The Power behind the Anger

Imagine for a moment, if Christine Blasey-Ford had expressed the sort of anger Brett Kavanaugh did yesterday.

What would the reaction have been?

Would she have been believed?

Would her testimony have been more convincing for conservatives?

Would she have destroyed her own credibility?

While watching Kavanaugh’s response to Blasey-Ford’s testimony, something struck me in a way it never had before. This was something I had known intellectually for some time, but I experienced in a powerful way while watching bits of the hearings.

Expressed anger comes from a position of power.

This doesn’t mean that anger can only be felt by the powerful, but rather, you have to have a certain amount of power to express your anger.

Being permitted to express anger is a sign of power.

Anger implies judgment. Anger says the current situation is not what it ought to be, in your judgment.

To have anger you have to think your opinion matters. You have to think you have the right to judge.

Brett Kavanaugh, with his righteous anger, felt fully comfortable judging. Brett Kavanaugh, as a white man with an Ivy League education, felt that he had a right to anger, and the world watching him felt he had a right to anger. Even critics of Judge Kavanaugh interpreted the source of his anger (the anger of fake denial or the anger of privileged indignation), but did not question his right to be angry.

Kristine Blasey-Ford, as a woman, could not express anger. She had to take a conciliatory, calm, anything-but-angry position in order to be heard. In order for her testimony to have any chance of being believed, she had to stifle all anger. She had to appear eager to please. She had to appear unassertive.

This is what we expect and require of a woman.

But at bottom, when we say white men can get angry, but women and non-white men cannot, what we are saying is that white men are authorized to judge things, people, events, and society, and women and non-white men are not.

Christine Blasey-Ford’s demeanor was necessary for the effectiveness of her testimony in our culture, but its lack of anger made her an assistant to white male judgment of the facts, not the judge of the facts herself. She could present the facts, but she was not allowed display any anger about those facts, otherwise she was judging, which was unacceptable.

That’s why, I think, it was so powerful when Sen. Leahy asked her what she remembered most vividly, and she said the laughter. They were judging her then, holding her in contempt, but now she, in that one moment, was judging the event herself.

Power works in funny ways.

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Colin Kaepernick, Schoolhouse Rock, and Howard Zinn

This past August, during the NFL preseason, a controversy erupted when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down on the bench for the national anthem before several preseason games. When asked why, he said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He later added, “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”[1] In short, Kaepernick was making a protest on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement, explicitly linking loyalty to the United States government (and the flag which is its symbol) to the treatment of African-Americans in this country, in particular, the treatment of African-Americans at the hands of the police.

Kaepernick later modified his protest to kneeling (instead of sitting) for the anthem, to show that he was not disrespecting veterans or others who had fought for America. In the time since, other players on the 49ers and other teams have joined Kaepernick in protesting during the national anthem, culminating on the first Monday Night Football broadcast, in three Philadelphia Eagles players raising their fists in a black power salute during the national anthem.[2] Since then, it has become common for players on many teams to do this, though the networks have generally stopped showing the national anthem on T.V. to avoid having to acknowledge it.

Unsurprisingly, these protests have caused a certain amount of furor. Kaepernick has been excoriated on various news media, and has received death threats. He responded by saying, “There’s a lot of racism disguised as patriotism in this country. And people don’t like to address that. And they don’t like to address what the root of this protest is.”[3]

It is here that I think Kaepernick has put his finger on an important aspect of this controversy, which is the link between patriotism and racism in U.S. history. There is actually a certain brilliance to Kaepernick’s choice of bringing the national anthem into his protest, for he made the link between patriotism and racism obvious. He connected the Black Lives Matter movement to the long history of the United States.

Any historian worth her salt could tell you that history is not simply the recitation of “the facts” of what happened. The facts do not make sense of their own accord: someone must arrange the facts into a narrative to make sense of them.

Every group of people has stories that it tells to define itself, where it came from, and what its character is. These narratives highlight the positive qualities that the group wants to see as the center of its identity, and often obscure or minimize the aspects of the narrative that don’t fit the group’s self-image. In short, each group chooses its facts carefully.

American history is no different. There are several widespread narratives of American history, broad ways to tell the story of the United States, but I would like to highlight two.

Narrative number one might be called “the great men and liberty” narrative, or maybe just the Schoolhouse Rock narrative. In this narrative, a few brave Englishmen came to a more or less empty continent and carved out a civilization from the wilderness. The founding fathers, courageous and brilliant men, not only wrested American independence from Great Britain, but also established America as a beacon of liberty to the world. The shots fired in the American Revolution were “heard round the world” announcing a new ideal of liberty to a globe still enshrouded in tyranny and oppression.[4] Americans then created a perfect government system and expanded throughout the continent, fulfilling their manifest destiny.[5] To this day, America’s wealth, prestige, military power, and global influence are built on the perfect foundation of liberty laid down by the founding fathers. In this narrative, America is white, Christian, European, and perfect. For those who embrace this narrative, Colin Kaepernick’s gesture is a slap in the face to those founding fathers and to all the men who sweated blood and died in the old west and foreign lands to establish and protect this perfect American liberty.

America looks very different in narrative number two, which I will call the “struggle for equality” or maybe the Howard Zinn narrative.[6] In this narrative, an imperfect America was founded by a group of white men, who used the ideals of equality, liberty and justice for all as a decorative cover for a system of oppression that suited their needs. This America was founded by taking the land of Native Americans, alternately trying to massacre them or allowing Old World diseases to do the dirty work, pushing them farther west, or onto small reservations carved out of the worst, least valuable land so the rest of the continent could enrich white men. The founding of the American government reflected the true position of white men and the rest of society, for although the U.S. Constitution spoke of equality, the system it outlined excluded many from power. Women and poor white men were denied the vote. Africans were enslaved and brought against their will to this continent, and they and their descendants were denied all human rights. Because of these beginnings rooted in inequality and oppression, over the course of the two hundred and forty years since the American Declaration of Independence, the narrative of American history has been one of enormous struggle to realize the ideal of equality, and to dismantle, bit by bit, the structures of oppression and hierarchy that America was built around. Women wrested the vote from resistant elites. African Americans and Northern whites fought for the end of slavery in a horrifically bloody conflict. Workers forged labor unions to fight for their rights against tremendous opposition from industrialists. Waves of immigrants, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Mexican, and many more, came to America as a land of opportunity and found that they were denied political rights, excluded from prosperity, oppressed by the system, and shunned by the mainstream culture. Each group fought for its own acceptance into the American dream, and staked its own claim to being fully American. For those who see America through this narrative, Colin Kaepernick’s protest is a statement that the narrative is not complete. America is a brilliant idea imperfectly realized, because the oppression is not yet banished to the past. There is still much work to do, and America, if it truly believes in the ideals symbolized in the flag, must change.

