Tuesday, January 2, 2018

New Year Thoughts About Israel

I ran across this article today and was reminded of the slow boil that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Israel changes law to make it harder to cede Jerusalem control
Between this and the Trump Administration's decision to recognize a united Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, things have been moving fast - and not in a good way.

These things together represent unilateral moves by Israel to resolve aspects of the conflict in Israel's favor. They represent a turning away from negotiation as a means to find mutually-agreed upon solutions, preferring unilateral solutions over the other side's objections instead.

Amazingly enough, this is exactly what I wrote my dissertation about twenty years ago. Then as now, I was interested in conflict dynamics: if side A does X, what choices does side B have, and what kinds of outcomes become more or less likely? One of the core organizing principles, which I still believe in today: in conflict, all actions are working either towards a Unilateral solution (imposing your will on the other side) or a Multilateral solution (finding an agreement that both sides accept). Sometimes parties try to do both, but that usually doesn't work well.

The thing about Unilateral strategies is that they are both one-sided (by definition) and path-determinative. If side A chooses to pursue the Unilateral route, side B loses the option of pursuing Multilateral options instead. Side B's options are reduced - either surrender entirely, or go Unilateral themselves.

Regarding Jerusalem and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestinians now face exactly this choice. Do they become despondent and simply give up, allowing Israel to take over all of the 1948 Mandate territory and becoming second-class citizens in someone else's country? Or do they fight back, pushing what has been a fairly quiescent conflict back into violence?

I don't know the answer here - I can't make a prediction, because I don't have data about how Palestinians see the situation and what their calculations are. But these are the only two outcomes possible - either surrender into de facto apartheid, or go back to violence. Neither is good from the Palestinian perspective, but they don't control the choices they're given.

I'm mindful too that there may be factions in Israel (including, possibly, the ruling Likud party) which see both of these as good outcomes. They will gladly take the territory if Palestinians are willing to surrender it, and they will gladly seize the opportunity to crush Palestinian resistance if provoked.

For those wishing for peace on earth in 2018, this doesn't look like a good start. Either way, Palestinians suffer. Israelis may suffer as well - how much depends on choices yet to be made. Not a great start to the year.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Trump is Not the Problem

I know a lot of my friends will disagree, but I believe that President Trump is not the fundamental problem we face today.

Trump is a symptom of the problem, a product rather than a cause.

The problem is us.

I know that we're fond of, and prone to, sweeping judgments about the state of our politics. Everyone has a take on what the "real" problem is, and on the whole I tend not to put much stock in such arguments. But there are, I believe, fundamental issues that drive all of the others. And on one of these issues, I think we are very, very wrong.

I was reminded recently of a book I read back in college, E.E. Schattschneider's The Semisovereign People. At the core of Schattschneider's argument was this observation: that what happens in politics isn't determined by the power of the opposing sides, or by what they choose to do. It's determined by what the conflict is about in the first place.

What we see on a day to day basis is a parade of different issues - health care, tax reform, immigration policy, Russian meddling in American elections, protests during football games, etc., etc. Although these are all very different issues, with different details and differential impacts on different parts of the American people, they all have a sameness. They feel like they are all the same argument.

We subject ourselves to this kind of Groundhog Day politics because the community of "America" is largely gone. Far too many of us no longer care about America - which means, we no longer care about our fellow Americans. We care only about a subset of them - those who look like us, talk like us, support the parties or candidates or symbols that we do.

When you only care about Your People, you will do anything it takes to win and to make sure the other side loses. It's OK to pressure, to strong-arm, to lie, to cheat, to steal, to kill. People inspired by ISIS kill pedestrians in NY. People inspired to Richard Spencer kill pedestrians in Charlottesville.

Years ago in writing my dissertation I stumbled on an insight: in any conflict, if one sides resorts to zero-sum thinking it will quickly drag the other side into the same morass. A Prisoner's Dilemma world moves from TFT-style mutual cooperation to mutual defection and conflict very quickly. It's not enough for some to want to be cooperative - both sides (all sides) have to agree, or the whole is dragged down to the lowest common denominator.

