Friday, December 21, 2012

Editorial: North Korea threat is no joking matter

Once again the unnamed Courier editor takes on an international news story and steps immediately out of his depth based on his armchair research before his mighty bigscreen boobtube.

Regular readers know that I lived for some years within missile range of North Korea. I know firsthand that Japan relied then for its security against the weird and sociopathic state not on its own military or the massive US forces occupying it, but rather on an extensive chain of shady gambling operations, to which Japanese authorities turned a blind eye, run by North Koreans who supplied most of the nation's hard currency by remitting the profits homeward. It was a not heroic, it wasn't something to brag about, but it worked and as far as I know continues to work.

It's correct to think that North Korea could do a lot of damage in a short time. It couldn't sustain a war or any more than a single hostile move, but it would hurt people all the same, by far the most likely in Seoul. It would then bring sure annihilation for the North Korean regime, and it's ridiculous to presume that just because they act crazy sometimes, they're really that crazy. To even begin to understand this regime you have to see it from the inside, a place so foreign that even most pro Asia-watchers stumble continually over its contradictions and absurdities.

The bottom line is that North Korea is building missiles not to hit the US, but to pretend to itself and its people that it maybe could. This it uses as what amounts to extortion leverage against China, which trades food and technology for maintaining a more or less secure border against the horde of North Korean refugees bursting to escape.

This graf caught my eye:

"North Korean officials insist that the purpose of the launch was peaceful - to put a satellite in orbit. Yet missile experts correctly point out that the technology for that task matches the technology for launching long-range armed missiles."
For "North Korean" the reader could substitute "The USSR" or "The USA" and create a direct quote from thousands of worried papers during the Space Race, and it's absolutely true. The American military made it eminently clear that the space program was entirely about ICBMs the day it ordered Chuck Yeager to abort taking the X-15 out of atmosphere and kiboshed the whole piloted space program. It's utterly naive to think that any missile-based space effort is not about the missiles, and that includes India, China, Japan, Iran, France and everyone else spending a dime on it. We've only got a lot of good science out of it by taking advantage of the military need for expensive fig leaves.

What makes North Korea special is that it won't make a deal and join the club. I have to think that if its military and political leaders (not Kim the third, who like his father is obviously just a pampered figurehead) really are as lame as our media and government would have us believe, it would be the easiest thing in the world to flatter and bribe them into complacency and exploitability. They're clearly not. They've long since decided that leaning into the crazy image will get them all they want and maintain their (imagined) independence and very real local power.

It keeps going this way because our own military-industrialists can use North Korean crazy to justify themselves and their high salaries. Since the War to End All War there has always been an irrational, implacable enemy tailor-made for building war machines. If the enemy's irrational, we don't have to explain why they hate us, we can just take it for granted (and not think about it). We used to go and actually fight them, now for the most part we just "prepare" for their eventual aggression, spending endless billions without ever having to prove there's a threat. It's a close to perfect con.

North Korea will continue to play this game as long as China goes along, and that's where the calculus ends. It's not about us, it's not even about South Korea, really. It's not inconceivable that if we were to drop our sanctions and pump enough aid into North Korea to get its people off the starvation bus, we'd see Chinese military hit teams cleaning out the alpha dogs posthaste. But the card-house of rhetoric we've built around this issue will never allow that.

North Korea is a complex diplomatic problem involving freakish internal politics and interlinked international interests in the status quo, which makes it frustrating. But "alarming"? No, Tim, not really.

Wiederaenders: World keeps turning despite predictions


In the graf after his requisite lame attempt at a gentle-humor column (consider trying this on the Angus page, Tim, he's no funnier than you are), Tim plays a little catch-up on what he should have written for Monday, stating that the City money going into the courthouse lights is unrelated to the lighting ceremony and therefore there's no constitutional violation of church and state. (His first point, that no one is forced to attend, is completely irrelevant to the question of whether public resources are being spent on religion, showing just how unfamiliar he is with the legal questions.)