The death threats to Colin Kaepernick are an implicit recognition of the wide gap between these two narratives. On the surface, it is tragi-comic, and even perverse, to try to silence Kaepernick’s free speech with death threats in the name of veterans who gave their lives in defense of that freedom of speech. Many veterans, even ones who disagree with Kaepernick, have said as much.[7] But when viewed from the angle of the narratives of American history, the death threats reveal a certain (reprehensible) logic. For those Americans who embrace the American narrative of “great men and liberty” any questioning of the perfection of American liberty, especially by anyone not white and male, is not only an affront to the nation, but a threat to their very identities as Americans. Kaepernick (and the entire Black Lives Matter movement for that matter) is demanding that his people (and their suffering) be recognized and included as full and equal participants in the American narrative. He is demanding full American citizenship, in a sense. If African Americans are still systematically excluded from the narrative, and denied equality and equal protection, he is saying, then he doesn’t owe America the respect of standing for its national anthem and saluting its flag.

In a real sense, what he is doing it asserting the “struggle for equality” narrative of American history, but that is an American narrative that supporters of the “great men and liberty” narrative don’t recognize as their own. They want to believe in a perfect America, with a perfect liberty, but they also want to believe in an America that is white and dominated by men, to the exclusion of other races and ethnicities. Kaepernick challenges this narrative, and they respond by trying to silence his voice. In doing so, they are trying to write him out of American history altogether.

 

[1] http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-why-he-sat-during-national-anthem

 

[2] http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2016/09/19/three-eagles-raise-fists-during-national-anthem/

 

[3] http://edition.cnn.com/2016/09/21/sport/colin-kaepernick-death-threats/

 

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6ikO6LMxF4

 

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfoQBTPY7gk

 

[6] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2015.

 

[7] http://theundefeated.com/features/an-open-letter-from-american-military-veterans-in-support-of-colin-kaepernick/

 

Hillary Clinton’s Health and the Mind-Body Split

Hillary Clinton’s Health and the Mind-Body Split

This last week has seen a great deal of talk and speculation about Hillary Clinton’s health. Clinton, of course, is running for President on the Democratic ticket, and is the wife of former President Bill Clinton. She has also been the target of various right-wing conspiracy theories for years, from the suicide of Vincent Foster to the Whitewater brouhaha to the more recent questions about her health.

In particular, for several months, many on the right-wing blogosphere have been arguing that Hillary has major health problems that are being hidden from the public. There have been accusations from bloggers and disreputable websites that she has Parkinson’s,[1] that she wears a catheter and drainage bag strapped to her leg,[2] or that she has Alzheimer’s or has had seizures.[3] These suspicions were largely brushed aside by mainstream political commentators until last week, when Clinton left a 9/11 memorial service early, and seemed to nearly faint while waiting for her car to pick her up. Her campaign made a statement that she was struggling through walking pneumonia, and had been overcome by the heat, but the incident ginned up enormous media play, and formerly fringe questions about her health made their way into the mainstream media. Eventually, the Clinton camp released her medical records to diffuse the situation, but that hasn’t done much to stop speculation about her health.

At the same time that this was happening, there was a different question of presidential candidate health on the Republican side. Donald Trump, back in December of 2015, released a letter from his doctor attesting to his health.[4] This letter, to say the least, was unusual in its hyperbole and lack of specifics. It was commented on at the time, but did not become a major issue. Later, Trump’s doctor revealed that he had written the letter hastily.[5] This, as well as the fact that the physician in question is a gastroenterologist, not a general practitioner, raised some comment, but not much, and most of it was in a light-hearted vein that did not take Trump’s health seriously. Just a few days ago, of course, Trump did feel that his medical status was important enough to the campaign that he appeared on the Dr. Oz show to discuss his health. Dr. Oz gave him a rather gentle interview on the subject, and that seemed to put the issue of Trump’s health to bed.

Overall, Trump’s health has not been a major issue in the campaign, but Hillary’s has. Attention to both candidates’ health might be expected in that Trump would be the oldest U.S. President ever should he win, and Clinton would be the second oldest (behind Reagan),[6] but the amount of coverage given to each has been overwhelmingly slanted toward Clinton’s health, in spite of the fact that Trump is more than a year older than she is, and his statements about his health were suspect.

I don’t intend to examine Clinton’s or Trump’s health statuses in detail (I expect they are both healthy), but I do think that this relative lack of attention to Trump’s health, coupled with the concern for Clinton’s health even before there was anything to justify such questions deserves a bit of historical attention.

In particular, I think the treatment of Clinton and Trump in this campaign reveals the fact that our culture still maintains a double standard on bodies, with women being assumed to be more closely “tied” to their bodies, while men are more freethinking rational beings whose bodies don’t matter. I commented on this in a previous blog post entitled, “The Enlightenment Mind-Body Split,” and the gist of my argument then was as follows. During the 1700s, as the embrace of science as a pathway to truth spread throughout European society, philosophers and scientists had to grapple with their model of what a human being was. On the one had, they wanted to see humans as rational, free-thinking and outside of nature, as a way of justifying their scientific objectivity and their ability to actually find the truth about the material world. At the same time, they also increasingly saw possibilities for studying human beings as part of nature. Humans, it was said, were animals, biological machines, and as such, they had biological laws that applied to them, shaped them, and controlled them. In short, humans were predictable, perhaps even completely determined by nature. This vision of humans as biological machines left little room for free thought or even free will.

These two visions of the human were thus fairly incompatible on the surface. To escape from this dilemma, scientists tried to break the mind and body apart and assign one to each sex. As I put it in my previous post, “Rousseau and Linnaeus, along with a host of others, took the two-sex model and turned it into a strict and gendered mind-body split, with women as bodies and men as minds.”

This attitude, that women are dominated by biology and their bodies, while men are rational and free from interference from their fleshy envelopes has persisted in strange ways in our culture right up to the present day. Donald Trump has certainly played his part in this by doing things such as suggesting that Megyn Kelly’s vigorous questioning during a primary debate was related somehow to her having blood “coming out of her . . . whatever” a clear reference to her mood being related to her menstrual cycle.[7]

At bottom, the media have been party to this, focusing on female politicians’ bodies, while giving male politicians a pass on anything biological, unless it reveals serious illness without any ambiguity. When Geraldine Ferraro was named as the first female vice-presidential candidate for a major American political party in 1984, Tom Brokaw said, “the first woman to be nominated for vice-president . . . size 6.”[8]

That was only the beginning. The examples of this are overwhelming once you start looking for them, from attention to Michelle Obama’s arms[9] to Hillary Clinton’s legs[10] to Carly Fiorina’s face.[11] Sarah Palin’s treatment by the media would take an entire book.[12] The documentary Miss Representation does a good job of showing this sort of attention paid to women’s bodies in politics.[13]

I do not recall ever having heard a comment about the lack of attractiveness of a male politician’s arms, or legs, or face. While in some cases, such as Reagan’s, and especially Kennedy’s (both of whom had major health issues while in office), good looks almost certainly helped with the candidate’s appeal, a lack of physical attractiveness wasn’t an issue in the rest of the presidents of the United States since the advent of the media age.

