On the Bomb


1. Some More Equal Than Others

The world is again a-buzz with talk of Iran's nuclear ambitions, as more evidence of its military nuclear development surfaced this week. The calls for tougher sanctions will get louder. Some pundits claim that President Obama laid the foundation for war with Iran in his Nobel Price acceptance speech.

Most Americans seem to think accept without much question that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons must be stopped at any cost. War, it seems, is preferable to allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons. This is defended on the principles of nuclear non-proliferation. The arguments are always supported by reference to Iran's violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the various disclosure obligations it has under that treaty. Just as similar arguments were made in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

But what are those principles exactly? Why couldn't Iran simply withdraw from the NPT regime and develop its weapons as it likes? India and Israel refused to join the NPT regime, and thumbed their nose at the world in developing nuclear weapons. No one in the West called for military strikes to prevent that. Indeed, last year the U.S. entered into an agreement with India to provide it with nuclear fuel and technology, in utter violation of the fundamental principles of the NPT bargain.

What is more, the essential bargain struck by the nuclear and non-nuclear countries when the NPT was negotiated, was a three-fold commitment from the nuclear countries: 1) they would make genuine efforts towards disarmament, including adherence to the comprehensive test ban treaty; 2) they would never use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state; and 3) non-nuclear states that entered into and adhered to the principles of the NPT would be assisted with the development of peaceful nuclear energy.

The nuclear states, with the US in the lead, has violated each of these commitments. The nuclear countries have made little headway towards disarmament, and each of them have continued to develop new generations of weapons. The US and China have yet to ratify the CTBT. The US, during the Bush administration, also made explicit that it would not rule out first use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. And finally,the US deal with India made a mockery of the third commitment, since it rewarded a state that had refused to enter into the NPT, and had violated its principles, with nuclear material and technology.

In the face of this betrayal, and given the increasing insecurity created both by the US and other nuclear states threatening to use their nuclear weapons, and by the increased number of nuclear states in the world, it is little wonder that middle powers seek to find security in the acquisition of nuclear weapons. And since we have responded with equanimity to some states doing so, we need to consider carefully the principled basis for our objection to others doing likewise.

I do not for a minute think that the world will be better off with a nuclear-armed Iran. It will be deeply destabilizing and will significantly raise the risks of serious war. But we need to look to our own behavior as a contributing factor, and start to address our own hypocritical policies, if we are to really deal with the issue of nuclear non-proliferation. - Gamma.

On Patriotism


1. The False Religion of Patriotism
2. Love of Country
3. Humanity and the Nation State

1. The False Religion of Patriotism

George Bernard Shaw once famously remarked that patriotism was the conviction that one's country was superior to all others, simply because one was born in it. Strictly speaking, of course, patriotism is the love of one's country, and a person may love his country without necessarily thinking it superior. But truth be told, it generally does involve precisely such feelings.

Man is a social animal, and has coalesced in groups of one form or another throughout the ages, with loyalties to tribes and clans, city states, religions and ethnic groups. The modern nation state is a fairly new innovation, and its viability depends to some extent on a shared identity and loyalty to the polity. The problem arises when patriotism is raised to high principle, when it becomes an orthodoxy.

There are several problems with partiotism. The first relates to the typical notion of superiority. The sense of identity essential to a deeply felt and passionate partiotism relies upon differentiation with the cultures and the social realities of other states. It depends on the judgment that we are better than them. This typically involves natiaonalistic mythologizing, which is a form of self-deception, and at the end of the day the entire belief system is irrational - just as all gods cannot be the one true god, so all states cannot be superior to all the others.

This nationalistic sense of superiority, and corresponding denegration and discounting of the rights of the peoples of other nations, creates the conditions in which conflict is so much more likely. It is so easily manipulated by those in power to drag the nation into war. Goering understood this well.

Second, as patriotism becomes an increasing orthodoxy, it entirely stifles the political discourse and debate so necessary to democracy. "My country, right or wrong" forecloses discussion. Any criticism of policy is attacked and suffocated as being unpatriotic. Consider the atmosphere in the U.S.A. shortly after 9/11, when the few people who tried to ask questions about the "root causes" for the attack were utterly vilified. Bill Maher was almost fired for an 'unpatriotic' comment. Even in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the few who questioned the wisdom or legality of the war, were marginalized.

Third, once mobilized, patriotism begins to become self-perpetuating in a society. Like a religion, it becomes entrenched, working its way ever more deeply into the fabric of the culture, and develops into dogma. It can become ludicrous. Consider the issue of Barak Obama being chastized over not wearing an American flag lapel pin during the campaign - to the point that he ended up feeling compelled to wear one.

So when governments begin taking steps to consciously cultivate and foster increased patriotism, we should be concerned. Japan, for instance, revised its Basic Law on Education a few years ago, to make the inculcation of patriotism a primary and concrete objective of the education system. And so, the descendents of the Sun Goddess, just like the Master Race of Aryans, the people of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism, and the Han peoples of the Middle Kingdom, to name but a few, can learn that they are really superior to everyone else. That never leads anywhere good. - Gamma.

2. Love of Country

I hate Nazis too. Most of us do. Really. They were very bad. But seeing them and all the other ills of modern life as an emanation of patriotism is a little simplistic. Even for you. It is sort of like blaming love for domestic abuse.

The world is replete with examples of people who have been gulled into all sorts of folly in the name of patriotism. And religion. Or race or ethnicity. But these perversities do not mean that the love of one's country or god or people should be swept away. These attachments or modes of socialization are a necessary part of our evolutionary make-up. We just ain't human without them.

And, like it or not, these attachments serve a purpose. A shared past and a shared sense of the present helps shape a shared vision of the future. It is true that the misuse of patriotism in China saw the horrors of the cultural revolution but more recently it has seen hundreds of millions people elevated from desperate poverty. It also shaped the process of truth and reconciliation in South Africa and it helped topple the iron curtain.

I am embarrassed by my country's current foreign policy. From the abandonment of Canadian citizens in foreign jails to its stand on climate change to its indifference about passing Taliban prisoners to be tortured. My discomfort is not simply that these things are wrong and illegal. It is is wrapped up in my pride of country. Canada has a long tradition of being a strong and vocal player on the international stage. Our retreat into weakness offends my love of country deeply. I may not resort to calling the current government unpatriotic yet, but I reserve it as an option.

I also confess to some ambivalence about allowing dual citizenship and I support encouraging immigrants to learn English or French and to learn something about the people who built this country. It works both ways - I should learn about the people who will shape its future. I support immigration almost without restriction. But being Canadian should have some definition and normative edges. It should represent a broadly held set of values. I recognise that there are dangers in this, but it is risk that offers some rewards. It is a path to vitality and strength.

So, while I agree that American flag pins and Japanese textbooks can cause mischief and harm, I do not agree that the love of country is the problem. Just because it can be exploited or counterfeited does not mean that it does not have value. - Beta

3. Humanity and the Nation State

It is unfortunate that my friend has chosen to tilt at straw men rather than grapple with my argument. The problem of Nazis and "all the other ills of modern life as an emanation of patriotism"?! I argued no such thing, nor even did I deny that patriotism has some value. The argument was simple and straightforward - patriotism relies upon a sense of superiority that can create hostility and conflict; it stifles internal debate; it is a self-perpetuating meme within a culture; and therefore we should be concerned when governments try to mobilize and exploit it. Beta addresses none of these.