That's where we find ourselves today - the lowest common denominator of American politics. Richard Spencer and Milos Yiannopoulos wage a battle to "win" for their side, whatever the heck winning is, by cheating and abusing and pushing buttons and generally behaving in all sorts of barbarous ways our parents taught us not to.

The Trump Administration does the same, attacking anyone and everyone it disagrees with, disrespecting every institution and every rule it finds inconvenient, and generally acting like a bunch of barbarians.

The reason why the story about the agreement between the Clinton campaign and the DNC in 2015 has legs is that it fits this same narrative: do anything you have to in order to win. Republicans decry it as "crooked Hillary", but show me a Republican today who doesn't have that very same stain on their actions.

We are all becoming barbarians.

My research and writing over the years has helped me understand all of this, to see behind the surface to the next level of dynamics. But as author Noah benShea once put it, Reason explains the darkness - but it is not a light.

I don't know where the light is. There were times in the past when natural disasters and tragedies have brought us together as a people, at least for a little while. I remember the Mississippi floods of the 1990s, where for a time it seemed like Americans just came together as Americans and forgot our divisions. After Oklahoma City we saw how toxic a political cultural could become, and for a little while we turned our back on hatred and came together in honor of murdered children. I remember a time, too short a time, after 9/11 when we did the same. Even after Hurricane Katrina, though the Bush Administration took some abuse for its sluggish response, we all agreed that it was a tragedy and did what we could to help.

In the past two months we (the United States, we Americans) have been hit three times by major hurricanes. Where is the unity, the sense of shared purpose, the empathy? Still we squabble and argue and spit. Houston and Florida have been forgotten in the national conversation, while Puerto Rico is a sordid battlefield of childish insults and corrupt bargains.

I wrote a year ago, just before the Presidential election, that America is Dying. One year later, it has only gotten worse, and the trajectory has not changed. President Trump isn't helping, but neither is he the driver. We are destroying ourselves.

This will end when, and only when, we start to value our fellow Americans - all of them - more than we value our own selfish and tribal desires and wants. When we stop seeing every fight as an existential conflict which we must win or die. When we become willing to listen, and to bend, and to compromise because the relationships we have with one another are more important than the issues of the day. When winning matters less than people - than us.

To put it in theological terms: it will end when we learn to love each other again.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Iran Nuclear Agreement: Few Good Options

With President Trump apparently about to "de-certify" Iran's compliance with the agreement on its nuclear program, there will be a great deal of discussion about the details - what does de-certification mean, what does Congress have to do, what sanctions can be reimposed, what does this mean for US alliances, etc.

I want to step back from all of that and look at this from a broadly simple negotiation perspective. For all of his vaunted experience as a "dealmaker", it's not at all clear that the President understands negotiation at all, at least not in the international realm.

At issue is Iran's desire to develop, and possibly deploy, nuclear weapons. The incentives Iran has to do so are strong, perhaps overwhelmingly so:

1) The United States, the single most powerful military on the planet, has repeatedly declared the Iranian government to be an enemy.

2) The 2003 Iraq war demonstrated that the United States is quite capable of waging preemptive war, without reasonable pretext, against states it perceives as enemies. Iraq did not possess any significant WMD capability at the time, and the US knew this.

3) The ongoing crisis with North Korea shows a different outcome. North Korea, like Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is more or less permanently on the US' list of enemies. But North Korea does possess nuclear weapons, and is rapidly developing the ability to deliver them widely. It also possesses a significant conventional deterrent against something the US cares about (South Korea).

4) Israel, Iran's most implacable foe, possesses nuclear weapons and has no significant powers in the region to deter it.

From Iran's point of view, the desire to possess a nuclear deterrent simply to insure the regime's survival is entirely understandable. It is also the case that regime survival tends to be at the top of every country's list of priorities - meaning there is nothing else as important as that goal.

In light of this, if the US goal is to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability what are the available options?

1) Preemptive war, a la Iraq 2003. This option is so costly as to border on the insane. Beyond Iran's ability to close the Strait of Hormuz (thereby shutting off 20% of the world's oil supply), the ability of the United States to successfully invade and overthrow the regime in Tehran is debatable. Iran is large, with a large and nationalistic population, and its geography is varied. It is not Iraq, which is flat, internally divided, and by 2003 had been weakened by 12 years of crippling and universal international sanctions. Oh, and Iran can inflict casualties in Israel and can engage in MUCH worse behavior with regard to terrorism than it currently does.

