Sunday, December 8, 2013

Israel at the Crossroads

            I have long believed that an experimentalist should not be unduly inhibited by theoretical untidiness. If he insists in having every last theoretical T crossed before he starts his research the chances are that he will never do a significant experiment. And the more significant and fundamental the experiment the more theoretical uncertainty may be tolerated. By contrast, the more important and difficult the experiment the more that experimental care is warranted. There is no point in attempting a half-hearted experiment with an inadequate apparatus.

Biographical Memoirs, Robert Henry Dicke
May 6, 1916-March 4, 1997

The Iranian revolution of 1979 brought forth a great schism between the United States and that religiously fervid theocracy.   And now the Obama administration is trying to achieve détente with a country that has viewed America as the “Great Satan” for the past 34 years.  A nation that, in 1979, violated the international rules of diplomacy by imprisoning US diplomats and is still driven by religious zealotry and intolerance.

Whether the American gambit on the geo-strategic chessboard will be successful is one of those questions being debated at the highest levels of government and, at the same time, is causing a great deal of angst among American Jewry, especially conservatives, most of whom now believe, along with the Netanyahu government that Israeli abandonment is the soupe de jour.
American interests and Israeli interests, in many respects, are diverging.  The United States, realizing, after Iraq, that it is almost powerless to alter events in the Arab world, is seeking to get off the road and let the actors involved determine the hegemonic outcome.   Israel, dependant on American military force is possibly facing existential threats from places that may no longer be controlled by American military power.

Strange times, these.   Israel is in alliance against Iran with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Egypt, now again a military dictatorship over 83 million people.   The religious feuds between Shia and Sunni smolder deeply.   These divisions have endured for 1,400 years and now have arisen to the surface of a world still militarily weaker than the United States, but increasingly less subject to its influence.   The colonialism of the British, French and Germans, who divided amongst themselves, the Arab and African worlds no longer exists.  It has vanished with the Raj that left India and Pakistan to their own antipathies. 

The bipolar power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union provided a type of stability that has faded away with the twentieth century.  States that were the clients of the two former hegemons are now free to set their own agendas, which no longer include the seeking of a protective umbrella from either the United States or the Russians, but do aspire for military support from the great powers against each other. (Iran and Egypt)  Our policy makers are now forced into the continual dilemma of who to support and picking the winner is not our great attribute.

Those who think that extra US aircraft carriers and bombs are the solution for our problems of loss of influence are deluding themselves in a haze of Theodore Rooseveltian reverie.  Most conservatives long for the past, but it is never to return.
Instead, we are engaged in a world struggle for the minds of the newly empowered, tweeting, and disaffected youth of countries that have their own agendas that do not necessarily coincide with ours.  Israel is not one of them--they are with us. This empowerment has upset the world order, and the great powers are struggling to devise a foreign policy that, to some extent, is mired in the past.  

New foreign policy in the United States is attempting to move past the old order.  "The forces of freedom against the forces of totalitarianism."   Existential angst against interests that no longer believe in the same definition of "threat." 

Our hope is that Iran, a nation of 70 million people and more than half of who are under 35 years of age, will move toward democracy.  The same for Egypt, but possibly less likely.  In examining the education level of the Iranian population, one could hope that reform will be swifter than we think.  Young, educated people are increasingly secular, and more susceptible to democratic ideals than the ignorance and superstition peddled by the Ayatollahs.  The present "faith based" Iran is reminiscent of 15th century Europe before the enlightenment, of Marxism before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even Nazism.  The latter two "isms” being religions of their own.

This enunciates a new reality for Americans, especially Jewish ones, who fear that any departure from the U.S.-Israel alliance constitutes the seeds of destruction for the Jewish State, which should perhaps pay more heed to the internal forces that threaten its existence:  Ultra Orthodox zealotry, continued occupation of the territories, expansion of settlements and the possible incorporation of a very likely, due to higher birth rate, Arab majority into the Israeli body politic should Israel annex the west bank, which seemingly is the intention of the Likud government as evidenced by the expansionism in the settlements.   These settlements are clear evidence of religious zealotry among the ultra Orthodox, who claim, without pretense, that God gave them the land of Judea and Samaria.   Therein lies the existential threat to Israel.