But he does make an assertion that is insupportable - that love of country is one of those "modes of socialization" that is necessary to our very humanity. This cannot be right. Now, I conceded in my own argument that man is a social animal, for which the loyalties to various groups and collective entities have been crucial throughout history. That is certainly part of our evolutionary make-up, as Beta asserts. But there is no basis for arguing that the nation-state, the "country" of our times, is an entity to which we must develop such "love" in order to fully express our humanity.

The territorial state is a modern innovation, emerging in the 17th century, and the nation-state newer still. It was not until the 19th century that a true sense of nationalism developed, and was deliberately mobilized by statesmen. And by nationalism here I mean the understanding that the political entity of the territorial state, and the culturally distinct people or nation that inhabit it, are and ought to be congruent. We have only lived in such nation-states for some 150 years, and the fact is that we have lived without the modern sense of patriotism for most of our history.

Of course, as any casual reader of Shakespeare will attest, there has been love and loyalty for other political and social entities. My point is that we could be just as human, derive our collective sense of past, present and future, by mobilizing a sense of affection, loyalty, and common bond, for some more cosmopolitan conception than the nation state. The nation-state relies to some degree on a certain level of patriotism, but our humanity most surly does not depend upon love of the nation-state. - Gamma.

The Year it All Changed


2. 2001

1. 1989

In this article in yesterday's New York Times, there is a discussion about the problem with using ammunition designed to pierce Soviet body armor to fight Taliban soldiers. Apparently these old schoolbullets don't do the same degree of damage on men in threadbare cotton and wool. They just pass right through. A number of thoughts run flicker across the mind, but front and centre is: Soviet body armor? Really? Isn't that war over?

I know it is. I remember it ending. I was almost there.

Twenty years ago, in 1989, I was a high-school dropout in the process of developing a bad substance abuse problem, a bad attitude and participating in some bad career choices. Desperate for a change, I made plans to travel. Europe on $25 a day was still possible. For reasons that are lost within the whirlpools of a fading memory (see substance abuse problem above), I decided that I wanted to start in Germany. My plan was to leave at the beginning of November and visit the Berlin wall.

It was a very odd year. At the time it was hard to get perspective but it definitely felt like the world was waking up from a slumber. In hindsight, it was a full-fledged chaos of historic proportions - the world was awakening from the dead.

By the end of May of that year, Reagan was gone, Hirohito was dead, the last Soviet troops had left Afghanistan, cold fusion had been discovered, Solidarity had been legalised and the Goddess of Democracy had appeared in Tiananmen Square. In June, the devastating news about the massacre in Beijing was tempered by the optimism of elections in Poland and growing freedoms in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. By the end of summer, massive demonstrations in the Baltic States and the collapse of Hungarian border with Austria and East Germany were creating seismic rumblings.

And then, in November, it all just collapsed. At the beginning of the month there was an iron curtain, a Berlin wall and a cold war and by the end there was a new Europe. Everything that had defined the previous fifty years was gone. Poof.

I just could not get my act together and make it to Germany. I could see what was happening. I wanted to be there. But I just could not process it fast enough. Instead of standing in the middle of it all in Berlin, I spent my winter slinging bad, grey steaks at a grey, bad steak restaurant. The tumult of it all froze me out.

In the intervening 20 years, I have often wondered if my own paralysis is not a telling metaphor for the geopolitical stasis that followed. America, in hindsight, was simply not ready for the consequences of victory. Without a Soviet counterpart, they lost their way. Alternatingly, trying too hard to be the only global superpower or not trying hard enough. A certain ennui set in. Then arrogance. Then hubris. Then folly. And more folly. And more folly. Did I mention folly?
I like to think that I have caught up to events. That I have moved on. I shook myself out of the torpor that had plagued me. I have given up fatties for fattoi. I got my degree. Then another. I work for a living. I do alright. I make my own way.

But, if the truth be told, sometimes I catch my eye in the mirror and wonder what might have been. Or, worse, I am distracted with a nostalgia for that much simpler time when the choices I had to make were, in so many ways, an accurate reflection of who I really was.

Maybe I am not alone. Maybe that explains the ammunition in the M-16s. - Beta

2. 2001

In 1989 the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Cold War ended, and famously, history came to an end. Liberal democracy and its free-market capitalist system had triumphed, and so history had reached its ultimate objective.

Of course, it didn't quite turn out that way. President George Bush Senior announced a New World Order, but it quickly became a messy and more complicated world. History somehow kept marching on. It is perhaps true, as Beta suggests, that America was "not ready" for victory. But another take on this is that Americans, and indeed people generally, are not ready for complexity and randomness in the system. And what we have seen more recently is an illustration of two related and old truths.

First, we like stable and grand struggles of good versus evil. It helps to define us. Ever since we created God and Satan, we have ordered our world in this way - and then engaged in heroic crusades against infidels. These crusades have been horrific, leading to endless misery and suffering, but they nonetheless imposed a stability on our external relations, provided a self-righteous sense of our own identity, even provided a false basis for a nobleness of purpose. Whether it be the Persians, the Mohammadins, the Mongolian hordes, heathen savages, fuzzy wuzzy Zulus, the Frogs, the Hun, the Nips, the Gooks, the Commies, or the Klingons - we always need a "them" opposed to our "us".

When the wall fell and the Cold War ended, we were confronted with a messy complex world with no enemy to give it order, direction, purpose. We drifted. We looked for new enemies - Saddam Hussein was compared to Hitler, but he just wasn't really up for the job.

But we didn't have to wait too long. Just twelve years actually - half a generation. With a terrorist attack on a beautiful summer day in 2001, we were back in business. George Junior could jettison Dad's New World Order, and direct all the energy of the United States towards creating a new world dichotomy. Communism, which had replaced Fascism, could now be replaced with Islamic Fundamentalism (or, Islamofascism for those who understood neither).

And so we are still in the midst of two wars commenced as part of that crusade. And herein lies the second old truism, one also alluded to by Beta. It is captured in the aphorism "Generals are doomed to always fight the last war". The classic example is the French reliance upon the Maginot Line, constructed after World War I to defend against the kind of infantry attacks of that war. The German forces of Hitler, employing the Blitzkieg strategy enabled by armour, simply went around the Line and took France in record time.

And so in Afghanistan, we are poised to invest more heavily in a counter-insurgency war. The kind of war we learned how to fight, in the dying days of our loss of Vietnam. In Vietnam, of course, we were still fighting World War II and Korea. Now in Afghanistan, we are applying Vietnam, but in a struggle that is really against a trans-national terrorist movement with no real geographical center of gravity. But no matter, it is at least the manifestation of our fight against evil, our crusade against the Islamic radicals who are intent on world conquest. Or something like that.

Maybe one day we will learn to live with complexity. It might make for a better world. - Gamma.

The American National Character


1. Selfishness: The New National Value
2. For the Greater Good
3. A More Nuanced Explanation

1. Selfishness: The New National Value

What do recent issues roiling the American polity tell us about its national character? The "American dream" is symbolic of the idea that anyone can make it in this country, so long as they have a combination of talent and a willingness to work hard. Underlying the idea is not only the notion that America is a land of opportunity and equality in which merit is rewarded, but also a collective belief in the shared American character - a people who while fiercely individualistic, are also a people of faith, defenders of liberty, and believers in the values of democracy. Essentially, a good and decent people.

There is much in American history that bears out that self-image. But a review of recent issues would suggest that selfishness, egocentricity, and utter disregard for one's fellow man have also become defining characteristics of the national character. Take health care. This is a fiendishly complicated issue, but cutting through all the complexity, the most prominent objection of the massive numbers of American opposed to health care reform, and particularly the so-called "public option", is intensely personal. In the face of almost 40 million countrymen having absolutely no health care insurance whatsoever, the objection is basically: "damned if I am going to risk any reduction in my current health care". Rather they have none than me risking less. Similarly, aside from the 40 million people without now, in the face of the knowledge that the system cannot continue as it is for many more years, the collective response is simply to let future generations fend for themselves. The older generation is the most resistant to reform! To hell with the kids.

