Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Does Stealth Even Matter?

Can you see me now?
Modern fourth and fifth generation fighter planes all tend to include some level of stealth technology. Stealth reduces the size of the plane's radar cross section, making it harder to detect with traditional search and track radar systems. Now, it's an interesting problem, because for the last fifty years, to use radar in combat was almost certain death. Whether from a jet fighter or a SAM missile battery, radar is functionally a brilliant searchlight in microwave frequencies, and serves both to announce their presence and to guide incoming missiles directly to the target. But even so, if an aircraft is going to survive for long in contested airspace, it's going to need to be hard to locate, and that means stealth.

But stealth technology is highly asymmetric - it requires more effort and investment to develop and improve than it does to defeat. This is a common characteristic of very advanced or very complex systems - ABM (anti-ballistic missile) technology suffers from the same imbalance. As early as 1999, Yugoslavian anti air batteries were able to detect F-117s when they opened their bomb bay doors, instantly tripling their radar signature. They knew they couldn't use their radars for more than thirty seconds at a time to avoid counter-radar attacks, but even so on March 27th they fired multiple SA-3 missiles at a Stealth Fighter and brought it down. While this is the only (acknowledged) F-117 ever lost in combat, it speaks to how difficult stealth technology is to implement, and how any weakness in the stealth components can render the whole package useless.

There are lots of ways to detect a modern warplane. There's infrared, the heat generated by the engine and the friction of its passage through the air. There's all manner of radar, beams of Radio Frequency waves that bounce off and are are reflected back to a detector. There's highly sensitive elctro-optical systems - remember we have cameras in space that can read license plates. There's UV radiation, there's acoustic signals, there's just a wide range of spectrum that makes jet aircraft visible to passive systems. The technology we know as "stealth" makes an aircraft much less visible at certain wavelengths - particularly at radar and infrared frequencies. The intention is to lower the "radar cross section" of the attackers, and make them hard for air defenses to detect and attack.

Of course the problem with this concept is it assumes that the only effective approach to detecting intruding bombers is radar, or at closer ranges, infrared (heat) radiation. But if your enemies are masking those signatures, doesn't it make sense that you'd seek to exploit other, more observable signatures? There are a large number or research programs dedicated to alternative detection methods for stealth aircraft. These can be electro-optical systems, based on highly sensitive broad spectrum cameras that either detect the aircraft directly or detect it's passage through the atmosphere (Schlieren Signature). There are long wavelength radar that gives up precision to detect the entire aircraft - the wavelength is the size of the features on the airframe (1 meter) and while that sacrifices much in the way of detailed information, it still detects the inbound strike, and serves to focus more accurate systems on the attacking aircraft.

And this isn't pie-in-the-sky. Many nations, including Russia and China, have already deployed modern Infrared Search and Track (IRST) systems in their front line combat aircraft and long wavelength radars on the ground. The purpose for stealth - the penetration of contested airspace in a survivable manner - is rapidly becoming unachievable.  While stealth will remain a component of the modern fighter - powerful nations spend most of their military efforts bombing backward, third world countries with 1970s era air defenses, after all - the dependency on increasing numbers of advanced missiles and stand-off weapons will increase exponentially.  In many ways, the future of warfare is a process of denying your aversary access to your shores. If a nation can draw a thousand kilometer 'bubble' around its borders and actively prevent foreign operations within that bubble, then war begins to look a lot different than it ever has.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Consent of the Governed

Seemed like a good idea at the time
This is the intrinsic beauty and power of liberal democracy. A government that is formed by the people and operates with the understanding that their authority may be revoked at any time. That what they do they do on behalf of their constituency, and only with the permission of that constituency. So if you think about it, this is the central organizing principle of any truly democratic institution. That leads to the inevitable conclusion that there are two paths by which a democracy can fail. The government can insulate itself from the governed, such that their consent is no longer requested or required, or the governed can find themselves so divided, so ideologically polarized, or so comfortably apathetic that any kind of broad-based national consent becomes impossible.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

