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Old Posts, Renewed

6 Jan

Here are some most posts, taken from the Archives, that are worth reading for the first time or revisiting for all the good times you had the first time. Enjoy.

The military’s abandon of the suicidal soldier

1984: The book that killed George Orwell

500 words on: The fall of (opposite) marriage

Lincoln’s great depression


Obama's Nobel Prize speech and the necessity of Just War

14 Dec
photocredit: White House Blog

photocredit: White House Blog

There was hardly any single way President Obama could accept the Nobel Peace prize successfully. His harshest critics are his compatriots, people who should be proud that their president is being honored on the world stage, but instead are ridiculing the prize and process. So when Obama accepted his prize on Wednesday in Oslo there was little he could say to convince the bitter many. His speech spent few words on explaining why he deserved it. In fact, he downplayed it enough to potentially insult the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

What he did do was explain his intentions as president, in particular why he believes fighting in Afghanistan is justified and necessary. He went on to give a speech about the principles of ‘just war’ theory, America’s role in global affairs, and his pragmatic optimism of the future.

Just war theory has developed over many centuries by various philosophers, many attributing St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, as the father of the belief system. It regained prominence in American political discussions during the Vietnam war, arguing what is the just way to fight and end a war. One of the main proponents of including just war theory into the Vietnam debate was Michael Walzer, with his comprehensive and compelling book on morality and war, Just and Unjust Wars. Ever since the 70’s concepts like jus ad bellum (just reason to start a war), jus in bello (just way of fighting a war), and jus post bellum (ending a war justly), have been a staple of all discussions about America’s wars.

On Wednesday, President Obama gave what has to be one of his most revealing speeches on foreign affairs thus far.

Obama laid out, in what at times seemed like a professor’s lecture, the argument that the war in Afghanistan fit the just war model and was a sort of necessary evil.

The president is on record for naming Reinhold Niebuhr as one of the most influential political philosophers in his life. Niebuhr was a towering intellectual figure in the first half of the 20th century that was known for his insights into the complex relationship between morality and politics. Niebuhr was a pragmatic optimist, calling America’s pride a double-edged sword, and a man confident humanity could make progress, but in small, measured steps.

On Wednesday Obama made statements that are fairly common sense, but are hardly ever uttered by a politician, much less a president. After offering a fair share of humility, claiming his accomplishments compared to past prize-winners are “slight,” he went on to explain his war strategy. His decision to expand America’s presence in Afghanistan came after many hoped he would adopt a much more pacifist strategy, one past Nobel Prize winners, like MLK Jr., would have probably preferred.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their [Mandela, MLK, Gandhi] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

This reinforces the so-called Obama ideology: sober, carefully optimistic realpolitik. “Evil does exist in the world,” could never be said by a doe-eyed idealist; it is a true, but loaded statement only said by someone preparing to tackle that ‘evil.’

He went on to make a very Neihburian statement about human progress:

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. “Let us focus,” he said, “on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.”

Gradual evolution in human institutions implies both pragmatism and optimism: pragmatic hopes for human progress, and optimistic that human institutions (government, alliances, grassroots organizations) will lead that effort.

Niebuhr and Walzer believed that war can not only be justifiable, but at times the best (and last) of options. Niebuhr said it was our “self-interest” to accept our responsibilities as world leader. Walzer saw virtue in military interventions during ethnic and regional conflicts, such as genocide and unjust invasions. Obama made subtle mentions of this responsibility and its benefit:

Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

Obama furthered the point that America is, as Madame Secretary Albright used to call her, the “indispensable nation.” Global stability is at risk in Afghanistan, Obama said. A loss there is a loss felt in every other country.

[…] In many countries, there is a disconnect between the efforts of those who serve and the ambivalence of the broader public. I understand why war is not popular, but I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.

Niebuhr thought that politics could indeed be an agent of change, but it was still politics, full of compromise and tit-for-tat. He was a firm believer that a saint could remain saintly even in hell, but very few people could pull off that feat. Anyone hoping to change the world could do so in politics, but they often fall victim to its corrupting vices. An advocate of change needs both vision and a strong stomach. Obama echoed that belief when he explained his diplomatic outreach efforts:

Let me also say this: The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — condemnation without discussion — can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

The speech overall was very well-written, at times lofty and at times unfiltered and realistic. Obama was able to communicate what many felt he needed to, which was painstaking humility and an explanation of the Committee’s decision. But it also went far beyond that. It let anyone willing to listen to it in its entirety know what is fueling Obama’s foreign policy.

After the speech, I am sure the Committee was slightly disappointed, hoping he would have accepted the prize with much more panache. I am also sure, however, that many liberals and conservatives were scratching their head by the end of it: why is it so hard to pigeonhole this president into an ideology?

It’s because he doesn’t have just one, and it’s a fluid process.

Old Posts, Renewed

5 Dec

Here are some most posts, taken from the Archives, that are worth reading for the first time or revisiting for all the good times you had the first time. Enjoy.

The Paradox of Pride: Pride Makes, And Breaks, The Politician

Rosarito and the Drug War

Mexican Television for Dummies


17 Jul


The confirmation hearing for Supreme Court justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor are still going on as I write this. A highlight: Sen. Sessions has brought up the “wise Latina” remark for the, oh I don’t know, 10th time in the last hour. Riveting.