Doing this right would have meant acting like a journalist, getting the complete facts and citing sources. Making  a bald assertion on the opinion page does nothing to inform anyone but those who are already sold, so it really only throws fuel on the fire. (Fer gadaskes, act like  pro and try to see it from someone else's POV for a second, wouldya?)

Later he does a little more sucking up to Carol Springer, following up on a gushy editorial and a long political obit nervily slugged "THE PEOPLE'S POLITICIAN." It would be a major challenge to back that one up, I'm afraid, unless "the people" can be defined as rape-and-pillage developers.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Editorial: Objection to ceremony is wrong

Wow, the group that wrote letters objecting to the religious content of the courthouse lighting ceremony really got the unnamed editor's goat! I haven't before seen a Courier editorial written with such anger, seen not just in the word choices but in the hasty, sloppy thinking.

First to the facts: It's not the "Freedom of Religion Foundation," as seen in the news piece, but rather the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and it's not an "atheist group," as seen in the headline and body copy of same, but rather atheist, agnostic and nontheist. I'm sure that's a little nuanced for the mouth-breathers around here, but an editor ought to have the circumspection to get it right. Clearly "atheist" is meant as an offensive epithet.

When civil libertarians object and sue to halt religious use of public resources, the adherents to the affected cult (pretty much always white Protestants) go to the mattresses as if the next step is to raze the churches and put them all in reeducation camps. They invariably forget that the strongest protection for their religious practices is keeping all such practices out of government.

Had the editor been able to take a breath and think for a second, his defense could have been a lot more sober and effective. As far as I know the courthouse lighting is supported entirely by private funds and groups, primarily the Chamber of Commerce. If that's true as I suspect, the ceremony does not infringe on constitutional protections and there's no legal case to be made against it. The Wisconsin-based national watchdog group responded to a local complainant, probably without access to the accounting or other pertinent facts. Given the penchant among small red-state towns across the country to play fast and loose around religion, the objection isn't surprising, but it's likely an overreaction.

That said, it would be a good idea for local leaders to take this as a cue to check themselves on where the legal lines are. Prescott's state recognition as "Arizona's Christmas City" is likely over that line, for instance, both when the Legislature placed it on the statute books and whenever the City puts money into promoting it. To be within the law, we have to ensure that only private funds and resources go into this sort of nonsense, and the City stays officially clear of it.

Staying within the law (which despite all the religious wannabe legal eagles is clear and well established: church and state must remain strictly separate in this country) isn't any more difficult than adhering to the speed limit on 69, and most importantly, it protects all the silly celebrations and freedoms of religion. People of faith should be the first to support and maintain that separation.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Editorial: Foreign aid: Small dent, big impact

Once again we find the editor aiming for the right target, but his technique isn't quite up to hitting it.

For starters, he undermines his own point by parroting the talking point, "Congress has been spending too much money for decades." Every time researchers ask Americans about specifics, they find that we generally support the spending. What Congress has failed to do is maintain the revenue streams to pay for it.

At the end of the same graf he yarbles, "foreign governments such as China hold the notes on our debts." It's true that China holds American debt, but it's a minor piece. Over half of total US debt is held by the Federal Reserve and the US government itself. Americans hold over half the remainder (right, three quarters of the debt that everyone's screaming about we owe to ourselves), and China holds about a quarter of the foreign component. Here's a primer on our public debt worth studying.
Every American should know this stuff, especially a newspaper editor.

"We deem [foreign aid] an investment of monumental proportions," writes the editor. What he pretty clearly means to write is that it's a small investment with monumental returns. Would it be so hard to run this stuff past a copy editor?

The embarrassingly tiny amounts of money relative to GDP that we reluctantly leak out to assist foreign governments and NGOs for humanitarian aid are indeed invaluable investments in the people they reach and our own image and security. The editor's entrapment in teevee thinking and slapdash writing unfortunately cripple him in his otherwise noble attempt to defend common sense.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Editorial: What will it take to enact gun control?