Of course, more than one thing can be true at any given time, and here in America we are watching our democracy die due to both conditions. Our government has become so corrupt, so invested in perpetuating its own power that it no longer even pretends to be interested in the opinions of the governed. And rather than resisting this transparent rejection of basic democratic values and voting people into power that will respect the consent of the governed, the people instead have divided themselves into two savage ideological camps, unable to even agree on a basic set of facts. We have created these tribes - "Conservatives" and "Liberals" - that exist to hate each other, and to try to undermine any political progress by the other side. The point has stopped being about policy, and now it's nothing but tribe. Rethuglicans and Libtards. If you think there's a way out of this that doesn't include a second civil war, I'd love to hear it.

I've had a couple conversations recently with people who truly believe this is nothing but another temporary blip, a part of the political process. They honestly believe that the system can't possibly be broken - hey, it's always worked out before. But that's false - it collapsed in 1860 and we had a bloody civil war that cost millions of lives. THAT, I believe, is the model of the future. We have reached a point where our political polarization cannot be reconciled by our system based on 17th century norms of political behavior. The system cannot work, because in order to do so it requires a political environment that simply cannot exist today. At some point, the shouting will end and the shooting will start.

So here's what we have - a world defined increasingly by what it is we don't want. Whether it's abortion, gay marriage, uncontrolled guns or unregulated food products, we argue at the margins over the things we reject. Meanwhile, we no longer can find a way to agree on simple ongoing processes like infrastructure development or education. We can't agree to help the sick or provide a roof for the homeless. We now define ourselves on the basis of what we disagree about, and we have internalized the idea that compromise is surrender. We're so far past the consent of the governed, we've actually arrived at the rejection of the governed. It seems as if it no longer matters what the people want, the government will keep its secrets, determine its own legalities, and explain to the populace only when it is caught out. Our Snowdens and our Wikileaks don't protect us from a government that refuses to be accountable to it's constituency, they merely serve to let us know how far the power has slipped from the governed to the governors.

Even if the leadership were willing to take guidance from the governed, American citizenry would be paralyzed, unable to agree on the path forward. But for that matter, even if the people came together and demanded with one voice a specific governing agenda, it is unlikely that it would merit even a passing note on Capitol Hill. To me, the takeaway is clear: The era of democratic governance in the US is over. There are a number of possible outcomes - from a huge authoritarian state to an orderly dissolution into autonomous regions or even separate nations more representative of their geographic constituencies. The status quo is clearly unsustainable, and there's just no path back to what we used to be. All the bridges are burning.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Russian Roulette

Would you buy a used country from this man?
In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into Crimea and effectively annexed that strategic peninsula. Shortly thereafter, he found himself mired in a bloody civil war in neighboring Ukraine. By the end of June, he appeared powerful and confident. Despite western sanctions, the Russian economy was strong and the people were aglow with that special kind of Slavic nationalist fervor. Oil was $110 a barrel, the Ruble was trading at 33 to the dollar and interest rates were a stable 7%. Needless to say, things have changed substantially in the last two months. The price of oil has cratered, settling (at least for now) in the $57 range. The Russian currency has collapsed as the oligarchs have panicked, trading for more solid dollars, euros and yen at almost any price. As the Ruble fell to 70* to the dollar, the central bank panicked and doubled interest rates to 17%, in hopes of convincing Russians to keep their Rubles. As a tactic in a currency crisis, this has been tried before - it never works.

So now the future is dark for Russia, and there is much to be concerned about. There is some history here, but it's difficult see what it might tell us about today. In 1998, the Russian economy collapsed. But Russia was weak, Yeltsin had dismissed the cabinet in March and the IMF provided $22 Billion in support, and even so, by August his government was in default. But that was a safe, quiet, peaceful kind of economic crisis. Before that was the moment, in 1989, when the Soviet union found itself prostrate before the west, so desperate for hard currency that they had to agree not to crush the Solidarity union protests in Poland. A few weeks later, the Soviet Union no longer existed.

