Sep 25

Failsafe

I just sent the following letter to the Boston Globe
after reading Elaine Scarry’s excellent piece Failsafe!:


Congratulations on having the bravery to publish Elaine
Scarry’s “Failsafe”. She is right to point out that distributed
threats require distributed countermeasures. She is right to point out
that centralized defense of the U.S. massively failed us. She is
right to point out that the founders of the U.S. envisioned citizens,
not standing armies, as the backbone of the nation’s defense.

After all that argument and build-up, it is only unfortunate
that she stopped short of the logical conclusion: that to prevent
future hijackings, the logical course is to arm the passengers.

The extension to other situations involving crime, terrorism, and
politics (insofar as the three are distinguishable at all) is left
as an exercise for the reader.

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Sep 21

Defeating Hussein Without Government

The aftermath of 9/11 is a hard time to be an anarchist.

For many years before the WTC came down I believed that America
could be better defended by have no government than by the system we
have now, I imagined a nation of heavily armed militias, without
the power-projection capabilities of a conventional military but
with the capability to inflict a world of grief on an invader — and
with nobody having the authority to tell them to surrender. We
could have a home defense better than Switzerland’s, our larger
population and longer distances doing for us what mountainous terrain
does for the Swiss.

There would still be a place in an anarchist America for
professional soldiers — not many, but a few heavy troop formations
would be kept on retainer by consortia of insurance companies. Yes, I
said insurance companies, that’s because how free markets socialize
shared risks. Normal law enforcement would be funded by pools set up
by vendors of crime insurance looking to reduce their payouts;
national defense and overseas power projection (to the extent the term
still had meaning in a stateless society) would be funded by people
who bought war insurance (say, businesses with overseas assets to
protect).

These measures, I was and am convinced, would stop conventional
wars of conquest dead in their tracks. Invade a nation of 350,000,000
libertarians, most of them routinely armed? Yeah. Right. Any
War-College-trained military officer will tell you that urban warfare
against guerrillas on their home ground chews up armies faster than
anything else. Witness Stalingrad.

Without a government, many of the reasons people might go
to war against America would also vanish. No entangling alliances, no
foreign policy to object to. Conventional terrorism would become a
lot dicier proposition in a libertarian anarchy, too — as in
Israel, where armed civilians have on numerous occasions thwarted
attempted massacres by shooting back. And, of course, the WTC would
probably still be standing if the passengers had been
armed…

I grew up in the shadow of the Soviet threat. Theirs was an evil,
evil system, but they were at bottom geopolitically rational. They
calculated their chances very cold-bloodedly, and never pushed the
big red button. An ungoverned America would have stood them off, I
believe, long enough for the inevitable Hayekian collapse to remove
the problem.

But now we face the prospect of weapons of mass destruction dropping
into the hands of people who are behaviorally indistinguishable from
stone psychotics. That prospect poses problems of a different nature
than Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union ever did. Because what Al-Qaeda
wants is not driven or constrained by geopolitics, by pragmatism, by a
rational estimation of risk and reward. They have no population to
answer to even in the limited sense that Hitler and Stalin did. They
were madmen, but they were constrained by the necessities of leading
a country.

Under the present system, I see no alternative to state action as a
way to suppress this threat, up to and including conventional warfare
and the proconsular occupation of significant parts of the Arab world.
I am not happy with this evaluation; war is the health of the State,
and statism is the most lethal enemy humanity will ever know short of
a giant meteor strike (those who think this statement hyperbolic are
recommended to read Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror”). The
question that drives this essay is whether, supposing the
U.S. were to become a market anarchy, there would be other means to
the same end.

It’s a tough case. Al-Qaeda would not hate us any less; it is not,
at bottom, U.S. policy that enrages them, it is the fact of our wealth
and freedom and refusal to submit to the One True Way of Allah. An
ungoverned America, more wealthy and more free by the exact measure
that its productive capacity is spent efficiently on a network of
security agencies and judicial associations rather than being wasted
on the support of parasitic government, would hardly enrage them
less.