Similarly with global warming. The world is approach a point of no return. Nonetheless, the climate change legislation before the Senate is facing an uncertain future, and it is already too weak to really make a difference anyway. Everyone knows that a global agreement will be impossible without American leadership (American is responsible for over 20% of global emissions, and has by far the highest per-capita emissions in the world), but the collective American response is to avoid the economic pain of emissions controls. On one level this is somewhat suicidal, but on another it is an unbelievably selfish shunting of the problem to future generations, while externalizing the current costs to be borne by the rest of the world.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Again, while these are less clear cut or obvious, both of these wars can be explained as being efforts by Americans to ensure greater security at home. Flowing from the deaths of some 3,000 Americans, arose a policy to do "whatever it takes" to prevent any recurance, leading the United States to invade two countries, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and tens of thousands of Afghans, not to mention the other costs imposed on the region. Better them than us.

But as with health care, this selfishness is not simply reserved for foreigners. From issues as disparate as gun control and urban violence, gay marriage, the incredible disparity between Americans in terms of wealth, income, and access to basic education, the American political responses reflect a me-first, beggar-thy-neighbor, callous selfishness. It is often couched in terms of individualism and conservative anti-big-government ideology, and expressed in terms of the benefits of competition and realism. But at the end of the day, both the tenor of the public discourse and the actual results of the political process, make for a society that is on many levels morally bankrupt, and utterly at odds with the carefully nurtured self-image of its people. - Gamma

2. For the Greater Good

First, Scrooge McDuck is Scottish, not American.

Second, it shows an unnecessary harshness and distinct lack of civility to call Americans "morally bankrupt." And it is simply illogical to call them selfish. As you so eloquently point out, their actions only hurt themselves in the long run.

What makes the American psyche so astounding is, in fact, the opposite: their pure selflessness. Few other people on this planet are willing to put their personal interests aside for the sake of a higher good. Scratch that. Few other people are willing to put their personal interests aside for the sake of a perceived higher good.

You can disagree all you want with the substance of the right-wing, heartland, homeland, god fearing, I-hate-not-just-big-government-but-all-government, paranoid, racist ideology that has imbedded itself into the DNA of 15% of the American populace, but it sure as hell ain't selfish. These are people who are willing to do just about anything in support of what they believe to be the greater good. It just so happens that the greater good means no health care, a collapsing environment, and and indifference to international law.

And it is not just the extreme right - this is a characteristic that runs across the American political spectrum. As much as we may have sympathised and respected what Obama stood for in the last election, his success and the unprecedented enthusiasm that he generated reflected the same dynamic - not selfishess at all, but a hope for a greater country. It was the same energy that propelled Bush to power, only redirected towards a different end.

Looked at in this way, the great American character flaw may be simply pure gullibility. The history of the United States is larded with charlatans and snake-oil salesmen who have managed to convince great swathes of the population to put aside their self-interest join on some quixotic misadventure. More than any other people in the history of civilization, Americans demonstrate an indefatigable appetite for conspiracy theories, flights of fancy, huckster religions, paranoid alternate realities, simplistic political orders, and a range of other major and minor secrets, ideologies and empty myths. Easy marks? Maybe. Selfish? Never.

But the really notable thing about America and Americans is neither their pursuit of self-interest nor their capacity to believe any monorail salesmen that happens by, but it is that they, as a country, as a people, consistently defy odds and expectations. Despite how they can seem to get so many of the details wrong, they usually manage to get the big picture right. Here's hoping that continues. - Beta

3. A More Nuanced Explanation

Beta makes some very good points here, but they do not negate my argument. Rather, they illuminate the complexity of an issue that is difficult to do justice in a thousand words.

I quite agree that Americans demonstrate a remarkable capacity for mobilizing behind movements perceived to be for some "greater good". Sometimes that greater good is even fairly broad and inclusive. And as I alluded to, this tendency has often resulted in magnificent examples of apparent generosity. The Marshall Plan, under which massive amounts of financial and other support was lavished upon the defeated nations of Europe after World War II, can be seen on one level as one of the most extraordinary instances of magnanimity and altruism in history.

The problem is that the Marshall Plan was also very much a result of sober strategic calculation regarding Cold War realities, and the need to ensure that Germany remained out of Communist clutches. And so it is with much of American idealism. There is, as Beta says, an incredible desire to believe in campaigns for some greater good, but there is also a great talent for packaging policies that are entirely self-interested and instrumentalist as serving some grand and selfless ideal.

This perhaps captures some of the complexity and nuance of some generalizable American character. While disdainful Europeans so often view Americans as naive, simple, and yet hypocritical, this is at least partly due to their failure to understand an inherent paradox - an aspect of American culture that simultaneously embraces extreme competition, ruthless self-interest, and the application of cynical functionalist cost-benefit calculation to almost any circumstance on the one hand, and on the other, reveres grand ideas and ideals, the heroes that pursue them, and the notion that everyone has some duty to serve in their cause.

This is captured in the character of Alden Pyle in Graham Greene's allegorical novel "The Quiet American", an agent operating in 1950s Vietnam, at once naive, idealistic, deeply earnest and self-righteous, yet ruthless and cynical in his pursuit of both his own desires and American interests, under the guise of helping the people he is killing.

But while some Americans may manifest this paradox personally, my point really goes to the political system, the social structure and cultural dynamic, which together operate to produce results that can be incredibly harsh. It is often dressed up as serving some greater good, and many buy into that bill of goods, but at root it is pure calculated self-interest that drives the decisions. And to the extent that such collective results can be described by reference to a personal characteristic, selfish is the word to use. Making a collective choice to leave 40 million compatriots without access to basic health care cannot really be understood any other way. - Gamma

More U.S. Troops in Afghanistan?


1. Backward Causation
2. Counterinsurgency Has No Sound Objective
3. Hard Choices

1. Backward Causation

In this article, two eminent physicists, Holger Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya, hypothesize that the recent failures of the Large Hadron Collider are caused by - now this is the tricky bit - someone, or something, in the future that has taken steps to prevent it from working in the past. Nielsen and Ninomiya propose a simple card trick to validate their theory. Really.

At first, I experienced a vague sense of dismay that the collapse of science into abstract novelty might be at the root of the decline of rationality in our world. But then it hit me. Only backward causation could explain the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama.

Because it clearly could not relate to anything that he has done in the past, it must relate to something that he is going to do. Someone in the future has set a series of events into a backward causation motion resulting in his winning the prize. How could I have missed this? And here I was scratching my head at how out of touch the Nobel committee was.

Now that it is clear he has earned it ... or will have earned it ... I can't help but wonder what he did... is going to have did?...or will have did?...or will be going to have done?

My bet is that he won it for the peace accord with the Taliban that he is going to sign in 2014.

In late 2009, President Obama will authorize the deployment of an additional 35 000 troops. Then in 2012, after a surprising show of strength from the Taliban and the complete collapse of the fragile and corrupt civilian government, a further increase of 15 000 troops is authorized just before the President is re-elected (In case you're wondering: he carries the new state of Alberta and beats Meghan McCain in a squeaker).