And that's the problem we're still dealing with. The one organizing principle of Vladimir Putin's Presidency is that moment when Gorbachev was willing to agree to any demands in exchange for money. It was the end of Soviet Marxism/Leninism, but more than that it was a purely Russian humiliation. A technological and military superpower laid low by the relentless logic of capitalist economics. Putin has worked tirelessly to restore some kind of national identity and Russian pride. And perhaps some of that is a worthwhile project. You want to build national pride. But an angry, pugilistic nationalism built on hatred of Muslims, hatred of Gays, and an overriding sense of victim-hood at the hands of Western Powers doesn't leave Putin with a lot of places to go.

So trying to predict the future is hard. But the worst case scenario has the Russian economy continuing to implode under collapsing oil prices, Western sanctions, a worthless currency and bonds that demand a risk premium, leading to another sovereign default. History teaches us that a timely war can be effective in distracting a cold, hungry and frightened populace. If the Russian economic collapse continues - and with the terrible economic conditions in the EU and no indication that the price of oil will recover any time soon, there's no reason to think it won't - there may come a time when Putin decides that for domestic and economic reasons a war would be just what the doctor ordered. And he's got a number of places to turn - Ukraine, certainly, with the causus belli already established and the killing ongoing, but also Georgia and Azerbaijan. And making matters worse, Putin has already established and confirmed the West's profound unwillingness to actually respond to Russian provocations with military force, giving him much more of a free hand to take the actions necessary to get the shooting started.

So. Where does it all go? Well, any confrontation between Russia and the West can lead to the end of the world. Tens of thousands of nuclear weapons mean that nobody is willing to simply accept a loss in a conventional war. But it's much worse than that. The lesson we learned in Ukraine is that the US and Europe are unwilling to risk global annihilation over small chunks of Eastern Europe. Putin has a comfort zone, up to a point. The problem for the whole world is nobody knows where the threshold for Western military action is. If the Kremlin were to begin to see significant domestic unrest in the face of large scale economic problems, even as the Russian Central Bank was struggling with a massive decline in hard currency reserves, it would be easy to gin up an escalation in Ukraine. But how much of an escalation? Take Kiev? Moldova? Threaten Romania or Latvia? Romania, Hungary and Poland are NATO members and therefore the US and Europe would be theoretically obligated to defend them, but the likelihood that they would risk a disastrous European war or even a nuclear exchange over those Eastern European nations is small.

So, once again we have Russia as the heavily-armed, economically unstable rogue superpower with much more to lose than her peer competitors. And today we find them burning with a chest-thumping inferiority complex that will prevent them from coming back to the IMF for bridge loans. The one thing they have is military power, and an apparent willingness to use it for for the most banal domestic political purposes. The Ukrainian separatists and the Western Sanctions give them a cause and an enemy, and, like a high-stakes game of Tetris, all the pieces seem to be falling into place for a very bad outcome.

*With a Chinese currency swap deal, the Ruble has since risen to under 60 to the dollar. But there's nothing to change the longer term trends...

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Stand There - Don't Just Do Something

Advanced North Korean Cyber Weapons
So a hostile nation state attacked an American - well, really Japanese, but it's not an important distinction at this point - corporation, and forced them to withdraw a product in which they had made a significant investment. All the usual suspects are shrieking that we must "DO SOMETHING", without, as is always the case, specifying just precisely what it is they believe we should do. One option would be a cruise missile strike - the US has previously indicated that its doctrine does envision kinetic responses to serious cyber attacks. Another option is offensive cyberwarfare against North Korea. And a third option would be economic/diplomatic sanctions. That seems pretty straightforward so let's go ahead and think these options through.

I think we can rule out a military strike as a response in this case. The problem would be proportionality, and this just wasn't the kind of cyber attack that was envisioned when the Pentagon spoke of a kinetic response to a cyber attack. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of cyber attacks. The most common, the kind you hear about every day, is where intruders manage to penetrate the network's defenses, either from outside or inside the network, and gain access to data. This data might be financial, it might be personal, it might be corporate trade secrets, and it might be some of everything - which is what we saw in the Sony attack. The other kind of cyber attack - vanishingly rare at this point but much more concerning from a military standpoint - is an attack that penetrates a network in order to break things and hurt people. An attack on the power grid would represent this kind of attack, as did the Stuxnet attack on the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility. That attack actually destroyed a large number of centrifuges and placed the lives of Iranian technicians at risk. If we were talking about that kind of attack, we might be more likely to see a destructive response.

