Kennedy and Redemption


1. In History's Wake
2. Failure, Redemption, and Forgiveness
3. What He Did

1. In History's Wake

The Irish wake challenges death's dominion through expressions of pure grief and the tradition of telling stories that reflect the complexity of the deceased. No hollow words of praise, please.Give us the measure of the real man. Ted Kennedy understood this. The most Irish of his clan, he famously stayed up drinking through the Thanksgiving weekend following the assassination telling raw stories about his brother Jack.

A little truth-telling would have been welcome in respect of the discussion of Ted Kennedy's own legacy. While his colleagues and party members rush to proclaim his greatness, history will be less willing to look away from his weaknesses and shortcomings.In no sense did the Senator ever pay his dues or demonstrate true remorse in relation the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and his conduct afterward. And, instead of learning from his errors, for the next 20 years he lived the life of a privileged, aging, playboy and demonstrated shockingly poor judgment while serving without real distinction as a Senator whose seat had been won and maintained through nepotism, wealth and shamelessness.

There was, I admit, some movement toward redemption in his later years. For this I praise him. His legislative work was, in the end, impressive. But, in the rush to beatify him as the “lion of the senate” and an icon of the left, the glory of this work and these years has been oversold. The judgment of history will not, I think, be so kind. Ted Kennedy will be – and should be - better remembered for the promise he selfishly squandered and the limitations of his character and not for his contributions to American public life. - Beta.

2. Failure, Redemption, and Forgiveness

In Joseph Conrad's famous novel Lord Jim the first mate of the tramp steamer Patna, in a moment of moral weakness and perhaps cowardice, abandons his ship in a storm and leaves the hundreds of passengers on board to their fate. They survive to tell the tale, and Jim is stripped of his qualifications in a public hearing. He spends the rest of his life trying to both escape his past, and to do good in a relentless quest to achieve some form of redemption. And he does, perhaps achieving more in the end than he might have done had he had a long and successful career as as ship's officer.

One of the morals of Lord Jim is that our character will reveal itself in moments of crisis and emergency. This was a favourite theme of Hemingway's as well. That we can never actually know how we will respond when the chips are down, whether we will rise to the occasion, or like Jim bail out to our ever-lasting shame. But the second moral of Lord Jim, much like that of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, is that even such people whose character flaws manifest themselves in that moment of truth, can go on to do great good and so redeem themselves.

That Ted Kennedy failed in his Lord Jim moment, there can be little doubt. And we all would like to think that we would have done better in the circumstances of that moment than he did - but the whole point is that we can never know. We can judge him for his failure, but we ought not to allow that judgment to extend to encompass his entire life. For the measure of the man ought not to be limited to his one failure when the chips are down. It is also, and perhaps even more importantly, in his attempts to do good thereafter in his effort to make amends.

As in so many things, there is complexity and nuance here. Kennedy demonstrated flaws not only in his Lord Jim moment, but in his struggle with alcohol, his weakness for carousing, perhaps even in an early sense of privilege and entitlement. But that was balanced against the good that he did, and the nobleness that he managed to achieve in the doing of it.

By all accounts, Ted Kennedy achieved great things as a senator, not for his own career, but genuinely for the good of the disadvantaged, the poor, the marginalized, the minorities and the downtrodden in American society. Like Jim, he seems to have been driven to do so in a relentless drive for redemption. In the context of the Kennedy promise, it may appear that he squandered his opportunities, but who knows? He may have become a better man, and done more good as a Jim-like senator, than he ever would have achieved if he had never faced and failed his Lord Jim moment.

If the American media went too far in focusing on the good, my friend has surely gone too far in emphasizing the flaws and failings of the man. The narrative here is of a complicated man, one who failed, more than once, but who ultimately achieved great things in doing good for so many. It is in the end a story of redemption. And that surely deserves some measure of forgiveness.
- Gamma.

3.- What He Did

I think most of us know exactly what we would do: we would call for help. But, while a young woman was trapped in his car, underwater, desperately trying to stay alive, Ted Kennedy did not call for help. He left. He abandoned her, obviously more concerned with the political consequences of the night.

