’s arsenal and how the US would respond – and allegedly even asked if the US would collaborate with the USSR to weaken China – Nixon made it very clear that the US would not tolerate an attack on its enemy by its other enemy.

But while Nixon intended the nuclear alert to influence events in Vietnam in his favor, some evidence from recently declassified Cold War documents suggest that the USSR mistakenly believed that the alert was meant to warn the USSR against attacking China’s nuclear arsenal.

Nixon did want to exploit the soured relations between the USSR and China in order to have leverage over the Soviets, and the nuclear alert had the unintentional effect of hinting that the US would side with China should a nuclear conflict arise between them and the USSR. This also unintentionally played into Nixon’s policy of opening up to China. By opening up to China, the US would no longer be dealing with one communist power, but rather two competing communist powers that were at odds with each other.

The nuclear alert issued in October 1969 did nothing to improve the situation in Vietnam (and arguably made things worse). While it did frighten the Soviets, they did ultimately interpret it as a bluff. Still, it indicated to the Chinese that Nixon would give them leverage over the USSR. It set the stage for rapprochement with China, which culminated in Nixon’s monumental 1972 visit to the communist country and the subsequent improvement of Sino-American relations. And of course, the visit laid the foundation for the deepening of economic ties between the two nations.

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“Personnel inside the data processing center for COBRA DANE, an intelligence-gathering phased-array system specially constructed to monitor Soviet ballistic missile testing on Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula”, 1977

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The headquarters of Benito Mussolini and the Italian Fascist party, 1934

When do you start questioning if your national leader is a super villain?

When do you start questioning if your national leader is a super villain?

 

The secret to their success… subtlety.


Is Polygamy Really So Awful?

A new study shows that despite what you see on reality TV, plural marriage isn’t very good for society.

(Re-posted from here.)

These are boom times for memoirs about growing up inmarrying into or escaping from polygamous families. Sister wives appear as minor celebrities in the pages of People, piggybacking on their popular reality TV show. And oh yes, we have a presidential candidate whose great-grandfather was an actual bona fide polygamist.

Americans are fixated these days on polygamy, and it’s fair to say we don’t know how to feel about it. Polygamy evokes both fascination and revulsion—the former when Chloe Sevigny is involved, and the latter when it is practiced by patently evil men like Osama Bin Laden and Warren Jeffs, the fundamentalist Mormon leader who had a thing for underage wives. At the same time, the practice of plural marriage is so outside mainstream American culture, so far in the past for many Westerners, that it has come to be regarded as almost quaint. What’s so wrong with it, if it works for some people? In counterculture circles, the practice of polyamory, or open partnerships, is supposed to be having some sort of moment. All of which explains why, in response to the argument by conservatives like Rick Santorum and Antonin Scalia that gay marriage could be a slippery slope leading to polygamy, some feminists, lefties, and libertarians have wondered aloud whether plural marriage is really so bad.

History suggests that it is. A new study out of the University of British Columbia documents how societies have systematically evolved away from polygamy because of the social problems it causes. The Canadian researchers are really talking about polygyny, which is the term for one man with multiple wives, and which is by far the most common expression of polygamy. Women are usually thought of as the primary victims of polygynous marriages, but as cultural anthropologist Joe Henrich documents, the institution also causes problems for the young, low-status males denied wives by older, wealthy men who have hoarded all the women. And those young men create problems for everybody.

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W.H. Auden, I love you.

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This is a sad and brave poem about accepting the suffering of unrequited love—an experience that Auden was apparently familiar with. In this poem, he makes his peace with his experience of “stars” whose beauty inspires such passion and longing, but which care nothing for him in return.

Being treated with indifference is not so bad, Auden says, in the first stanza; there are worse things in life. To love, even if one is not loved back, is more than enough, he suggests in the second stanza. And, in the final two stanzas, Auden tells himself that even if that which one loves were to disappear from one’s life, one would survive the grief and the emptiness—even if, as he poignantly understates it in the last line, being reconciled with that loss may “take a little time.”

WYSTAN HUGH AUDEN, 1948

 


An uncropped version of the famous Tiananmen Square tank and protester photo, June 1989.

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It’s hard to fathom the courage that it would take for one person, alone and carrying only plastic shopping bags, to face down that line of tanks.

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Film footage of the Tank Man.


Winston Churchill and his reputation as one of Britain’s greatest leaders.

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Firstly a little bit of leadership theory to put Churchill into context, specifically that of Transformational Leadership.