Usually, this gender bias has focused on women’s bodies as sex objects, or as vessels of reproduction, but in the end, I can’t shake the feeling that the attention to Hillary Clinton’s health is another face of this old focus on women’s bodies. Especially when compared to the cavalier disregard for Donald Trump’s, I think this shows a gender bias, and is, in fact, part and parcel of a much longer strain of thought in our culture, that men are minds that happen to have a body attached, but women are bodies that happen to have a mind, and that women are therefore slaves to their biology.

 

 

[1] http://www.infowars.com/does-hillary-clinton-have-parkinsons-disease/

 

[2] http://viralliberty.com/whats-hidden-hillarys-left-pant-leg-just-cost-election/

 

[3] https://matrixbob.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/hillary-clinton-unfit-does-hillary-have-dementia-alzheimer-or-parkinsons-disease-not-fit-to-be-president-video/

 

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/12/14/donald-trump-releases-medical-report-calling-his-health-extraordinary/?_r=0

 

[5] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/trump-doctor-wrote-health-letter-just-5-minutes-limo-waited-n638526

 

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Presidents_of_the_United_States_by_age

 

[7]http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/08/10/megyn_kelly_blood_coming_out_of_her_wherever_comment_in_cnn_don_lemon_interview.html

 

[8] http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/03/obituary

 

[9] http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=6986019&page=1

 

[10] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=piano%20legs

 

[11] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-carly-fiorina_us_55f17d22e4b03784e2781531

 

[12] https://www.amazon.com/Framing-Sarah-Palin-Puritans-Politics/dp/0415893364/ref=sr_1_28?ie=UTF8&qid=1474031899&sr=8-28&keywords=sarah+palin+book

 

[13] https://www.amazon.com/Miss-Representation-Cory-Booker/dp/B006GRWCF2/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1474032737&sr=1-1&keywords=miss+representation

 

Climate Change the Anti-Governmental Right

For many years, at least since the Reagan Era, and probably going back long before that, the dominant idea on the Right in American politics is that the United States government is at best a liberty-infringing nuisance, and, at worst, a grave threat to the individual liberties upon which the American nation was founded. On anything not having to do with sex, drugs, or immigration, people on the Right in America have insisted on limiting government power in the name of maximizing individual liberty. They see taxes, regulation, public education, or even government-sponsored health care as taking liberty away from average Americans and giving liberal elites power over people’s lives.

This makes the case of climate change rather interesting. I think that the result of climate change in the long run will be to drastically increase the power of the U.S. government to regulate individual behaviors.

The problems that climate change will bring are likely to include the following: rising sea levels; drought in the Southwest, California, and possibly the Great Plains; heat waves; and increased flooding and storm damage on the East Coast from more frequent and powerful hurricanes, blizzards, and freak rainstorms. Many of these things are going to require responses that are beyond the powers of states to handle.

Hurricanes such as Katrina and Sandy have shown that they can cause far more destruction than state governmental responses can handle, and so the federal government must step in. More frequent and more powerful hurricanes will only increase federal governmental action. Rising sea levels will cause the displacement of millions of people over time, and probably necessitate the abandonment of whole cities, such as Miami, or New York (or at least, Manhattan). Managing this level of disruption is beyond the power of state governments to handle. Drought will cause massive movements of people away from dry areas to more verdant ones. Cities like Las Vegas will likely become unsustainable, and therefore be abandoned. This will cause population movements between states, which are, by definition, beyond the jurisdiction of any given state. In the largest sense, regulating global CO2 levels is far beyond the power of any given state government, and even beyond the scope of the U.S. government.

All of this means that it will fall to the U.S. government, and possibly even supranational organizations like the United Nations, to counter, and to respond to, climate change. In short, climate change will dramatically increase the power, reach, and scope of the federal government. I can see massive federal projects to build seawalls, federal regulation of internal migration, and federal disaster-assistance programs. I can see much more stringent federal regulations about atmospheric emissions, car designs, home energy efficiencies, etc.

So what position should the Right have on this?

They have two options: get out in front of climate change to prevent it, and therefore prevent the government’s having to increase its power; or deny it exists, to block any efforts to respond to climate change by extending government power.

There were signs in the 1980s that the Right was going to try the first option. Both Presidents Reagan and Bush the 41st spoke openly about the need to address climate change quickly, and their position, though not stated explicitly, implied that preventing it early would protect the country from later consequences that would require government action. However, this approach has been abandoned.[1]

For the last two decades or so, the Right has largely stuck to denying that climate change exists at all. This is a logical, if shortsighted, response. Denying climate change allows those on the Right to block any efforts to use the federal government to respond to climate change in ways that increase the federal government’s power. Stringent regulations on greenhouse gasses can be blocked if climate change is denied. Regulations on car designs and such can be rejected as unnecessary if climate change isn’t real. In the long run, government attempts to handle refugees can be stymied if climate change can’t be proven to be happening.

Why the switch? It is possible that people on the Right realized by the 1990s that climate change was too far advanced to stop, and so they went to option two—denying its existence in the face of evidence that it exists. However, there is a wealth of evidence that it was a more conscious decision by various powerful corporations. Over the last two decades, a whole industry of media commentators, think tanks and scientific obfuscators was created by the petroleum industry (Exxonmobil and Koch Industries, in particular) to convince those on the Right to adopt the climate change denial strategy over the early prevention strategy.[2] The petroleum industry had a lot to lose from the prevention strategy (because this would involve drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that would in turn require drastic reductions in petroleum usage), and quite a bit to gain from the climate-change denial strategy.

However, climate change is happening. We are seeing it in all sorts of ways, and over the next two or three decades, the effects of climate change will become more and more intense, destructive, and extreme. As a result, climate change will become impossible to ignore, or deny. When that happens, the federal government’s powers will increase to deal with the emergency, and the Right will have played a role in ensuring exactly what they hoped to prevent—the extension of federal government control over people’s lives, and infringements on the liberty of the individual.

 

 

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/12/03/reagan-bush-41-memos-reveal-how-republicans-used-to-think-about-climate-change-and-the-environment/

[2] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-11-30/unearthing-america-s-deep-network-of-climate-change-deniers; http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v6/n4/full/nclimate2875.html

The Logical Endpoint of Robot Armies

The Logical Endpoint of Autonomous (Robotic) Weapons Systems

Every few months you see a news article about autonomous weapons systems being developed by the military or this or that nation (usually the United States, but not always). These are basically robots armed with weapons. These might be drones, flying over enemy territory (with or without human pilots somewhere on the ground), or tanks maneuvering on battlefields (again, with or without remote human operators). The ultimate goal is to create robots that will operate on battlefields without human supervision, making their own decisions using artificial intelligence. The Army is excited about such prospects because they will keep American soldiers out of harm’s way and therefore reduce military casualties. Robots also have advantages like unwavering attention spans and a lack of fear.

