Random thoughts, 13 June 2009

2009/06/13

So, the Iranians have concluded their vote tallying, and apparently, President Ahmadinejad has won in a landslide. [1] Despite claims from his opposition that the vote counts were manipulated in favor of the incumbent. I am reminded here of a quote from the film, Gangs of New York, which, while probably invented, perfectly encapsulates the common attitude of 19C political machines towards fair elections:

Remember the first rule of politics. The ballots don’t make the results, the counters make the results. The counters. Keep counting! -attributed to Boss Tweed

Of course, a republic would never do such a thing to its own citizens, right? Of course, it is also entirely possible that Ahmadinejad won the election legitimately; he was, after all, popularly elected the first time.

Actually, this brings to mind a common and misleading aspect of many authoritarian regimes around the world, namely, their efforts at self-promotion and public misdirection. Many nations around the world pay lip service to the notion of popular elections [2] and representative democracy, particularly those that do anything but support such noble goals. Consider, for example, the official name of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran. While the president of Iran may be the titular authority, true political power rests the Supreme Leader (currently Ali Khameni), who is selected from within the ranks of the Iranian clerics, but is not popularly elected; strictly speaking, the four Islamic Republics of the world are theocracies, i.e., they are ruled by religious authority. Consider also the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which is effectively a military dictatorship (more or less). Of course, this is not new; during the Great Red Scare, many Soviet satellite states declared themselves to be representatives of the people. Indeed, the Soviet Union itself utilized this form of deception, its official name being the Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, often abbreviated U.S.S.R., or its Cyrillic equivalent, C.C.C.P.). Other examples include the People’s Republic of China (Red China or the PRC, as opposed to Taiwan, which is officially the Republic of China or the ROC), the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, more commonly known as North Korea, as opposed to South Korea, which is the Republic of Korea or ROK), the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (D.D.R., the German Democratic Republic, more commonly known as East Germany), and the República Bolivariana de Venezuela (the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, also known as Hugo Chávez’ personal playground). I will also note that some of the nations that best exemplify the republican principle [3] do not resort to such marketing in their official names: the United States of America, for example, is a federal republic [4] and has been since its inception; the United Kingdom, while technically a monarchy, is actually a republic (of sorts), and not really a monarchy at all. Granted, there are also instances of true republics using the terms in their names, such as the Bundesrepublik Deutscheland (the Federal Republic of Germany, originally applied to West Germany, and now used by the unified Germany) and the République Française (the Republic of France). [5] Of course, in these such cases, the evidence implies that these nations are actually being honest.

Oh, and speaking of petty dictatorships, the DPRK has officially announced its intention to weaponize whatever stores of plutonium they currently possess. [6] This, of course, comes in response to the new United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874, [7] which was unanimously adopted yesterday – including approval from the DPRK’s strongest allies, Russia and China. I suppose even the latter have limits to their patience, particularly when faced with such petulantcy. While we should, of course, be worried about this sort of escalation, it may still be quite a while before the DPRK manages to weaponize their plutonium stores. Keep in mind that their first nuclear test (back in 2006) is widely considered to be a fizzle, i.e., since its yield was probably less than 1 kT, it probably failed miserably; clearly, their nuclear weapons engineering capabilities are not terribly sophisticated. By contrast, our first three nuclear detonations – the first of their kind, mind you – were completely successful. [8] Note that this does not mean that the DPRK will never develop successful weapons, merely that their development programs are not quite as sophisticated as ours or the Soviets’ during the Cold War, and it may take them longer to develop such weapons. We should (obviously) continue to monitor the situation, but at present, there appears to be very little danger of Korean bombs dropping on our west coast cities.

