Nukes!

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In my novel, Defining Diana, I refer to a brief war that left the Korean peninsula a radioactive ruin. While science fiction writers are sometimes believed to be prescient (though their success is vastly overrated), this is one area where I hope my inadvertent prediction proves wrong.

I suspect it likely will.

Clearly North Korea intends to become (has already become) a nuclear power, capable of raining death down on all its perceived enemies, the real question is: what can be done about it?

Not much it seems. Officially there are seven members of the nuclear club – USA, Russia, China, England, France, India and Pakistan – with North Korea getting ready to join. Most strategic experts are certain that Israel also has the bomb, and South Africa used to have six—but got rid of them (some good news at least) though presumably they still have the technology. Five NATO countries have nukes on their soil and while former soviet republics gave up their bombs and signed on to monitoring, not every warhead is accounted for. And let’s not forget Iran. And South Korea may be rethinking their own no-nukes policy. So much for non-proliferation efforts of the last fifty years.

The good news is that while lots of people have the bomb and the means to deliver it to targets far and wide (almost as difficult a feat as building the bomb itself), no one actually has, since the Americans dropped two of them on Japan in 1945.

That’s really quite remarkable. Since India and Pakistan both developed the weapons, they’ve actually been to war a couple of times. If Israel has nukes (they tend to be cagey about it), they must have at least been tempted to use them once or twice during their interminable conflicts with the Arab world. Yet both showed restraint.

China and India are currently engaged in an increasingly tense border dispute yet no one seriously thinks Delhi and Beijing are going to go up in flames.

Historically we’ve often been closer to nuclear war than we are right now – during the Cuban missile crisis and at the height of the Star Wars threats of Reagan and the response of the USSR to those threats. But missiles never flew.

Why does North Korea worry us so much? Well, they are highly militarized and are led by a narcissistic leader who believes in making his nation great. That should worry everyone.

But this has actually been true in North Korea for some time. Their military is huge and well-armed, thanks to the ability of the world’s arms industry to largely avoid sanctions by the UN. China hasn’t helped, using N Korea as a useful tool to make themselves look reasonable while they practice economic and, to a lesser extent, military imperialism. Many think China will eventually clamp down on Kim Jong Un if he gets out of hand.

But it may not be so easy. In the sixties, the great powers kept a firm hand on the military and nationalistic ambitions of their client states. But with the proliferation of conventional weapons – which kill as many every year as the nukes did in Japan—client states are no longer so compliant.

Still, everyone knows, even madmen (and it is not clear that N Korea’s leaders are any madder or more power hungry than those leading a dozen other national governments), that there is no profit—however you define that—in a dead world. I guess as long as we never have a world leader who thinks they have a role in bringing about the prophesied end of the world we should be okay.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Doctrinal Purity

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Before he became the ruler of the city-state of Geneva, John Calvin was noted for, among other things, his writings on religious tolerance. During the five years as head of a government – not so much. He oversaw the execution—mostly by burning at the stake—of more than 50 people for heresy. Calvin was catholic in his approach – not capital-C Catholic of course but ‘universal’ as the word also means. He killed pretty much anyone who disagreed with his particular interpretation of the Bible and God’s word. And, if anything, he seemed to dislike his fellow Protestants the most.

Doctrinal purity is a dangerous thing. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Careful how you answer that or you could find yourself catapulted away just like those who can’t figure out the ground speed of an unladen swallow. There is always a finer point of questioning to catch you up. As for three-in-on or one-in-in three, unless you are talking about lubricating oil, you had best shut up.

Thankfully times have changed. You can no longer be burned at the stake for getting some trivial religious interpretation wrong. These days it is more likely to be beheading or maybe just a bullet to the head. But not in the west, surely?

Well, surely not. Here we are satisfied with jailing people for defamation or perhaps shouting them down at a political meeting. Slap suits are a common tool of the rich to silence people who question how they got their money. And give them enough power and they may just remove your right to speak at all.

I recall once being accused of being a Trotskyite by a fellow NDP party member as a way of shutting me up. But that was nothing.  Now you’d best be careful of what you say on any cultural issue or you may find yourself in for a Twitter storm of abuse or much worse – having the SWAT team called to your house by an anonymous tip. Not exactly a walk in the park.