By 2013, finally, a stalema te is won and the Taliban are more or less contained in their southern strongholds - the way they were back in 2008 and 2009. Then in February of 2014, President Obama accepts reality and, without the shadow of re-election, negotiates an end to the war and the Taliban ente r a power-sharing agreement with a new fragile and corrupt American-backed regime. Later that year, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee decides that Obama deserves the award but is afraid that the imminent collapse of the coalition in Afghanistan will make it look like a joke. So they arrange to have it awarded in the past. In 2009! It all makes such perfect sense.

It is not always easy to learn from our mistakes, especially the ones we have not made yet. But, in the here and now, in deciding whether to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, the President woul d do well to remember that old adage: Those who forget the future are doomed to repeat it...er...to be going to repeat it?... to will have re-repeated it? - Beta

2. Counterinsurgency Has No Sound Objective

Putting aside all the cute stuff about backward causation, let us begin with a digression on the Nobel Prize. While everyone was surprised by it, including President Obama, it is unfair to say that it was for nothing. Aside from changing the dynamic between Islam and the West and affecting the global sense of security in similarly intangible ways, Barak Obama has already changed the game in the world of nuclear disarmament. Beginning with his speech in Prague, continuing with his strong pressure on agencies within the U. S. to alter American nuclear strategy and posture, and his concrete steps on missile defense have all had an impact. Might it have been more meaningful to wait until he advances the ball further down the field? Sure. But it was more than almost any other person did for global peace in the last few years.

Now, Afghanistan. Beta's actual point, it seems, is that Obama is going to cave to pressure to deploy the 40,000 troops being demanded by Gen. McChrystal, and that it will be to no avail. In the end, the U.S. will be forced to accept some kind of power-sharing regime that includes the Taliba n in Afghanistan.

First, it is actually not clear that President Obama is going to go down that road. There is increasing evidence that reisistece is building within the administration to further escalation, and that Joe Biden's lonely position is gaining adherents. There is exhaustive research being done within the various agencies, and even some intelligent debate in the upper levels of public discourse on how the suppression of a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan may or may not be in the interests of the U.S.

Of course, in the wider media and political hackasphere there continues to be meaningless chatter about "winning" and "victory", and how the "surge" worked in Iraq so surely it must similarly work in Afghanistan to bring us "victory". This is in part a reflection of the American tendency to see war in sporting terms, as some grand football game, to be won, los t or drawn. War is not a game. Clausewitz famously said that war is the continuation of policy by other means - and that one cannot consider the means in isolation of the objectives.

The question is what are our objectives in Afghanistan? The initial objectives of disrupting al-Qaeda's operations and overturning the Taliban regime that was sheltering al-Qaeda, all to stop the attacks on the U.S., were largely achieved. Now they have shifted. what is our objective in fighting again st a nationlistic mutli-faceted insurgency?

There has been no clear debate on the issue of what we are seeking to achieve, and more importantly, why. But as Richard Haas argued in a debate last week, suppressing the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and propping up an increasingly discredited regime, is certainly not essential to American interests. It is no longer a war of necessity, and the cost, in terms of treasure, blood, political capital, and misplaced foreign policy focus, increasingly seems to outweigh the benefit. There is reason for hope that Obama will not wade deeper into the morass.

Turning to Beta's second point, that the U.S. will be forced to accept a compromise that involves the Taliban in a some form of power-sharing arrangement, I would tend to agree. It is an argument that is also beginning to get significant play in the informed debate in Washington. Moreover, there is evidence that the Taliban of today is quite different from that of 2001, with very different agendas. But in any event, unless we are prepared to be an occupying army for several decades, keeping the Taliban's hands off the levers of power seems an unrealistic objective. - Gamma.

3. Hard Choices

Physics is hard. War is harder.

There is no victory for the US in Afghanistan - only gradations of defeat. The Biden option of focusing existing troops on rooting out Al-Qaeda at least allows for a claim of "mission accomplished" before packing the whole the circus up and coming home. But, let's be honest, it is merely a cut-and-run strategy dressed up to look pretty.

The risks of narrowing the focus and developing an exit strategy are profound. The Afghan government is corrupt and weak and could collapse at any time. The Afghan army is years away from being a credible force for stability. The narco-warlord complex is powerful and violent. And the Taliban are no-good thugs who, by all rights, should never be given a role in any government. The Biden option accepts those risks as trade-offs for an easier exit.

There are many things about this option that must gall Obama. First, it would mean trusting Biden's instincts which are often wrong. Second, it is a wholesale abandonment of the Afghan people, greater by so many degrees than how the U.S. left them high and dry after helping them repel the Russians. Third, it is a "do less" option and the President is a "do more" kind of a guy. Fourth, and last, it is a gamble and Obama hates games of chance.

But hard choices define great men. I can only hope that Obama can see that the deaths of hundreds more soldiers and thousands of more civilians will do little to change the situation. It is ... sadly, unsatisfyingly, tragically ... sometimes better to cut and run. - Beta.

War With Iran


1. Flawed Premises in the Case for War with Iran
2. Which War Do You Want?
3. Fallacies, Stereotypes, and Our Own Lack of Principles

1. Flawed Premises in the Case for War with Iran

"Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.." So crooned Sen. John McCain to an old Beach Boys tune during the presidential campaign. With the recent disclosure of a hidden nuclear processing facility near a Qum military base, the rhetoric is again ratcheting up for the West to begin considering military options against Iran. Boiled down to their essentials, the arguments is that nothing but military action will prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons, and war is preferable to a nuclear-armed Iran.

Why is war preferable to a nuclear-armed Iran? We have acquiesced in the nuclearization of India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, and most recently North Korea, without feeling compelled to go to war. Granted, all of these but North Korea were on better terms with us than is Iran. But notwithstanding the outlandish statements of Iran's president about the future of Israel, it has to be understood that nuclear weapons are primarily a defensive weapon - they are for deterrence, not for conquest. That is not to say they cannot be used offensively, but to do so, particularly for a small country with limited weapons and no missile defense system, would be suicidal.

In all our other policies, we quite rightly assume that the Iranian leaders are rational. That is the basis of our sanctions policies, our efforts at signalling, UN Security Council resolutions, and our negotiations. So why, when we contemplate their developing nukes, do we revert to thinking that they are crazed religious ideologues who are bent on national suicide in the name of some holy jihad?

Moreover, other regimes with either limited evidence of rationality (North Korea), or questionable stability and volatile relations (Pakistan) have managed to develop nuclear weapons without using them. What makes Iran so different that it justifies the use of force. For the second part of this equation is that war is preferable - and yet war against Iran will have horrendous consequences. We are already engaged in conflicts caused in part by the enmity of a small minority of radical fundamentalist Islamic groups. War with Iran would add immeasurable to that problem. Our security will be diminished.

Turning to the first premise, why is military action the only way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons? The assumptions here is that Iran is both malevolent and hostile, and that it desires nuclear weapons to attack us. But is that assumption right? Iran is unquestionably hostile to Israel. It also seeks to expand its influence in the region. But it is also no doubt insecure and justifiably nervous about U.S. intentions. Memories of the U.S. orchestrated coup in 1953 are fresh in Iran. George Bush listed Iran as one of three counties comprising an "Axis of Evil", following which the U.S. invaded the first country on the list. Look at a map of the region and colour in red the countries in which U.S. forces are based - Iran is almost entirely surrounded. Seymour Hersh has written about the extensive operations that have been ongoing within Iran, by U.S. operatives and local agents under the aegis of the CIA.