Many of the articles about autonomous weapons systems raise questions about their reliability, especially in uncertain circumstances. Will they kill the right people, and more importantly, not kill the wrong ones? The focus here is on whether or not these systems will work as we envision them, and whether they would do a better or worse job on the battlefield than human soldiers making decisions (or than remote human drone operators making decisions). One recent New York Times op/ed piece said, “Autonomous weapons should not be banned based on the state of the technology today, but governments must start working now to ensure that militaries use autonomous technology in a safe and responsible manner that retains human judgment and accountability in the use of force.”[i] The authors later added, “Greater autonomy could even reduce casualties in war, if used in the right way. The same types of sensors and information-processing that will enable a self-driving car to avoid hitting pedestrians could also potentially enable a robotic weapon to avoid civilians on a battlefield.”

This is a valid set of concerns, in the short term, but I think that there is a much larger concern in the long term, because I think the logical endpoint of autonomous weapons systems is a war in which each side kills as many innocent civilians on the other side as possible. The very nature of war and robotics leads to this.

My reasoning is based on the progressions of wars in history. In most traditional wars throughout history, the fighting starts between two armies. Professional (or non-professional) armies confront each other. If there is a clear winner here, then the war is over. However, if there is no clear winner, then the two sides regroup and try to set up another confrontation. The second battle might be conclusive, and then the war is over. However, that might not be conclusive either, and the fighting goes on. In some cases, even apparently conclusive battles are not enough to decide the issue. The Hundred Years War is a good example, or World War II. In both cases, the early battles were decisive victories (Crecy, Poitiers, in the former, France and China, in the latter). However, these battles were not decisive enough to end the war. Both sides still fought on.

When the armies cannot deliver a knock-out blow immediately, you tend to enter a second stage of warfare: a war of attrition, in which each army tries to wear the other one down by inflicting heavy casualties, in the hope that the other side will break first. World War I is a good case here. In the West, Germany on the one hand, and France and Britain on the other, had decided by the end of 1915 that they could not outmaneuver their opponents and achieve a clear victory. This led the British to turn to quantity over quality—overwhelm your opponent with sheer force. The British tried this at the Somme, but even roughly a million casualties over five months had no effect.

The Germans turned to a more sinister strategy at Verdun: trading casualties one for one until one side ran out. The German General von Falkenhayn decided to attack the French at Verdun, knowing that it was such a strategic position that the French would have to defend it at all costs. His intention was not actually to take Verdun, though he would have been happy to do so, but rather to make the French take horrific casualties. Von Falkenhayn said he wanted to “bleed France white.” His assumption was that if the Germans and the French traded dead soldiers one for one, France would run out first. This strategy didn’t have time to run its course, because events (Russian Revolution anyone?) interfered, but it had a certain horrific logic to it.

The war of attrition is immensely bloody and painful, and, as a result, it doesn’t take armies and governments very long to start looking for a way out of it. This brings us to the third stage: the war on civilians. If you can’t defeat your enemy’s army, you target your enemy’s civilian population. This has a two-fold intention. First, it destroys the civilian population’s ability to supply the army. Second, you hope, it destroys the enemy’s will to fight. If the war is too costly in civilian lives, governments will have to end it. This is especially evident in twentieth century wars. In World War I, the British blockade starved the German population and the German U-boats tried to starve England. In World War II, the strategy was to bomb the enemy’s population from the air. The firebombing of Tokyo, Dresden, and Hamburg and the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were all examples of intentional infliction of massive civilians deaths in an attempt to get the enemy to surrender. The carpet-bombing of Vietnam was a continuation of this logic of punishing civilians.

It is this logic that I think will be amplified enormously by the advent of robotic weapons systems. Basically, robots are expendable and cheap, so the logic of making your enemy suffer leads away from killing robots and directly to killing civilians instead. Human life is worth more than robot “life,” so taking it inflicts more damage.

Most of the optimistic commentators on autonomous weapons systems avoid this issue because they envision a war between the United States and an enemy that doesn’t have the technology to match us. In that case, perhaps, armed robots will make war “safer,” in that robots will make the war more one-sided, and therefore end it sooner.

However, I think other scenarios are more likely. First, what if there is a war between two nations with roughly equal robot armies? What if, in fifty years, China and the United States have a war with robots? In that case, I think the initial stages of the war would be robot armies confronting each other, with the hope that one side would decisively win. Robots are easier to replace than humans, however, so destroying an army might not win the war. The loser simply builds another army and tries again.

Then you get the war of attrition, as each side produces larger and larger robot armies, and destroys them just as fast. The war of attrition might work on economic terms (one side might run out of money to build robots), but it won’t work on the emotional level—wars of attrition end because the civilians refuse to put up with the death tolls (or refuse to continue to die). However, with robots, this won’t happen. Because of this, I see one or both sides very quickly realizing that killing robots doesn’t hurt the enemy nearly as much as killing civilians.

What is the end point? If you can’t defeat your enemy’s robot army, you defeat his ability to produce robots, and inflict the most pain possible. In short, you target the civilian population. War becomes a massive game of robots hunting humans. Perhaps each side will try to stop the other side’s robots with their own robots protecting their own humans, but that isn’t much better.

A second scenario leads to the same result. Suppose, instead of two evenly matched opponents, you have an unequal contest, with one army destroying another, but the loser vowing to fight on. This quickly leads to guerilla war, with small groups of militants emerging from the civilian population to carry out surprise attacks, and then disappearing into that population again. Think of Iraq, or Afghanistan. Will robots be able to handle this? Proponents argue that artificial intelligence will allow robots to make better, quicker decisions of friend and foe, and kill only the “bad” guys. My sense, however, is that the temptation grows to simply kill the civilians, too. Look at American behavior in Vietnam when confronted with guerilla war, or French conduct in Algeria. Even when the dominant army shows more restraint, as in the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a temptation to simply attack the whole population in order to force them to stop harboring militants. You can only win by convincing the enemy that their best interests lie in submitting, not fighting, and if robots are your main form of “convincing,” then you edge toward robots hunting humans.

In the end, given that robots are emotionally expendable, but people are not, and given that war is about inflicting pain on one’s enemy in order to get them to give up, I cannot see how any robot wars do lot lead, in the end, to robots killing civilian humans on purpose.

Is that really where we want to go?

[i] Michael C. Horowitz and Paul Scharre, “The Morality of Robotic War,” The New York Times, May 26, 2015 (on-line). The print version appeared in the Op/Ed section on May 27, 2015.

One or Two? Sex and gender in question.

For most of the last two centuries, it has been an unquestioned “fact” that there are two sexes of human beings: male and female. What is interesting is that this “fact” was not necessarily a fact for much of Western history. Aristotle offered a very different vision of sex and gender than the either/or of male and female, and more interesting still is the idea that something like Aristotle’s vision might be returning.

