Friday, July 22, 2005

Interlude (cont.): Liberty, Wilderness, and Wildness

July is a very poor time for blogging, because July is a good time for wilderness expeditions. (Admittedly this standard may imply there is never a good time for blogging, but I'll bypass that issue for now.) I've just finished the Devil's Backbone 50 mile trail run this past weekend and am about to take off on nine days of mountaineering, trekking, and trailrunning in Montana and Wyoming. Prior to the DB50 a sports reporter for the local newspaper interviewed me re why ultrarunners run ultras.
While hardly any of our 20 minute conversation made the article, it did get me thinking about a tangential point that needs to be made...

What do wilderness activities have to do with libertarianism? A great deal, I think. Libertarianism is much more than distrust of government "solutions" to problems -- real libertarianism is first of all a love of liberty and of life. This love can take many forms, but it is always manifested in enthusiasm for living, in passion for activities of life. And there is perhaps nothing that more systematically puts a person into such a frame than spending time in "nature," as a fit, free-ranging animal, in touch with the earth and comfortable with being here.

Out of touch with "nature" runs the risk of being out of touch with reality -- a life too insulated leads to us to forget too much. And a life that is too easy, overfed, underchallenged, with others making sure that nothing "bad" happens to us -- this leads us to expect not freedom to pursue happiness, but rather "happy" outcomes...and if we don't receive them, someone else is to blame (sue 'em! pass a law!)

When we learn to live and be comfortable in the wild, and to really be a part of it, we give ourselves a very different understanding of the world. We learn self-responsibility, that we, not others, bear primary responsibility for taking care of ourselves -- when you are all alone at mile 35 in the midst of a 50 mile backcountry trail run, or find yourself "exhausted" on a glacier with a 12,000 foot pass between you and basecamp, this lesson comes quickly and easily. (It's the only thing that comes easily at that point.) We also learn what a beautiful universe we are a part of -- this is two lessons really. Spend enough time inthe wilderness, and you begin to notice things -- creatures, plants, events, connections -- that you never imagined. And spend enough time in the wilderness, learn to live comfortably there, and you begin to notice yourself as an integral and proper part of the universe. It's a feeling that is essential to a real appreciation of liberty.

Thomas Paine knew this well:

"But if objects for gratitude and admiration are our desire, do they not present themselves every hour to our eyes? Do we not see a fair creation prepared to receive us the instant we are born — a world furnished to our hands, that cost us nothing? Is it we that light up the sun, that pour down the rain, and fill the earth with abundance? Whether we sleep or wake, the vast machinery of the universe still goes on. Are these things, and the blessings they indicate in future, nothing to us?" (Age of Reason, Pt I Sec 3

Similarly, Thomas Jefferson hoped we would become a nation of farmer-citizens -- independent, close to earth and nature, self-sufficient if need be:

"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if He ever had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth." (Notes from Virginia

Perhaps the division of labor and modernization of agriculture preclude us from all being farmers, but we can still cultivate in ourselves the characteristics Jefferson saw as essential for a free people -- independence, self-reliance, understanding and appreciation of nature. But this is difficult to do when we live lives that are overly-insulated and un-vigorous, spending all of our time in artificially lit boxes, mesmerized by electronic entertainments. We begin to forget we are wild animals, and turn into domestic ones, ready to be controlled by whomever picks up our lead ropes.

This is no plea for for luddism or anything similar. We needn't (and shouldn't) foreswear technology, specialization and the division of labor, nor the extended market order that makes us interdependent. But neither should we forget who and what we are: properly, we are wild animals in a wild and wonderful universe. We need to cultivate this in ourselves, for our own sakes. It isn't absolutely necessary to do 100 mile trail runs or summit snow-covered peaks to do this...but it is necessary that we find for ourselves challenges, that we learn to see ourselves as a magnificent part of a magnificent universe, and that we work to build our own independence and encourage this in others.

For one of the finest fusions of thinking about libertarianism, wilderness, and fitness, go over to GoAnimal (see the links section of this blog), take their "Wildness Personality Profile" test, and then get outside and do something exciting. July is a very poor time for blog reading.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Bastille Day Interlude: Some Thoughts on Epictetus

I’ll return to the theme of critiquing the neoconservative policy of the Bush administration, next looking at a centerpiece of domestic policy. For a variety of reasons, I’ll delay this for at least a week – one of which is that it’s not a good idea to focus exclusively on the negative.

Tom Palmer and Daniel Slate have both given ringing endorsements of Epictetus’ “Enchiridion” and Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.”

I only have to be told twice, and have just obtained copies of each. I’ve finished Enchiridion (only once, but will certainly reread it) and have a few random thoughts. These are, of course, based on my own understanding of Enchiridion and are my own “thinking aloud.”