Both left and right have considerable aversion to each other’s shibboleths and doctrines but I sometimes think they hold out their strongest criticism for those within their own ranks who deviate from the received Truth. Just read a few of the repulsive alt-right tweets about John McCain’s recent diagnosis with brain cancer or the silencing of any voice that doesn’t toe the identity politics line – check please (your privilege that is). Silence is far preferable – and apparently safer – than critical analysis or questioning of someone’s facts.

Everyone, of course, can lay claim to their own opinions but increasingly they lay claim to their own facts, too. Cries of fake news started by the right have been embraced by the left just as political correctness, originally a weapon of the left against their own, was appropriated by the right. Oh, and don’t get me started on appropriation.

Of course, the left argue they have the high ground since, while the right rely on religion, they believe in science, except when it comes to the disquieting studies that show GMOs or vaccines aren’t dangerous or that eating meat may not be as environmentally dangerous as we thought.  I could go on but who needs the abuse.

Well, pox on all of them, I say. And if you don’t agree, well, sit down, shut up and wait your turn on the grill. And that’s ten minutes.

Tolerating Evil

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How much tolerance do you have for evil? Most of us like to think we have very little and, on one level, that may be true. As long as we are fairly certain that what we are considering is truly evil and as long as we feel we can actually do something about it, our tolerance is pretty low. Damn right I would step up to stop Hitler! But what about Goering? Some nameless Captain in the SS? How about the skinhead next door? Would you slap down the well-dressed and well-spoken head of a neo-Nazi or alt-right group?

Probably – if you didn’t think you would get stabbed.

Still, actually figuring out what is evil is the hard part. It’s easy in retrospect. Obviously whoever lost the fight (i.e., the Nazis, the slaveholders) was evil. Or, where there is no clear winner or loser, we can all agree that evil was done – though sometimes we can’t quite figure out by whom.

But that’s retrospectively, right? In the late 1930s, there were plenty of people—including the former king of England—that thought Hitler wasn’t a bad sort, if a little hysterical. At first, Idi Amin had his supporters and, given that he lived out his life in comfortable exile, continued to have them after he was deposed. Alt-right guys probably think they are doing the proper thing—if only the 99% of people who don’t support their agenda could see it.

They say that all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. But that, of course, presumes you have the capital T truth about what is good. Missionaries that wound up destroying indigenous cultures and supporting the slave trade justified themselves by saying they were bringing salvation to the heathens. Communists who instituted the Cultural Revolution in China surely did it to bring about the glorious freedom of pure socialism.

But let’s bring it down to some simple things. If you see a man hitting his spouse or a mother wailing away on their child, would you personally intervene? Would you call the cops? Would you say: It’s a private manner?

I once witnessed a mugging. One of the muggers (they were all pretty young but there were five of them) showed me a knife. I decided not to do anything except watch it unfold. I had time to decide that, if no one got hurt, I would let things unfold. It was only money, right? Afterwards I realized that waiting until after the victim was stabbed would have been too late (no one got stabbed by the way). I was furious at myself but would I do any different today? I hope so but I’m not sure. I’m getting old but I’m not quite ready to die.

I see a lot of hate on Facebook – almost as much of it from the left (whose agenda I largely agree with) as from the right (whom I find hard to bear). Occasionally, I say something about it but I find it a useless expenditure of time and emotional energy. I’ve come to understand that a small percentage of people you meet are assholes (most don’t come close to qualifying and if you think they do, you should take a long hard look in the mirror) and that an even smaller percentage are irredeemable and dangerous assholes. I can only hope someone steps up to stop them before they actually hurt people. But it probably won’t be me.

Not much fun to admit but, I suppose, admitting weakness is the first step to overcoming it.

And that’s ten minutes.

Knives at Gun Fights

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It is often argued that, if people were denied possession of guns, they would simply resort to other means to commit murder or acts of terrorism. This is not untrue. Witness the recent attacks in London, and the stabbing in Michigan, which apparently occurred after the assailant couldn’t get a gun. The largest mass murders in China – where only soldiers and police have guns – was committed using a knife. The largest, of course, if you don’t count state sanctioned mass murders.

After the London Bridge incident, Donald Trump seemed to tweet (one can never be too sure about his meaning: Covfefe!) that it proves that America’s lack of gun control was completely justified by the stabbings. I don’t know if this is another version of the absurdist ‘good guy with guns’ joke the NRA keeps trying to tell (Well, I laugh!) or a suggestion that knifes are just as dangerous as guns. I’d invite Mr. Trump to bring a knife to a gun fight and see how that works out.