And in other international news, appeasement works! [9] Or, at the very least, it makes our enemies appear a bit more receptive to us than they otherwise would be. Of course, such popularity, in this case, comes at the price of demanding costly sacrifices on the part of one of our allies so that we can appease one of our enemies. Methinks we may want to reconsider such thinking. Demanding one of our allies to weaken themselves to placate an enemy does not seem like wise foreign policy, particularly when said enemy has the disturbing habit of ignoring prior agreements when it suits them. As Machiavelli once wrote,

[One] cannot and should not keep his word when such an observance would be to his disadvantage, and when the reasons that caused him to make a promise are removed. If men were all good, this precept would not be good. But since men are a wicked lot and will not keep their promises to you, you likewise need not keep yours to them. [10]

Then again, who even reads Machiavelli, anyways? He was just some social deviant who supported despots and tyrants, right? [11] Of course, I also wonder whether we should simply revert to our Cold War SOP, namely, condemning attacks on Israel, while supplying the latter with advanced weapons and technology, and letting the various sides fight it out. Maybe they’ll eventually get tired of war. Or they’ll kill each other off. Or the Israelis will mop the floor with their enemies, as they have in the past (note: this is my preferred option; its always fun when a small, outnumbered nation manages to beat the snot out of their opponents). Regardless, this is the sort of personality approval for which I have little interest or tolerance; such benefits are wholly dependent not on the strengths of our Republic (there it goes again…), but on the personality of a currently-popular individual. And to be perfectly honest, I prefer to admiration and support of a legitimate nation to the approval of a group of barbarians whose primary form of diplomacy appears to be firing unguided rockets and sending suicide bombers against civilian targets. But I suppose the President knows best, and we should be happy that he now has the approval of some of the world’s barbarian populations. Because the latter are so worthy of engagement and political legitimacy. I suspect that the Romans harbored similar thoughts in the early Fifth Century. [12]

Meanwhile, in domestic news, NASA has had to postpone the launch of the Shuttle Endeavor due to a hydrogen leak. [13] Granted, space travel has never been a simple affair, but the Space Shuttle has often been described as extraordinarily complex (sometimes, it is also described as being needlessly so). While the hyperbole is probably unwarranted, it is worth mentioning that the Apollo Missions were sent aloft on a launch vehicle that was also extremely complex, yet it flew with a perfect operational record – the nigh-mythical Saturn V. Granted, the Saturn V was not a re-usable launch vehicle, but considering the costs involved in launching the Space Shuttle, the loss of each fuel tank (the primary fuel tank must be jettisoned after the Shuttle leaves the atmosphere, so we lose this tank when it burns up on re-entry), not to mention the spectacular disasters associated with the Shuttle and its components, one wonders if we would not have been better off without it. Consider also that the Shuttle’s maximum payload capacity to LEO (Low Earth Orbit) is 50,000 lbs, the payload capacity of the Saturn V was just over five times that amount, at 260,000 lbs. Indeed, given the new direction of NASA’s launch vehicles, i.e. the Orion capsule and its associated launch vehicles (Ares I, IV, & V), one wonders if it would not have been more productive to find ways of integrating the Saturn V technologies into a re-useable vehicle, instead of the radically different direction taken with the Space Shuttle. While their new efforts are applaudable, it should also be pointed out that much of it appears to be highly reminescent of technologies originally employed over 40 years ago.

Finally, the AP has published an article concerning the danger of home-grown, “lone-wolf” terrorists, such as the white supremacist who fatally shot a guard at the National Holocaust Museum, or the anti-abortion fanatic who killed an abortion doctor in Kansas. [14] As President Jackson once famously stated, “…remember, my fellow-citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing.” The alternative to citizen vigilance, of course, is Fedgov intrusion into private affairs, “to protect us from ourselves,” and this is a price I do not ever want to pay. Remember also that even such fanatics as those previously mentioned are often not without friends of their own, and that, as such, the failure is not one of law enforcement or the government, but that of those closest to said individuals who did not act, even if they felt suspicious about them. Note also that this is a common underlying situation in the various school shootings that have taken place in recent memory, wherein the parents of these child barbarians publicly attempt to absolve themselves of any culpability in their offspring’s lack of social conscience by claiming that “they never thought it was that bad,” or some other such fantasy. But of course, it is not the responsibility of a parent to raise their children with a moral compass, or of a friend to occasionally verify that their friends and acquiantances are not emotionally disturbed, right? Of course not! We should rely on the government to do this for us! [**]

Notes:

[1]: Washington Post article, 13 June 2009.

[2]: “Popular” in this case refers to its original meaning, “of the people,” from the Latin populus, meaning “the people.”