Those who argue for military strikes assume that Iran will not cave to sanctions, UN Security Council resolutions, or other forms of political and economic pressure. But they do not consider the effect we might achieve by reducing their felt need to develop weapons systems as a deterrent against U.S. or Western attacks. Barack Obama was on the right track when he made overtures at the beginning of the year. The apparent illegitimacy of the election and subsequent human rights abuses complicate those efforts, but the right-wing realists now clamouring for war used argue against confusing human rights issues and foreign policy imperatives. We can make Iran feel safer without betraying the Iranian victims of oppression. But of course, those on the right cannot escape the paradigm of appeasement, as though Munich was the only lesson ever handed down by history.

At this juncture, the case for war with Iran, is no more sound than slogans like "better dead than red". War should always be a very last resort, and we are very far from that indeed. - Gamma.

2. Which War Do You Want?

Uhhh...I just don't think that we can hug our way out of this one.

It is not sensible to assume that Iran's leadership is governed by rationality. They are thugs, pure and simple. To make it worse they are thugs who cloak their actions in a paranoid religiosity. They are motivated by power and fear - irrationality's handmaidens - and they are deeply manipulative and dishonest. I would not expect game theory to run to your rescue.

But, those quibbles aside, you are right in that no-one should want war with Iran. What we have remembered with Iraq and Afghanistan is just how utterly horrible and destructive war is to peoples' lives, to our moral fibre, to our national character and to our economy. But the real threat of war is, sometimes, a necessary evil.

It was, I had hoped, going to be the next great age of diplomacy. So far, we have seen only glimpses of promise. There is still time but, as Garry Wills writes in the New York Review of Books, so many of the sins of the Bush administration have lingered in that of his successor. It is much easier to talk about new places where the ship of state ought to sail than it is to steer it there. But I digress. [Hours after I wrote this, Obama was awarded the nobel peace prize. Hard to fathom. Apparantly talking about what you would like to do is just as good as doing it in the eyes of the committee. Has it really come to this? - Beta]

Even if we give the velvet glove of diplomacy a chance, we need to be mindful of the need for an iron fist to back it up. Imminent violence lurks in the dark heart of effective diplomacy. As ghastly as it is to admit, without the threat of military action, words are drained of potency pretty quickly. And any such threat needs to be credible and direct and rational - and not just to Iran but also to her allies, enablers, and enemies.

So, in choosing a credible military option, ask yourself which war would you like to have (or to sell to your allies as part of a broader strategy):

1. the bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities and other military targets before they posess functional nuclear weapons;

2. the bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities and other military targets after they posess functional nuclear weapons;

3. the defense of Israel from regional foes in response to Israel's pre-emptive strike of Iran's nuclear facilities;

4. the punitive invasion of Iran after it - contrary to the dictates of reason - wipes out an Israeli city with a pre-emptive nuclear strike; or

5. World War Three.

If none of the above is not a viable option, I would take the first choice. And, I would hold it as a last resport but I would make damn sure it was on the table. And then I would sit at the table and get down to the serious business of diplomacy, including working on removing both real and perceived threats from the picture. This is precisely what we should have done with North Korea and other rogue states. Instead, we pussyfooted around, wagged our fingers and then shrugged helplessly as they nuked up. I'll admit that no-one tried getting all Dr. Phil on them as you're suggesting, but that just might be for the best. - Beta

3. Fallacies, Stereotypes, and Our Own Lack of Principles

Beta's argument provides an illustration of the fallacies and internal contradictions that are typical of the case for war. This begins with the caricature of the Iranian leadership as being irrational thugs - "motivated by power and fear...and...deeply manipulative and dishonest." As though from over there, our leaders do not look motivated by power and fear, manipulative and dishonest. Such stereotypes of course are an obstacle to true understanding and a recipe for serious misperception and miscalculation.

Beta next argues that effective diplomacy requires credible threats of military force. That assumes, necessarily, that one's adversary is rational. So we go from irrational thugs cloaked in religiosity, to cold-eyed Machiavellians who understand the logic of armed threats. Right.

Finally, there is the assertion that we should get serious in "removing the threats". But there is no principled reason why Iran, particularly, should be precluded from joining the nuclear club. Sure, doing so would be a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the U.S. under Bush violated the three fundamental pillars that formed the quid pro quo that made the treaty possible - that the nuclear powers would make efforts to disarm, that they would commit never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, and that only treaty members would be assisted with the development of non-military nuclear technology.

The U.S. has refused to ratify the test-ban treaty, it has developed plans to create new generations of warheads, it has developed a formal strategy that contemplates the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, and it has entered into an agreement to supply India, a rogue nuclear state and non-party to the NPT, with nuclear technology. Until we are ready to reduce the threat we ourselves pose to the world, we are in no principled position to "remove threats." Obama's movement in that direction partly explains his surprising Nobel Prize.

And, of course, simply because Iran is developing nuclear weapons would not form any basis under international law for a military strike against it. The Bush Doctrine is not law. So the final irony is that we will be citing breaches of the NPT, a treaty we ourselves have gutted, as a highly legalistic foundation for our own illegal military strike against a country that is little different from several other nuclear states - except that we consider them to be our enemy. - Gamma

Organised Labour and the Future of Jobs


1. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
2. Labour Strikes and Other Zero Sum Games
3. Peace In Our Time

1. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

We tend to take for granted some of the things that organized labour has given us. Eight hour days, lunch breaks, week-ends, disability insurance, etc... But perhaps the thing that we took most for granted was a job. Not just work but a job. With a stable salary and a set wage, some benefits and some security. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the ratio of job seekers to full-time jobs was at an all-time high. As of July there were 14.5 million people in the United States competing for only 2.5 million jobs.

But that doesn't even begin to tell the whole story. The number of job seekers is always under-reported and the number of jobs is always inflated so the problem is worse than it first appears. But most troubling, the character of the jobs being lost in this economy is different than that of the jobs being added. This is not accidental on the part of companies.

For most large trans-national companies, good jobs cost a lot. If you have a union shop or are forced to provide salaries and benefits equivalent or close to union rates the costs of acquisition of new employees, the cost of maintenance and the costs of severance provide a drag on efficiency. A massive economic downturn affords the opportunity to shed these jobs and replace them when times get better. But when the smoke clears, there are always, mysteriously, fewer domestic jobs and fewer union jobs. Since 1983, after waves of expansion and contraction, American manufacturing is dead, the number of well-paid blue collar jobs is vanishing and the rate of union participation has dropped from 20% to just over 12%.

While some efficiencies are important, this approach is short sighted and sacrifices long-term wealth and stability for the sake of short-term bottom line gain. Without a culture of jobs - good jobs - wealth will erode in the United States and other developed countries. The goal should be to sustain moderate growth that distributes wealth across the socio-economic spectrum over time, not a cycle of boom and bust that develops and reinforces structural inequities.

Who's to blame? Well, there is a lot to go around - greedy corporations, impotent shareholders, grasping politicians - but organised labour needs to step up and accept its share of responsibility. Unions have become ossified, conservative and reactionary and have not developed alternative strategies to combat the dogma of short-term economic efficiency. There are a few exceptions, but unions are lousy at creating jobs and, more troubling, they are losing their ability to protect them.

So, while politicians across the developed world, make vague promises about a green collar jobs revolution, it is time for organised labour in the developed world to reassert itself and demonstrate the innovation and creativity that were the hallmarks of its golden age. Otherwise, we will continue to see jobs - real jobs - slip away. - Beta

2. Labour Strikes and Other Zero Sum Games

Far be it from me to opine on the definitive causes of the recent unemployment and the net loss of blue-collar union jobs in our economy. Beta, rushing in where angels and nobel laureates fear to tread, himself acknowledges that there is lots of blame to go around. But he settles on organized labour as a party being particularly worthy of blame.