Even, however, if Israel cedes the territories and settlements or does land swaps for peace, there is no guarantee that the arrangement will bear fruit, because the forces that are now sweeping the Arab world are not really concerned with Israel.   They are concerned with promoting Shiite or Sunni prevalence.  They are engaged in a cultural/religious war, advancing their concept of Allah to the denigration of the other tribe whose Allah is not as genuine as the other's Allah.  It is not fanciful to say that generations may pass before the issue is resolved.

And now throw another ingredient into this nasty ragout--the incipient complete energy independence of the United States, making its need for middle east oil diminished to perhaps disruption of the entire OPEC economies; perhaps necessitating their own reformation, in education, the rights of women and in globalization.

All these forces render the problem seemingly more insoluble than the cold war.  It is an increasingly distressing picture that defies even the most creative of minds, except perhaps those who advance the dubious solution of bare American power, a cascade of bombings and war to bring all these forces to heel.  On the other hand, those of us who have lived long enough can remember the days when the Soviet monolith threatened to envelop the world in a wicked blanket of communism.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Thoughts on the Government Shutdown 2013

Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are the only safe depositories.

Thomas Jefferson

It is painful, even agonizing, to behold the spectacle of the Republic being bludgeoned by a group of tea party representatives intoning to get their way, a way that has already been set aside by the voters and a way that does not connect on any level with the national interest.

These ideologues will have their comeuppance, eventually, but at what harm to the Nation?

After all, there was an election, and the President won.   The House of Representatives arguably do not represent the people since the elected representatives have been the beneficiaries of extensive gerrymandering of congressional districts and hold office as an actual minority party.  More voters on a national level voted for the democrats in the House than the Republicans in the  2012 election.  The tea partiers, already in the minority party, are even more of a minority, but a very vocal yet vacuous one.  They are the right wing answer to the Abbie Hoffmans of the 60s.  They hold no mandate, yet they hold the government in a hammerlock.

The injustice of this arrangement becomes more and more obvious by the day.  This is a stunning testament to the dysfunction of our present system.   Not only is the Electoral College broken, but the methodology of electing congress is broken as well.

Somehow we have to reach an accommodation by which the elected representatives are actually representing the people.
They clearly are not, because the people, or at least a majority of them when calculated on a national level, did not vote for the tea party to be able to control the House of Representatives. And the House is being led by a mediocre politician who does not stand up to scrutiny as a leader.   We have known Sam Rayburn, we have known Tip O’Neil, we have known Dennis Hastert, and although they were all tinged and were flawed men, they knew how to get votes together so that the government could work.

Some say the political climate is more divisive these days, but if one looks back at our history, we cannot be so certain of that. Even though we had a civil war, slavery, a union torn asunder, we did not have Fox News and instant punsters shouting and bloviating on the television, infesting the Internet with vitriolic banter.   It is not a helpful or thoughtful atmosphere for accommodation and compromise.

Most of the voters, although subject to influence of pollsters asking questions of approval about national health care have expressed a favorable opinion concerning people with preexisting conditions being able to obtain insurance and to have access to health care.  They have also expressed the opinion that if someone is ill and had lost their job, they should still be covered.  Or that their children can remain on their policies until they are more independent.  One really cannot argue with that by saying that “Obama care will put the government between you and your doctor.”   That is a lie.  Insurance companies are always feeding their bottom line and they have come between you and your doctor also, but Republicans do not like to point that out, because those are the lobbyists whom they serve.  They advanced those arguments against a single payer, at the behest of those same insurance companies.  Most seniors like Medicare and do not think that the government intrudes in their health care decisions.

Now we are faced with the spectacle of our government having been shut down by a minion of yokels who are afraid they will lose their primary to the more ideological ultra conservatives.   What is even more disturbing is that these conservatives have misread the demographic trajectory on which the country is headed—more progressive, not more conservative.  So the electorate will speak again next year and the results will be even more crushing for them in 2014 than they were in 2012.  Perhaps then they will understand.  Ted Cruz is a McCarthyesque caricature,  the embodiment of demagoguery, and if he had been here 60 years ago he would have been railing about Communists taking over the world.