[3]: Again, lest you get yourselves in a twist, I refer here not to the party of the same name, but to the general principle of a republic, wherein the interests of the citizens are represented by popularly elected officials. In theory, both of our (American) political parties can thus be described as “republican,” as both support our nation’s system of government – despite claims that one side or the other is trying to subvert the same. Nominally, both are still committed to working within the existing framework of the government as laid out in the Federal Constitution.

[4]: Yes, that’s right…our grand Republic is not a democracy, despite claims to the contrary. While neither our national description nor the Federal Constitution employ the term, it is a commonly applied distortion of reality that politicians often use to harness the visceral appeal of the concept. In reality, pure democracies are practically impossible for nation as large as ours, and are only really effective in very, very small, tightly-knit communities (and perhaps, not even there). There are numerous criticisms of pure democracies in the political writings of the 18C and 19C; these criticisms are, in fact, not without merit. [*] Our nation is a federation because it is a (relatively) loose alliance of sovereign states (yes, that’s right; each of the 50 states retains its own sovereignty within its borders), and it is a republic because the national government represents both the citizens of the federation (via the House of Representatives) and the sovereign states (via the Senate in its original incarnation) through the national legislature (Congress). This is why you will often find my posts referring to our nation as “our Republic,” “the Republic,” etc. Linguistic accuracy is important, but this is a discussion for another time.

[*]: Unless, of course, you believe that the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, et al., are not worth consideration, that is.

[5]: One can hardly blame the French, of course, given their tumultuous history during the 18C & 19C: the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy, only to be replaced by mob rule and the pseudo-republic that is more commonly known as the Reign of Terror, which was subsequently ended by…Napoleon, who resurrected the titles of Consul, and later, Emperor. Napoleon was eventually overthrown and replaced by…a re-established monarchy, which was itself unseated by yet another republic. Then they were bitch-slapped by the Nazis in World War II, and finally established their current government, the Fourth Republic, after the War. One can easily understand why the French would not want to describe themselves as a kingdom, nor any other titles associated with monarchs, emperors, etc. Man, you can’t make up this sort of thing; this is their actual history!

[6]: guardian.co.uk article, 13 June 2009.

[7]: Full text of the Resolution is not yet available on the UNSC website, though it should be available soon. See here for the UNSC website; there’s a link to their Resolutions, which should (eventually) list Resolution 1874, as well.

[8]: The first-ever nuclear weapon detonation took place on 16 July 1945 at White Sands Proving Ground; the test, code-named Trinity, employed an implosion-type plutonium weapon that successfully detonated with a nominal yield of 20 kT. The two bombs subsequently dropped on Japan in August 1945 also successfully detonated with nominal yields of ~15kT (Little Boy, at Hiroshima) and ~21 kT (Fat Man, at Nagasaki). See here and here for descriptions of the Trinity test and the nuclear bombings of Japan, respectively (Wikipedia articles). Note that due to its historic significance, nuclear weapons yields are sometimes expressed as multiples of the Little Boy yield (e.g. x times Hiroshima), as the dual bombings of Japan were extensively studied after World War II, and are also the only known examples of nuclear weapons being detonated over actual cities.

[9]: Jerusalem Post article, 11 June 2009.

[10]: Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XVIII: How a Prince Should Keep His Word, Paragraph 3.

[11]: Actually, he wasn’t, but one would have to actually read his works to know that, as opposed to interpreting his words sans context, which is so much easier.

[12]: 476 CE is generally considered to mark the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. While Rome herself continued to exist as a population center, as well as the center of power for the Catholic Church (which, in the absence of secular political authorities, became a political force in its own right post-collapse), the remainder of the Roman Empire crumbled into smaller nation-states that would engage in nigh-constant warfare over the course of the next 1,500 years. Indeed, the 500 years following the collapse of the Roman Empire are colloquially known as the Dark Ages, as European civilization truly struggled to survive and had little energy left to do such things as record written histories and other such esoteric tasks. See here for a description of the decline and collapse of the Western Roman Empire (Wikipedia article). Of course, we, in our enlightened situation, have nothing to learn from these such events, right?

[13]: ABC News article, 13 June 2009.

[14]: Associated Press article, 13 June 2009.

[**]: Again, sarcasm intended.

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