2) Sanctions. As Trump has pointed out in the case of North Korea, these don't work very well. Sanctions can serve to constrain a regime's resources, but you can't keep the regime from allocating the resources it does have. Iran's economy, even under sanctions, is vastly more robust than North Korea's (there is always a market for oil). There is no combination of economic or diplomatic sanctions which the United States can administer, especially unilaterally, which outweigh the strategic value of a nuclear deterrent to Iran. Hopes that sanctions will cause pain to the people, who might then pressure the regime to change its path, are likewise fantasies. The nuclear program enjoys widespread support among the Iranian population - they have reasons to dislike their government but this isn't one of them.

3) Diplomacy. The only remaining path is to reach an agreement with Iran whereby it agrees to voluntarily forego nuclear development, presumably with significant safeguards and verification of its behavior. In order for any such agreement to be viable, the Iranian regime must believe that the benefits of such an agreement outweigh the benefits of pursuing nuclear weapons. Trump keeps railing about how we "gave up too much" in the existing deal, but I don't know why he thinks we could have given them less and still had them agree to it. Perhaps he doesn't understand the concept of sovereignty, or the limits of the US ability to inflict punishment on the Iranian regime.

Those who are eager to scrap the existing deal either don't understand any of this, in which case they are likely to be very disappointed in the outcome of that action, or they are seeking something else entirely. There has been concern in the past that there are those within the US foreign policy establishment who would welcome a pretext to wage war with Iran, and who might therefore be interested in re-creating the 2003 formula. I can't say for sure what Trump thinks (if, indeed, he thinks anything at all). All I am sure of is that one of these two things must be true.

Talk about "denying Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon" are ludicrous. If North Korea can develop one, Iran certainly can. They have nuclear technology, generations of nuclear scientists and engineers, and the ability to obtain and refine fissile material - all without the help of Russia, which is likely to want to help, at least under the table. Claiming something does not make it so - something this administration seems disinclined to understand.

None of this bodes well for the region or the world. If the Trump Administration follows through on this course of action, we will likely end up with yet another nuclear standoff. Iran may well renounce the NPT altogether, as North Korea did some years ago. We may move closer to the re-creation of an Eastern Bloc, this one based not on Communist ideology but on a desire by a set of authoritarian regimes (Russia, Iran, China?) to band together to balance against the US. The world will not be more peaceful, and nobody will be safer or more secure. But this and future administrations will have yet another nuclear-armed bogeyman to use as a useful foil in domestic politics.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Lost Art of Listening

You know you are living in strange times when news anchors have to give warnings about offensive language before playing clips of the President of the United States giving a speech, and when the most important issue on the national stage seems to be whether professional athletes should stand during the national anthem.

By all measures and to all indications, the United States appears more polarized and factionalized today than at any point since the 1960s and early 1970s. Our national leadership - including but not limited to the aforementioned President - seems determined to add fuel to the fire rather than finding ways to put it out. The media (social, mainstream, and otherwise) have become amplifiers that increase the volume. Everywhere people are concerned, confused, frightened, angry.

There are, as always, no simple solutions. But there is a simple diagnosis: we have forgotten how to listen to each other.

I don't mean that we've become actually deaf. But there is a vast difference between hearing the words coming from someone else's mouth, and listening. Generally, we hear others' words either as confirmation of our own views or as fodder for snarky memes and late-night talk shows that make us feel better about ourselves and superior to Those Idiots Over There.

Listening assumes basic human empathy. To listen to someone, I must first believe that they are of value, that they deserve "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" just as much as I do, that they matter. This is no small thing, because it requires us to recognize that someone else's humanity is every bit as valuable as my own. It forces us to love others as we love ourselves. We long ago sanitized Jesus' command (love your neighbor as yourself) by referring to it simplistically as "the Golden Rule", and in so doing forgot how genuinely hard this is.

We begin our lives as intensively selfish creatures. It takes time before we become aware of the existence of other humans, still more time before we come to recognize them as humans instead of moving objects in our environment. And though empathy often develops quite young, so does selfishness - the desire to Look Out for Number 1, to put ourself ahead of others.

