“We are in the most fundamental way, Stone Age people ourselves. From a dietary point of view, the Neolithic period is still with us. We may sprinkle our dishes with bay leaves and chopped fennel, but underneath it is all Stone Age food. And when we get sick it is Stone Age diseases we suffer” - Bill Bryson, At Home, pp. 46-7.
Bill Bryson’s brilliant book At Home, tracing the history of the house and its various rooms, starts with a chapter on how and when people actually started to have homes for the first time – when the first cities arose back around 10,000 BC. He notes that it’s odd that people formed cities and switched to agriculture. Hunter-gatherers had a better diet, were healthier, and the move to agriculture was in some ways a step down. Of course, larger populations could grow and the human need for community was far better achieved when we weren’t simply searching for game in small groups.
He also notes that this happened all around the globe at about the same time – give or take a few thousand years. That may seem like a wide discrepancy to us, but given that humans have been around for almost 200,000 years, it’s pretty amazing that suddenly we developed agriculture. Some foodstuffs like corn (maize) are completely human made, reflecting a remarkable capacity to manufacture new plant species. In a real sense, that was the start of our “age” of humanity.
Sure, there are sub-strata – the iron age, the bronze age, etc. Perhaps from a wider perspective humanity entered the “mechanical age” or the “age of agriculture” about 12,000 years ago, and that age is ending. Civilizations rose and fell in the last 12,000 years, but something happened in Europe to create a whole new reality. The Europeans moved from a traditional view of the world — one with practical knowledge built on core religious beliefs and long held traditions — to a radically new understanding of reality.
With the enlightenment individualism reached a new level. Up until then individuals existed, but identity and core perspectives remained communal, even in Europe. The idea of “individual rights” would have been virtually meaningless in most of human history, individual rights were always part and parcel of community rights and values. Distrust of tradition and an embrace of reason freed the human mind to go places that were either off limits or at least unimagined before. The printing press created the capacity to spread ideas and knowledge, making rapid growth in understanding and science possible. Gunpowder took war and politics to another level, making possible the sovereign state and the conquest of the globe by European imperialists.
Through the industrial revolution, the rise of capitalism – an entirely new mode of production that greatly expanded the capacity of humans to create material wealth – humans came to see the planet as an object to be conquered, exploited and used for whatever humans wanted. The environment was no longer sacred, but there to used as we see fit.
All of this led to the ultimate breakthrough – modernism. If I could label the new era, it would be the quantum era, one where science, knowledge and technology create a dramatic breakthrough in human capacity comparable to the rapid and still inexplicable (at least with any certainty) rise of agriculture and cities 12,000 years ago. If we are still at base Stone Age humans eating Stone Age food and getting Stone Age diseases, we may be at the beginning of not just a new era, but a new age of human development which could last 10,000 or so as well. Looked at in that light, this is an extremely exciting era to be part of!
The new era will see new foods, new diseases, new cures, and probably a completely new way of life. If we could glimpse 5000 years into the future, we might be appalled at how different it would be. The core family structure might give way to something new, the new individualism may mean human culture will be completely remade.
One thing is likely: the new era will have its peaks and valleys, major disasters and eras of plenty and prosperity — even if those terms take on completely different meanings. The glimpses we see are both compelling and frightening: genetic engineering, lack of privacy, borders ineffective, humanity more divorced from nature and community than ever before. Or will we reject that path and try to develop a future more in tune with nature and each other, choosing that over the materialist individualism of the post-enlightenment era?
Where this new era is leading is yet unknown. Our modern physics, genetic discoveries, and ability to manipulate both the planet and life itself is new territory. This brave new world will yield a new kind of human. We’re straddling eras as we dash madly into a future that is almost uncertain to be unlike anything we have yet to imagine.
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) emerged as one of the true heroes of the late 20th Century. He’s inspired young people, helped his country avoid a blood bath which many thought was inevitable, and demonstrated the power of forgiveness and truth over vengeance and anger.
The path Mandela took to this position was interesting. He started out inspired by Gandhi, who had initially been active in South Africa, committed to non-violent resistance. His activism against the South African apartheid regime began in earnest after apartheid was put in place as an official policy in 1948 by the openly racist National Party. But Mandela’s commitment to non-violence changed on March 21, 1960, the day of the Sharpeville massacre. 69 protesters were killed by police, and it became clear that the government would use all means to support apartheid.
Mandela then gave up non-violence and helped form the violent “Spear of the Nation” or MK. Drawing inspiration from Castro, Che Guevara, and Nasser, Mandela took a more radical stance. He never openly advocated communism, but there were clearly connections between the MK and communist radicals. Moreover, he went to Ethiopia to study guerrilla warfare, as the ANC saw the only option against the National Party to be violence.
On August 5, 1962 he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Even in prison he refused to renounce violence; he said the ANC should renounce violence only when the government would renounce violence against the ANC. He would remain in prison until 1990, becoming a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement. Yet Cold War politics muddied the waters.
While most people were sympathetic to the ANC’s willingness to use violence against the racist South African regime, it also provided cover for those willing to forgive racist oppression due to the National Party’s embrace of anti-Communism. With the Cold War intense, the US wanted a strong ally in Africa, and South Africa was a perfect choice. They had gold, minerals, wealth and a strategic location. When people complained about the racism of apartheid, the US and UK could either say they refuse to infringe on South African sovereignty, or argue that they also opposed apartheid, but Mandela and the ANC were not the answer. Moving from apartheid to communism would be to go from one form of oppression to another. With such rationalizations, support for the apartheid regime remained consistent until near the end.
For many on the right, it was far better to support institutionalized racism that dehumanized millions than risk the possibility that a majority black government in South Africa might be friendly to communism. Indeed, the coziness the West showed to the racist government did nothing but push the ANC towards anti-American regimes.
In the eighties the tide started to turn. While the Reagan Administration gamely tried to pretend that it was not supportive of apartheid, embracing the “Sullivan Principles” regarding rules for investment in South Africa (principles designed to benefit blacks and put conditions on investment), the apartheid regime was becoming untenable. Congress overrode Reagan vetos of sanctions against South Africa. Not only was global pressure mounting, making South Africa a pariah state, but young people in South Africa were increasingly opposed to the racist philosophy that defined apartheid and the National Party.
Ironically both Communism and apartheid were undone by the same force – globalization. The inability of South Africa to compete in a globalized world economy along with the isolation of dysfunctional communist economies led both systems to collapse almost simultaneously. That also meant that the apartheid regime had lost its last defense – if there was no Cold War, there was absolutely no reason for the West to support the National Party in South Africa.
Still, the conventional wisdom in the West was that the 1990s would see a South African bloodbath. The Nationalists would hold on to power, the ANC would grow violent and aggressive, as the blacks would rise up in a mass revolt. In this context the last Nationalist President, F.W. DeKlerk, who took power in September 1989, advocated to end apartheid and official racism. To symbolize the significance of this move, he ordered the release of Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela had been in prison for nearly 28 years. He could have been bitter, angry and seeking revenge. Many of the whites in South Africa opposed the ending of apartheid, it could have all gone badly. However, Mandela embraced reconciliation — truth commissions instead of revenge seeking. An embrace of a South Africa where the majority would now rule, but without reverse racism or a desire to avenge the past.
The result has not been a perfect shift towards a new society. South Africa managed to make the transition smoothly, but still faces a myriad of problems. Mandela helped avoid a blood bath and put South Africa on the right path; that was all he could do – the future will have to be made by South Africans together.
Yet it’s sad to see that the far right still harbors hatred for Mandela due to abstract accusations. When Texas Senator Ted Cruz posted something kind about Mandela on his website, he was inundated with negative comments. True, Cruz’s constituents are farther right than most, but that kind if vitriol in ignorance of what Mandela accomplished is simply sad.
Mandela danced with radicals and extremists because he was fighting a cause and they were willing to be his allies. Though he fought evil with violence — he was not a Gandhi nor a Martin Luther King Jr. — the American revolution was also violent. British rule was arguably much less evil than the apartheid regime.
What matters is that when Mandela’s side won, he did it with grace, forgiveness and a sense of dignity that most of his opponents lacked. Mandela is remembered as one of the historical giants – a hero, an inspiration and a great man. The haters will never take that away from him. He was radical when it was necessary, but moderated when the evil he was fighting ceased to be. That is part of his greatness.
While some on the right claim that President Obama’s health care law amounts to war on Roman Catholicism due to its birth control provisions, others on the right are attacking the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis I, for being “Marxist.”
The charge is absurd.
Marxism is a particular theory about how history unfolds, an enlightenment style reason-based theory which seeks to objectively show that there is a correct interpretation of history based on the nature of the mode of production – or how value is produced. Any economic system (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) that generates value through exploitation (a small group benefiting from the work of others) inherently contains contradictions. Those contradictions inevitably cause the system to collapse, until finally a system with no exploitation (communism – the anti-statist utopian Marxian version) comes without internal contradictions. History is a human construct, Marxism has no place for a deity. I very much doubt that the Pontiff believes any of that to be true.
Pope Francis I instead provides a conservative critique of capitalism, one that echoes some of the anti-Communist John Paul II’s ideas. The Pontiff released a 50,000 treatise, Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), which calls for a series of reforms and admonishes “unfettered” capitalism. He criticizes trickle down economics, and decries “the idolatry of money” which will lead to a “new tyranny.” He bemoans the “culture of prosperity” where materialism defines human value, but leaves the majority on the outside, often suffering. Even those well off feel like their life is lacking because the culture defines so much by material success. People turn artificial wants into perceived needs.
The Pope was not attacking market economics but naive capitalism – those who believe that markets always turn self-interest into the best result possible. Naive capitalists believe that the “winners” deserve to take as much as they can get away with because they are smarter or work harder. Moreover, they believe that the game is always open for others to win – that the playing field is level and the market will somehow prevent winners from building structural advantage and using their position in society to benefit themselves and guarantee that they and their children will have a much better shot at continuing to “win.” Naive capitalists believe the “losers” are inferior – they deserve to be poor.
The conservative critique of capitalism is not that somehow everyone should be equal. Traditional conservatism accepts the idea that inequality is inevitable in society, but that it cannot be so pervasive as to be culturally destabilizing. They distrust capitalism because it debases the culture. It appeals to the masses, and replaces community with consumption. It rationalizes wealth inequality without creating a sense of social responsibility. Conservatives also distrust human nature; they believe that utopian visions of capitalism underestimate human greed, ruthlessness and willingness to cheat/abuse others out of self interest.
Traditional conservatism has an organic view of society – that the culture is an entity that is greater than the sum of the individuals. It distrusts the radical individualism of naive capitalism, noting that the individual is embedded in a culture and society from which identity, interests, morals and desires all spring. The culture maintains social stability and order. Reason alone cannot replace it, since reason is a tool that can rationalize just about anything. Reason can justify a whole host of contradictory principles and ideals — whatever the individual wants to believe. That was Edmund Burke’s critique of the French revolution; you take away the cultural glue that holds society together and everything falls apart.
For conservative critics of capitalism, the market doesn’t magically follow the values society holds, nor do peoples’ decisions on what to buy and sell necessarily support their core values. That’s why people have constructed governments to, among other things, tame the excesses of capitalism.
Even the capitalist hero, Adam Smith, knew markets were not magic. While naive capitalists use his metaphor of the “hidden hand,” it’s a metaphor he only used once, and in a limited context. If you actually read Smith’s Wealth of Nations it’s clear that he is critical of the capitalists of his era. Karl Marx even considered Smith his favorite economist, saying that only in communism would Smith’s ideas work properly. Those nuances don’t fit into the good vs. evil simplistic dichotomy of the Limbaughesque world.
To be sure, the conservative critique of capitalism is distrustful of big government and efforts to promote equal outcomes. Conservatives embrace tradition, family, community and custom. Capitalism does damage to all of those – thanks to capitalism Christmas now is more about shopping than worship. Thanks to capitalism extended families in close contact have become rare. A sense of community has been replaced by people who hardly know their neighbors, especially in urban areas. Custom has been replaced by fad. Perhaps that is why Limbaugh and others want to try to hide all this using a claim that any critique of capitalism is “Marxist.”
Agree or disagree, the Pope is decrying the materialism, self-centered individualism, and lack of concern for the community that raw capitalism often fosters. That is a value-based critique, not at all Marxist. The Limbaughs of the world want to put their hands over their ears and mutter “Marxist, Marxist, Marxist…” because they don’t want to delve into the details of how the world really works — So much easier to have a “left vs. right” caricature than to actually consider the gritty complexity of reality.
John Kerry first became a household name when he had the courage to come home from Vietnam, a decorated hero, and tell the truth about what was happening there. Protesting a meaningless war, he helped form “Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” which included testimony to Congress and a protest wherein veterans including himself threw their medals over a fence at the Capital building. Kerry said: ”I’m not doing this for any violent reasons, but for peace and justice, and to try and make this country wake up once and for all. “
Later, of course, he went into politics and became a highly regarded Massachusetts Senator, and the 2004 Democratic candidate for President. Though he was slandered in that campaign with false allegations about his military service, he fought a close election, losing to President George W. Bush 50.7% to 48.3%. In losing, he still garnered more votes than anyone else in history at the time, except for President Bush.
Kerry was active in the Senate, maintaining his principles. He and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin flew to Nicaragua shortly after his 1984 election to the Senate, visiting Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. The US was actively engaged in policies against Nicaragua, and Kerry along with Christopher Dodd investigated and helped bring to light the illegal activities of the Iran-Contra affair. He did vote to authorize military force against Iraq, but was critical of the way President Bush handled the war. Still, that vote represents a blemish on his career.
On February 1, 2013 Senator Kerry became Secretary of State Kerry. The man who was once seen as a dangerous critic of US foreign policy is now the primary architect of that policy. He has shown that he intends to be active and true to his principles.
This has generated criticism. His efforts to broker a deal with Iran have been criticized in France and Israel. His work with Russia has been dismissed as being naive. But the critics all share one trait: they assume diplomacy can’t work. Many people have a very black and white view of reality. Certain countries are the “bad guys” and “our enemies,” so only naive fools will engage them.
Such a view is absurd. Mao Zedong was vehement in his hatred for the US and threats against American hegemony. His rhetoric made the anti-Israel barbs of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad look mild. Yet President Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened relations with China, allowing China to replace Taiwan on the UN Security Council, which helped lead to positive change in China. That was heavily criticized, but Nixon’s credentials as an anti-Communist helped him mollify the critics (hence the colloquialism ‘only Nixon could go to China’).
Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was once the most hated man on the planet by the American government. He masterminded terrorist attacks which killed Americans, and the Reagan Administration tried to eliminate him in an attack on his house. Later, though, diplomacy led him to abandon his nuclear program and try to get on the good side of the West. Many on the right were critical of UN efforts to help the Libyan rebels, preferring Gaddafi stay in power.
The point: diplomacy is about trying to turn enemies into, if not friends, at least people we can deal with.
John Kerry has logged 250,000 miles as Secretary of State, visiting 35 countries. His desire to try to find solutions to long standing problems in the Mideast and elsewhere have caused many in Washington to criticize him. Unlike his predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kerry goes less for the showy displays and more for substance. One gets the sense that she never wanted to do anything that would later harm a Presidential bid, such as being seen as too open to an agreement with Iran. Kerry is not limited by political ambition, he can go where his principles lead.
President Obama has given Kerry considerable latitude in pursuing his foreign policy goals, largely because the two share similar principles. Since Kerry doesn’t have to worry about what Washington insiders say, he can take their shots, working on extremely complex issues. If he can’t succeed, he gets blamed. If he does manage to reach agreements, the President can step in and get the glory. That’s the job of a Secretary of State, and Kerry understands it.
Yet while his efforts have been rather quiet, mostly underneath the media radar screen, he appears to be on a mission to do good – to be true to the principles that led him to speak out against atrocities taking place in Vietnam. Who knows? In the next three years he might be able to accomplish more as a hard working Secretary of State getting into the diplomatic trenches than he would have as President had he won in 2004.
And if so that would be fitting closure to his career. His began by protesting against a pointless war that killed over a million people, with the major consequence being a decline in US power and moral authority. Perhaps it might end with him guiding US foreign policy in a way that promotes peace and works to limit human suffering. At this point in time John Kerry is the right man for the job.
In a famous feud, Voltaire and Rousseau argued about the nature of God. Both were Deists. Deists didn’t doubt that there was a God. Following Newton, a “world in motion” had to have a first mover. Moreover, how could such an intricate and elaborate universe have come into being without a creator? Beyond that, though Deists had different views.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that God was a loving God, with nature being God’s true Bible, his message to humans. Rousseau was convinced that the worst mistake humanity ever made was to leave the state of nature and form communities, generating artificial “needs” and desires. He would no doubt be sickened by how humanity is now literally poisoning the planet and producing genetically altered plants and animals.
Voltaire (1694-1778), the pen name of François-Marie Arouet, did not share Rousseau’s optimistic view of God. On November 1, 1755 Lisbon Portugal had a massive earthquake. It was as strong as 9.0 on the Richter scale, destroyed 85% of Lisbon’s buildings and killed perhaps 50,000 of Lisbon’s 200,000 inhabitants. It inspired the philosopher Immanuel Kant to develop the concept of “the sublime.”
(At the same time the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria was in labor – on November 2, 1755 she would give birth to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who would later be married off to the future king of France).
Voltaire, who already was suffering from personal tragedies, visited Lisbon and was sickened by what he saw. Utter destruction, massive death, and survivors in misery. Horrific suffering thanks to nature. How could this be the handiwork of a loving God? Why would God allow such misery to occur?
Rousseau offered an answer. Nature is God’s message, and God is love. So the problem must be humans. God clearly doesn’t want us congregated into huge crowded cities. People living on the country side could avoid the massive suffering caused by the earth quake. It was a message: cities are unnatural, if humans create them and natural disaster hits, blame people, not God.
This infuriated Voltaire. He had seen the suffering with his eyes and could not believe that Rousseau was blaming innocent victims for their peril. But Voltaire was not sure how to respond. Could God really be a horrific brute that reigned terror on humanity? But if God was loving, how could he allow such suffering?
He pondered Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) explanation for the existence of evil, that of all the possible worlds that could exist, this one was the “best possible.” Yes, bad stuff happens, but you could not have humans with free will without the potential of negative consequences. Thinking of the scenes from Lisbon, Voltaire wondered, “is this is the best of all possible worlds?”
So Voltaire did what most writers do when stymied, he wrote. And wrote. The product of his work was a book called Candide, or Candide or the Optimist. It is long, humorous, fast paced and satirical. Candide is studying with Pangloss, a teacher who follows Leibniz and Rousseau in saying that all works out for the best. Within the book they even visit the scene of the Lisbon earthquake. Candide asks if he should save a man who is drowning and Pangloss replies that he need not bother – if God wants him saved, he’ll be saved. (Pangloss in Latin means literally “all word”).