Transformational leaders inspire their followers to achieve more than would normally be expected by a combination of:

  • Looking after followers’ individual needs, acting as a coach or mentor and developing them.
  • Challenging followers intellectually. Asking them to consider complex problems and come up with solutions by conducting their own research.
  • Providing inspirational motivation. Articulating a vision of the future, setting lofty goals and being optimistic about the team’s ability to achieve them.
  • Being a role model. Exemplifying everything they want their followers to be, setting high ethical and behavioral standards thus gaining respect and trust.

f0748c6555d28511ba409ced1c8507eea49a4f3b131f45c9f1dcff6f11539dcdWhenever Churchill took charge of a government department, the work rate would increase considerably. He was a man of energy and ideas who was always keen to understand the latest innovation or cutting edge technology. For example, by the time the neutron had been discovered, he had already written about the potential of nuclear power, especially in the military context.

This energy was most apparent when he became PM in May 1940, coincidentally on the day that the German Invasion of Belgium and France was launched. Thus the first six weeks of his premiership saw one of the worst strategic set backs in British military history as the BEF was defeated and forced to abandon France. In the face of exceptional pressure form the French to stay in France and to commit further reserves, he trusted his commanders and accepted that a withdrawal was the best option. Throughout this period he did as best a job as he could to placate the French (possibly even lying to them) in order to give his commanders the space they needed to effect the withdrawal. He moved between the tactical, operational and strategic levels of command on an almost hour by hour basis in order to understand, support and decide.

Churchill_waves_to_crowdsWhilst all this was going on, he took the time to familiarise himself with Britain’s air defences knowing all too well that this was the next line of defence. He trusted Hugh Dowding and Charles Portal, he trusted the air defence system and he supported Dowding’s recommendation not to send any more spitfires to France, knowing it was a lost cause. He then set about instilling his confidence into the British public. The “finest hour” speech is not simply a masterpiece of rhetoric, it is the cornerstone of a concerted effort to reassure Britain that its Air Force, by this point untested in any major campaign for 22 years, was up to the job of defeating a highly capable, more numerous and more experienced Luftwaffe. Whatever went on behind the scenes, he maintained the high vision of victory and portrayed an almost relentless optimism, whilst reminding everyone of the gravity of the situation.

539wDeep down he knew that the Royal Navy would be the deciding factor in case of invasion, but the opportunity to stop the enemy before he even reached the shores was one he seized upon and a cause he triumphed as if it were his own.

This pattern repeats itself throughout Churchill’s tenure: the frenetic activity surrounding him, the detailed interest in an important area of responsibility, the campaign (supported of course by excellent speeches) to reassure the public that everything would be OK and then exploiting successes. Note too that he took very little credit for himself, instead focusing the public’s attention on the men and women fighting the war and crediting them with success.

So we can see that WSC was highly adept at challenging his followers intellectually and providing inspirational motivation, but what of the other two elements of Transformational Leadership?

Churchill’s weakest suit, in my opinion, was looking after individual followers. He had a terrible habit of befriending people, using them for what he needed and then dropping them. He could even do this to entire organisations and has been heavily criticised for abandoning Bomber Command in the face of criticism about the strategic bombing campaign which he had supported.dK1dn

He was, however, an excellent role model. The pugnacious, stoic face of defiance in adversity, portrayed famously as the archetypal British bulldog, he set the tone for the British public to adopt – he was the archetype for the stereotype of the down-trodden but bloody-minded blitz victim. His military experience, including some remarkable individual heroics as a young subaltern and command of a battalion during the Great War, set him in good stead and enabled him to wear the uniform and rank of a commodore/brigadier/air commodore credibly.

9781533_1He was not, however, perfect. He was a contrary character who wouldn’t ordinarily have become Prime Minister, let alone a successful one. He was prone to flights of fantasy and was prepared to allow incredibly risky activities. He would often be reeled in by the likes of General Hastings Ismay, his chief military assistant for most of the war, who maintained a well-informed, realistic brief and was able to recover him from his more audacious fantasies. He was also prone to depression, his “black dog” and there is immense credit to be found in his ability inspire people as he did despite his own personal demon. These two quotes do a good job of reflecting on WSC:

In 1940 the American journalist Ralph Ingersoll reported:

Everywhere I went in London people admired [Churchill’s] energy, his courage, his singleness of purpose. People said they “didn’t know what Britain would do without him.” He was obviously respected. But no one felt he would be Prime Minister after the war. He was simply the right man in the right job at the right time. The time being the time of a desperate war with Britain’s enemies

Field Marshal Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1941, wrote in his memoirs:

…..And the wonderful thing is that 3/4 of the population of the world imagine that Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other 1/4 have no idea what a public menace he is and has been throughout this war ! It is far better that the world should never know, and never suspect the feet of clay of this otherwise superhuman being. Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again…….Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent. Never have such opposite extremes been combined in the same human being.

True genius treads a fine line between triumph and disaster. Churchill knew this line all too well.

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Further Reading

Bass, B.M. & Avolio, B.J. (1994). Improving organizational effectiveness through transformational leadership

Bungay, S. (2009), The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain

Jenkins, R. (2001), Churchill: A Biography

Storr, A. (1997) Churchill’s Black Dog and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind

Thompson, J. (2009), Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory