What’s at stake in the Chinese century?

This Sunday the 10th was the 69th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. LandscapeAs one of the various attempts to put civilization back together after World War II, the creation of the Declaration – chaired by American Eleanor Roosevelt – spelled out in 30 articles a rich set of freedoms to which every person in the world should be entitled. Forty-eight nations approved the Declaration, with the Soviet Union, other Communist countries, Saudi Arabia, and the Union of South Africa abstaining from the vote. China, which was then the Republic of China, voted for its adoption.

Certainly, the principles in the Declaration weren’t always practiced. Many nations and leaders would fall short in the decades to come. For example, even the United States condoned torture during the George W. Bush administration, and it has kept prisoners locked away in Gitmo now for years with no hope of release. But that doesn’t change that the Declaration is still on the books as an aspirational document. And it remains true that it was modeled on the U.S. Bill of Rights and notions of individual liberty, which the U.S. has promoted during its “American century” as one of the leading ideologies during that period.

But now, the U.S. century seems to be coming to a close, and in its place, we have the rise of the Chinese century under the Communist Party. This has been a banner year for the People’s Republic of China and its supreme leader, Xi Jinping. After decades of building its economic and diplomatic power, in 2017, China stepped up to become a world leader, while the U.S. – after the election of Donald Trump – seems to have stepped back. If the trend lines of China’s development continue, we seem to be poised for a coming “Chinese century”.

If one adopts a certain, blunt nationalist and nativist perspective, this is to be feared. The hubris of nationalism would dictate that the U.S. should run the show to the exclusion of everyone else. I confess, having grown up in a world where the U.S. was pre-eminent, it will seem strange if that disappears. But I don’t necessarily fear it.

I have never felt that the U.S. had some pre-ordained right to remain the global hegemon. I reject outright any kind of racist, “Yellow Peril” backlash. I don’t necessarily fear Chinese ownership of companies – after all, U.S. and European companies have been doing this for decades in the rest of the world. And I don’t even necessarily fear China as a military threat. Modern economics makes enormous wars a bad idea. (And on this score, the U.S. seems the bigger threat with its many small wars in the Mideast and elsewhere).

No, I don’t fear a Chinese century for these reasons. What I fear is what will happen to the values spelled out in the Declaration.

It seems an inevitable rule of history that the greatest standing power has enormous influence over the culture and norms of other civilizations. This was true of the British empire and then, in turn, the American empire. While I acknowledge the many flaws of these systems, I still believe in the values of freedom and human rights that emerged from western culture, and these values did manage to seep into the international consciousness. It is no accident that we have liberal democratic regimes now in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and India. The rights and political systems pioneered, articulated, and promoted in the west still shined through, despite the many failures and atrocities of the promoters.

But these values are not shared currently by China. And in fact, under Pres. Xi, China has become more repressive and intolerant of freedom, even as it continues to promote trade with other countries. Should China remain on track in its development and current political stability, I fear that the allure and support for systems of authoritarianism will grow – and that the systems of human rights as spelled out in the Declaration will shrivel down until they are the norms of a group of small, backwater nations that carry little influence. My fear is that the era of human rights in human history will have reached its high water mark, never to rise again. Pres. Xi expressly rejected these values in his address to the Community Party Congress this year. I think we need to take him at his word.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, in history. China has many internal tensions to avoid and overcome. But I am a bit of pessimist by nature. And I think we need, as inheritors of the western tradition of rights, make sure that they are not lost as the new century begins.

More answers to gun advocates

Following up on my prior post in which I laid our a wild proposal to ban all civilian gun ownership, let me address some other arguments that gun advocates tend to make.

I can already hear the objection that any restrictions on the civilian ownership of guns would be in violation of the Second Amendment. As a strong proponent of the First Amendment, I take this seriously. I just happen to think that gun advocates’ interpretation of the Second Amendment is completely wrong. Let’s quote the full text of the amendment, seeing as it’s pretty short:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Okay, let me say, this is a terribly written sentence. But what’s worse is that gun advocates only repeat the second half. That is, almost by definition, unconstitutional. It’s only in the context of a well-regulated militia, organized to defend the United States, that we can even begin to understand the right to bear arms.

A second argument that I don’t buy from gun advocates is that we should apply the concept mutually assured destruction (MAD) to our shared public life. You often hear this expressed as, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” While you might think they’re talking about police, they’re not. They want every single person armed, in every setting, so that we all are prepared to shoot one another should someone step out of line. Maybe you’re prepared to accept that universal fear would work somehow in some settings. But I can promise you that it will fail when it comes to mass shootings. The MAD concept was borrowed from the Cold War. The idea was that nuclear-armed states would never attack one another because each one was sure it would be destroyed in the resulting conflict. The whole system counted on nation states – specifically, civilian and military leaders – not being suicidal. But all too often, mass shootings end with the shooter dead – either in a self-inflicted suicide or from suicide by cop. These people often don’t want to live, so the whole approach falls apart.

Oh, and by the way, if more guns made us safer, then the US should be the safest country in the world seeing as we have the highest per capita rate of gun ownership in the world.

Wrapping up, let me recommend that you take the time to read two articles – one from Vox and the other from Five Thirty Eight – that have good analyses of the research on gun ownership, gun violence, and gun control. You might be surprised to find that the Five Thirty Eight piece is skeptical of many gun control proposals.

Finally, I can tell you this: prayers aren’t going to help. Taking action will.

Not necessarily vigilante action, but let’s end with a desperate, nervous laugh…



Is it possible to have private gun ownership and prevent mass shootings?

Another horrific mass shooting in the US, and yet again, the American public seems aghast that this could happen. All of the usual proposals will be floated by gun control advocates, and despite these being generally supported by the American public, gun advocates will wield their seemingly unassailable power over Republican politicians and prevent anything from being done. That script is now familiar.

So, given that nothing will change, I’m going to step back for a moment and ask a big picture question that keeps coming back to me whenever these shootings occur:

Is it even possible to have private gun ownership and prevent mass shootings?

My conclusion: No. It’s not.

If we really want to end mass shootings, then I believe we have no choice but to bar civilians from owning any guns whatsoever and confiscate all of the weapons that are currently in circulation.


Simple human nature.

Some people have always and always will do bad things to their fellow human beings. No amount of cultural change or teaching virtues will ever stop that altogether. And the reasons tend not to change over time, either – religion and ideology, hurt feelings and isolation, mental illness. These aren’t going away anytime soon, either.

The only thing that changes is what tools are used to cause the harm. If all that’s available are fists, fists will be used. If it’s swords, it will be swords. And if it’s guns, well, you get it. Of course, in the past, individual personal weapons were limited in their ability to kill masses of people. But technological changes with guns have put enormous power in the hands of a single person to wreak havoc, as was macabrely mocked in this ad by the gun control group States United to Prevent Gun Violence:

I should point out that the banning and confiscation of private guns would have to be total and comprehensive within a given nation or multi-nation region. Otherwise, the ban would be ineffective. For example, in the US, strict gun laws in Illinois and Chicago designed to contain the violence in the city are undermined by lax laws in neighboring Indiana. Strict gun laws in France designed to combat terrorist attacks were undermined by lax laws in Eastern Europe. The crackdown might even have to be worldwide. The killer in the 2011 attack in Norway that killed dozens of people purchased his ammunition from the US, despite Norway’s strict gun laws. (Plus, the world is awash in guns, thanks to the legacy of the Cold War.)

Now, this is one point where I can say that gun advocates are right: If all private gun ownership is made criminal, then only criminals will have guns. Yep. That’s exactly the point. And police and security forces would have to aggressively enforce these laws and bring criminals to justice. We don’t allow private individuals to have shoulder-fired missiles or nuclear weapons, and we count on law enforcement, broadly defined, to prevent people from acquiring them.

So, again, the only way to prevent mass shootings is a complete disarming of the civilian population.

Now, of course, this supposedly is the nightmare scenario for gun advocates, at least in the US: that the civilian population would be stripped of the weapons necessary to fight back against a tyrannical government. Well, I guess I have to admit again that they’d be right. Up until now I haven’t mentioned military weapons. It’s absolutely true that, if the civilian population has no weapons, it is easy cannon fodder for a ruthless military. Now, like many people I know, I’ve been tempted to argue at this point that it’s ridiculous for gun advocates to think they could oppose a modern military. Seriously, how is the most powerful fully automatic personal gun going to defeat an F-16 fighter jet? But I think this argument ignores the history of successful insurgencies that relied heavily on small arms. Vietnam defeated the US. The mujahideen eventually drove out the Soviets from Afghanistan. And of course, Afghan insurgents continue to resist the Afghan government, despite deep and continued US involvement there. The fact is that passionate, well-armed insurgencies can sometimes wear down even powerful militaries (especially when they get financial support from that military’s strategic opponents).

So, is this fear of tyrannical government real enough to justify private civilian ownership of guns that enable mass shootings?

We can debate this, but my answer is no. In fact, I call bullshit on the paranoid, anti-government fantasies of some gun advocates. Somehow these faux patriots get away with comparing our liberal democratic republic to the most brutal authoritarian regimes. Yes, it’s true; America could go horribly off track. (As terrible as Pres. Trump is, it really could get a lot worse.) And the military has at times been used against our own population (including fellow soldiers, not to mention Native Americans). But if things got so bad as to require an armed insurrection, well, it seems to me that either it’s only paranoids who are resisting or the country has self-destructed to the point where whatever would emerge out of the conflict would be unrecognizable as the US. (Just look at how the neo-Confederates among us still can’t accept what the US became after the Civil War. And I say Civil war, not War Between the States, thank you very much.)

So, if you want to attack me for advocating for a complete ban on private gun ownership, well, fine. Have at it.

Now, believe it or not – in proper American fashion – I’m prepared to compromise.

I have no problem with hunting and could easily be persuaded to allow guns for that purpose.

I might be persuaded to allow the private ownership of handguns in homes for personal protection. (Although, in general, I would find this quite misguided, given that guns in homes seem to contribute more to suicides and domestic violence than protection.) Carrying the gun outside of the home would be a crime.

I might be persuaded to allow for the private ownership of more powerful guns, but they would have to be stored at federally licensed ranges and could not be removed from the premises.

Before I would agree to any of this, I would put severe limits on the amount of ammunition that could be purchased.

But of course, all of these laws are pure fantasy – divorced from the actual politics of guns in the US. As I said at the beginning, nothing will change in the current climate at the federal level, which in this strange way, has created space to make out-of-this-world proposals.

Scouting for all

I applaud BSA for this change. Scouting is an excellent program that I believe in and that I spent years supporting as a den leader and Cubmaster. My boys chose not to continue into Boy Scouts, but I had hoped they would. And now I think it’s great that girls will get the same opportunity.

Our country would be better off if more of our citizens – and especially our leaders, both in and out government – lived according to the Scout Oath and Law. And I say this as a secular humanist and a liberal who doesn’t have much use for the more religious and nationalistic elements of Scouting. Broadly, Scouting is about building character and resilience. Those human qualities shouldn’t know any boundaries.

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Carrying on without hope

I hate to admit it, but I approach American politics and current events with a deep sense of despair anymore. It wasn’t a one-two punch, but a one-two-three punch.

First, no one was prosecuted for turning the US into a torturer. Second, no one was prosecuted in the aftermath of the financial crisis. And finally, we took no action after small children were shot to pieces at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Collective madness grips societies, occasionally, so – in a way – it’s what you do after the peak madness that counts. We’re now in our second decade of letting enormous wrongs go unaddressed. And I don’t see any hope on the horizon.

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Many Americans voted to make an admitted sexual harasser president. Just sayin’.

If you are critical of Harvey Weinstein and you voted for Trump, then you are part of the problem, not part of the solution to sexual harassment.

On a related topic, this is a key reason I came to dislike Bill Clinton and be suspicious of the Democratic Party. Had he been a Republican, they never would have defended him like they did. None of us can avoid bias in our politics, but party politics seems to make us especially stupid.

Oh, and if you’re one of these people that wants to bring Hillary Clinton into this for some reason, I can only remind you that she’s not the president.

Remember when Pres. Obama was supposedly our most divisive president ever? – Taking the knee

Thanks to our divisive and publicly potty-mouthed president, apparently I now have to think about professional sports, which doesn’t interest me in the least. And apparently, I have to choose whether to side with some athletes over others, which I thought could avoid by ignoring the tribalism of pro sports. Oh, well. Fine. I’ll side with the athletes taking the knee.

America isn’t about a flag. It’s about what the flag represents. And I can tell you, living overseas as I do, that the First Amendment is a hugely important part of the American tradition that should be celebrated, not shut down. You do an enormous disservice to the American promise when you demand mindless nationalism. Any country and its leaders in the world can do that. We’re supposed to be different.

Now, two things more:

First, just because you have the right to speak does not mean that you are free from the consequences. So, if the players face blowback, so be it. Of course, at this moment, it’s unclear if those delivering the blowback aren’t just getting drowned out themselves.