We resolve this tension in part by forming groups, which helps us to exercise empathy and altruism towards some other people while still discriminating against and rejecting others. Tribes are, in a sense, a more complex form of selfishness. Evolutionary philosophers like Jonathan Haidt have suggested that this is as far as we can go - that selfishness is simply built into who and what we are, so we always have to have an out-group.

And yet we strive to be better. The highest ideals of nearly every society, and certainly every major religion, include some version of what we so glibly call the Golden Rule. We are reminded to show hospitality to the stranger, to care for the weak and helpless, to put the needs of others ahead of our own. The stories that unite us, the ones we all cheer for despite party or race or nationality, are the stories of heroic self-sacrifice: the firefighters rescuing people from the burning building, the fishermen who drove down to Houston with their boats to rescue people from the flooding, the neighborhoods coming together to help each other recover from the hurricane or tornado. As divided and polarized as we are, these are the stories that we all agree represent the best of us. Greater love hath no man indeed.

The lost art of listening is really just empathy put into its simplest action. If I can listen to you, not with the intent to rebut or ridicule or mock or disagree, but simply to try to understand your point of view, then I am practicing empathy. I recognize you as a fellow human being, made in God's image as I am.

Most of our current troubles derive from a lack of listening. Very few in government listen to those outside their party or their support circle. The President spends much of his time actively discouraging the practice, calling people names and denigrating those who disagree with him. We used to argue that the President is a role model for the nation. I think that's true, and our current one is modeling the problem, not the solution. Leaders in Congress and the most common voices we see in the media are little better.

We also don't listen much to each other. I've written before about "bubbles" and the problem of fear. We don't listen to each other because we're afraid of each other - afraid of being demeaned, dismissed, or even attacked (verbally or physically). Like all abilities, the less we listen, the less good we get at it. In an atmosphere where no one is listening, many people will grow up never learning the skill at all.

There are others out there making this same point, though they are often faint voices (because conflict is louder by nature, and because those who run society's megaphones make more money from noise than from quiet conversation). A conservative friend of mine sent me this one from the Weekly Standard. The author makes a lot of excellent points and hits on exactly the same problem, although parts of his article are couched in the same kind of partisan snark that makes listening so difficult. Those habits die hard, but die they must.

I've watched the bizarre conflict over the NFL mostly with sadness. Those yelling at the players, including our President (who seemed to think it important to call them profanities and demand they be fired), aren't interested in listening to what those players have to say. They don't want to hear the concerns of African American men who are trying to speak up for their brothers and sisters who can't speak up for themselves.

Likewise, those who support those protests don't always stop to listen to what the booing fans in the stands are saying. In a polarized time, symbols of identity become critically important. For some, those include the flag and the national anthem, symbols that have a nearly sacred meaning to some (even as they have a different meaning, or no meaning, to others).

To listen to others is not necessarily to agree with any of them. I can understand that for some of my fellow Americans, the flag means more to them perhaps than means to me. That's OK. I don't ask that they adopt my meaning. I can also understand that some of my fellow Americans have an experience of discrimination that I don't have, and that because of that difference they feel differently about some institutions than I do. I don't ask that they adopt my feelings either.

I don't know what the "solution" to these issues is. Race relations, protests, free speech on university campuses, immigration - there's a long list of things about which we are seriously polarized. I don't know what the solution to any of them should be. What I do know is that there is only one way to get to a solution: listening. The longer we put off really listening to each other, the more pain there will be. The sooner we start listening, the better our chances of finding solutions.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Divider in Chief?

In every administration, there is talk about the need for the President to be the Uniter-in-Chief, to try to rise above the country's divisions and lead as if E Pluribus Unum were really true. Almost every President tries to fulfill this role, though none ever succeeds completely. The power of the Presidency comes tied to this tremendous responsibility. It is a simultaneously necessary and impossible task.

I say "almost every President", because the current occupant appears to have abandoned this role altogether. However one goes about uniting a divided and fractious country, nobody thinks that the best way to do it is for the President to pick a hot-button issue and then forcefully take one side, hurling vulgar insults at the other.