1. In Chapter I, Epictetus distinguishes between that which we have power to control and that which we do not. In this chapter and elsewhere he also notes that “appearances,” or what we take to be external things, are often our own *interpretations* of external things. Once we understand this, we can determine exactly what aspects of something are in our control, and then determine how we will respond to it. Compare this to the example given by Miyamoto Musashi in “Book of Five Rings:” a robber, pursued by a band of soldiers, runs into a small hut, which the soldiers surround. The robber looks at the situation and thinks “the situation is grim – I’m surrounded.” Outside, the soldiers think to themselves “the situation is grim – he’s in a fortified position.” Epictetus and Musashi would both have us instead say, “the robber is in a small hut.”

How much of what we “objectively know” about the world is our own interpretation? For each of us, to be able to distinguish between what we observe and our interpretation of it is one of the most fundamental tasks for understanding our world and ourselves. To do otherwise leads us into confusion.

2. In Chapter XV, Epictetus tells us that in life we ought to behave as at a banquet – taking moderate portions as dishes pass, and not wildly grabbing at dishes or taking inordinate portions. He then observes, “But if you take none of the things which are set before you, and even despise them, then you will be not only a fellow banqueter with the gods, but also a partner with them in power.”

But how to follow this last principle? Taken to an extreme, it would mean forgoing life (and how can anything be taken other than to an extreme – a question any ultrarunner will ask). That we are on earth means we’ve received the ultimate gift – existence – and our one responsibility is to make the most of this gift. We do this only by indeed taking what is given to us. This is the proper way to enjoy a banquet – to take what is offered to us, and to help our neighbors do the same.

3. Chapter XXXVII: “If you have assumed a character above your strength, you have both acted in this matter in an unbecoming way, and you have neglected that which you might have fulfilled.” But what is our proper character and our strength? These are whatever we make them, not things that are external, are they not? As the existentialist would suggest, what we actually are is what we actually do.

4. Chapter L tells us that it is one thing to know what we should do, and quite another to do it. Why “accept” a principle and yet not live by it? As a friend once put it, any “principle” that we profess but fail to live by is no principle for us at all. Epictetus: “Immediately, then, think it right to live as a full-grown man, and one who is making proficiency, and let everything which appears to you to be the best be to you a law which must not be transgressed.”

Thanks go to those libertarian Stoics, Palmer and Slate, for recommending this stimulating handbook.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Ike, 43, and the Failure of Neocon Ideology

In Dwight Eisenhower’s excellent memoir “Crusade in Europe” he recounts the circumstances he faced when appointed Supreme Commander of the (Western) Allies in World War II. There was no particular reason at that point to believe that the Allies had any chance of winning: in Europe, Britain and France had just been crushed by Germany, and the Soviet Union seemed to be collapsing under the German onslaught. Elsewhere, the U.S. Pacific Fleet was still reeling from the battering at Pearl Harbor, and throughout the Pacific and China the Japanese were advancing nearly unopposed. Eisenhower observes that in these dark times, one of his first problems was building a staff that actually believed the Allies could and would defeat the Axis powers. He managed to assemble such a staff, and then notes, “Any expression of defeatism or any failure to push ahead in confidence was instant cause for relief from duty, and all officers knew it.”

These words capture for me the proper attitude for tackling life in general, and I try to live by them. I repeat them here because I wish to keep them clearly in mind in what follows.

In light of the recent bombings in London, it is important to reflect on a few points. The Bush administration argues that we are in a long run war on terrorism, and that we must “push ahead in confidence.” But some facts are obvious.

1. The United States are not at war. Article I Section 8 of the Constitution specifically grants to Congress, and only to Congress, the power to declare war. Nowhere else in the Constitution is any power to declare war granted to anyone. Congress has not declared war. Given that the United States are not (yet) a lawless banana republic, we are not at war. (Perhaps conservative “strict constructionists” should chew on that a while.)

2. A “war on terror” makes no more sense than a war on Blitzkrieg, or a war on indirect artillery fire, or a war on combined arms operations. Terror is a tactic, not an enemy.

3. The American invasion and occupation of Iraq was planned and conducted on false pretenses, and with poor understanding of what was being done. I’ll dwell on this "old history," because it is essential to understanding what is now occurring.

Note the ever changing rationale given by Bush administration members: the initial excuse for war – given to the American people – was an alleged connection to Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack. In taking the case for war to the world, the Bush administration next claimed that war was necessary because Iraq was close to possessing WMDs (this assertion based on “secret evidence” that the U.S. could not share with foreign governments for fear of jeopardizing sources). After the invasion it became clear to the U.S. government that Saddam had no WMDs nor programs, hence the excuse became the need to eliminate a dictatorship, an excuse that then morphed into a need to establish democracy in the Middle East.

These shifting rationales are given the lie by the actual plans the Bush administration, members of which advocated overthrowing Saddam well before there was a Bush administration (e.g. Paul Wolfowitz in Foreign Affairs, March/April 1999). Bush’s first Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, notes how he learned with surprise that in the first ten days of the Bush administration, “Getting Hussein was now the administration’s focus, that much was already clear.” Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz were all explicit about this (Suskind, The Price of Loyalty, pp. 75-86). He also notes “There was never any rigorous talk about this sweeping idea that seemed to be driving all the specific actions. …From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country. And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The President saying, ‘Fine. Go find me a way to do this.’”