The Lord Jim moment, as you characterize it, is a great literary device but it lacks bite in the real world. The issue is not that Ted Kennedy failed to live up to some mythic, unreachable ideal of heroism. This was not an abstract sin of omission. It was the direct commission of an act that was - and is - deeply, deeply troubling. It was a cold, rational, criminal act.

True redemption don't come cheap, however, it is a possibility for even the worst of us. But it did not come to Ted Kennedy. If it had, we would have seen it in his actions after the accident. He probably would have resigned and devoted his considerable energy and resources to some good cause. But we did not see anything like that. Instead, what we saw for the next twenty-years was Kennedy alternating between self-serving tilting at political windmills and shallow hedonism. It was, according to the lore, his second marriage and his inevitable aging, and not reflections on his culpability, that motivated him to become an effective Senator.

As for his work on behalf of the disadvantaged, the downtrodden, the hungry, the tired, the wretched, the untouchable and the hard-working honest people of the United States America... I wonder if you have not bought the bill of goods that the American left is selling in their rush to deification. They want heroes. They need a glorious tradition. And, for the moment, they are ascendant in the political firmament.

But, as I suggested at the beginning of this post, history is not so easily fooled. It will look upon Ted Kennedy in less gauzy, sepia-toned light and it will ask questions of the morality of the political culture that glossed over the immorality of the man who left Mary Jo Kopechne for dead on July 19, 1969. - Beta.

The Lockerbie Bomber Release


1. Lockerbie, Mai Lai, and Our Relative Sense of Justice
2. Let Them Throw Stones
3. Stoning Rationality and Subverting Justice

1. Lockerbie, Mai Lai, and Our Relative Sense of Justice

Everywhere in the Western world this week there was shock and outrage at the release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the former Lybian agent convicted for his part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people. Mr. al-Megrahi had only served eight years of a life sentence, and his release was seen by many, from President Obama on down, as justice denied. This was of course exacerbated by the heroes welcome he received upon arrival in Tripoli, and swirling stories that he had been released for oil contracts, not the compassionate grounds claimed by the Scottish government.

When one digs a little deeper, there is of course a great deal of controversy over the legitimacy of the trial and conviction of Mr. al-Begrahi, and a special appeal was pending until he withdrew it shortly before the announcement that he would be repatriated. Little of that is being heard among the outrage this week. But quite aside from all that, how does our outrage match up against our own conduct in dealing with our own agents who perpetrate outrages against civilians in violation of domestic and international law?

In one of life's little ironies, this last week also saw the first public comment by former Lt. William Calley on the Mai Lai massacre since his conviction for murder in a court martial in 1971. Lt. Calley was the junior officer leading a company of infantry that massacred the civilian residents of a Vietnamese village in one of the most notorious atrocities of the Vietnam war. The number of dead civilians is commonly listed as being between 300-500. There was an initial cover-up of the incident, followed by a court martial after another soldier disclosed details of the event to congressmen. The facts would have provided grounds for prosecution for war crimes. Lt. Calley was convicted on 22 counts of murder, and sentenced to life in prison. President Nixon, however, reduced his sentence, and he ended up serving three years of house arrest.

Now, some will say that these are very different cases, one involving a crime committed in the heat of battle, the other a cold-blooded terrorist act. And there is truth to the observation. They are not entirely analogous. But there are countless other examples of Western governments turning a blind eye to atrocities committed by our own agents or those of our allies. The point remains that we gloss over our failure to punish those who commit horrific crimes in our own cause, and become outraged to the point of condemning an entire system or people when those who have committed crimes against us are seemingly forgiven. As I write this, the blogosphere is lighting up with outrage that CIA operatives who tortured suspected terrorists should be investigated, far less tried, for their actions.

This should cause us to question the source of our outrage, and the integrity of our moral compass. It is not really a sense of justice that is the root of anger, but a deeper primordial tribal instinct dressed up in the language of justice. And calling it a matter of justice just makes us all look like hypocrites. - Gamma.