By the end of the book Candide rejects Pangloss’s argument that all turns out as it necessarily must, for the best. Instead, Candide says, “we must cultivate our own garden.”
That still inspires artists and thinkers to this day – click below to watch a video of Rush’s song “The Garden,” which lyricist Neil Peart said was inspired by Candide:
To be sure, there’s considerable debate over what exactly Voltaire meant. I read it to suggest that while there may have been a creator, it’s not at all clear that the creator cares about or even pays attention to his work. Perhaps God is out creating other worlds. In any event, God doesn’t need our love, other humans need our love. Rather than worshiping God or looking to him for salvation or support, we should be help each other.
Voltaire’s pragmatic argument was the beginning of what is now called “secular humanism.” It is humanist because humans are the center – we are to help others, improve the world and use reason to take responsibility for the world we construct. It is not the best of all possible worlds, but a world in need of improvement. It is secular because God is irrelevant. Praising God does nothing to help feed the poor or take care of those in need. Better to put our energy towards making the world we find ourselves in a better place.
Voltaire marked a move towards truly putting reason first for creating ethics. We are to use reason to figure out how to make the world better, improving conditions for humans. Given conditions in France at the time, Voltaire could correctly blame the Church and its traditions for a good portion of human suffering going on in cities like Paris – suffering that would ultimately lead the people to revolt.
Yet perhaps there is a middle ground. This may not be the “best of all possible worlds,” but that doesn’t mean that reason alone provides meaning. Reason only leads one to work to better humanity when you take as a goal a humanist belief that the well being of humans is the ultimate value. Yet reason does not give us proof for that value; reason can be used by fascists, Nazis, racists, nationalists and communists to justify their ideology. Reason is a tool, not a means to discover principles and value. Indeed after the French revolution people who thought they shared common principles turned into bitter enemies and society broke down.
It does not have to be religious belief nor a traditional concept of God (though it can be). But the fact we are alive in a world with no clear purpose or reason — the fact there is something rather than nothing — strongly indicates that we are only glimpsing part of reality, and not the part that tells us the “answers.” Modern physics in fact says light is both a particle and a wave, and particles are actually just ripples in fields and not actually “stuff.”
Atheists often say that only things with measurable material consequences are relevant for understanding our world. Yet that materialist view ignores the fact that perhaps the parts of reality we don’t experience in material terms do come through in our emotions, intuition, and inner sense. For lack of a better word we call that “spiritual,” and it runs the gamut from magic new age crystals to Buddhist meditation and both traditional religious and non-traditional beliefs. Perhaps we can use a “God concept” to explain whatever power gives substance to the universe.
That still doesn’t settle Rousseau and Voltaire’s dispute. Rousseau believed that civilization muted our natural compassion. Voltaire believed that civilization could be guided to better the human experience. Perhaps both were right in their own way. We must cultivate our own garden, but to do so we need to look both to nature and that voice inside, a voice that may have its origin outside the material reality we can perceive. God? Spirit? Does it really matter?
It is dangerous to play with tradition. The Senate and House function on a set of time honored traditions and unwritten rules of the game. The filibuster is one of those traditions. However, the poisonous partisanship in Washington, unprecedented obstruction by Republicans in the Senate, and the danger of creating eternal gridlock means its time for a change.
Senate rules adopted in 1806 created the potential for a filibuster by eliminating the ability to move the previous question. The idea was that Senators should have as long to speak as needed before a vote. The idea this would be used for obstruction was not considered. In 1837 the first filibuster was used, but it remained rare until into the 20th Century.
After 12 Senators used their capacity to stop the Senate from voting on a bill by continuing debate (in 1917, to allow President Wilson to arm merchant ships), the Senate created a cloture rule, allowing 2/3 of those voting to end debate. This still meant that a group could stop consideration of a bill, but it would have to have a broader base of support.