In the context of the mass shooting events that come  around regularly every year, the Newtown event isn't objectively remarkable by itself, but something about the average age of the victims combined with the temporal proximity to a certain pseudo-religious holiday has got the attention of the unnamed Courier editor, who writes, "In this country, there has never been a serious or credible push to ever ban all guns. That is patently insane." The "ever" is obviously out of place and I'm not quite sure whether he means that never having pushed is insane or the idea of banning all guns is insane, so I can't offer any cookies for clarity, but it's clear in the body of the piece and the headline that he's had about enough of the killing and is encouraging readers to think in terms of stopping it. This is healthy.

Of course this brings out the anti-gun hardliners to joust with the firearm devotees, horsed on swaybacked old nags of argument and carrying blunted lances that never engage the opponent, because most everyone is talking past one another. An exception, from a commenter signing herself Kat Camacho:

"In July of 2011 I buried my child because it's okay for anyone to have a gun, get mad, go into a home a shoot and kill another human, MY SON. Until any one of you folks above have to bury your child because there is no control or justice, I urge you to shut the heck up! Guns don't belong in all of society because sick, evil, spineless creatures live and creep around in this society and Kill with these weapons. Shame on you people."
Hear, hear. She's exactly the sort of person to which I referred in my comment earlier, viz:
On the very same day as the Newtown mass murder, another madman attacked a school in the Henan Province village of Chengping, in China. He knifed 22 children between the ages of six and eleven. Local health-care workers say none was seriously hurt. If the madman had had a gun, of course, that story would have ended quite differently. 
My position on the American cult of the gun is well known, and I'm not the guy who's going to convince any gun lover that it's finally time to start talking seriously about the elephant in the room. It's not the editor either, though it's encouraging to see these words on this page after so many years of this paper going along with the gag*. No, the people who will matter in this debate are the parents in our community who heard the news yesterday and shuddered and cried to think that it really could be their kids, at any time. It's long past time for them to clear their heads and get serious about protecting their children and our society as a whole from this deadly and eminently preventable disease.
Since then I've seen more details come out. The presumed shooter,  Adam Lanza, was a 20-year-old with a disorder on the autism spectrum. The three guns, including an AR-15, belonged to his mother, a kindergarten teacher at the school, with whom Adam lived. She was the first to die. Others are missing who may be victims as well. You're probably ahead of me on this, since this is probably running nonstop from the cable news monsters.

Aside: What kind of society are we living in where a kindergarten teacher with a mentally disabled adult son feels the need to keep two handguns and an assault-style semiautomatic weapon?

Back to the editorial and the subject du jour, the editor's heart is in the right place, but like pretty much all the commenters he's trapped in the world of simple answers to complex problems. Leaping to the idea of "gun control" only raises the defenses of the fearful and locks up the brakes on progress. We have to recognize that to some extent, everyone in this argument has a piece of the truth and no one has all of it.

Gun lovers have it right when they say that the mentally deranged and the criminals (often the same thing) will always be among us,  and that there's no way we can hope to disappear guns from our society.

Gun despisers like me have it right that more guns lead to more violence, that far and away the likeliest person to be hurt by a given gun is its owner or a loved one, and the idea of citizens using their trusty pistolas to face down determined criminals or a tyrannical government is juvenile fantasy.

Even if we could legislate away the weapons, we can't legislate away the sense of entitlement to personal deadly violence that many people read into the Second Amendment. And we can't censor away the fascination with deadly violence in our media and culture without becoming something we all agree would be bad.

Like other forms of crime, gun violence on the whole has been diminishing with our aging population. Mass shootings/suicides have not, and stress-related emotional and domestic violence is as bad or worse than ever. This implies that what so many of us see as individual criminality or derangement is the extreme expression of a much broader-based pathology. Our society is sick.

You've likely heard that one before, but if we take it to heart it means that the practical solution to the problem of endemic gun violence is much more complex, involving the entire society in multi-front treatment that under the best of circumstances will take generations to show positive effect.