When one thinks that the House voted 42 times to repeal a law that they knew would not be passed by either the Senate or not vetoed by President, instead of working to address other important issues facing the country, such as immigration reform, tax reform, passing a budget, education, defense expenditure cuts, and foreign policy decisions, to name a few, it sends a shudder through us all, realizing that our government needs fixing both in the manner of electing representatives, the composition of the House, and of electing the President.   We are delayed in our progress in an increasingly competitive world.  And time is of the essence.  American exceptionalism, if it existed at all, is threatened by knuckleheaded congressmen who belong elsewhere.

The arguments in earlier columns expressed in this space concerning a constitutional rewrite become more evident with each passing year, our 18th century constitution creaking and moaning under the strain of 21st century vicissitudes.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Mormons, the Chief Rabbi and the State of Israel as well as other Miracles

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”

Thomas Jefferson

The Chief Rabbi

An article appeared in today's New York Times concerning the controversy over who will be the new chief Rabbi of Israel. One candidate, an ultra Orthodox and the other, a "moderate."  The moderate rabbi seeks to create a dialog among the disparate secular Israeli Jews and the more orthodox that wishes to shutter the country on the Sabbath.   There is a growing ultra Orthodox minority that seeks, as in most theocracies, to dominate political decisions in the running of the state.   These are the same minions (excuse the pun) who wish not to serve in the army so they can study the Torah, a fourth century text, and as interpreted in the Talmud by various rabbinical authorities throughout the following centuries.  The Torah, of course, written when people thought the world was flat and that if one approached the edge in a boat, they would plunge over the edge, sort of like going over Niagara falls in a barrel.  This as a predicate for governing a modern state.

Really?  Modern technocratic Israel in the throes of Ayatollah imitators?  A chief Rabbi?  A state based upon a burning bush and a staff turned into a serpent? The chief rabbi enjoys a ten year term.  The article in the New York Times stated that the institution of the chief rabbi had its origins in the 17th century Ottoman empire, but that he is now paid $100,000 a year to dispense religious edicts and spiritual leadership, including who may marry in Israel, among which, the preposterous proposition of a woman's marital status being determined, among other things, by the husband granting a divorce if she were not a maiden.
Women’s equality under Orthodox Judaism? Hardly an issue at all.

Many Israelis are now demanding that the state wrench religion away from the rabbinate and from the authority granted by the government.  The rabbis argue that in the Middle East, strong religious strictures are required to compete with the antipathetic nature (religious and otherwise) of nearby Arab governments.  They argue that only religion provides the cohesiveness to do so.  These are the same people who push for more settlements on "God given" land, when in fact, it was the British and French who gave the land to two peoples at the dissolution of the Ottoman empire at the conclusion of World War I.  Thank you very much.

Mormon disillusionment

At the same time, another article appeared this week concerning an elder of the Mormon church who was disillusioned over the false teachings of the church, its doctrine providing convenient mythology concerning Brigham Young and Joseph Smith who were actually polygamists and hucksters.   The Book of Mormon holding that Native Americans were descendents of the Jews (the lost tribe) and the translation of that good Book appearing upon golden plates which were buried in upstate New York.  This church elder, after believing all the hokum for 30 years has just awakened from a drug induced slumber?   See

In reality Joseph Smith, a Mormon founder, was killed by a mob in Missouri after trying to hide his polygamy.  He had published many revelations regarded as scripture according to his followers, who regard him as a prophet of the stature of Moses or Elijah.  To this extent he probably was, but he did not have the centuries to provide a foundation for his fantasies.   Brigham Young, the other Mormon founder, was actually born in Vermont and became a successor to Smith two years after Smith's ignominious demise. Young, aside from his polygamy, believed that those mixing the seed of white people with the African race should be subject to death and banned all black people from the Mormon priesthood.  He was also implicated in a massacre of immigrants (Mountain Meadow) passing through Utah. 