Apparently, the President thinks there are "good people" on both sides of the Charlottesville rallies, but not around the issue of the national anthem at football games?

If the Trump Administration has any beneficial impact on the United States, it will be to teach us - by force of necessity - how to rise to be our better selves despite what the President says or does. If this lasts a full four years, we may discover by 2020 that we don't really need the President anymore. We're on our own.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Wheaton and the Challenge of Modelling Christian Community in Higher Education

This story crosses two of my interests - higher education and Christianity:
Wheaton Gives Community Service to Players Facing Felony Charges
Wheaton is an avowedly Christian school. It advertises this widely, makes its identity clear on all of its communications from its website to the signs on its campus, and presumably recruits students for whom living in a Christian community is a part of what they want in a college. The college also has a code of student conduct rooted in Christian theology and ethics.

The behavior described in this article is thus doubly disturbing. This would be unacceptable on any campus, and at a state school would likely lead to suspensions from the football team if not expulsion from the university as a whole. Due process must be followed, of course, and it would be appropriate for any college or university to follow that process before deciding on consequences for the perpetrators.

It appears that Wheaton has already followed whatever on-campus process they are going to follow, and has chosen to mete out what looks on the surface to be a fairly minimal punishment: the students in question have been assigned to write an essay, and to some hours of community service. This seems pretty minor even in a secular context.

There are obviously a lot of details missing here, but the optics are terrible for an institution that claims to be an intentional Christian community. This kind of assault, in that context, is a fundamental violation of trust and a gross offense against any reasonable sense of Christian ethics. Because of the nature of the community, it is an offense not only against the assaulted individual but against the entire community. And it sends a signal to the rest of the world: those "Christians" over there aren't any different from anybody else. Their faith doesn't mean anything.

If you were particularly inclined to be uncharitable, you could conclude that they have revealed their true religion: football. In that sense, they're not very different from the rest of the world.

Here's another unfortunate comparison: some avowedly Christian colleges (not Wheaton, but schools with a similar identity) have been known to expel students for having (consensual) sex outside of marriage, or for declaring a different sexual identity. Those things are unacceptable, but kidnapping and assault is OK?

What would a Christian response look like? It's not so much about the punishment - if anything, a Christian response should leave far more room for forgiveness than the world usually wants. But it is about repentance, examination, and transformation. And since the offense was against the community, some parts of that should be visible to the whole community.

Administrators at Wheaton will undoubtedly cite FERPA and a range of other laws and regulations protecting privacy and due process. Those regulations are good things, but they are not the only thing.  What the college chooses to do in terms of its community process is up to it. At minimum, student offenders can be offered a choice: based on a finding of facts, participate in a process of repentance and reconciliation - one that is visible - or leave.

Sometimes, Christian communities come together and behave in ways that really do show the world that faith matters. Several years ago after a tragic shooting in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, the community came together and publicly forgave the perpetrator and his family. The process of that conversation was difficult but also moving. They did it in public, not because they cared about the publicity or what anyone else thinks of them (the Amish are famous for being indifferent to what we English think), but because it was the right thing to do.

I think Wheaton missed a real opportunity here to live out its faith in public. Perhaps they will reconsider, as I suspect they're going to be facing negative publicity for a while.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Denouncing Nazis is easy. Living together is hard.

Facebook reminded me that a year ago I posted a piece titled There Are No Enemies.

It's not the most popular piece I've ever published, not by a long shot. It did pretty well - a little over 200 hits - but nothing special.

Re-reading it today, I think it may be one of the most important and difficult things I've ever written. And it helped me codify something that's been bugging me ever since the violence in Charleston and the political fallout that ensued.

In the aftermath of the Charleston violence, nearly everybody took to the airwaves and social media to condemn the assortment of white supremacists, Nazis, and KKK types who instigated the violence. This was easy to do: their brandishing of hateful symbols, their chants against Jews, blacks, and others outside their tribe, their obvious anger and aggression - all these put them squarely against core American values.