Also, this wasn't an attack against a government installation or critical infrastructure - it was an attack on a corporation - an entertainment company. Nation states have been attacking corporate networks in order to conduct espionage activities for decades, and those attacks have only become more common with time. Certainly the government - particularly federal law enforcement and the counter-intelligence community - have a role to play in monitoring and defending against such cyber attacks, but that in no way exempts the corporation from their responsibility to protect their shareholders, investors, employees and customer's data from theft and mis-use. The primary cyber-defenders have to be from the corporate side - there's no practical way a government could have enough skilled professionals to protect the data owned by every business.

Economic sanctions would ordinarily be a good option - high-profile, proportionate and non-destructive. But North Korea is already so isolated, and under so many different kinds of sanctions and embargoes that there's really nothing left to restrict. All of which leads us to the conclusion that the appropriate response to the Sony attacks would be some targeted offensive cyber attacks, particularly against the North Korean government and military. And that would certainly be my recommendation. Unfortunately, there are two gigantic practical problems with that solution. First, North Korea is very isolated. ALL of her internet connections run through China. No western nation can get a TCP packet into or out of North Korea with having it go across Chinese routers and servers. If it was another nation, we could probably ask (or negotiate) for access, but with the  cyber-espionage accusations flying back and forth between Beijing and Washington, it seems unlikely that China would be predisposed to provide any kind of access to the US Intelligence Community. Also, any clandestine US penetration of North Korean networks that does exist would likely be compromised by actual attacks. The question that would have to be addressed is which would be more valuable - ongoing secret access to intelligence, or a one time rampage that would damage existing plans and operations?

In the end there are few viable options, and even those might not be worth pursuing. The US, particularly in the private sector, needs to do a much better job of preventing cyber attacks, and of detecting them when prevention fails. Because if the world descends into cyber warfare, the US will find it has very few of the advantages it has in traditional warfare. Cyber warfare does not require advanced technology, vast resources or massive R&D efforts. A dozen smart young coders can sit in a lab with some off the shelf laptops and do anything the US can do. It's hard to develop and  maintain a strategic advantage in software, and here in America we should think long and hard about what that means before we escalate a cyber war - with anyone.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Bird in the Hand

So Jeb Bush wants to be President. Can't say I'm surprised - I'm pretty sure he believes wholeheartedly that it is his turn. I'm not terribly excited about a Hillary Clinton Presidency, and for the same reason (times a million) I'm really not interested in another Bush. Now let's be very clear - in this potential 90s re-run I would unhesitatingly cast my vote for Ms. Clinton. From a policy standpoint she's no worse than Obama, with a strong likelihood to be more progressive on domestic social and economic justice issues and more hawkish on foreign policy issues, which would make her infinitely preferable to any possible Republican nominee, even Jeb Bush.

And while there's very little standing between Hillary Clinton and the Democratic nomination, I'm quite a bit less sanguine when it comes to Jeb's chances. I know there's talk about Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but I can't see either of them seeing any value in a hopeless and quixotic challenge to the National Democratic Establishment's preference. Even if Hillary fell ill, or was otherwise deterred from making a run, it would very likely be Joe Biden before it would be Elizabeth Warren, and let's be honest, nobody who identifies as a 'Socialist' is ever going to a US Presidential nominee.

But Jeb Bush has a problems at both ends of the political spectrum. The extremist right, represented by Ted Cruz and the Tea Party, have seen the Republican establishment work hard to marginalize far-right candidates in order to ensure the nominee - John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 - was at least something approximating 'electable'. But they both lost, and to the loathed Barak Obama. You can be assured that they will be advancing the case that a 'moderate' Republican can't win (very likely true) so it's time to nominate a right-wing extremist. At the same time, the stench asociated with the 'Bush' political brand on the left end of the political spectrum is not to be underestimated - however you attribute it, the so-called "Bush Derangement Syndrome" is alive and well, just as is its mirror image vs. Obama. There was a time when this situation would have been an advantage for the next Bush, as the conventional wisdom was that national elections were won in the center. But today, there really is no center, and if you have no support from either political wing, you will find in today's polarized political environment, you have very little support at all.