Aristotle thought that human character was based, at least in part, by heat. Men, Aristotle thought, were hotter than women, which made them dynamic, strong, and decisive. Women, on the other hand, were colder than men, which made them more passive, weaker, and easily swayed, he said. This meant that Aristotle did not think of sex as we tend to do today as an either/or proposition, male or female. Rather, it was a spectrum based on heat, with ultra-masculine men at the hot end of the spectrum, ultra-feminine women at the cool end, and a hazy area in between where not-too-masculine men rubbed shoulders with not-too-feminine women.

Aristotle argued that the relative heats of the parents determine the heat of the child, and therefore its sex. Fetuses with a lot of heat push out their genitalia and become male, while fetuses that do not have enough heat to push out the genitalia keep them inside and become female. This brings about the conclusion, somewhat astounding to us today, that the vagina and uterus are simply the same thing as the penis and scrotum, without having been pushed out, with the vulva being a large foreskin. This also led to Aristotle’s conclusion that women were essentially “defective men,” a sentence he passed not just in physical terms, but in a larger metaphysical one.

Women, he said, were in some intrinsic, metaphysical sense, imperfect men. As the historian Thomas Laqueur summarizes it: “if the female body was a less hot, less perfect, and hence less potent version of the canonical [male] body, then distinct, organic, much less genital, landmarks mattered far less than the metaphysical hierarchies they illustrated.”[1] In short, women were not inferior to men because their bodies were inferior. Rather, their bodies were inferior because they reflected a deeper, metaphysical inferiority. During the Middle Ages, this would be taken up by Scholastic philosophers and theologians, who would argue that God made women intrinsically inferior to men in some metaphysical sense, and so patriarchy was justified. In this way, the physical bodies were a result, and proof, of the metaphysical inferiority of women.

Aristotle’s model dominated European philosophy, theology and medicine until the Scientific Revolution. At that time, scientists and doctors began to carefully examine real human bodies through dissection, and the came to embrace the idea that the two sexes were biologically different. This might seem like a “no duh” point to us, but it was a radical idea at the time, most importantly because it implied that the differences between men and women were purely physical, not metaphysical.

Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, we can see the Aristotelian “one sex” model give way gradually to the “two-sex” model, wherein men and women are seen as fundamentally biologically different, and even “opposite.” This is visible in the drawings of reproductive systems in medical textbooks. Prior to the 1500s, drawings of female reproductive systems were almost identical to the drawings of male reproductive systems. The vagina was drawn as a penis, with the vulva as the foreskin, and the ovaries looked like testicles, placed close to the top of the vagina. Over the course of the 1500s and 1600s, however, new drawings appear, with a very different look. The vulva becomes more accurate as it is no longer expected to look like a foreskin. The ovaries move out away from the vagina and the fallopian tubes become more visible, because the ovaries don’t have to hang close to the vagina like testicles to the base of a penis. This visual, physical evidence of the rise of the two-sex model was only the beginning, however.

Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, people began to ask, “If men and women are biologically different, what does that mean for their characteristics? How are they different?” It is here, during the Enlightenment, and then in to the 19th century, that scientists and other writers began to base the differences between the sexes on biology, not religion and metaphysics, and by doing so, to create the either/or sense of biological sex that is widespread today. Our modern stereotypes, such as, “men are rational and women are emotional,” or “men are strong and women are weak,” are in many ways simply results of taking the idea that men and women are biologically different and then stating the differences in degree as absolutes, or even “opposites.”

Is this the end of the story? Not at all. There are some interesting signs that we might be moving back toward a more Aristotelian concept of sex as a spectrum. Certainly there are many things changing in our society in terms of the awareness, and acceptance, of people who do not fit the two-sex dichotomy. Transgendered, gay and lesbian, and intersex people all challenge the two-sex dichotomy in some way, and all are becoming more visible culturally. Some non-Western cultures have a third gender, such as the hijras of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, or the fa’afafine of Polynesia, and so we are coming more into line with them.

The recent case of Caster Semenya casts a particularly stark light on the problems with the two-sex model. Semenya is a world-class sprinter who grew up in South Africa thinking she was female. However, after winning at the African Junior Championships in 2009, her title was suspended and the International Association of Athletic Federations investigated her for performance-enhancing drug use. She was cleared of that, but was then subjected to a “gender test” [though it was really a sex test] to prove that she was female. The tests were apparently inconclusive (and confidential), and she was eventually allowed to race again in international competitions, but her case opened an interesting question about medical testing for sex. The reason for this is that the medical sporting community basically realized that there is no scientific way to assign an either/or sex to everyone. There are people who are biologically ambiguous due to a variety of conditions that would allow someone with XY chromosomes to manifest as female hormonally and physiologically, and there are a number of conditions that allow people with XX chromosomes to have male testosterone levels. Then there are the people with XXY chromosomes. Where do they fit? As one expert put it, “Gender verification tests are difficult, expensive, and potentially inaccurate. Furthermore, these tests fail to exclude all potential impostors (e.g., some 46, XX males), are discriminatory against women with disorders of sexual development, and may have shattering consequences for athletes who ‘fail’ a test.”[2] It turns out it is very hard to biologically define “male” or “female” in some cases. This also raises the more basic question of what “male” and “female” mean. Do they mean certain hormone levels? Genes? Gender? Genitalia? What matters? The more scientists have looked at this question, the harder it is to say.

In short, Aristotle got a lot wrong, but he might have been right about this.

[1] Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 34-35.

[2] JL Simpson, A Ljungqvist, MA Ferguson-Smith, et al. “Gender verification in the Olympics”. JAMA 284:12 (Sept. 2000): 1568–9.