2. Let Them Throw Stones

"Now, some will say that these are very different cases, one involving a crime committed in the heat of battle, the other a cold-blooded terrorist act. And there is truth to the observation. They are not entirely analogous."

In fact, they are not at all analogous. The connection is non-existent. And unfair. The Lockerbie bomber was convicted of being part of a dedicated, tyrant-sanctioned effort to target and kill civilians. Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer, was released on compassionate grounds after a diagnosis of prostate cancer that gave him less than three months to live. This, it turns out, might have been connected to a series of discussions between Libya and the U.K. connected to oil concessions. And then, to really, really piss everyone off, the Libyans greeted al-Megrahi like a conquering hero.

There are all sorts of troubling considerations around this. The issue of al-Megrahi's release is a fitting subject for debate. There are legitimate views on both sides. The actual circumstances of his release and reception Libya are shocking and vile. This is no hero or martyr. People are right to be angry. And what happened forty years ago in My Lai is irrelevant to their legitimate and deeply held sense of outrage.

My Lai was was horrible. But there are many things that make it very different from the Lockerbie bombing. It's discovery was a triumph of the rule of law. The mechanisms of the American democracy kept the event from being hidden away by the military. Brave and persistent members of the American military brought it to the attention of civilian authorities and journalists. It has become part of the American cultural landscape. The prosecutions and investigations were unsatisfying (they alway are) but the incident is well known and was highly publicized. The three helicopter pilots who stopped it have been honored in a ceremony where a military official called it "one of the most shameful chapters in the military's history." What more should we ask of the Americans? They have done better than most countries would have.

But even if none of this had happened, what argument can be made that denies them the moral right to be aggrieved by the release and celebration of a convicted terrorist? This is a bizarre assertion. It takes the logic that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones to an absurd extreme.

It is an old testament view of collective guilt and responsibility that we have seen trotted out countless times before. The Soviets used to point to the treatment of African Americans as evidence of the free market's moral vacuum as they were systematically starving and executing millions of their own. South Africa used to raise Canada's treatment of its first nations peoples in response to criticisms of apartheid. Or we see the same logic inverted with the twisted reasoning that the Germans' targeting of Jews in the holocaust increases the degree of culpability of the Israelis in respect of their treatment of Palestinians.

These notions of collective guilt ( or "a deeper, primordial tribal instinct") are historical myths or dangerous rhetorical devices. They do not reflect the reality of how people experience injustice. The less easy, more nuanced truth is that once can, despite having sinned, denounce sin. A whole religion of some influence is based on this very premise.

This is not the failure of morality but the beginnings of it. And that won't change regardless of what contradictory or troubling details you might pull out of my past. - Beta.

3. Stoning Rationality and Subverting Justice

Well, the spluttering outrage of my friend has him firing in all directions with wild abandon, but unfortunately entirely missing the point. And twisting a few points for good measure.

The point initially made, quite simply, was that there is a disturbing disparity in the "justice" we demand of those who offend against us, and the forgiveness we extend to those who offend in our cause. And that disparity, extreme as it is, suggests our outrage is not fuelled by any real sense of justice, but rather by a desire for retribution, which is exacerbated by tribal animosity.

The comparison of the Lockerbie bombing and the Mai Lai massacre cases was not an attempt to equate the magnitude or inherent evil of the respective crimes, but to illustrate how differently we as a society view a fairly similar treatment of criminals convicted of murdering civilians in the service of their country. The fact that the discovery and ultimate resolution of Mai Lai was a testament to the rule of law and other democratic mechanisms in the United States may be true but is entirely beside the point. The fact that the Lockerbie bombing was a cold-blooded "terrorist" attack is similarly irrelevant - we executed German and Japanese war criminals for conduct less heinous than that of Lt. Calley at Mai Lai. The fact in issue is that in both cases, Lockerbie and Mai Lai, the man convicted of murdering a multitude of civilians, was sentenced to life in prison, but released early, with political motives lurking in the background - and that our collective response to the treatment of each was very different.