Yet he does not tell us exactly how unions have contributed to the short-termism and prioritizing of efficiency, which he suggests is the ultimate cause of this job loss, other than to decry the unions' "ossification", "conservatism" and lack of creativity. It does seem correct, however, to suggest that there is something inherently problematic with the overall strucuture of the organized labour relationship with employers. The bunkruptcy and restructuring of General Motors earlier this year illustrated some of the fundamental problems. The health care and pension costs per unionized employee at General Motors was extraordinarily high relative to those of such competitors as Toyota and Honda. The inability to restructure those arrangemnets, short of by way of a bankruptcy proceeding, reflects an inflexibility that will lead over time to the destruction of jobs and indeed whole industries.

How is this the fault of organized labour? Allow me to suggest that one source of the problem may lie in how we have structured the relationship between labour and management. The hostility between labour and management is legendary and deeply historical. There was a time when such hostility on the part of labour was necessary to claw out basic rights to minimum benefits and security.

But it also perhaps reflects the more general propensity in the Anglo-American world to place significant reliance upon competition and adversarial systems to resolve problems and attain optimal solutions. It is a characteristic of the ecnomomic system itself, the judical process of the common law, the competitive dynamic within our meritocratic organizations, and often our "realist" approach to foreign relations. It is based on the premise that it is a dog-eat-dog world, that the fittest will survive, and that competition will lead to excellence.

It is not the only approach. Westerners scoff at the union tactics in Japan. Workers go on strike over their lunch hour during the negotiation season, often demanding little more than better work conditions. Wildcat strikes or any other real hostility to management is virtually unheard of. The relationship is seen by both sides as more cooperative and collaborative than competitive. Both are part of the same team, not combatants locked in the death struggle of a zero sum game. Yet for decades this cooperative approach was an important part of a system of life-time employment and great job security, low unemployment rates, nimble companies with lower labour-related costs in manufacturing, and excellence in quality control.

There is of course no panacea to some of the problems attending the onset of "globalization", and now Japan too is suffering increasing job-insecurity, flights of jobs to cheaper markets, and the erosion of the lifetime employment system. I do not have the answers to how to prevent such dislocations.

But their approach bears some thought. Our tendency to approach societal problems as zero-sum games best resolved through the development of hostile adversarial relationships can be fundamentally counterproductive. As we head into global negotiations on the issue of climate change and green house gas emissions, perhaps mankind's greatest challenge and the broadest of collective action problems, we would do very well to ponder this carefully. - Gamma

3. Peace_In_Our_Time

Lunchtime Strikes? Ooooh...what's next? Refusing to water the plants? How about we steal the urinal cakes from the managers' bathroom? (And before we celebrate the Japanese as being the paragons of Pareto inefficiency, let's recall their original Zero-sum strategy.)

I think you're missing the point. It is a competition. The fit do survive. You can get all Neville Chamberlainly about it and call for peace in our time but that is naive and disconnected. This is not just a minor skirmish, it is an important fight that we need to win. Without better jobs, our economy will never really grow. It will just distend at the top until it collapses in on itself. (Jobs! The Ultimate Stimulus Package...)

Private enterprises are under intense pressure to adapt and innovate to survive - Schumpeter's creative destruction in action. Yet unions cling to outdated modes and structures and rhetoric. We've seen some evolution in fast moving industries where labour is re-conceptualizing their relationship with their members and with business. A good example is the film industry in Toronto. Union members get a decent living wage, film projects come and go, and over time the build-up of experienced and talented labour has become one of the City's competitive advantages. Everyone wins.

The flexibility that the Canadian and American Autoworkers showed in the restructuring of the automobile industry was a promising - if painful - start. But most organized labour still has far to go. And those of us who aren't super-rich need them to re-invent themselves and redefine their role. There are huge opportunities. There are massive workforces still unorganized and new industrial paradigms coming on-line, but without someone speaking - and more importantly thinking - for workers and their future, we'll find ourselves on the wrong side of a global zero sum game. - Beta

Honesty in Public Discourse


1. The Absence of Truth
2. - The Presence of Lies: The Long and the Short of It
3. - Giving Truth and Democracy Short Shrift

1. The Absence of Truth

"You Lie!" There has been endless debate over Rep. Wilson's uncivil outburst during President Obama's speech to the joint session of Congress. Most agree it was uncivil, it has been clearly established that Wilson's allegation was incorrect, and now we are into the question of whether it was motivated by racism. But there is another issue that deserves to be discussed, and this incident brings it to the fore.

President Obama was not lying, but the fact is that there is an increasing disregard for the truth by public figures, and indeed the media. That is actually putting it politely. Politicians and those engaging in the public discourse increasingly lie, shamelessly, outrageously, and most important, with apparent impunity. From allegations about "death panels", that President Obama is Muslim, right through to much more important lies, like those that grounded the case for the invasion of Iraq. President Bush and Dick Cheney may protest until the cows come home that it was just faulty intelligence, but it has been close to proven that there were some facts, such as the claim that Iraq had sought Uranium from Niger, that were known to be false when solemnly represented to the American people and the world.

Aside from the blatant lying, there is the related distortion of history, science, and every other rational pursuit in the effort to advance positions and undermine the arguments of political adversaries. And of course, the media, particularly the TV media and the bloggosphere, are increasingly playing the role of combatants in the political forum, rather than objective reporters and analysts of news. So we had the Bush administration itself single-mindedly sabotaging the science surrounding global warming, and now we have the conservative elements, including Fox News, likening President Obama to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, insuinuating that he is liberal, a communist, and a fascist, exploiting the ignorance of viewers who don't understand the difference.

While everyone goes on about "civility", I want to suggest that we should be even more concerned about the lack of honesty. Sure, there are mechanisms like Factcheck.org, and CNN and others from time to time subject political assertions to scrutiny - but there is seldom any real condemnation of lying and distortion. Only the likes of Jon Stewart really hammers people. So politicians, and the likes of Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck, will continue to lie, based on the cynical calculus that there is little downside and lots of upside.

There is a wonderful scene in Orwell's 1984, in which Smith is morosely sitting in the cafeteria when the announcement is made that, due to sound government policy and recent progress in the war, the chocolate ration "will be increased from 5 ounces to 3 ounces." Smith is incredulous as people all around him cheer at the news, and wonders if there is no one else who recognizes the lie, or whether they are all just too scared to let on. What's our excuse? It is time to find ways to demand the truth, and effectively raise the costs of lying, in our public discourse. - Gamma.

2. - The Presence of Lies: The Long and the Short of It.

The Long of It:

If only I could tip my chair back, pipe in hand, cardigan pulled tight and lament the decline of the old ways of honesty and civility. But that is all bunkum, hokum and humbug. Deliberate falsehoods and nasty personal attacks have been used in politics forever to derail the conversation from ideas to insult, and to do mischief to well-intentioned plans.

The truth is that untruth has a hallowed place in our political and civil discourse. It reflects our commitment to freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas. Over time, the truth should win out and it usually does.

Lack of civility is equally ingrained. While the clash of ideas and ideals is exciting and can reshape nations and cultures, the clash of personalities can be ever more potent and lasting. Minor hurts and slights can lead to greater schisms which can have dramatic effect on world events. What if Trotsky and Lenin could have just gotten along? All politics is personal, deeply personal at that.

I can't help but to wonder if dishonesty, incivility and insult are not an essential part of democratic discourse. They are part of the package. Maybe it is as simple as that an idea or political movement or cultural force that has been tempered by a nasty fight emerges as stronger and better respected. And maybe the inverse is true as well, ideas that can't withstand these scurrilous attacks aren't worth having around. I sometimes wonder about the the theory of evolution, not because it is not a great and true idea, but simply because it keeps getting bitch-slapped by creationists.