As a personal matter, I find myself deeply uncomfortable with the dynastic evolution of American democracy. It isn't credible that the people best suited to head the American government are once again named either 'Clinton' or 'Bush'. And while it's inarguably true that the '90s were a great time in the US, it's hard to credit the President for the dot com bubble. But the political parties have become as risk-averse as the movie studios, and releasing sequel after sequel seems to them to be the safest path.

Now, outside of a health problem, there is really very little doubt that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. And if I had to bet today, I'd expect Paul Ryan to be the Republican's choice at the convention. He's the right combination of establishment credibility and extremist flim-flam, and the media loves him. And barring something overwhelmingly unexpected - another economic crash or a major war or terrorist attack - we'll have another President Clinton for the next eight years. And, of course, with the Republicans holding a hammerlock on the House of Representatives, we're looking at continued divided government and more of the same kind of non-productive partisan bickering and maneuvering through 2024 - unless the whole creaking edifice collapses under its own unsustainability sometime between now and then.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Magnum Opus

Elmer Keith
Father of the Magnum Cartridge
One of the things that people who are not "gun people" tend not to realize is the difference between guns and bullets - or, more properly, cartridges. They ask "what kind of gun was that?" when the answer is meaningless, and the more interesting question is "what bullet was that?". It's a little like going to Cape Canaveral and asking questions about the launching pad rather than the rocket. Guns are interesting (in the sense that cars are interesting or computers are interesting) from a purely mechanical sense. How they work, how they solve the engineering problems associated with launching a small projectile at high velocities, their ergonomics and aesthetics, the ability to develop the skills to use them competently - these are interesting. But the thing that's doing all the work is the bullet. The entire point of the mechanical exercise is to put that small bit of lead alloy in a certain place in three dimensional space and have it deliver a particular set of terminal ballistic performance.

Ultimately, there is only one equation: Momentum = Mass x Velocity. When you talk about bullets, you talk about how much they weigh and how fast they're going. This allows various approaches to the same problem. You can have a small bullet traveling at a high velocity, or a big bullet moving much more slowly. And all the various combinations in between. Of course, you can also launch a big bullet at a high velocity, but you need a much bigger, stronger platform to do that, and since we're talking about handguns here we are faced with some real limitations.

Over the years, for reasons both technical and traditional, large caliber handguns used bullets from either the .36 or .45 caliber class - referring to the bullet diameter in inches. The .38 Colt, .38 Special and 9mm Parabellum are examples of .36 caliber class rounds, while the .45 Colt, .455 Webley and .45 ACP are common examples of the .45 class. Early handguns used black powder, which burned more slowly and was unable to develop significant chamber pressures. Therefore the lack of immense metallurgical strength in frames, cylinders and chambers was never an issue. You poured in a bunch of black powder and pushed a great big heavy bullet out the barrel in a cloud of gunsmoke. With the transition to smokeless powder in the late 19th century, it was suddenly possible to build much more powerful cartridges, and the metallurgists of the day struggled to keep up.

Elmer Keith was an old western legend, a hunter, outdoorsman, shooter and gunfighter. He was a deeply committed believer in the small fast bullet approach, and as firearms manufacturers began to build much stronger guns, he began loading the old .38 Colt to much higher velocities. The reason he could do this is he switched from the old 'heeled' type bullet that had a significant portion of its mass inside the brass case, to more modern bullet designs where the bullet was the same diameter as the inside of the case. This is why a .38 bullet actually measures .357" in diameter. These bullets left more room in the case for powder and have come to be known as "Keith" style bullets.