The Perfect Image of Colonial Man

Throughout the late 19th century, Europeans and Americans seemed to be on an uninterrupted run of conquests. Britain already controlled India, but took huge swathes of Africa, from Egypt down to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). France took Vietnam, Tunisia and much of western Africa. The United States completed its Manifest Destiny, and then kept on going by accumulating Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and turning much of Latin America into client countries. There were conquests and small wars and massacres and triumphs and defeats.
As all of this unfolded, European and American men began to look at themselves differently. As whites, they increasingly came to see their conquests as proof of some innate superiority over other races. As men they came to see their destiny in conquest and “civilization” of the darkest parts of foreign continents. As products of this Darwinian age, they tended to see themselves as the pinnacle of evolution, and, as masters of the Industrial Revolution, they measured their superiority with railroads and machine guns.
If you wanted to sum up the entire Age of Empire in a single figure, you might choose Lawrence of Arabia, or Charles “Chinese” Gordon, or maybe generals Gallieni or Marchand, but I think the purest symbol of all is Tarzan of the Apes.
Tarzan of the Apes is one of the bestselling books in history. It appeared first in a magazine as a serial in 1912, then as a pocket paperback in 1914. It spawned a series of twenty-five novels and dozens of movies, and when author Edgar Rice Burroughs retired to California, his town renamed itself Tarzana in his honor.
The plot of Tarzan of the Apes, in a nutshell, is as follows (spoiler alert!). Lord and Lady Greystoke, English aristocrats, are on their way to Africa when the uncouth crewmembers of their ship mutiny and brutally murder the captain and crew. They are impressed with the noble characters of Lord and Lady Greystoke, and decide to leave them in a desolate jungle in Africa rather than kill them. Finding themselves alone in the jungle, the Greystokes make a life for themselves. Lord Greystoke creates a tree house (complete with locking door), and Lady Greystoke gives birth to a son. In spite of their creative resourcefulness, both parents die, leaving the infant son in the house. He is found by semi-human apes, one of whom, Kala, has recently lost her own child, so she adopts the baby and names him Tarzan. Tarzan at first thinks he is an ape, and grows up as such. However, he finds his father’s house, picks the lock on the door, and discovers his heritage. He teaches himself to read and takes his father’s knife as his own. With the knife, he makes himself king of the apes. At about this time, a group of black Africans move into the area, and Tarzan immediately realizes that he is not an ape, but rather a man, like the Africans. No sooner has he realized that, however, than he decides the superstitious, cowardly, cannibalistic Africans are not like him after all. He is different. Nonetheless, he learns about clothes and bows and arrows from them. Later still, a group of white Europeans appears on Tarzan’s shore. The uncouth crew of a passing European steamer had mutinied, and had decided to drop their passengers on this deserted stretch of shore (what a coincidence!). When Tarzan first sees the mutinying sailors, he has a moment of recognition, as he realizes that they are white, like him. When they fight amongst themselves, however, and one sailor shoots another one dead, Tarzan decides that he is not like them after all. After the sailors leave, Tarzan’s attention is almost immediately taken by the group of now-stranded Europeans, including William Clayton, a.k.a. Lord Greystoke (Tarzan’s cousin, who inherited his parents’ title when they disappeared—the coincidences are legion!), an absent-minded Professor Porter, his male secretary, his daughter Jane Porter, and Jane’s servant, Esmeralda, a black woman. Tarzan immediately realizes that he has found “his people” at last in the Porters and Clayton. After many adventures, Tarzan saves everyone from various wild animals, as well as the hostile and violent African cannibals. Jane and her father return to Wisconsin, where they hail from, and Tarzan goes on a tour of Europe with a French army officer named D’Arnot whom he had met in the jungle while both were trying to save the Porters and William Clayton. Tarzan learns of his noble heritage, and then goes to Wisconsin to save Jane from a forest fire and ask for her hand in marriage.
How does this embody the colonial ideology of the late 19th century? You need to understand several things as background. First, Europeans and Americans were obsessed with Darwin and the idea of evolution. Herbert Spencer and others took up Darwin’s ideas, mangled them, and argued that the classes in society were the result of a sort of “survival of the fittest” that indicated that the upper classes were “more fit” than the lower classes, and that they had achieved their wealth and power through sheer natural superiority over the lower classes. In a similar fashion, Darwin was misapplied to the struggles between civilizations, and the “scientific” study of race. After some deeply flawed scientific research, many Europeans and Americans concluded that there were profound differences between races, and that these races were on different points of the evolutionary scale, with Europeans on top and Africans at the bottom. This evolution of one race (or society) over another could be measured by technology. The societies with railroads and machine guns were clearly more “evolved” than societies without them. Finally, biology had one more part to play. Scientists at this time believed that ontogeny (the process of the conception and development of a single organism or individual) followed the process of phylogeny (the evolution of a species). Or, to put it differently, in the process of growing from a fertilized egg to an adult, each human being goes through all the stages of evolution that the human race went through, from single-celled organism to the top of the evolutionary heap.
In European and American culture, all of this got distilled into a couple of simple ideas. First, whites were more “evolved” than other races. Second, that you could measure evolution by technology. Third, that the upper classes were more biologically “fit” and perhaps even more evolved than the lower classes. Fourth, that evolution is like growing up. Ergo, five, upper and middle class white men are the most evolved people on the planet, and because evolution is like growing up, they are the parents to the children (other races) of Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Amazingly enough, all of this is in Tarzan. As he grows up, Tarzan “evolves” from thinking he is an ape, to thinking he is a black African, to thinking he is a lower class European (the sailors), to realizing his “true place” as an upper class European. Moreover, each step of his evolution is marked by the acquisition of a new technology, be it his father’s knife, or the black Africans’ clothes and bows and arrows, or his driving a car in Wisconsin at the end of the book. When Tarzan mentions to D’Arnot that he is not impressed with Europeans because the average lion could eat “a thousand of you,” D’Arnot responds, “You will think more highly of your genus when you have seen its armies and navies, its great cities, and its mighty engineering works.”
In the end, what this book represents is colonial ideology repackaged as upper and middle class male fantasy. The book was aimed at teenaged boys, who presumably were to take away the message that they, as white middle and upper class boys, were so superior to black Africans that even if they were left alone as infants in the jungle, they would naturally master technology and conquer all of their surroundings, civilizing the jungle in the process. Aside from being a repugnantly racist and sexist book (the women are all helpless, too), Tarzan of the Apes is a perfect statement of the racism, perverted and misapplied Darwinism, and elitism that underlay the Age of Imperialism.

The Boxes We Live In: Mass Media and National Community

In their study of the daily newspaper, Le Journal Quotidien, the French scholars Maurice Mouillard and Jean-François Tétu make an interesting observation about how newspapers help people to organize their view of the world. Mouillard and Tétu argue that the newspaper creates the limits of the world for the reader. The things that the newspaper includes become part of the mental world of the reader, and conversely, the things that the newspaper excludes never become part of the reader’s life. On one level this is a banal observation—people know about things they are exposed to, and not about things that they aren’t exposed to—but Mouillard and Tétu also note that the newspaper doesn’t just say what is included and not included, it also says what is more or less important. For instance, if the newspapers make a particular murder case a front-page story and cover it in depth every day for ten days, that murder case becomes an important part of the reader’s world for the days that it is on the front page. Conversely, the earthquake in some distant country that makes page six is also a part of the reader’s world, but not an important one, given a passing thought, perhaps, and no more.

It is precisely because of this, that in the early Twentieth Century, Europeans used to read many newspapers a day. In Berlin before World War II, it is estimated that there were several hundred distinct daily and weekly newspapers. It was considered entirely common for an average reader to at least glance over four or five newspapers every single day, in order to become “well informed” about the world. It was openly acknowledged that each newspaper had it political bias, and therefore its slant, and to get the truth, a reader had to read multiple papers. Indeed, when the Nazis came to power and forced anti-Nazi newspapers to shut down, The New York Times commented that, “In London, Paris, Stockholm or Madrid one must look at three or four leading newspapers to arrive at a consensus of opinion. But in Moscow, Berlin, or Rome, it does not matter what paper you pick up. All the editors think alike if they have any regard for their health.”