It is, like most things of importance, a little like hockey. The nifty passes and fancy footwork are great. We all love watching them, but sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. This is sometimes referred to as the John Tonelli principle. Watch him at :30 of this clip of the 1984 Canada Cup. Marketplace of ideas on ice, baby! But I digress...

The great leaders get this. They can take a punch - some even relish it. And they can deliver one when necessary. It is one of the things I have liked about Obama from the early days of his campaign. He is hard to hurt. And he is a very skillful, if subtle, counter-puncher. Watch him take out Clinton by talking about Reagan. It's the political equivalent of Bruce Lee's one inch punch. It is also, in its own way, a lie. But it is a good one and it was skillfully delivered.

Transformation, the essence of leadership, is a challenge to the status quo and it can hurt people and destroy the lives and the structures to which they cleave, notwithstanding the rightness of wrongness of the issue. Asking them not to lie is clearly anti-democratic. Asking them to be civil may be similarly at odds with essence of our democratic institutions.

The Short of It:

Grow a pair, Sally. - Beta.

3. - Giving Truth and Democracy Short Shrift

So Beta concludes that "asking leaders not to lie is clearly undemocratic". This is reached via a rambling saunter through premises ranging from the value of tradition ("but its always been like that!"), through some kind of intellectual Darwinism ("ideas that can't survive dishonest attacks are worthless"), and the related promotion of the market place of ideas ("the truth will emerge victorious"), to utterly ludicrous analogies to the game of hockey ("lying is like digging the puck out of the corner"?!).

The notion that lies serve to somehow temper the truth is just silly. The market place of ideas, on the other hand, is a more valid argument, being part of the justification for freedom of expression that dates back to Mill. But the Supreme Court of Canada, in examining the balance between freedom of expression and the criminalizing of hate speech, accepted that untruths can prevail, looking in particular at how systemic lies, packaged by the sophisticated propaganda machine of Nazi Germany, were important features of a process that ended in the Holocaust. The truth does not always win out, and some intervention is sometimes warranted.

But my initial point was not that we should somehow outlaw dishonesty generally. I was focusing on lies by political leaders and the press. Which brings us to the conclusion: "asking leaders not to lie is clearly undemocratic". This is rubbish. Democracy, in theory, relies upon the exercise of public choices based on sound information about the options available. That is why the role of the fourth estate is considered so important.

The fact that we are so often lied to by both politicians and the press, frequently on issues as dire as war and peace, is reason to question the legitimacy of our democracy, not a justification for dishonesty in public life. And if one really must have a sporting analogy for the harms of dishonesty to democratic discourse, it is surely Maradona's "Hand of God" goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. - Gamma

The Ten Best Law Movies of all Time


1. The Ten Best
2. The Failure of a New System
3. The Scientific Method

1. The Ten Best

Some people just list movies they like. So amateur. I have, instead, used a complex scientific formula that gives independent weight to seven critical features: acting, story, direction, courtroom scenes, air of reality, transcendent legal principles, and degree of hotness of actors. Each is scored out of ten. A perfect law movie would have 70. This is a copyrighted system. You can try it at home but please be very, very careful. It is not for the faint of heart. This is science.

In reverse order:

Acting (5): The brilliant Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for best Supporting Actress... but this is balanced by Ralph Macchio really sucking the life out of every scene in which he creepily appears.

Story (6): Good, crisp, funny, never insults the intelligence of the viewer.

Direction (4): Couldn't tell you who directed it. But the movie never lags. Funny is harder than serious. Kudos.

Courtroom Scenes (8): How can you top Everything this guys says is bullshit, thank-you and the almost perfect hostile expert witness scene.

Air of Reality (5): Obvious the plot is sheer farce, but anyone who has ever litigated has been, in one way or another, a version of Joe Pesci's character. Not quite ready, awkward, arrogant determined to do it on our own, and lucky. And often poorly dressed: I once conducted a preliminary inquiry in mismatched shoes.

Transcendent Legal Principles (3): When in doubt, call your girlfriend to the stand.

Hotness of Actors (10): Joe Pesci is not my cup of tea, but are you kidding me?

Acting (4): Tom Cruise, underactor, meet Jack Nicholson, overactor, meet Demi Moore, non-actor.

Story (7): A young Aaron Sorkin. "I'm going to rip out your eyes and piss in your dead skull." Great stuff.

Direction (7): Rob Reiner kept the pot from boiling over - barely.

Courtroom Scenes (8): Iconic.

Air of Reality (5): Tom Cruise is a snotty little bastard (see clip above) but real witnesses are lousy speechmakers.

Transcendent Legal Principles (6): "Deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall." (see clip above)

Hotness of Actors (5): There is a principle called the Kevin Bacon hotness drag co-efficient that casts a pall on all other actors. And then there is this.

Acting (6): Gregory Peck does almost all of the heavy lifting. Extra points for a young, hirsute Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.

Story (7): Horton Foote was one of the greatest screen writers of his time. The source material was pretty good too. But there are some passages that clunk.

Direction (5): A little heavy-handed.

Courtroom Scenes (7): A little strained in hindsight, but this is a great scene.

Air of Reality (5): In real life, the mob would have pushed Atticus aside and lynched Tom Robinson. And what the hell is a chiffarobe?

Transcendent Legal Principles (8): Justice is both universal and colour-blind.

Hotness of Actors (7): Again, Gregory Peck does the heavy lifting. If only I could wear a white suit like that.

Acting (7): Gene Kelly. Spencer Tracy. Frederick March. They just don't make 'em like this anymore.

Story (7): Funny, serious, lively and important. "I am more interested in the rock of ages than in the age of rocks."

Direction (7): Stanly Kramer. One of the greats.

Courtroom Scenes (7): The story is complex and nuanced and unfolds primarily in the courtroom. There are some brilliant passages that are as relevant today as they were in 1960. It should be required watching for all Americans.

Air of Reality (6): Based on a real case tried by William Jennings Bryant and Clarence Darrow.

Transcendent Legal Principles (8): Freedom of Expression.

Hotness of Actors (4): If you like Spencer Tracy....

Acting (8): Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown and a whole lot of men with odd accents handlebar moustaches.

Story (7): Tight, taut and intelligent.

Direction (7): Brian Beresford balances the sterile courtroom with great action shots and beautiful panoramics.

Courtroom Scenes (8): One of the best defense summations on film.

Air of Reality (7): Also based on a real case. Captures the fog of war. The fallacy of honour. And the ties between fighting men. And the mischief that politics does to the law.

Transcendent Legal Principles (6): The line between being a murderer and being a soldier is thin and blurry.

Hotness of Actors (6): Did I mention handlebar moustaches...?

Acting (8): Paul Newman was one of those rare lead actors that had the range and quirks of a character actor. His performance is deep and and layered. A man in crisis looking for redemption despite himself.

Story (8): Early David Mamet. Tough and hard and gritty.

Direction (7): Sydney Lumet, who is still working, at his peak. The tone and pacing of the movie match its main character.

Courtroom Scenes (7): Very good. The examinations are messy, unsatisfying and imperfect. The speeches are rough around the edges, simple and eloquent.

Air of Reality (7): Every litigator has one more case in him. You're never really out of the game. Even if you are.

Transcendent Legal Principles (6): "You are the law. Not some book. Not the lawyers. Not some marble stature. Or the trappings of the court."

Hotness of Actors (7): Paul Newman... feh!... but more Charlotte Rampling please.