He deserves credit for founding Salt Lake City, however.

Miracles and other fantasies (as pointed out by a Roman Catholic friend of mine)

The Catholic church requires a formulary of miracles to occur for the foundations of Sainthood, according to Wikipedia:

The steps for the recognition of the miracle follow the new rules laid down in 1983 by the apostolic constitutionDivinus Perfectionis Magister. The new legislation establishes two procedural stages: the diocesan one and that of what is known as the Roman Congregation. The first takes place within the diocese where the prodigious event happened. The bishop opens the enquiry on the presumed miracle in which the depositions of the eyewitnesses questioned by a duly constituted court are gathered, as well as the complete clinical and instrumental documentation inherent to the case. In the second, the Congregation examines the documents sent and eventual supplementary documentation, pronouncing its judgment on the matter.

The miracle may go beyond the possibilities of nature either in the substance of the fact or in the subject, or only in the way it occurs. So three degrees of miracle are to be distinguished. The first degree is represented by resurrection from the dead (quoad substantiam). The second concerns the subject (quoad subiectum): the sickness of a person is judged incurable, in its course it can even have destroyed bones or vital organs; in this case not only is complete recovery noticed, but even wholesale reconstitution of the organs (restitutio in integrum). There is then a third degree (quoad modum): recovery from an illness, that treatment could only have achieved after a long period, happens instantaneously.

Miracles as a precedent to becoming a saint speak volumes as to the rationality of religious belief.  Pope Pius XII, about whom books were written concerning his German advisers, his not speaking out about loathsome, grotesque Nazi crimes against humanity, and his pardoning of German war criminals, might prove miraculous itself were he elevated to Sainthood. Under the Reichskonkordat, (the agreement between the Vatican and the Third Reich) Pius made a deal with von Ribbentrop and Hitler.  And as Einstein said, “how can you make a deal with God and Satin at the same time?”  See Hitler's Pope (1999) by John Cornwell.
Pius XII is still shrouded in controversy and Pope Benedict/Ratzinger, before resigning, and German himself, did not declare Pius had met the criteria.   Ratzinger was too busy shuffling priests around from parish to parish and spending church money to defend itself against civil and criminal activities, and finally resigning to avoid the intense heat, which is where people go who have sinned, we are told.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Educational Necessities in the Brave New World

The three laws of robotics:

1.  A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2.  A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Isaac Asimov, "Runaround"  (1942)

I know a few people who have interesting theories why American cities and society are in a state of decay, evincing a huge disparity of rich and poor.    Some of these technocratic people believe that uneducated masses are not able to compete in an increasingly mathematically meritocratic environment.  They believe that because these non-pocket protector dullards are not educated in math, science, engineering or physical science, they will fail, they will be subject to the whims of other societies with more technically adept citizens who can win the coming math-a-thon.

There is a superficial element of truth in this premise.   But this is only a temporary transitional phase in the journey of mankind. 

The world of new technology, they say, favors those scientifically trained; the people who lack that education will become increasingly unemployable.  But that only forebodes a perhaps even more ambivalent human dénouement.

Those who argue that the uneducated will be obliged to inhabit an unteremenschen sector of the economy, doomed to flip burgers or wait tables fail to recognize that even some classes of those educated in science and technology can also easily be  made unemployable and probably and inevitably will involuntarily be cast among their more less accomplished brethren.

This class of putative elites will be replaced by artificially intelligent machines that are exponentially increasing their abilities to learn, to work--to think.   These machines are being engineered to make human technologic endeavor obsolete.  They will be inevitably more competent than humans in calculations, engineering, equations, and any process that requires any form of mathematical skill.  The skills will go beyond mathematics.   In some respects they already do.
These machines are our children, our progeny, our descendents.  No human can compete with a machine that does not die, that does not fail, that has no biologic or moving parts--a machine that can endure infinitely through self-maintenance, artificially obtained intelligence and self-replication.  The precursors to these machines are here already although still somewhat primitive in form.  The machines that answer the phone and ask us questions, that asks us to make choices, the robots that assemble cars, and a plethora of devices that have already replaced humans on the assembly line, in the bank, in the hospital and elsewhere.  