More importantly, a filibuster meant that a Senator or group of Senators had to keep talking; debate literally had to continue. Once Senators stopped speaking on the floor, debate was over and a vote could be taken. Strom Thurmond filibustered for 24 hours against the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Usually filibusters ended on their own without invoking cloture. When Senators filibustered the 1964 Voting Rights Act a cloture vote was held for only the second time since 1927. Simply, the tradition of the filibuster is that it was rare and required Senators be present and continue talking.
By 1979 the rules had changed to allow 60 Senators to invoke cloture, but not requiring speakers to remain continuously on the Senate floor. Unfortunately, both parties found this an easier to way to try to obstruct votes they didn’t like and the use of filibuster increased dramatically. Mitch McConnell once infamously said it is the “rule of the Senate” that you need 60 votes to make a law.
Both parties abused the filibuster. In a battle over judicial nominees Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott threatened the “nuclear option” of simply making cloture a majority vote and ending the filibuster. Vice President Cheney was ready to sit in as President of the Senate (a role the VP officially has) and rule that the filibuster cannot be used for judicial nominees. Senators wary of changing rules and traditions avoided that via compromise.
In that case, the Democrats were abusing the filibuster and turning it into a tool to obstruct. But the use of obstruction has grown to unprecedented proportions with McConnell (R-KY) as Senate minority leader. It no longer is a rare and dramatic way to try to prevent a vote on something very emotional or controversial (a method that in the past usually failed) but has become a defacto rule that says without 60 votes nothing at all controversial can pass.
More importantly, it is being used to block the President from undertaking his constitutional authority to make appointments, including again to the judiciary.
Patricia Miller is one of three appointments to the DC Court of Appeals to fill vacancies. Right now there are 8 Judges on the Court, four chosen by each party. The Republicans fear that if President Obama names all three, the Court might rule in a more liberal fashion. But that’s life – the President gets to choose the nominees and the Senate approves. It’s directly from the Constitution.
Looking for a rationale for their clearly political motive to obstruct, they claim the Court does not have enough work for 11, or even 9 Justices. But the court was just as “under worked” when they argued passionately to put President Bush’s nominees on the court. Simply, the filibuster and current cloture rules have to go.
If the Republicans are allowed to abuse the filibuster in this way, to make it require 60 votes for anything to pass, and to use it to block Presidential appointments, the Democrats will do likewise. They have in the past. The current rule is a cause of dysfunction.
The only solution: end the filibuster by making cloture a majority vote in the Senate. That way everything gets voted on and a minority can’t cause gridlock to appease their base or stop the majority from passing controversial bills. That way a President can execute his authority to make appointments without having well qualified choices denied due to politics. Patricia Millett is very well qualified with strong bipartisan credentials.
The country right now needs to have a functional Washington. The abuse of the filibuster in recent years by both parties has morphed it into something that is new and dangerous, not part of the Senate traditions. So either go back to forcing Senators to keep talking until they run out of energy or desire, or adopt a new cloture rule requiring a simply majority vote.
Apparently the Saudis are upset with the US. We aren’t doing enough to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria and we’re thawing the strained relationship with Iran. The Saudis prefer Iran remain an international outcast and that we dispose of Iran’s Syrian ally.
The Saudis have feared Iran since the revolution in 1979, and see Assad’s Syria as a disruptive force, supporting terrorism and aiding Iran. Understandable. What the Saudis don’t get is that the whole international system is in a state of fundamental transformation and they are not going to be able to survive it due to a fundamental problem with their regime: it is rooted in a deep conservative ethos.