And, of course, those who oppose control over guns always suggest that the next thing we might do is make people register their kitchen knives. Which maybe is not as far-fetched as all that.

I’m currently in England and when you use the self-checkout lines to buy wine the computer demands that someone come over to authorize the purchase. We don’t want 12 year olds buying bourbon after all (it would really be wasted on them, don’t you think?). The other day I had to buy a replacement paring knife for the cottage we’re staying in – and guess what? Someone had to come over and determine I was a responsible adult before I could complete the purchase. Obviously the standards are low because they approved it and the two bottles of wine without question but it does seem to suggest they could refuse to sell me a knife if I looked like a gangbanger eager to take a knife to school or had crazy psychopathic eyes or something.

And why not? Shouldn’t we at least question people who want to buy swords or other weapons lethal from more than, say, two feet away? I know that most sword owners are sensible law-abiding people but it only takes one (or three) to wreak havoc in a crowded bar. Of course, not as much havoc as one guy with a revolver or a semi-automatic rifle.

Now, I know some of my friends are members of the SCA or like to collect blades from around the world but most of them, I’m sure, keep their weapons out of the hands of kids and their drunk or otherwise unstable friends. So that’s it. The next time a gun nut argues that registering or controlling guns is as stupid as registering kitchen knives, I’m going to stare at him with my best crazy eyes and snarl: Seems like a reasonable idea to me.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Power of Art

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Many years ago, I was riding a subway in Mexico City when a young man boarded and began declaiming in a loud voice – not shouting but projecting. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to make out everything he was saying but I knew love was involved and the Spanish was very formal. Other passengers looked bemused – especially when he got down on one knee to several young ladies in succession. There was some blushing and a lot of laughter. As it turns out he was an actor performing in a Cervantes festival and he was quoting some love speeches from the play. The power of art to surprise, engage and excite people never ceases to amaze me.

A year or two later I remembered this event as we were preparing for “Freedom to Read” week in Calgary. I suggested that we go about the city and read from banned books in public. No warning would be given – these were to be guerilla readings. The committee agreed and a number of intrepid – and usually nervous – readers were dispatched to C-train stations, public squares and shopping malls. Most of the audience was – like the subway riders – bemused but were polite and mostly engaged by the event.

And that brings us to Julius Caesar and Donald Trump. The Shakespeare in the Park company in NYC has been preforming the Shakespeare classic with Caesar being portrayed remarkably like Donald Trump. It is meant to be satire and as such works quite well. Caesar was a man who claimed to be of the people (though in fact he came from a rich and powerful family) and was riding a popular wave toward the monarchy. Others – those committed to the Republic and democracy (you see where this is going) – did everything they could to thwart his ambitions and his attempts to buy the people with their own money. In the end, they fail in the greatest way possible – by assassinating Caesar, which act lead directly to the end of the Republic and the rise of the Emperors.

The point is, of course, that democracy ultimately fails when the only option people can see is political violence. This is not an incitement to assassinate the President but rather a harsh lesson in what extremism can do to damage society. The central message: never give up on the law.

However, Trump’s followers don’t see that point. Their man is being unjustly portrayed and they are bound to stop it. Several of them have stormed the stage and ranted loudly (and largely unintelligibly as they were yelling not projecting) and were then escorted to jail. In the wake of this, attendance fell – no wait, it rose to its highest levels in years. Good job!

Meanwhile, theatres that produce Shakespeare all across America – none of which have anything to do with this production of Julius Caesar – have been getting death and bomb threats, though no actual violence has occurred. I am almost speechless at the thought of this. It’s as if they think a play is like a movie and appears simultaneously all over the country. Or maybe they just want to teach that Shakespeare guy a lesson. “If we see him, we’ll thrash him.”

Apparently art still has the power to bemuse and engage – but also enrage in an incoherent and ineffectual way.

Do your bit – go to a play this month. And that’s ten minutes.

Referenda

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The recent British election highlights the core problems with referenda. Some voters who voted to leave Europe either resented their choices or did not see Brexit as a ‘conservative’ issue. Instead of supporting Theresa May and the Tories, they chose someone else. Referenda are never more that simplistic snapshots of how someone mostly feels on a particular day.

Mostly is the key factor here – and it is easy to see how even winning a referendum on a simple either/or question does not necessarily reflect the popular will. It has to do with how strongly you feel.