President Trump, of course, took tremendous political flak for his response. He tried to lay blame for the violence on "many sides" and seemed to go out of his way to serve as an apologist for the white supremacy movement. They themselves clearly saw it that way, judging by their reactions, especially after his Tuesday press conference. For this, Trump was roundly criticized by pretty much everyone across the political spectrum. The few people in his own White House who didn't distance themselves from this view now no longer work there.

That's all a pretty pat and easy story: Nazis and white supremacists are bad, we're the good guys, etc. Trump aside, almost everyone else will jump on this bandwagon.

But then I come back to my piece from last year: there are no enemies. And I also recall a lesson learned from decades of studying conflicts: conflict only ends when the different sides learn to live with each other.

Yes, white supremacy is morally wrong, and yes, Nazism is a horrible set of ideas. But because we say these things, however forcefully we may say them and however many of us "stand up" to do so, we are stuck with two unavoidable realities:

1) Some people will continue to hold to these ideas, despite (or even because of) our efforts to shout them down.

2) Those people are still our fellow Americans. And, if you hold to the Gospel of Christ, they are still Children of God.

We sort of know these things, deep down, though we don't know what to do with them. These are the reason why so many supporters of Hillary Clinton cringed when she made her famous "basket of deplorables" gaffe. She said in public what we wanted emotionally to say but know is morally wrong: that there are groups of people who are bad people.

In the language of revivalist Christianity, we failed to separate the sin from the sinner.

The problem with that logic, of course, is the conclusion to which it leads. If there are people who are irreducibly bad, then they must be either eliminated from society, driven out, or contained. It is, in fact, exactly the same logic that white supremacists operate under. They're just more open about it.

Lots of political movements - from the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge to the Interahamwe to the founders of Republika Srpska - have taken this idea that those people need to be gotten rid of and tried to put it into action. Every single of one of them failed. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, "purifying" the nation - it never works. It creates a lot of pain and a lot of dead bodies, but in the end you still end up living in a diverse society, and you tend to end up poor and miserable to boot.

That's an easy argument to make when confronting Nazis. But we need to think beyond confrontation, because confrontation itself isn't going to resolve anything.

We thought we had gotten rid of Creationism, until we discovered in the 1990s that it never went away. Most of us read Inherit the Wind in high school and saw it as an historical tale about the last gasp of Young Earth Creationism. Creationists read it and saw it as inspiration. We didn't notice until they started to take over school boards again.

White supremacy isn't going to go away simply because we shout at it, and it isn't going to go away because it's wrong. People are quite capable of holding morally abhorrent beliefs for generations, as our own history with black slavery shows. That some of those beliefs are still in circulation should surprise no one.

So while I applaud people who stand up against Nazis, who show up in Boston to demonstrate that there are far more of us who believe in diversity than there are in them who don't, that's just a band-aid. If the rest of us are vociferous enough, or if we elect a President less inclined to say supportive things about white supremacy the next time around, they may go back into the shadows. But they'll still be there, living among us as fellow citizens.

If we really want to move beyond endless demonstrations - if we really want to seek peace - demonstrations and taking down statues won't get us there. At some point, we're going to have to talk to the people we think of as our enemies. That can't happen in large groups, it certainly can't happen while people are carrying torches and clubs and shields, and it probably can't happen in public with TV cameras rolling. But in the end, it's the only way.

Years ago in graduate school, I wanted to start an article with what I thought was a clever observation: "everyone wants peace, they just want it on their own terms." My advisor stopped me and argued that I should get rid of that sentence. Not everyone wants peace, he pointed out. And he was right.

It's easy to look at those who march with Nazi flags and say, they don't want peace. But do we? We are comfortable in our knowledge that we're right and they're wrong and there are more of us anyway - just as they are comfortable in their understanding that they are right and we are wrong, even though there are fewer of them. Moral righteousness is addictive.

None of this means that we have to "meet them halfway" or adjust our beliefs in a racist direction. That's a red herring. But it does mean that we have to take the time to listen to our fellow human beings, and hope that they in turn will listen to us.

I don't know how to go about that, because all sides prefer the conflict we have to an uncertain peace in the future. But I know that, for myself, we are missing a piece of the moral puzzle: the piece that recognizes the common humanity of our "enemies" and seeks the seemingly impossible task of reconciliation. We have to live with "those people", like it or not. We might as well try to live together well.