Mouillard and Tétu made another point, however, a very insightful one. The newspaper (or later, the nightly news on television) has a crucial role in nationalism. I’ve commented in previous blog posts that nationalism is an imagined community—a given Swede can’t possibly know all her fellow Swedes, but she imagines that she shares a common set of values, outlooks on life, etc. with them, and acts accordingly. The newspaper, Mouillard and Tétu point out, provides a crucial service for an imagined community, because national newspapers provide a common set of facts, and a common ranking of what facts are important, to a large enough percentage of the population of a given nation that they do, in fact, create a real commonality among people. French people really do have something in common, a common way of seeing the world, because they all read the same newspapers, and are shaped in their outlooks by that. Of course, in reality, there are different groups—the ones who read the Wall Street Journal as opposed to the New York Times crowd—but these blocks often overlap enough, that the commonality is still there. Newspapers do create large blocks of people who more or less think along similar lines, and are aware of similar problems in similar terms.

This brings me to an important point about news and the ability of a democracy to function. Democracy, or any political system with mass participation, only works well if each citizen thinks of it as his or her duty to be well informed on the issues confronting the government. And, it is easier for a nation to find common ground on an issue if everyone is exposed to more or less the same information.

But what does this mean in the age of the Internet? Newspapers are dying, one by one. The nightly news on television is hemorrhaging viewers. Most people have found a set of news sources on the Internet that they like. But what does this do for the cohesion of a national community? Do readers of the Fox News website feel that they are part of the same community as readers of Salon.com? I doubt it. In fact, I think that over the last twenty years, beginning with the niche marketing of cable television, and then continuing with the internet, we have seen the American population not only stop reading the same sources for their news, we have seen them stop sharing a common understanding of the facts of reality. Fox News viewers are living in a different world than Salon.com viewers. They have different sets of “facts” and different understandings of what is important.

I think this might just be manifesting itself in our political process. The Republican base is playing from an entirely different map of reality than the Democratic base, and within those bases, the extreme right and the extreme left have a different view of reality, or even of what the facts are, than the moderates in each camp. This has forced politicians to cater to the “facts” of their constituents in order to get elected, but then, when it comes time to govern, it is very hard to make a compromise with a counterpart from the opposite party who not only doesn’t agree with your conclusions, but thinks that you are in an alternate reality.

How do you build an imagined community around that?

China’s Stuffed Mattress and the Opium Wars

In January 2014, it is estimated that China’s foreign exchange holdings hit about $3.8 trillion. That’s trillion, spelled with a “t.” Foreign exchange holdings are investments (mostly bonds) that are denominated in foreign currencies, like euros or dollars. China is sitting on a lot of money. Of that huge pile of assets, it is estimated that about 75 percent (around $2.85 trillion) is in U.S. dollar assets, such as U.S. Treasury Bonds, or Fannie Mae bonds.

When I think about this, I think of opium. Not because that money would buy a lot of the drug, but rather because it resembles the situation that led to the Opium Wars. The Opium Wars were two wars fought between China and the Western nations, mainly Great Britain, between 1839-1842 and 1856-60. The cause of these wars was foreign currency exchange.

Over the course of the 1600s and 1700s, most of the European nations, but especially Great Britain, tried to increase their exports to China. They were hindered, however, by a Chinese government policy that frowned on foreign trade. China placed severe restrictions on European merchants. Europeans (and later, Americans) were allowed to trade with a handful of officially designated Chinese merchants, and they were only allowed to trade through the port of Canton (Guangzhou) in southern China. In fact, they were only allowed to set foot on Chinese soil in thirteen warehouses lined up along the quays in Canton. The British and other Westerners grudgingly accepted this because they were addicted to Chinese silk and spices and porcelain, but most of all, they came for tea.

The British government, on its end, gave a monopoly on East Asian trade with Britain to the East India Company, and the EIC made enormous amounts of money shipping tea from China to England. The problem, however, was paying for it. The British tried to find all sorts of things to sell to the Chinese, from guns to cloth, to coffee, but the Chinese weren’t interested, or rather, the Chinese government wasn’t interested in allowing the British to compete with their own merchants and manufacturers.

As a result, the British developed a currency exchange problem. The EIC basically found itself filling up ships with pure silver in England and shipping them to China to buy tea. This is bad business, because the British were losing money on half of the voyage.  In fact, the British were shipping millions of pounds of silver to China every year.

To rectify this, the British decided to make money the old fashioned way—selling drugs. In the 1770s, the East India Company began growing opium in their growing colonial holdings in India, then sending the opium on to China. This allowed the EIC to ship British cloth and other products to India, sell them, use the money to buy Indian opium, then ship that to China. There, they could sell the opium and use the money to buy tea, which they shipped back to England. They made money on every leg of the journey.

The problem, of course, was that the Chinese government didn’t want Indian opium. Opium imports were illegal. The British, being ever resourceful, set up a system whereby they would ship opium to the thirteen warehouses in Canton, then, in the middle of the night, they would sail out off the coast of China and offload the opium into ‘dragon boats’ which were something like Viking longboats, with dozens of oars on each side. The dragon boats then rowed as fast as they could up various Chinese rivers (past border guards who had been bribed to look the other way) and sold the opium to Chinese gangs that would distribute the opium inland. This system worked so well that by the 1820s the British were actually buying all of the tea and silk and spices that they wanted, and shipping pure silver back to England because they couldn’t think of anything else to buy.

In the late 1830s, China finally decided to crack down on the opium trade (they had millions of addicts by then), and the result was that the British and other opium selling nations like the United States went to war to force the Chinese to open their ports to opium and other European and American goods. By this time the British in particular had begun the Industrial Revolution and were looking for markets for the huge piles of cotton cloth they were manufacturing. The Westerners won both Opium Wars decisively, and they forced China to open itself up to Western trade and Western industrial might. The result was that Chinese industries, which were not industrialized, were devastated, the economy of China was flooded with cheap goods, and China slid into a century of Western economic domination that only ended with the Chinese Revolution in 1949.

This brings me back to the situation today. China holds $2.85 trillion worth of bonds and other assets in dollars. Why do they do this? The answer is a delicious irony. China is becoming a manufacturing powerhouse, and they are aggressively growing their economy through manufacturing iPhones and cheap televisions. Their markets for these cheap goods are the Western countries, where they can undersell and out produce American and European manufacturers and dominate the market.

To do this, however, they need two things: Westerners who can afford their goods, and cheap labor in China to keep prices low. Currency exchange is a way to do this. Basically, the Chinese government has adopted an economic development strategy that revolves around exporting lots and lots of goods, and then making sure that the money they earn goes into investment not workers’ pockets. At the same time, to keep this system going, the Chinese have to keep American and European buying power high, so they can buy lots of iPhones. Currency exchange is the key. If they can keep the U.S. dollar artificially high, then Chinese exports to America are cheap for Americans, and American exports to China are expensive for the Chinese, because Chinese workers will get paid a pittance per hour in American dollar terms.