As for assertion that this "is an old testament view of collective guilt and responsibility that we have seen trotted out countless times before", followed by historical examples of Soviet and South African shrill claims of Western hypocrisy, it does nothing to undermine my point. Indeed, it helps to make the point. The Soviet criticism of the United States for the plight of black Americans while millions starved in the Soviet Union lacked any moral authority, because the motives for the criticism quite transparently had little to do with the principle upon which the criticism was purportedly based. It is not that the Soviet criticism was in itself without basis, but their radical and obvious failure to themselves abide by the very principles that grounded their criticism, undermined its legitimacy and left them looking like Hypocrites.

Finally, much of my friend's outrage seems to stem from the nefariousness of the Lockerbie Bombing itself, and his confidence that al-Megrahi was responsible. He describes al-Meghahi as having been "convicted as a dedicated, tyrant-sanctioned effort to target and kill civilians." As I have already argued, this is really beside the point. But it is also not firm ground upon which to build one's sand-castle of an argument. There remain very serious questions about the extent to which the conviction of al-Megrahi was obtained through the bribing of key witnesses and the fabrication of evidence by the agents of Western governments. That was the subject of criticism by a UN inquiry, and the basis for the appeal that was pending. It is one of the reasons that Lybians have embraced al-Megrahi, not as a murdering hero, but as a wrongfully convicted man. Thus, in some respects, the Lockerbie Bombing conviction could hav been a subversion of the very rule of law and democratic mechanisms that my friend argues were so admirably illustrated by the Mai Lai massacre conviction.

At the end of the day, however, my point was about our claim that our outrage is fuelled by a sense of justice. It isn't, and saying it is in the face of evidence to the contrary only undermines the authority of our arguments, and diminishes the power of justice itself. - Gamma.

Vice and Modern Culture


1. Vice, Vice Baby
2. Vice, Ethics, and Our Modern Age
3. The Golden Age

1. Vice, Vice Baby

As the season premier of Madmen captures the attention of the last generation to watch television, and the life of three martini lunches, inappropriate workplace sex, and the causal embrace of sheer venality fades from view. I can't help thinking we're missing something as we evolve into the healthiest and, perhaps, most boring generation ever. My grandfather who, in his short retirement, greeted every morning with a Bloody Caesar, would be ashamed at what we did to his legacy.

This all hit close to home as I sat last night with a friend who, although over fifty, looks like he is entering his forties. He has it covered: a personal trainer, an impeccable diet, a happy marriage. All things in moderation and nothing in excess. He told me about his new regime of super slow weights over a healthy amount of organic red wine while adding some artificial sweetener to a compote of free radical rich strawberries. It occurred to me, as I walked home smoking a virtually illegal cigarette, that if he wasn't careful he might live forever.

This used to be the picture of living large. Or this. Or this. Now, even our fallen icons look pretty fabulous. Our politicians used to reflect our weaknesses and frailties and exuberant awkwardness - even the self-righteous morally smug ones - but these days they are brainy and dry or they stride across the land like supermen.

Look. I get it. I understand the desire to be healthy and risk-averse. But aren't we taking it too far? Is a little drink, a little over-eating, a little tobacco and a little loss of control really so bad? Aren't they character building? Don't we learn from our mistakes? Are the extra years of life-expectancy worth the misery of the acai-whey smoothies and turkey bacon that will get us there?
This is going to come out wrong but a bad role model is getting hard to find. If professional athletes (and here and here and here and so on) weren't working so hard to show us the virtues of embracing an unhealthy lifestyle, I would lose hope altogether. - Beta.

2. - Vice, Ethics, And Our Modern Age

So, let me see if I have this right...we have less vice today, and we are boringly pure, because we learned from the mistakes made by past generations who wallowed in vice; but we should bring back some of that vice now, because, well, it is helpful to learn from one's mistakes. Right.