Note I’m using “conservative” in its real meaning here, not the political meaning in the US. The Saudis are desperately afraid of change because it could cause the Kingdom to unravel. The conservatism is seen in their flag, which simply reads “there is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger, underlined by a sword:
The Kingdom has nearly 30 million citizens, half of them under 21. The population has been growing at breakneck speed even as oil wealth prevents the kind of poverty and anger that drove the Egyptian Arab Spring. Yet they can’t employ their youth because their economy is still based almost completely on oil. Even if they get a government created jobs or money to pay rent and live, the lack of a purpose or future creates a psychological dependency. These youth are the prime target of extremists who promise glory, a clear mission, and some kind of meaning for an otherwise drab existence.
Saudi history shows the problem. King Abdul Aziz captured Riyadh in 1910 as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. Fighting with the British against the Turks in WWI, Aziz managed to expand his reach and by 1933 controlled what is now the Saudi Kingdom. To insure stability the royal family made a deal with the Wahhabi clerics – they would allow the clerics to define religious teachings in exchange for their political support. Wahhabi theology is severely conservative. It is not extremist in a Bin Laden sense — there is no desire to fight the West or for political upheaval — but it envisions society in a cultural deep freeze. For them, “progress” is a dirty word.
The anti-progressive nature of the clerics is why women in Saudi Arabia still have to shop at female only shopping malls, cannot drive cars, and walk five paces behind their husband. The Wahhabis oppose music, pictures of humans and any religious innovation. Many educated in the West would like to open things up, but that risks enraging the clerics. They note that Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam and a desired destination of every Muslim for a pilgrimage at least once in their lives.
On November 20, 1979 an extremist group attacked the Kabbah in Mecca – the holiest relic in all Islam, and a place where non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. The Saudis quietly had to ask for French assistance, meaning that non-Muslims came armed to clear out the rebels. From then on the Saudis have focused on building a rigid, ruthless and ubiquitous secret police. They rank second behind North Korea in terms of repression.
Osama Bin Laden and most of the hijackers on 9-11 came from Saudi Arabia. The growing resentments and the demographic trends mean the anachronistic and hyper-conservative regime cannot last. Sooner or later something has to give. Moreover their entire economy depends on oil, and many think that oil production in Saudi Arabia may decline. Already the US, thanks to new finds, has replaced Saudi Arabia as the number one producer of oil and gas for the first time since the early 70s.
So the conservative regime hangs on. They maintain repression at home because they don’t know what else to do. They see foreign policy in similar terms. They prefer an extremist theocracy in Iran that is held at bay than a successful progressive democracy. Democracy there could spread, or Iran could challenge the Saudis on other fronts. They’re not sure, but they don’t want to try anything new.
In Syria they simply want Assad gone so that they can help shape the post-Assad regime. They would prefer the US arm rebels the Saudis can influence, and support Saudi efforts to remake Syria. Given how addicted we are to their oil, they can’t understand why we don’t join them in something they see of utmost importance.
The US should not buckle to Saudi pressure. It’s in our interest to get a nuclear agreement with Iran, and to help the country get back on track to slowly building a functioning democracy. Iran’s population is far more modern than its government, and unlike the Saudis the Iranian government has allowed considerable social and political progress. There is no reason to define them as a permanent enemy.
The US also is doing the right thing on Syria – backing a peace conference, working with other countries to develop the capacity to end the fighting that has killed over 100,000 people so far. It’s not in the US interest to intervene (look what that got is in Iraq) or take sides with particular members of the opposition. It is in our interest to have a stable transfer of power in a process that is clear than to have Assad fall and whoever has the most guns grab power.
So the Saudis should be politely told that we do not share their opinion, and we make our foreign policy decisions based on American interests, not Saudi ones. Oil is a global commodity, there is no need to fear the Saudis will retaliate by cutting oil supplies. We also need to let them know that we don’t see the Royal Family holding an iron tight grip on the Kingdom forever. We need to condemn Saudi repression and pressure them to think about making fundamental changes to their society and country. They’re afraid if they do everything will fall apart. But if they don’t, ten years from now we may be watching the Saudi secret police and military crack down on rebels with the same kind of ruthlessness as the Assad regime is now showing.