But it may not be all that difficult in day-to-day terms. Consider the example from Chengping. Another mentally diminished individual lashes out emotionally, chooses children as his victims and wields his weapon with impunity. The differences: his access to a firearm of any kind was much more restricted than it is here, and his society is much less tolerant of social violence. China is near the other end of the spectrum from us in both these factors, with the rest of the civilized world falling in between somewhere and producing far less gun violence as well. You need both parts, less access and less tolerance.

It's a canard to say that a given deranged person bent on violence who doesn't have a gun will either find a way to get one or kill as effectively with some other weapon. The crimes we're talking about here are emotional paroxysms, not calculated mayhem, and the aggressors use whatever they have at hand. Access to firearms makes death and maiming more likely in the encounter. That's why gun lovers love guns, after all — they're more effective.

We can't start to have a useful dialogue about this very real and deadly problem until we can move out of our accustomed entrenched positions. If you keep a gun because you feel the need to protect yourself, you should be amenable to the idea of reducing access to guns in sensible ways for the people you fear. If you want to see fewer guns in our society because it will reduce violence for all, you're smart enough to  recognize that we can't wish half a billion guns away.

The ultimate solution is bottom-up: we'll have less gun violence when we reduce our tolerance for violence, in daily life, in conversation, in media, in our children, in how we talk about solving problems. If we can make progress on our twisted, adolescent thinking and grow up a bit, then all that's left to do is clear away the mess.

The path to that kind of maturity is to keep the innocent victims in mind and see that it's only luck that you or I isn't in today's body bag. Tomorrow brings another roll of the dice. Wouldn't you like to increase your odds?

*: As recently as nine days ago, btw.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Must read: Worrying about the wrong kind of debt

Robert Wright, writing in The Atlantic, considers what may be a key metric of danger to the economy in What if the Fiscal Cliff Is the Wrong Cliff?, making a strong argument for restructuring of private debt not just to improve the economy, but to avert the continuing threat of economic depression. Key concept: we're still in deep enough to crash the bus.

Where's winter?: November was hot and dry here; heat and emissions on the rise globally

I was briefly flabbergasted to read this piece — a straight news story in the Courier calmly relating facts about climate change. Who screwed up and let this through?

Even that gratuitous final reference to trumped-up controversy, "In conservative states, the term 'climate change' is often associated with left-leaning politics," points up the isolation of the critics from reality. I notice no one took a byline on this one, no surprise in a town where such behavior might get you disinvited from the parties, but even so, just having it appear in the paper is a breakthrough. Could the tide be turning at last?

Related: End of the Arctic Era

Williams: Minority conservatives get unfair deal

In which our token local reactionary defends the honor of poor downtrodden nonwhite and women reactionaries, assailed and vilified in public not for their actions and policies, but for their nonwhiteness or gender.

Putting on his Pat Buchanan-signature blinders, Buz pulls examples out of thin air and ancient history to construct a way to see non-reactionaries as the racists in the room, a classic psychological projection all the more pitiful for its transparency.

Here's a clue, Buz: If you were to go back and review the actual coverage and commentary about Clarence Thomas, Alberto Gonzalez, Condoleezza Rice and the rest of your list, you might discover that the criticism was substantive and focused on their actions and policies, just as it was for Robert Bork, John Ashcroft, Henry Kissinger and the rest. Seeing the nonwhite-nonmale group as separate, while refusing to countenance the substance of the arguments against them, only indicates your own prejudices. It's really that simple.

Another example of this kind of "thinking":

Editorial: Once again no, we can't talk about gun laws

Yet another deranged man shoots his domestic partner to death, then pops himself off in a public display. He's famous, she's not, and he gets all the media attention, even sympathy. A sportscaster steps out of his accustomed role and mentions the tragedy of the deranged man having easy access to a deadly weapon. America's powerful gun cult swings into action, and suddenly the criminal isn't the deranged man, it's the sportscaster. The victim is forgotten. What ought to be satire has long since become daily reality here on Bizarro World.