O’Neill further notes that to his amazement by mid-March 2001 the administration had actual plans to invade and occupy Iraq “complete with disposition of oil fields, peacekeeping forces, and war crimes tribunals…” (p. 129, Suskind’s words).

Immediately following the 9/11 attacks (September 15) Wolfowitz began the campaign to shift America’s response from Al Qaeda to Iraq, and O’Neill notes that invading Iraq was the primary focus of the administration, relying on the “fixed” intelligence mentioned by the Downing Street memos. O’Neill repeatedly laments the absence of actual facts and hard-nosed analysis behind the decision to attack Iraq.

Unfortunately, the unwarranted attack on Iraq diverted America from its pursuit of its real enemy, Al Qaeda.

4. As O’Neill notes, and subsequent events have made clear to all, there was not any serious consideration of how to deal with a post-war Iraq. The prevailing ideology was, as we all know, that Iraqis would welcome America with open arms and quickly adopt liberal democracy. Unfortunately this was nonsense. We know that the Iraqi insurgency is firstly home-grown. But of course it is also true that there is a growing foreign militant Islamist presence – a country that was not a center for Al Qaeda prior to the American invasion has become one. American military commanders correctly note that there is no military solution to the debacle – each time a foreign Islamic militant is killed he’s replaced by two more. And each time an Iraqi civilian becomes our “collateral damage” another Iraqi joins the insurgency. And the folly of occupying a hostile country with insufficient troops has become obvious.

5. By rushing into an unnecessary war on flimsy pretenses and without building genuine international support for the war, the Bush administration threw away the overwhelming support and respect that the U.S. enjoyed around the world following the 9/11 attack. The rest of the world –the French, for example – proved to be correct – there was no WMD threat from Iraq, and outside of the United States everyone can see the flimsiness of the Bush administration’s shifting excuses for the invasion. No one has done more to discredit American ideals around the world than this administration.

The evidence is clear that the Bush crew – addled by its own ideological fixations – has blundered horribly. America’s military is being worn down in an unwinnable conflict that is proving to be the jihadists’ best recruiting and training tool. As our Vice President announces that the insurgency is on its “last legs,” well-coordinated attacks hit the diplomatic representatives to Iraq from multiple Muslim countries, London is bombed, and the Secretary of Defense announces that America will likely be fighting the insurgency for another 12 years.

Guided by ideology, rather than facts and rational analysis, the administration is giving us a Keystone Cops approach to the “war on terror.” Rather than pursue war on a genuine enemy, Al Qaeda, they chose to declare “war” on a tactic; and then in turn to use this as an opportunity to pursue their own ideological fixations. We’ve stupidly grabbed the tail of a tiger – that of occupying an unfriendly country and attempting the fool’s errand of nation-building – and now what?

Rather than parrot “stay the course,” we ought to consider what Eisenhower really was saying when he insisted that on pushing ahead in confidence. “Push ahead” with what? Eisenhower based all of his decision making on a well defined and sensible objective – the utter defeat of Nazi Germany. The Allies did not make “war on Blitzkrieg.” They did not invade places irrelevant to this goal, say Argentina (even though there were likely more Nazis in pre-war Argentina than Al Qaeda jihadists in Hussein’s Iraq). And they built a genuine coalition against the Axis. (Eisenhower’s memoir makes it clear that holding this alliance together was among his most important and challenging tasks.)

Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems to be impervious to learning from its mistakes, perhaps because this would require admitting to mistakes. It also appears to be in disarray and confusion as events unfold in ways that falsify its ideology. Hence we continue to drive down a road – perhaps to disaster. It is not defeatism to ask for a reality check, to reconsider whether or not we are doing the wrong things. But there’s no sign that any reality check is occurring.

What’s the solution? Well, if I were in charge…but I am not in charge and don’t have any solution. It is a bit late to point out what was obvious long before the American invasion of Iraq, that the invasion was a mistake. I don’t know what you should do once you’ve grabbed a tiger’s tail – that’s exactly why you shouldn’t grab the damned thing in the first place.

If there’s any practical advice in this essay, perhaps it’s the following – maybe as individuals we should contemplate and prepare for what might happen if the U.S. is defeated in Iraq. I’ll not dwell deeply on this here – this entry is too long as it is – but consider three likely consequences: increased support for jihadist groups in the Muslim world, increased terror attacks in the west, and increased repression at home as “stabbed in the back” theories proliferate (one staple of conservative talk radio on 7 July was pinning ultimate blame for the London attacks on “the liberals” and even on Clinton, and as I write this on 8 July Rush Limbaugh is reciting a long list of democrats and liberals who are “sympathetic to terrorism," his words, not mine). (“Stabbed in the back” is a reference to Hitler's hypothesis that Germany lost W.W.I because it was betrayed by traitors at home.)

It is a sickening picture. But it’s the likely result of “pushing ahead in confidence” with strategy built not on reason and facts but addled neoconservative ideology.

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