4. Rashomon 55.

Acting (8): Okay. I don't speak Japanese. But Toshiru Mifune rocks it.

Story (9): Simple, nuanced and powerful.

Direction (9): Akira Kurosawa's debut in the west. Stunningly direct, emotional and alive.

Courtroom Scenes (7): Technically, they are courtyard scenes but they are the basis of the story and they are electric and tense.

Air of Reality (9): In it's exploration of the unreliability and mixed motives behind eyewitness evidence, it is one of the most real movies out there. Utterly believable. With the possible exception of the testimony from beyond the grave. That rarely happens in real life.

Transcendent Legal Principles (6): Don't believe what you see, or hear.

Hotness of Actors (7): Mifune and the naif Machiko Kyo made Asians beautiful, sensual, powerful and human for the first time for western audiences.

3. Anatomy of a Muder 59.

Acting (9): Jimmy Stewart's finest and most subtle performance. Leah Remick is equally as brilliant as the powerful and powerless Laura. Ben Gazzara is edgy, arrogant and manipulative. And Eve Arden, Arthur O'Connell and George C. Scott fill in the spaces between them.

Story (9): Well told and interesting. The trial is contained in the larger context of the small town and the characters. So well balanced.

Direction (9): Otto Preminger was a god. The opening credits alone make this one of the great movies ever. Preminger's approach to framing his actors and the story was unique and dynamic.

Courtroom Scenes (9): Again, Preminger let the actors fill the spaces of the story, even in the courtroom scenes.

Air of Reality (8): For most of us, life is rarely as stylised as a Preminger movie.

Transcendent Legal Principles (7): Rationality is no match for irrationality.

Hotness of Actors (8): Lee Remick. Lee Remick. And did I mention Lee Remick?

2. Ghandi 60.

Acting (9): Ben Kinglsey disappeared in this role. He played Ghandi as a young, uptight barrister, an old, quixotic man and everything in between.

Story (9): If it had not in fact been true, this story would have been so utterly unbelievable. The dialogue keeps it human and avoids grand speeches and mythmaking. It is an intimate epic.

Direction (9): Okay. Tell the story of a perfect man and one of the largest, most chaotic countries, in a sweeping epic style that keeps the characters human. And go for three hours. Should be easy, right?

Courtroom Scenes (8): The three minute questioning of Brigadier General Dyer alone elevates the movie to rarified air.

Air of Reality (9): It all happened. Really. It did. It is a true story. Crazy, eh?

Transcendent Legal Principles (10): The rule of law is fundamental but the rule of justice is paramount.

Hotness of Actors (6): Ben Kingsley and a loin cloth...nudge, nudge, wink, wink... Thankfully, out of nowhere, a youngish Candace Bergen shows up to redeem things.

1. Witness for the Prosecution 62.

Acting (9): Charles Laughton 's performance as Sir Wilfred Robarts is one of the finest in the history of cinema. It was masterful and subtle and funny. Throw in Marlene Dietrich and a and Elsa Manchester, Laughton's wife, and you almost have perfection. Too bad about Tyrone Power.

Story (10): The plot is clever and tight and suspenseful. The dialogue reflects the difference of voice and the complexity of the characters.

Direction (10): Billy Wilder's talent was so outrageuous that this might not even be in his top three films.

Courtroom Scenes (8): High drama balanced with humour. Watch Laughton when he sits down at the end, exhausted and bothered by something.

Air of Reality (7): Well, okay, but that's mostly Tyrone Power's fault.

Transcendent Legal Principles (10): Cherchez la femme.

Hotness of Actors (8): Some people love Marlene Dietrich. The rest are fools.

- Beta

2. The Failure of a New System

Ok, so B's list includes some of the greats. But really, if this is the product of some new-fangled copyrighted system, it is a total flop. How else can we explain the utter failure to include some the following, particularly when we employ B's own precious criteria?

- Presumed Innocent

The acting is taught and the chemisty between Harrison Ford and Greta Scacchi is electric, while Raul Julia captures every scene he is in. The direction is fine, but the story is excellent (based on a Scott Turow novel), a suspense thriller with some real subtlety and sophistication in how it deals with the legal process. The scene in which Raul Julia conducts a cross-examination, in which he is actually threatening the judge without anyone else in the courtroom realizing it, is brilliant. The moral principle, that the justice system often operates on several levels, many of which are corrupt, is cynical but true. But really, even if all the foregoing were wrong, this movie would make it into the top ten under B's criteria for one reason alone: Greta Scacchi!!

- Judgment at Nuremberg

For a purported Marlene Deitrich fan, the absence of this from B's list is inexplicable. A brilliant if sometimes over-wrought depiction of the trial of German judges in the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. Some of the cross examination by Maximillian Schell is outstanding, and the moral principle, that the rule of law and justice transcends simply the law of the day, is still profoundly important today.

- A Civil Action

This movie, based on a true story (which, as strange as reality can be some times, involved a lawyer who started practice in the same firm from which the protagonist of The Verdict hailed), is one of the true giants of law movies. More than most, it captures the scale, complexity, and psychology of a large trial. Some of the court room scenes are more realistic, and yet still more gripping, than those of any other movie. The scene in which John Travolta asks the one question too many, an open ended one at that, in cross examination, is a sheer classic. Unless you count Travolta, there is no hotness here, but there is the truth that litigation is sometimes ill-equipped to produce justice.

- Philadelphia

On the hotness scale, at least for the gals, they don't come much hotter than Denzel Washington. This movie, about a lawyer (Tom Hanks) dying of AIDS and fighting a case against his firm for discrimination, was an important part of the movement to change opinions on AIDS and homosexuality in America. Hanks won best actor, and the scene of a dying Hanks explaining an aria to the skeptical Denzel, is one of the great scenes in cinema. And the scene of Hanks, explaining on the stand why he wanted to be a lawyer, would fill many a law school. In contrast to A Civil Action, this film celebrates what litigation can achieve.

Well, that is just some of the other greats absent from B's list, and surely better than some on his list. There are others that must also be in competition for the top-ten: A Few Good Men, with that great scene between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson (who's hot?!); Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick's use of a court martial as a means of revealing the horrors and folly of war; In the Name of the Father - any movie with Daniel Day Lewis has to be up there; The Caine Mutiny - Bogey, are you kidding me? Under Suspicion, a movie about an interrogation, involving Hackman, Freeman, and the utterly smouldering, sizzling Monica Bellucci...the list could go on, but the defense rests. The copyright system is clearly guilty of utter failure and should be sentenced to banishment for the duration. - Gamma.

3. The Scientific Method

I think you need to sit down and with Inherit the Wind. Your denial of science is a little troubling. What's next? Creationism? Climate Change Denial? Rejection of the metric system? Maybe you just can't handle the truth.

I can't quibble with Great Scacchi. I take issue with Philadelphia.

Denzel was great, as always. But the rest of the film was contrived and preachy and studiously non-controversial. And two straight men playing desexualised versions of gay men were the moral equivalent of white men in black-face playing Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird.

And Judgment at Nuremburg is a terrible movie. It is boring and unwatchable. It is redeemable only because it is such an amazing story in real life.

The Caine Mutiny, Presumed Innocent and a Civil Action all hovered on my short-list. I had forgotten about Name of the Father and Paths of Glory. And, I hate to admit it, have never seen Under Suspicion.

Also not making it were The Paper Chase, the Client, And Justice for All, the Hurricane and Reversal of Fortune. Not because they aren't good...they just couldn't stand the scrutiny of the scientific method. - Beta.


©2009 The Radix | Template Blue by TNB