They are more and more ubiquitous every day. 

Anyone over 50 can remember what it was like before computers.  Statements about science and technology requirements for human employment made today will have no bearing perhaps as early as ten or fifteen years from now.  Admittedly, one would need that knowledge to get a job today, but we are not convinced that it will do any good as an exponential explosion of computing and robotic power will make the average human mathematician or engineer as unnecessary as a buggy whip.  Already machines make medical diagnoses, beat humans at chess, and even play "Jeopardy" better than humans. Playing Jeopardy requires subtle understanding of plays on words, social nuance, and irony.   While it is true that scientifically trained humans created these machines, these benevolent Frankensteins will ultimately take over all human scientific endeavor.  Cyborgs will be programmed with the total sum of human knowledge; humans may remain their creators, but it is not certain they will remain their masters.

Humanities, philosophy, music and art will be what distinguish human from machine and even then we are not so certain.  The law will protect us (see Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics, above) and remain even more relevant than ever before.  But probably not in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Will machines compose symphonies? Pour their emotions out on great works of art?  Feel pain? Be spiritual?  Or will that be left to humans?

Emotions and feelings are not something in which machines are conversant.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Constitution 2.0

"The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

Julius Caesar (I,ii,140-141)
"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Thomas Jefferson (The Declaration of Independence)

          The Constitution of the United States has been amended 27 times, the last of which, proposed in 1789, was not ratified until 1992.  The amendment dealt with congress being unable to raise its own pay until an election had intervened.  Many Americans are familiar with some of the other amendments, limitation of Presidential terms to two, prohibition, repeal of prohibition, universal suffrage, and of course, the first ten amendments (the bill of rights).


          Originalists like Antonin Scalia believe that the interpretation of the document should remain as though we all were living in the 18th century, when citizens and a militia used muskets with flintlocks, fighting savage Indians.


          Amending the constitution is a difficult and lengthy process.  It must first be passed by the Senate and the House and then be ratified by the states, taking years. Some amendments just die, not having been ratified, like the Equal Rights amendment.


          The document serving us admirably throughout our history is in need of some changes.  The intense debate over the second amendment and whether it is directed towards a militia or an individual’s right to bear arms has been a continuing subject for constitutional scholars and advocates for either side of the issue.


          In addition, the rules of the U.S. Senate need revision.  We are the only democracy in the world where the majority does not rule.  In the old days, the filibuster had actually to be performed to avoid a vote.  Now, only the threat of a filibuster prevents legislation from reaching the floor for a vote.  And to make matters worse, there need be 60 votes out of 100 to pass important legislation.   Two senators from a state representing 500,000 people have the same clout as two senators from a state with 35,000,000 people.


          Tracing the origin of our federal system is a history replete with slave and free states being admitted to the Union under a system of compromise and discord.  Now, we can no longer afford this absurd debate.  If Puerto Rico, for example, chooses to be admitted as the 51st state, there will be no issue whether its people, who are already US citizens, will be slave or free or count as 3/5ths of a person for representational purposes.


          The point of the matter is that a good bit of the constitution is anachronistic..  Except that we are laboring mightily to work our government under its weight.


          It needs a rewrite.  


          Most of it is still awfully good and should be included in the 2.0 version.  And the rewrite should include the bill of rights.  The second amendment should be reinterpreted or re written so the blockheads at the NRA and the Supreme Court can understand it.



          Unfortunately, powerful lobbyists govern and intimidate Senators from the job they must do--pass legislation for the sake of all Americans--not for the sake of the NRA, which for the most part, represents gun manufacturers.   Why, for the sake of goodness, need there be 300 million guns in circulation, many of them assault type military rifles designed for maximum killing of other humans?  A good plan would be for the government to buy back guns, as the Australians did, who saw an 90% drop in gun violence soon after the buyback.


          The U.S. Senate, it seems , is populated by  set of pusillanimous cowards, who care more about being re-elected than doing what is the greater good.


          How, then can we possibly rewrite the constitution? 