Confirmation hearings are pretty much a choreographed piece of political theater where Senators attempt to sound fierce or supportive, and the nominee tries to give as little information as possible as to how they actually think. If that all sounds too tempting to miss, I got nothing for you.

If you ARE interested in a break from all of that, here are some poliPicks!

  • Science v. Relgion, the rumble in the opinion jungle! Are scientists hurting their trade by dismissing, or even trashing, religion? Short answer: God, yes.
  • Not so Green economy: What if green jobs really wont help our economy or environment at all?
  • Happy ending: Research shows we are awfully cheery whenever we think about death. In related news, Hershey’s will now be selling really dark chocolate.
  • KKK v.2009: A lot has stayed the same with the Klan, as is evident in this photo gallery: hoods, cross burning (or as Klan members prefer, “cross lighting”), bringing them up young in the cloth. It’s unnerving to think they still exist today, under a social an political reality that may not only help them survive, but grow.
  • Tweet of the day: From comedian Sean O’Connor, @seanoconnz

I hit on Kat Dennings last night on twitter – and for some reason can’t believe it didn’t work.

Here’s a great idea: follow me on twitter, @jzippy

Bonne weekend!


3 Jul


Interesting thing happened last weekend during Pride. Partaking in the annual festivities celebrating the gay community and allies, like me and my crew, is quite an experience. Moods were tempered compared to years before, mainly because of the recent court decision upholding Prop. 8.

Nonetheless, the crowd was partying like it was 2009. At one of the music stages set in the middle of a closed street, they started playing Michael Jackson. This was probably the most energetic moment of the night. People all around were compelled to try an MJ move or two, maybe start saying “Jamon!” to a nearby friend, or doing some trademark crotch thrusts. As soon as the DJ’s Jackson tribute ended, people calmed back down and went back to their usual dance moves. Right then I knew MJ still had it in him.

On that note, Happy 4th of July weekend! Now, some patriotic poliPicks!

  • The Joy of Absorption: With the craziness surrounding us 24/7, it may be time to try out some yoga, reading, writing or all of the above to keep us in the moment.
  • Happinomics: Talking to strangers is a win-win. If only someone would get it started.
  • And in Iran…: The blame continues. Now the people at fault for the “poisoning of the people” (i.e. protesting against a stolen election) are British Embassy workers. Who’s next? The lady around the corner that sows people’s pants?
  • Who Wants to be a Believer? A new Turkish game show will try to convert some atheists into either a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Christian, or a Jew. No word yet if Scientology is scheduled for season 2.
  • Look down: Chicago’s Sears Tower wants you to squeal like a little girl:
  • Minnesotans for Bachmann Unite! The most colorful and frightening Congresswoman out there, Michele Bachmann (R-MN), hasn’t ruled out running for governor yet. Be a patriot and visit her (mock) site.
  • WashPo misbehaving: Who knew charging people to get inside access to government officials and your top editors and writers would be frowned upon.
  • Tweet of the day: Brought to you by author Ayelet Waldman, @ayeletw

Is your love as profound as that of the governor of South Carolina? One can only dream.

Here is a great idea: follow me on Twitter, @jzippy

Bonne (4th of July) weekend!

Make your kids successful by denying them treats

21 May

And being a bit of a jerk.

A recent study has shown a strong correlation (possibly a causation, but that argument still lacks meat) between self-control as a child and success in life.

The test was basically this: a kid and a researcher would sit around a table in small room. The table would have a bounty of treats between the kid and the researcher. The coat would give the kid a marshmallow. Then he would make an offer: I will leave the room and leave this bell with you. If you wait 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, you get to choose another treat from the heap you have in front of you. If you can’t wait and want to eat the marshmallow, ring the bell and I will come back so you eat it. If you ring the bell, you cannot get another treat.

Simple enough. Some kids couldn’t wait and rang the bell. Some kids just stuffed their face with the marshmallow as soon as the coat left. Some kids looked to around to see if anyone was looking and ate a cookie, hoping to end up with three treats. Some kids actually waited and ate their two treats, in accordance with the rules. These kids were called the “high-delayers.” From The New Yorker:

Once Mischel [the lead researcher] began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Tease your kids with a Twinkie. You are sending them to college.

Lincoln's Great Depression

20 May

One of the most intriguing articles on Lincoln I have ever read depicts his struggle with depression and how this illness crafted his presidential capacities. The author of this article, Joshua Wolf Shenk, is also the author of a book I am currently finishing, Lincoln’s Melancholy. After I read the article I had to get my hands on the book that explores this side of Lincoln in detail–it took me 3 years, but better late than never. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves to dig around the psychological closets of great men.

An excerpt of the Lincoln’s Great Depression, from The Atlantic:

Lincoln did suffer from what we now call depression, as modern clinicians, using the standard diagnostic criteria, uniformly agree. But this diagnosis is only the beginning of a story about how Lincoln wrestled with mental demons, and where it led him. Diagnosis, after all, seeks to assess a patient at just a moment in time, with the aim of treatment. But Lincoln’s melancholy is part of a whole life story; exploring it can help us see that life more clearly, and discern its lessons. In a sense, what needs “treatment” is our own narrow ideas—of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be, and will be, squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain; and finally, of mental trials as a flaw in character and a disqualification for leadership.

[…] With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul; whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.

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