Throughout the 1920s, Keith experimented with hotter and faster loads in .38 revolvers. Eventually, his friends at Smith and Wesson bought in, and began production of the so-called "Magnum" revolvers in 1935. The .357 Magnum round, particularly in it's 125 grain jacketed hollowpoint loading (see? Bullets are way cooler than guns) was, and remains, the most effective handgun round for shooting people that has ever been designed. There are advocates who would argue instead for the .45 ACP - and this is perhaps the greatest "religious" argument in the handgun community - but the numbers, particularly those compiled by Evan Marshall in his seminal studies on handgun stopping power, bear out the undeniable truth. Keith went on to do the same thing with the .45 caliber class - the infamous .44 Magnum - and an intermediate 10mm Magnum chambering called .41 Magnum - but with its combination of usability, accuracy and deadly terminal ballistics the .357 has always been the queen of combat handguns.

I carried .357s, primarily 4" Smith & Wesson Model 13s, 19s and 66s for decades. I never felt like I might be outgunned, and one night when things got real dark and chaotic and I had my .45 Star PD instead I was deeply furious with myself for putting myself in that position. I recognize that the world has embraced the .40 Smith auto, and nobody born after 1980 will ever appreciate the revolver, but that is silly and shortsighted. They talk endlessly about magazine capacity, speed of reload and firepower, but as my dad used to say, "if you can't get it done with six rounds you never had a chance anyway".

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Defending Your Freedom and Your Way of Life - Or Something Like That

Manipulative, Jingoistic bullshit. But you knew that
Of all the smarmy platitudes our over-militarized society heaps on its soldiers and sailors, this is the most disingenuous. Of course, declaring that anybody who ever learned how to put on a uniform and salute to be a hero is ugly and stupid in a particularly American fashion that only serves to elevate mediocrity and denigrate those very rare humans who, by dint of luck, sheer will and skill at arms actually do something heroic in combat. I'm pretty sure the Quartermaster might have done a fine job, but his willingess to risk paper cuts in the name of freedom doesn't qualify him as a hero. But I saw this image on Facebook the other day and it infuriated me for its mindless misrepresentation of American military history. I think if we actually think about it for a minute, we'll discover just how dishonest this line of war-worship really is.

Let's start with the fundamental question raised here. When was the last time a foreign enemy threatened America to the extent that our 'freedoms' or our 'way of life' was held at risk? That would almost have to be an enemy that could land significant ground forces on the continent, take the capital, depose the leadership and impose their own leadership. Now the combination of things that allowed America to prosper in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were isolation - two oceans separated North America from any potential adversary; and size - the land mass is just so big, and the terrain so varied, that any thought that an invading force could take and hold the entire country was clearly ludicrous.

British forces took and sacked the capital of Washington DC in August of 1814, so the American troops in that war were definitely defending American interests - although it's hard to imagine a significant loss of freedom under British rule. But hypotheticals notwithstanding, that was definitely a case of defending America against invasion from a conquering power. It was also the last case.

Perhaps the Civil War is an example - American troops fighting to defend freedom and their way of life - but that would have been true of both sides. There was no external invader, and virtually all the combatants were American troops. So to decide that American troops defended our freedoms and way of life would only be true from a Northern perspective - and even so the beneficiaries of those freedoms they defended (and delivered) were their enemies, the Confederacy.

The closest the Spanish came to US soil in the Spanish American war in 1898 was Cuba. In World War I, the US only became involved after almost four years of bloody stalemate in Europe. The US declared war in April of 1917, and American reinforcements tipped the balance of power in a European theater exhausted and bled out from years of trench warfare. It was all over in November of 1918, and the continental US was never at any risk whatsoever in that 'World War'. In World War II, the US joined the conflict, already over two years old, when Japan attacked the American Fleet in Hawaii. The Japanese calculation was to eliminate American naval power in the Pacific, take Malaya and the Dutch East Indies to secure access to oil, rubber and resources, then sue for peace. There was never any real consideration of actually invading and occupying the US by the Imperial Japanese forces. Of course, if Germany had been able to consolidate and hold Europe and ultimately take Great Britain, that might have led to some fairly large scale global challenges in the coming decades. Except, one of the things they never teach American children in school, is that America didn't win World War II. Russia did. Even if American forces never went to war in Europe, Germany would never have been able to hold Western Europe, and the challenge would have been a Soviet Union that reached to the Atlantic, not a Nazi invasion force in Washington DC. The Korean War was fought over a small peninsula in Northeast Asia. The Vietnam War, similarly, was contained to the Southeast Asian nations. Despite the lies, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was never a threat to America, her freedoms and her way of life, and certainly the Taliban aren't going to take Washington anytime soon.