What strikes me about this podunk-paper editorial reacting to a national media-hype story that has nothing at all to do with our community other than our unhealthy average time suckling the glass teat, is the raw defensiveness underpinning it.

Why do gun cultists feel the need to rush to the defense of their demigod and man the barricades at the slightest suggestion that we might consider rethinking our insane national addiction to firearms? Could it be that deep in their hearts they realize just how shaky their argument is? Could perhaps their faith be flagging just a little?

If so, it's about time.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Editorial: Humiliation is not the way to go

The unnamed editor seems so confused about the issue of school discipline that I have to wonder why the board thought it was a good idea to write about it at all.

How many sides of the issue can one editor stand on? He writes, "... a bright red, aching backside was effective. ... We just can't believe that public humiliation is an appropriate way to deal with a juvenile problem ... but it seems very unlikely that those two boys will fight on school grounds again. ... In-school suspensions also are an effective innovation. ... an area that used to be as simple as swatting away trouble. .... raining down scorn on a pair of wrongdoers, effective or not, is a stretch of that authority."

First, it's off-base to imagine a clear distinction between the corporal punishment of old and the public shaming that the editor refers to here. They are essentially the same. The act of placing another human in a helpless physical position to inflict pain with impunity isn't about the pain so much as the humiliation, and you can be confident that whenever someone was paddled in school, it was known to all the students, making it pointedly public. Second, shame is where it's at. Instilling discipline means shaming, in every human society everywhere. It's essentially the society telling the perpetrator that bad behavior carries the risk of societal rejection, the worst punishment for a social animal.

If there were a broadly effective method for getting every kid to behave well in class, our schools would be using it. Let's talk about the "in class" piece of that. What we have to recognize is that assembling kids in large groups with minimal adult supervision leads them inevitably to make up their own social structures, which will be immature by nature. The problem is not the kids, it's the culture they come from plus the ones they create in the context of the industrial-style education model that we all grew up with.

I think the old way is better, but I go back a lot further than the corporal-punishment fascists. Preindustrial education was done on a much more individual basis, the children working among adults, not with other kids, acquiring skills directly from the people who used them. This raised the child directly into the adult social context, providing both structure and role models, and if later in life they worked with a teacher, it was someone with specialized skills that would clearly lead to professional and/or social advancement.

This isn't a perfect model either, but it offers a contrasting angle that throws the deficiencies of the current model into relief. Warehousing children in large groups to train them in a standardized curriculum seems insane when we need to produce adaptive, creative self-starters for an increasingly entrepreneurial society. Until we can find a way to get out from under the old industrial model, discipline in the classroom (and society at large as a result) will be a growing problem, no matter what methods we try.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Editorial: Forum a microcosm of nation's polarity

The unnamed editor's Barcalounger turns in the column for today, rehashing Ken Hedler's piece from Friday's edition about an amateur theatrical ostensibly about economics, held by and for Prescott's Very Serious People Club.

The chair seems to get it right in characterizing the show as "an accurate picture of division in our country." I'm a little skeptical that it really understands why, however.

Where the chair seems to have seen "contrasting views on America's slow recovery from the Great Recession," what actually happened, as Ken describes it, was that one guy gave a talk on economics while the other ranted about his political ideology.

This is indeed how the bulk of our public discourse has been playing out for about twenty years. One side talks about facts and policy, the other talks trash. And no, these roles do not reverse according to the issue -- the trash comes from the reactionary Republicans. It's long past time for us to stop pretending that the sides are equally at fault and simply trashing one another at every opportunity. There is legitimate, fact-based criticism based on facts, and there is schoolyard name-calling. They are not of equal value, and the sooner we stop pretending as much, the sooner we'll begin to move forward in addressing the systemic and cultural problems that are crippling this nation. If we can't have an adult conversation, we can't have adult solutions, let alone smart ones.

On that score I've got a cookie for Ken for having the balls to point out in print that one guy was talking and the other just barking. I can't speculate on how that got past the editors, but let's have more of it.