But there is actually a much more serious issue here. Because I actually don't think that we (in North America at any rate) are any more free of "vice" today - vice here meaning conduct that is considered immoral, corrupt, or depraved. Far from it, I think our vice is much more pernicious today than it was back in the '50s or '60s. Oh sure, we have sworn off the boozy lunches, openly shagging the secretary, and engaging in flagrantly racist behavior (though given the escapades of Spitzer, Sanford, Craig, and a host of other politicians deep in sexual scandal, vice related to Venus is still very much apparent). But eating granola and working out doesn't equate to being ethical.

On the contrary, we are quite possibly a much more deeply unethical society now than the era championed in Madmen. And consider that Madmen is this generation's view of that era. Back then, the era saw itself in terms of Leave It To Beaver. Neither is likely very accurate, but consider how we represent our own era. Watch any representation of the best serious TV drama, and what do you see? From House, through Law and Order, West Wing, The Wire, ER, 24, CSI, you name it - the best written, best acted and best produced TV - and what do you see?

You see representations of successful people, usually members of professions such as lawyers, cops, and doctors (or the President for that matter), represented as admirable protagonists, engaging in deeply unethical behavior in order to get ahead, to get the girl, to beat the competition, or on rare occasions to achieve a noble goal. But the lesson is that ruthless utilitarian calculus is not only ok, it is in fact necessary for success. It is the basis of the game. People who adhere to values and principles are naive, they are putzs who will get eaten by the sharks, left on the side of the road like so much road-kill. And that is the message from high-value TV. Turn on reality TV, starting with the original Survivor, or talk-show TV, and you get this message on steroids.

And of course, this doesn't just reflect reality, it helps shape it. The U.S. military felt it necessary to approach the producers of 24 to complain that its depictions of torture was negatively influencing the conduct of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel and the White House were busy perverting the law and subverting the constitution, in violation of their personal professional responsibility and code of ethics, in memos that authorized torture, rendition, and a host of other activities that make Madmen look like Little House on the Prairie.

So, next time you are chatting with some effervescent co-worker over a cup of Sensha tea and edamame, wistfully wishing for the good old days of vice as you observe just how wrapped up he is in saving the planet from global warming, his own health and fitness, and his purported liberal views on diversity, just remember that he is plotting how to take you out at the knees, bang your wife, and get the boss' job - just like he saw on TV. - Gamma.

3. - The Golden Age

Ethical societies - like ethical people - are not perfect. They often transgress. What ethics do is make us understand the consequences of our actions. They pull them out of the past and bubble them up. In the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, Canada) the free press and power of free speech leaves no stone unturned. What you're seeing is not a less ethical world but, frankly, a higher standard than ever before.

Don't fall for the myth of the ethical past. The golden age when the golden rule bound us all. Atticus Finch never existed (and apparently was a racist anyway). For most people caught up in the justice system there was no legal aid, no public defender, limited procedural rights, widespread capital punishment, hard labour, and institutional racism. If none of that got you, there was always the lynch mob. I wouldn't get too worked up about Jack McCoy.

Abu Ghraib was bad. So too was Dick Cheney. And the CIA really shouldn't have been considering outsourcing execution. But it is not new. War crimes, the subversion of the constitution and attempts to kill foreign nationals were practiced with more gusto in the past. They just were never exposed to this extent before. It wasn't that our gin-swilling, ass-pinching, cholesterol-eating, racist, corrupt forebears were better people, rather they could count on being protected by the very institutions that we now rely on to deliver exposure.

As for you? That is an awful lot of television you're watching. Maybe too much. If you got up off of the couch and out into the world, you'll find, once your eyes adjust to the natural light, that things aren't so bad as all that. In fact, although a little boring, they've never been better.

If that's too much to ask, there's always Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Now those were the good old days, eh? - Beta.

Immigration Policy and Double Standards


1. Illegal Immigration, Double Standards, and Blind Spots
2. We Never Let Them In
3. Immigration, Demographics, and Twisted Arguments

1. - Illegal Immigration, Double Standards, and Blind Spots

Last week saw the release of two American journalists from custody in North Korea. The two women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee had been arrested, tried and convicted for illegally crossing into North Korea from China. Even as the media went on a bonanza over their homecoming, and the success of former President Bill Clinton in securing their freedom, more information emerged about three other American citizens who had just been arrested in Iran for crossing the border with Northern Iraq.

When Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling were arrested and then tried, the reaction of the U.S. government, much of the media, and large sections of the public, was outrage. Secretary of State Clinton initially took a hard line, calling the charges against the journalists baseless, and criticizing the procedure for its lack of due process.

Now, it is not that these criticisms of the North Korean legal process were unwarranted. Or that Americans shouldn't be rightly concerned about the three hikers arrested for crossing the Iranian border. It is that they are so utterly blind to the inconsistency of that position with the increasing criminalization of unlawful immigration within the United States.

And, indeed, the increasingly harsh treatment of immigrants found to be in the country without legitimate visa status - arrest, mass prosecution proceedings, denial of due process, and detention in facilities owned and operated by private sub-contractor firms which are driven by profit incentives.

There are increasing reports of abuse, denial of basic health services, unnecessary deaths, and the disappearance of people within the American immigration detention system. And yet increasing numbers of Americans see unlawful immigration as being a criminal offense deserving of punishment.

So when Americans react with horror and outrage at the treatment of its nationals for unlawfully crossing borders in other parts of the world, they might consider their own back yard, and consider the question - why shouldn't they be held to the same standards that they demand of the rest of the world? - Gamma.

2. - We Never Let Them In

I don't know if the analogy holds. North Korea is a thuggish runt of a state, but they deserve the greatest condemnation for the gulag economy and practice of government-as-banditry they use to bludgeon their own people. Holding two American journalists and subjecting them, not to the horrors of a work camp, but to the lesser indignities of bad rice doesn't quite rank. The book deals and made-for-t.v. movies will help ease the pain.

I get the larger point about the vulnerability of immigrants. But to be fair, the U.S. is not even close to the worst offender. Not even among developed social democracies. I offer that distinction to the Australians - remember the Tampa?

There are no rational arguments that can be made against immigration to the developed north from the under-developed south. Principles of economics, of justice, of social responsibility, of national security, and of basic humanity all overwhelmingly argue that, in order to thrive, we should open wide the doors. The costs of settlement and the minor social upheaval are massively outweighed by the value that new blood brings. Immigrants in Canada and the U.S. work hard, impart good values into their children, enrich our cultural lives, and propel us into the future.

There are some justifiable reasons for annual quotas, but there are no principled arguments against immigration in a modern developed social democratic state. None. I defy you to find even one reason that applies to the U.S. or Canada or any Western European country or Australia. No-one intellectually honest person with a thread of a liberal conscience or an attachment to free market ideals or an antipathy toward big government could make one.

All arguments against immigration are, in their essence, racist arguments. Whether the person making it is Dutch, or Canadian or American, they hide behind sophistry and hoary tropes that emphasize the need to ensure that the proper channels are being used or they rely upon insidious arguments about social dislocation and crime and the need for social cohesion. It is, almost invariably, angry white men worried about an influx of people of colour. They are reminiscent of famous comment of the headmaster in Ulysses: "Mr. Deadelus, Ireland never had a Jewish problem for the good reason we never let them in." Then they turn to cheap populism, scare tactics and, finally, brutality and cruelty and abuse of power.

Two hundred years from now, we will be judged by our treatment of "illegals" in much the same way that we look on the morality of our forebears with some skepticism because of their involvement with slavery. It is the same set of moral reference points. The wholesale oppression of one people, or underclass, by another people, or overclass. One set of rights and laws for the powerful and another for the weak. The inequity of people living in resplendent luxury on the backs of the poor and powerless.

All this from societies built by immigrants fleeing oppression or desperation. Two hundred years ago, the first of the new world Irish in my line ran from starvation to the cold, wet winters of the Ottawa Valley. They dug ditches, cut down trees and broke their backs tilling unforgiving soil. They weren't particularly welcome but they stayed and help build a great and diverse nation. As did the successive waves of Chinese, Eastern Europeans, Japanese, Italians, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Somalis, and Tamils. And always because a rational, economically sound, argument about the value of immigration was able to overcome inbred, racist, nativistic shibboleths. It is to be hoped that reason will again start to prevail. - Beta.