Second, regarding Pres. Trump’s call to fire the players, I can only thank him for pointing out that, really, you have zero free speech at the workplace. In fact, many of the values we cherish in our politics – free speech, free right to organize, the right to challenge authority – are for all practical purposes dead on arrival in the workplace because you can be fired. Thankfully, unlike other countries, free speech in the political sphere in the US is largely free of severe consequences. But in the economic sphere, free speech can destroy your life. Along this line, I applaud the many owners who have chosen to stand with their employees and colleagues, rather than stand with someone who is simply trying to stir up trouble for his own gain.

Some other thoughts:

Regarding the substance of the protest – that blacks in the US face persistent disparities in policing, justice, income, wealth, education, and health and that we should do something about it – well, of course! These disparities are real, and we should address them. It’s what Americans do for one another.

I know that many whites think and say that it’s the blacks’ own fault. You can’t be a white American and not have heard this line of argument before from family, friends, or acquaintances. Some of that, of course, is true. Like all people, we create problems for ourselves, and it can be hard to accept self-blame. But I think that fact is swamped by the tidal wave of history and more recent events that show that whenever the black community tries to stand up on its own or play by the rules, some fraction of the white community is there to push it back down. Just look through past events to find the many examples of black middle-class communities that have been destroyed by white riots or public policy. One riot even happened in the adopted hometown of Abraham Lincoln himself. The American north is not immune here.

Now, whether the take-the-knee protests are the right way to bring people around to this history and these discussions, I don’t know. Maybe. Look at what I’m doing right here. I guess that’s proof.

By the way, I think the best way to address many of these disparities is by focusing on universal values and programs and less on race. But that’s a post for another day.

On a petty point, can anyone explain to me why the heck we reaffirm our patriotism at sports events, anyway? What in the world does that have to do with it? I’ve had one European acquaintance tell me that such a display would actually be considered anti-patriotic in some countries there because a celebration of nationhood should be treated with reverence. Instead, we use it to open events where adults play children’s games and many people spend and earn obscene amounts of money watching them do it.

Finally, what disturbs me the most right now is that, while this knee controversy was stoked by Pres. Trump, he moved us closer to a nuclear war with North Korea and has effectively ignored the plight of our fellow Americans on Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has more than 3.5 million people. That’s more than 20 states. Ignoring the disaster there is unpatriotic and immoral.

We’re stuck with North Korea

This is the best analysis you’ll hear of our realistic options with North Korea in the short run. Basically, we have to make peace with the fact that the current regime is here to stay and that we are in a situation of mutually assured destruction. There are no reasonable military options. Instead, we need creative options, and the guest on this program, Goldstein, has a few. Two other items from this interview: a reminder that China is under as much of a threat of MAD as the US, and much of this trouble started with the George W. Bush administration, as so many of our foreign policy problems did.

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Don’t Mess with DACA

As someone who has written that Donald Trump, Republicans, and his supporters are not entirely wrong to be concerned that our borders were so porous that 11 million people entered the country illegally, I find his actions on DACA to be utterly ridiculous. These people were children, who had no agency whatsoever in their coming the US. They are fine residents of our country. To put them in limbo, with a hope that Congress will do the right thing, is just cruel. And the people who support this policy are cruel, as well.

Regarding kicking the can to Congress, I’m sympathetic to the argument that handling this issue really was its job all along. For the long-term health of the republic, we need to reign in the imperial presidency. Too much governing gets done by however the sitting president chooses to interpret the law. Congress should make a decision here. It also, ideally, helps get buy-in across the political spectrum. However, Pres. Trump could have made enshrining DACA a legislative priority without tearing the rug up under people. Again, cruel.


North Korea doesn’t look entirely crazy to me

Thing is, what North Korea is doing looks perfectly rational to me. If you know hostile nations are committed to your destruction – and have the recently proven capacity and willingness to do so – see Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya – why wouldn’t you get the most powerful weapon possible and try to credibly threaten to use it? This situation represents a policy failure since the Bush administration (at least). Trump just happens to be uniquely unsuitable to fix it.

To be clear, I think someone in the US government has to be saying the crazy stuff that Trump is. North Korea needs to understand that we’re a credible threat, too. But it can’t be the president. That person should appear to be the “good cop”, the sane one. But like all things during the Trump era, we’re living in a bizarro, upside down world.

I’m not saying I know how to fix this, but I’m certain the path out requires the president to be committed to de-escalating the situation, rather than escalating it.