So there you have it. When have American troops truly defended America? When was it that our freedom, our constitution, our way of life was actually at risk from external forces? The answer is not for hundreds of years, and it's embarrassingly stupid to claim that a soldier in Iraq or Vietnam or Korea had anything to do with defending those freedoms. And if you think about it further, the only force on earth that has been taking American freedoms, destroying the American Constitution and wrecking our way of life is American domestic politics. We have authoritarian government, we have surveillance, we have capital punishment, we have local law enforcement infiltration of the political opposition, we have internet surveillance. All done by Americans, against Americans. They need to tell us this story, this narrative that we're somehow at risk from other nations, from external forces, and only our brave soldiers are holding back the tide. But those nations are either far to weak to attack us or they are strong but they know that war with American would mean a nuclear exchange. Nothing we value has been at risk since 1814, and yet this is the story we insist on believing. If we can't even look at history honestly, there is no hope for us...

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The State of the Blog


Hey mikey. What's all this stuff you've been writing lately? What about liberal outrage and political injustice?

Just looking for some distraction
Yeah. I know. And you know what? I'm just tired of it. It's the same thing, over and over again. Think Progress is unreadable - they're writing the same crap they wrote five years ago. You even get the sense that Krugman is getting tired of shouting into the abyss.

Look. We have divided government. The only thing that prevents the US from becoming an utterly dystopian third world authoritarian oligarchy is that the Republican party has sacrificed any ability to win the White House in order to control the House.  But that leaves us where we are - radical right-wing extremists trying to turn the US into something ugly and unrecognizable, and a very thin line of non-white Democratic activists preventing them from going full on East Germany on what's left of the liberal democratic dream. The sickness is clear - what used to be fringe hate groups now have a stranglehold on the mainstream Republican party, and stand as gatekeepers for any legislative initiative. And the result of decades of Republican presidents and Democratic indifference is a Judicial System wholly invested in the movement conservative project, from the protection of the wealth of the 1% to the destruction of any kind of social safety net.

But mikey, you say - if we don't speak out, and continue to point out their lies and hypocrisy, the status quo will just continue unabated.

Meh. Show me some evidence we're changing anything. Here's the hard facts. The system is obsolete, antiquated, massively corrupt and hardened against democratic change. This - this toxic madness, this dysfunctional charade, this democratic kabuki - THIS system is the problem. And until we're willing to do what they did in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, in Hong Kong - until we're willing to die in the streets to regain some kind of systemic justice, it's all just noise and bullshit. And you know who enjoys the noise and bullshit the most? Yep - the wealthy and business interests that are reaping record profits while the people hurt. I'm mostly done shouting at them. Let me know when the shooting starts.

Hope. Belief. Faith. These are toxic concepts. They are us saying we recognize we have no agency, no control, no access to the process. They are saying we want change, but we neither believe change is coming nor do we have any idea how to effectively contribute to change.

Tell Me How This Ends

Seriously. Explain to me how we fix this. How we get back some kind of democracy, some kind of social justice, some kind basic human rights. The torturers went free. The thieves in the banking and mortgage industry went free. The cops that committed blatant murder in front of witnesses and video cameras went free. This is the world we created, or at least permitted to come into existence while we were distracted by big screen teevees, smart phones and American Idol. 

If you want to understand how pathetic we are, our system can't even be arsed to lock us up. In other nations the politically powerful fear the opposition, and they arrest them, they torture them, they imprison them. Here, they laugh at us. "Go ahead, whine" they are saying, "while we own all the power and all the wealth. Your pathetic tears mean nothing". And they are right - we can't change the system and they know it as well as we do. 