Some people of course are 100% for something or 100% against. These are the same people who constantly use ‘always’ and ‘never’ in arguments. “You always spend too much money or you never do the dishes” is usually a replacement for “You often spend too much money and you seldom do the dishes.” Indeed, even if the splits are more like 60/40, the words always and never get bandied about.

And that is how most people are about most things. They are mostly for them or mostly against and sometimes that mostly is just 51/49.

Take a person who voted to leave Europe – they might know that their kids are doing okay in the city and they might enjoy a bit of low cost French cheese or Spanish wine but hate the idea of large number of foreign workers or the tax cost of supporting Greece. They may feel 47% for Europe and 53% against it but by voting Leave, they become 100% for going. The same analysis works on the other side.

But now imagine that the 48% of Brits who voted to stay in Europe are actually more committed to the idea – say on average 60-40 – while the 52% who voted to go are more ambivalent – say 45-55 – and, if you do the math, the popular sentiment (adding up all those splits) would be to stay in Europe.

Of course, there is no way to measure that with the simplistic way we currently run referendum – but why should we be stuck with something designed 100 years ago? This is 2017 and we do have the technology. Suppose you could register your ambivalence?

There might be a two part question. Are you for or against proposition Z? How much are you for or against it? A person might, if they are at all reflective and capable of seeing in colours other than black and white, decide that they are 51% in favour and 42% against and 7% undecided.

Then our clever machines could tally it all up and say that the average voter is 48% in favour, 45% against and 8% undecided. And we all get to embrace Proposition Z and most of us would be at least partly satisfied.

There are plenty of other things wrong with referenda (and difficulties with true democracy, despite its superiority to other forms of governance) but at least this version could provide you with some certainty about how the people feel – if not why they feel that way.

And that’s ten minutes.

A Conspiracy of Lizards

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A small percentage of Americans (totaling 12 million) apparently believe that a group of lizard people – cleverly disguised as human – are operating all the governments of the world. The exact intent of these lizards is unknown but it can’t be anything good. Usually when people use the word conspiracy, a switch goes off in my head and all I hear afterword is ‘Yadda, yadda, yadda.’ If you want to know why, read the book “Voodoo Histories.”

Of course, a real conspiracy is only effective if it can’t be detected and if it can’t be detected it could hardly work its way into the public consciousness. So any conspiracies that people talk about are actually fake news, covering for the real ones that we cannot fathom. Confused yet? Join the club – you know the one with Steve Bannon and his other paranoid ‘deep state’ fumblers.

Still, if there were a conspiracy of lizard people, what signs might we look for? I would think an accidental slip-up where they reveal a bit of scale or perhaps tweet something in their secret slithering tongue. Is that what covfefe really means? Perhaps. The White House press secretary seemed to imply it meant something – but only to the president and a few select others.

And of course, there you have it. In a world that increasingly hates facts and evidence, where everything can be explained as a plot or a plan by some secret cabal, anything is possible. Meanwhile, the rest of us hang on every word or tweet, like supplicants outside the Oracle at Delphi, struggling to interpret the secret meanings behind every mumbled exhortation.

The sad reality is that most of what President Trump and those in the White House say means very little – it certainly doesn’t mean what they or what any rational person might think it means – as, for example, when they say they are going to build a better America when they actually mean they intend to wreck everything good about America. That sort of thing.

But perhaps there is no real conspiracy at all. The simpler explanation is that POG (Poor Old Guy) got up in the night to pee (he is over 70, remember?) and was struck with a brainwave. He grabbed his phone and, voilà, covfefe. I sympathize. What writer has not woken from a deep sleep with a sudden flash of brilliance, reached for his notepad and pen and scribbled it down for posterity? The next morning he finds a meaningless scrawl or, worse yet, a series of unrelated words – goose climbs dark wonderment stardust – and wastes several days trying to recapture the moment.

In any case, it is a waste of time to spend too much effort trying to find deep meaning in most of Trump’s tweets or other utterances. There is nothing complex there – he is a grasping old man whose only meaningful statement in the last twenty years was: You’re fired. And while we are fluttering and fuming over the meaning of a Tweet (and isn’t Twitter the perfect name for the cacophony of the dawn chorus?), POG is pulling out of the climate accord and wrecking alliances that have served America well for decades. Covfefe, indeed.

And that’s ten minutes.