          Retaining a bicameral legislature would not be harmful to this country.  There could still be an upper and lower chamber, but the workings of them need to be governed by a majority vote, not a system designed to ensure gridlock.  In this past election, for example, gerrymandered districts allowed representatives who were not elected by a majority of the popular vote to control the House of Representatives.


          This is tantamount to disenfranchisement of voters who, in a recent poll, stated by 90% that they were in favor of background checks for gun buyers.


          We need to have the courage to tell our representatives what we really want, and not allow our voices to be submerged by the slick machinery of those who would subvert our liberty for their own financial gain disguised by concern for the ability of Americans who think they need rapid fire weapons to protect themselves.


          When we lose our voice and our representatives do not represent us, it is our duty to change them, to speak out, to make our wishes known.   Our senators and congressmen are supposed to be working for us, but the evidence is that they are not.


          Some alteration is in order.





Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The State of the Union 2013

President Obama has given a rhetorically flourished SOU address, setting forth much of his legislative agenda for the next year, a year in which he has been reelected under a considerable mandate, both in electoral and popular votes.  His message included an appeal for education and tax reform, asking the Congress to create a high tech infrastructure, a report on the troops coming home soon, an appeal to cut expenditures, and for smarter Medicare and even gun control.  Many ideas were not new; but still quite necessarily overdue.  John Boehner sat stone faced next to an animated Joe Biden, Boehner deciding when and when not to applaud.  It was a sort of surreal experience. 

Time was when the President sent his State of the Union message to the Congress in written form, the live delivery of which did not begin until Woodrow Wilson, and really not annually until FDR began a tradition of a speech to both houses of Congress.

Republicans, through some highly creative gerrymandering, have retained control of the House of Representatives, albeit with somewhat less puissance than in the last congress.  They are now scrambling to reinvent themselves to a demographically metamorphosized electorate consisting of more young, Latino and African-American voters who do not buy Republican theories of less government, less health care, more military spending and low taxes on  super wealthy "job creators," many of whom collect dividends and do nothing in particular to create anything except an unusual amount of bloviation.   That left of center demographic grew dramatically between 2008 and 2012.  Even people like Newt Gingrich applauded the competence of the democratic campaign for its efficiency and delivery of its message.

Following the President's speech, a visibly nervous, hyperactive and perspiring Marco Rubio pleaded for an agenda that sounded like a retread of Mitt Romney's campaign stump speeches.   Aggressively accusing the President of trying to wreck Social Security, the National defense and pleading the standard rightist arguments for less government, he excoriated a lack of free choice under Obamacare,  unfettered support for the second amendment, and various other shopworn Republican trickle-down bromides. Leaning over for a drink of water as his rapid fire speech patterns betrayed a bit of stage fright, this being his first nationally televised appearance, he seemed, as a CBS commentator said,  looked like a light fixture had fallen on his head.

In all fairness to young Rubio, who is only 41, and anointed on the cover of Time Magazine as the "Republican Savior" on its most recent cover, he was alone in a room and competing with the President who received a standing ovation every other sentence, and spoke for an hour. Rubio's appeal to prayer and to God is becoming less and less believable to voters as America increasingly secularizes.

Marco Rubio, nevertheless, seemingly tone-deaf delivered a message that had been repudiated by the electorate just two months ago.

If Rubio is counting on the electorate to move back to the right in 2016, he should do some real hard thinking about that prospect.  Telling the story of his humble origins only goes so far.
One could reasonably extrapolate that in another 4 years, the electorate will be even less receptive to Rubio's message than it was to Mitt Romney's this time around.  

The idea that America is polarized is true, but one side of the polarity growing, whilst the other is shrinking.  So if Republicans want to win another election they will have to continue to suppress voter rights, keep brainy immigrants out, or send out a different message. Protecting special interests and wealthy donors cannot be part of that message.  All of the Super PAC candidates lost despite the efforts of Carl Rove, Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, and others of their ilk.

If you watch a rerun of the SOU speech please note that John Boehner did not applaud when the President asked for a law to make it easier for people to vote; he was fearful of not keeping his tea party minions as large a plurality.