3. - Immigration, Demographics, and Twisted Arguments

I tend to agree with the over-arching argument of my friend regarding immigration generally. That is to say, that balance of arguments - be they grounded in morality, economics, sociology, anthropology, evolutionary theory, or a plain common sense of justice and fairness - favour more relaxed immigration policies in the developed world. That, and the assertion that most arguments raised against immigration tend to mask more pernicious racist and xenophobic instincts.

That having been said, however, the piece below tends to both over-reach and unfortunately conflate different lines of argument. This confusion is captured in the following quote from the post: "Principles of economics, of justice, of social responsibility, of national security, and of basic humanity all overwhelmingly argue that, in order to thrive, we should open wide the doors. The costs of settlement and the minor social upheaval are massively outweighed by the value that new blood brings." This suggests that all the arguments, from all these different perspectives, point towards a justification of immigration for reasons of self-interest and gain for the host country. But that is simply wrong. Social responsibility, justice, and morality argue for greater immigration even if there may be some social or economic cost to be borne in the short term. The issue is simply too complicated for arguments from every perspective to point to a single neat conclusion.

Similarly, the assertion that no rational argument can be made against any immigration to the developed north, without qualification, simply goes too far. While my friend acknowledges the validity of some annual quotas, he doesn't seem to accept that rich countries like Canada and Australia, both very large territories with disproportionately small populations (around 34 and 21 million respectively), might have some legitimate basis for wanting to ensure that their cultures are not overwhelmed by millions of immigrants entering the country within a short time frame.

The problem is this. Most of the arguments that are raised against immigration (including in such countries as Canada and Australia) are not merely concerned with minimizing the dislocation caused by a disproportionate influx of immigrants from very different cultures. They are mostly xenophobic and, to varying degrees, racist. That in turn radicalizes the arguments on all sides, polarizing positions, with a corresponding loss of appreciation for the complexity and nuance, the trade-offs and balances of pros and cons, that necessarily characterize such issues.

As a classic example of this, consider the YouTube doomsday video on the impending peril of the West being swamped by Islamic culture, caused by a combination of unsustainable fertility rates and uncontrolled immigration policies.

The BBC has published a detailed refutation of most of the fallacious and patently false claims in the video, yet the video will of course reach far more people than the BBC article. And it will be believed. Like Lou Dobbs hammering incessantly on the evils of illegal immigration night after night, these media rants work their way into the cultural fabric, and create a climate for collective responses that can only be called evil. But careful rigorous argument, including respect for nuance and complexity, have to remain a weapon against such evil. - Gamma.

Thoughts On McNamara


1. Heroes, Villains and the Rest of Us
2. The Lessons of McNamara
3. The Essence of Choice

1. - Heroes, Villains and the Rest of Us

Last week, I wrote about Obama's annoying habit of inserting himself into other people's problems. I will balance that this week and praise him for his ability to admit his errors, correct himself and move on in the right direction. It is a nuanced approach.

But nuance is risky in public life. We want our heroes, and our villains, to be drawn in clear and stark lines. Grey shading - especially moral sharing - is not wanted. The recent death of Robert McNamara brought this into focus.

McNamara went through a moral journey in relation to his role in the Vietnam War that is unprecedented in modern political life. Over time he turned his unforgiving rationality on himself and what he was doing. He came to believe the war was not simply unwinnable but also that it was wrong. He went from being LBJ's golden boy (he had even been approached to be his running mate) to an exile from mainstream American politics and government.

He spent the remaining years of his life exploring the morality of the war and his role in it. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he never retreated into the impunity of power and influence or into simplistic rubrics of good and evil. It was the exemplar of an examined life. This took him out of the black and white and into the grey. Deep into the grey. His death was marked with ambivalence , pointed criticism or outright hostility. That is the price of nuance. - Beta.

2. The Lessons of McNamara

As suggested by my friend's discussion, the passing of Robert Strange McNamara has evoked a very mixed and in some cases very polarized response. He was both a fascinating figure, and one who had a huge impact on history. But as we consider his passing, what lessons are we to draw from his life?