This isn't Ghandi vs. The Raj or even Mandela vs. The Apartheid regime. This is two very large portions of our population with vastly divergent visions for what America is and what she should become. And virtually no part of either of those visions is even remotely acceptable to the other side. Meanwhile, the media refuses to acknowledge the collapse of governance. They refer to it as 'gridlock', a kind of business-as-usual state of democratic governance, not a long term failure of the system itself.

So no. I can't keep writing the same stories, recording the same failings of an obsolete, massively corrupt and utterly co-opted system of governance. I can't learn anything from repeatedly describing the daily drumbeat of lies and hypocrisy. I can't convince you to abandon hope and act - but until you do, there is simply nothing new to say.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Real Outrage of Ferguson

They Actually Work Pretty Hard on This Stuff
In many ways, the response to Michael Brown's killing and the events that followed has been appalling, and somewhat puzzling. Because while there is no real surprise that there are ideological divisions between closed-mined support for "law and order" and an understanding of the real implications of being a poor young black man in 21st century America, the hard questions run so much deeper than that. There's a standing Bigotry vs. Diversity question that will bring people down on predictable sides of the issue, and there is the rancid racial politics of the modern American Right, the Rush Limbaugh/Sean Hannity fueled obsession with the racial victimization of white American men.

But to me, there is another question, and it cuts almost diagonally across all those previously established cultural trenchlines. To me the question is simply this: Should using a handgun against an unarmed assailant qualify as self-defense? Now, there are times when this question is easy - a woman defending against larger male attacker, a physically disabled person resisting a strong-arm thief - but the salient question here is a Law Enforcement officer effecting an arrest on a person who is violently resisting, but is unarmed. Now, this is a reasonable question to ask, because police across America take violently resisting felons into custody every day without shooting them. Hundreds, if not thousands of them. The police have extensive training in controlling violent offenders, they have a variety of less-than-lethal options from a baton to mace to a Taser, they have armor and backup and experience that most people don't have. If the guidelines for using lethal force specifically call for a "reasonable belief that his life is in danger", can that standard EVER be honestly met when the attacker is unarmed? How many times can you recall hearing about an unarmed felon killing a police officer, or even avoiding arrest?

And yet the shrieking only grows louder. SELF DEFENSE! They shout. JUSTIFIED SHOOTING! They rant. But I wonder - did Officer Wilson have no choice? Did he have to shoot? Was it truly 'shoot or die'? Because the alternative is that he CHOSE to shoot, in a moment when it wasn't necessary. And instead of a few scrapes and bruises, a kid is DEAD. And that's as big a deal as there is. And doesn't the right wing worship at the altar of the tough guy? How many times did we see John Wayne get in a fistfight with his guns in their holsters? Did he ever draw them? NO. It was a fistfight - he understood that, and that what you place at risk in a fistfight is different on an existential level from what you risk in a gunfight. They are different things, done for different reasons, and to kill someone to end a fistfight, a la George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson, is weak. The antithesis of what a tough guy would do. Shameful.

Now, it's true that a big part of the right-wing message these days is fear. Fear of Terrorism, fear of Russia, fear of Ebola, fear of African - Americans, fear of Muslims. So they may find it useful to portray Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin as marauding thugs, to be feared even when unarmed, and to be shot down in the name of all that's good and American. But at the same time, don't they have to feel a little sick? Their hero couldn't take a kid into custody, despite training, equipment and years of experience. He had to kill him. Doesn't that say that Michael Brown was the better man, tougher, able to dominate a trained profesional law enforcment officer with bare hands?

In a country awash in a foul stew of guns, hatred and fear, we need to ask one key question: What are guns for? Are they for ending every disagreement, every conflict? Or should lethal force be restricted to times when it is truly the only solution, when the negative outcome is much worse than a bruise or a broken nose? I sense such a hardening of attitudes, where killing unarmed children has gone from 'tragic' to 'justified', and now it's only a matter of time before it becomes 'preferred'. I carried a gun for many years, and it never occurred to me to use it against an unarmed person. That's got to be murder.