How do you keep the dollar high? Buy up huge amounts of dollar assets, skewing demand on the international currency markets. China is basically inflating American currency, and the U.S. government has repeatedly complained about this and even accused China of currency price fixing. China, however, cannot really just stop doing it. First of all, the trade imbalance with the United States is now self-reinforcing, as low-priced Chinese goods bring dollars to China, and dollars in China keep the cost of Chinese goods low in America. They could sell off their reserves of bonds, but by this time the Chinese reserves are so massive that if they tried to sell them off, they would skew the international currency markets in the other direction, destroying the value of the dollar and causing the value of their reserves to plummet—they could lose literally billions of dollars.

So what should they do? That is the $2.85 trillion question, but in the meantime, we can all appreciate the irony of the reversal of fortunes, as China, the manufacturing powerhouse makes money on America and Europe and manipulates the currency exchange, a century and a half after the British and Americans tried to do the same in the other direction.

The Middle East as the Center of the World (or not)

From the end of World War II until the present, the American population has been acutely aware of the Middle East. From the founding of Israel to the Six-Day War, from the Iran Hostage situation to the Iran Contra Affair, from the Persian Gulf War to the Bush 43-era invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has been involved in the Middle East, often militarily, for much of the last sixty years. From our perspective now, the Middle East appears important in a way that Peru, for instance, or Mongolia, just isn’t.

But has the Middle East always been important in world affairs, a focus of attention of nations far removed geographically from the region? The history of the Middle East’s importance is a surprisingly volatile one, and it serves in some ways as a symbol of world history, a barometer of what the world was like.

The Middle East is, of course, the cradle of civilization and agriculture. The first settled agricultural societies were in Sumeria, in modern Iraq, and as a result, the first cities, some of the earliest writing systems, and the first literature (The Epic of Gilgamesh) all came from the Middle East. For the first millennium or two of human civilization, the Middle East was the center of the world.

Over the centuries, however, other civilizations emerged and grew. China developed into a powerhouse, India developed vast empires and distinguished cultures, and the Mediterranean developed its own civilizations. By the classical age, the world had a sort of two-poled existence, with China’s Han Dynasty at one end, and the Roman Empire at the other.  Because the technology of the time lent itself only to overland trade between these poles, the Middle East was still a wealthy area, but in terms of technology, military power, and the ornaments of what we would call civilization, it was not the center of the world any longer.

This shifted again with the fall the Han Dynasty (220C.E.) and of Rome (476 C.E.). China and Europe entered into periods of stagnation that lasted hundreds of years. The Middle East, on the other hand, stormed back into prominence with the rise of Islam, and then the golden age of the Muslim Empires, especially the Abbasid Caliphate (749-1258). From the 900s to the 1200s, the Muslim World was perhaps the most scientifically and culturally advanced civilization in the world (although you could make a case for China).

One reason for the Muslim World’s importance and power during this time was geography. As China, under the Tang and Song Dynasties, prospered and grew economically, and as Europe reawakened in the 900s, trade grew dramatically, and the Middle East was the center of the non-American trade networks. After the 800s, seaborne trade routes connected the east coast of Africa to Egypt and the Persian Gulf, and then extended to India, Malaysia, and China. A separate network of sealanes criss-crossed the Mediterranean, connecting Egypt, Syria and Constantinople to Europe and North Africa. Overland trade routes also all converged on the Muslim world. Trans-Saharan camel caravans linked the empires of Mali, Ghana and Songhai to Egypt and Morocco and Tunisia, and then to Europe across the sea. The Spice Routes and Silk Roads also connected the Middle East to India and China by land routes. Trade made the Abbasid Caliphate the center of the world once more.

After 1500, however, this began to shift. The European revolution in navigation and shipbuilding in the 1400s and 1500s changed the trade maps of the world. Europeans connected the Americas to Eurasia and Africa, and then sailed around Africa to reach India and China directly. Then they started crossing the Pacific to link the Americas to Asia.  The large European ships that could cross open oceans meant that shipping goods was cheaper and safer than sending them overland, and sea routes no longer had to hug coastlines. The Middle East trade cities and ports were suddenly less necessary, and the region entered on a long period of decline. By the 1700s the great civilizations of the world were in Europe and China, and the Middle East, under the Ottomans, slowly sank out of the group of world powers.

The First Industrial Revolution (the steam and railroad revolution) seemed to push the Middle East into utter irrelevance, as European goods and weapons flooded world markets, and European nations gobbled up colonies in Africa and Asia. The Ottoman Empire itself began to be eaten slowly by France and England and Russia over the course of the 19th century.

The Second Industrial Revolution (the revolution of petroleum and chemicals and electricity), however, changed the Middle East’s position once again. In the mid-19th century, Europeans and Americans learned how to refine and drill for fossil fuels, and by 1880s the modern gasoline-powered internal combustion engine was born. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the British Navy converted from coal-fired steam engines to diesel engines. This decision had world-shaking implications, for it meant that the British not only needed a steady supply of petroleum, but also that they needed fueling stations all around the world. Iran was one place that had proven petroleum reserves, and so in 1908 the British founded the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and then British Petroleum after that). The British dominated southern Iran in order to control the oil. By the 1920s, oil had been discovered in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq as well, and the Middle East rocketed back into global prominence.

As the age of the automobile dawned in the United States and Europe, and as the Two World Wars were run on gasoline and diesel, Middle Eastern oil became an increasingly precious strategic commodity. First Britain and France, and then the United States and the Soviet Union (to a lesser extent, since they have their own oil) all tried to control the Middle East in order to control the oil market. The West’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil was made most painfully obvious during the 1970s, as OPEC used embargoes to score political points, and send prices in Europe and the United States soaring.

What about the future? I think the age of Middle Eastern dominance because of petroleum is coming to an end, for two reasons. First, it is increasingly apparent to lots of people that petroleum cannot be the fuel of civilization forever. It will run out some day, and long before that it will get more expensive. Other energy sources will replace petroleum. Even in the short term, usage in Europe and Japan has fallen, and countries like Brazil that are developing and therefore seeing large increases in demand are using fuels like sugar-cane-based ethanol to offset petroleum needs. This move away from petroleum is a long-term trend, however, and it might take a century or two all told.  The second reason the Middle East might fade in global importance is in the nearer future: new oil technologies. Over the last decade or so, new technologies have allowed Canada and the United States to get petroleum from shale and tar sands, and this in turn has opened up huge new reserves of petroleum here in North America. In addition, technologies like fracking have led to a boom in natural gas production. American petroleum production had been falling steadily from the 1970s to about 2008 or so, but since then has climbed rapidly. In the short term, then, the Middle East will have more competition in oil production, and in the long term, the world will move away from oil altogether. The Middle East’s importance to world energy production will slowly decline.

Will the Middle East find another route to prominence, another way to become the center of the world? In the end, the early importance of the Middle East was due to a central location between Africa, Asia and Europe, and the difficulties of travel that made that pivotal nexus so important. Once travel became easier, the Middle East’s importance rested on production of fuel for that travel. In the future, however, I think easy travel with non-petroleum fuels will mean that Middle Easterners will have to find other sources of influence if they want to remain important to nations around the world.