My friend has focused on the nuance reflected in McNamara's public repudiation of his earlier policies, and his moral reflection in later years. Certainly this aspect of McNamara's later life, so poignantly captured in the film "The Fog of War"(see trailer below), led to his being reviled by those on the right who thought that the Vietnam War could have been won, while doing little to appease those on the left who already despised him for his policies in prosecuting the war to begin with.

But in contrast to that nuance, was McMamara's own dedication to quantitative analysis. He is often described as the supreme rationalist, but more specifically he was a systems and organizational analyst, who was supremely confident in the ability to solve complex problems through quantitative analysis. He applied this approach in turning Ford around, addressing the so-called missile gap with the Soviets, developing new limited counter-force nuclear strategies, and then most famously in his approach to the Vietnam War, and finally, to the problems of poverty and underdevelopment as head of the Wold Bank.

It was this devotion to quantitative analysis, which rests on the premise that everything of importance in a problem can be measured, and measured in a way that will lead to inferences that can materially assist in resolving the problem, that often steered him wrong. While these approaches often worked brilliantly in some contexts, like the auto industry, they could be misguided in other circumstances, such as the Vietnam war. Even in his efforts to address the problems of the third world, he developed programs at the World Bank that had pernicious unintended consequences.

In the end, his approach seemed to give validity to the old aphorism that when we cannot measure what is important, we place importance on what can be measured. Yet as my friend has suggested, McNamara was both wise and moral enough to ponder the error of his ways, at first to try to correct the errors, and later to understand the nature of his mistakes. In one famous conversation caught for posterity on White House tapes, not long before he was fired for his increasing doubts about the war, he is heard exhorting Lyndon Johnson to limit the war in Vietnam: “I don’t think we ought to just look ahead to the future and say we’re going to go higher and higher and higher and higher — 600,000; 700,000; whatever it takes.”

"Whatever it takes". Where have we heard that recently? In the end, McNamara came to the conclusion that the war in Vietnam had been deeply immoral, but he also came to understand some of the reasons for the U.S. failure in the war - "a failure to understand the enemy, a failure to see the limits of high-tech weapons, a failure to tell the truth to the American people, and a failure to grasp the nature of the threat of communism" (NY Times). Not things amenable to measurement. But can we imagine Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, the architects of another war, under the banner of "whatever it takes", coming to such conclusions, far less sharing them with the world as McNamara did? For all his faults, the nuance of his later understanding, guilt, and confession demonstrated a degree of integrity and courage. - Gamma.

3. The Essence of Choice

"In the end, his approach seemed to give validity to the old aphorism that when we cannot measure what is important, we place importance on what can be measured"

I wonder if this does not get at the essence of the ambivalence. The essence of any strategic choice is simply deciding that you are going to do one thing as opposed to another thing (or other things). In this way choosing to do something is also choosing not to do something else. Relying on data to drive that choice is smart. Thinking that the data alone will ensure you make the right choice is reckless, or at least willfully blind.

So what does one rely on to fill the gap? The problem for those who want to rely on objective and observable phenomenon is that these gaps are best filled by subjective guesswork informed by instinct, gut feeling, spidey-sense, ethics and morality. Aren't those the best choices after all? The ones that require a leap of faith in one's own ability to make good choices when faced with inevitable gaps in the data. We can, as Malcolm Gladwell has tried (and failed, I think) in Blink, to characterise this as rapidfire cognitive process, or, as Roger Martin has, a little more successfully, described in the Opposable Mind, consider it a form of multi-dimensional and non-linear problem-solving, but however we (thin) slice it, there is a difference between the way we make a good choice and the way we make a bad choice.

So, maybe that is what I am missing in the ambivalence and the hostility. It might not be a reaction to nuance at all, but, rather, to the simple fact that Robert Strange McNamara failed to inject any morality into his choices during the conduct of the war. And in that respect, how is he any different from Rumsfeld and Cheney? And what use are a few tears after the fact? - Beta.


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