Al-Qaeda in itself is not an exceptional threat; in a properly
armed society the 9/11 hijackers would never even have tried
their stunt, because they would known that the certain outcome was
death in a hail of civilian bullets. It is the combination of
Al-Qaeda-like suicidal fanaticism with state sponsorship (specifically
the ability to produce chemical/biological/nuclear weapons) that
strains the anarcho-libertarian theory of national self-defense, It
does so by dramatically lowering the cost of aggression for both
sets of bad guys; the fanatics get the capability to strike a
hammer-blow at the Great Satan, and their state sponsors get
deniable cat’s paws.

It is worth pointing out, however, that it strains the statist
theory of self-defense almost as badly. A governed U.S. has the
neo-imperialist option (conquer Iraq, install Colin Powell as
miltary governor, and try to transform the place as we transformed
Japan), and that may even appear to be the option with the lowest
odds of catastrophic failure, but we don’t actually have any clue
whether this will actually work — Al-Qaeda might well
be able to get their bombs from the failing states of former-Soviet
Central Asia, or from North Korea. The historical situation
is truly unprecedented.

Harder than the theoretical problem, perhaps, is the practical one.
How to oppose that expansion of state power without acting as an
unwilling enabler for the terrorists? In some ways that’s easy;
pushing to abolish all the police-state bullshit at airports is
a no-brainer, since tiger-team tests of the system consistently show
that none of it has made smuggling weapons on board more difficult
(now, as before 9/11, approximately 30% of attempts succeed).

In a wider sense, though, it’s a very difficult question. One I
will be thinking about — and possibly writing about — in the
coming months.

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Sep 19

Imperialists by necessity?

Steven den Beste wrote a long, intelligent and insightful essay on who the enemy is. I think he is right to see Afghanistan, Iraq, and the suppression of Al-Qaeda as phases of longer, wider war — a clash of civilizations driven by the failure of Islamic/Arab culture (though I would stress the problem of the Islamic commandment to jihad more than he does). I think he is also right to say that our long-term objective must be to break, crush and eventually destroy this culture, because we can’t live on the same planet with people who both carry those memes and have access to weapons of mass destruction. They will hate us and seek to destroy us not for what we’ve done but for what we are.

I wonder if Steve sees what this implies in the longer time horizon, though? The cultures that produced Al-Qaeda, despite swimming in oil wealth that should have made it easy, have failed in all essential ways to join the modern world. They mutilate the genitalia of the female half of their population, they educate only a vanishingly small number of scientists and engineers, and their politics is a perpetual brawl conducted by tribes with flags. Their capability to get with even the 20th century on their own has been tested and found wanting, let alone the 21st.

Steve may well be right that the only solution to a festering boil like Iraq or Saudi Arabia starts with military defeat, Western occupation, and a forced restructuring of society along the lines of what Douglas MacArthur did to the Japanese after 1945.

I used to think we could corrupt Islamism out of existence, make it fat and lazy with cheap consumer goods and seduce it with porn. Maybe that would be the best way to go if we had two generations to solve the problem. But if the likes of Hussein are breeding botulism and about to get his hands on nukes, we’ve run out of time. We can’t afford the soft option if the price of futzing around might be a mushroom cloud over Manhattan, or over Tel Aviv.

We must win. And we must impose our will and our culture on the losers, not for old-fashioned reasons like gold or oil or craving conquest, but because the likely alternative is nuclear megadeath, plague in our home cities, and the smell of Sarin in the morning. Is there anyone left who doubts that Saddam Hussein, who nerve-gassed Iraqis by the hundreds of thousands in the 1980s, would use nukes if he had them?

There’s a word for the process of conquering a third-world pesthole and imposing your culture on it. It’s called imperialism.

In the 19th century, the Western powers built empires for prestige and economic advantage. In the 21st century, we may be discovering that we need to get back into the imperialism business as a matter of survival. It may turn out that the 20th century was an interlude doomed to end as cheap transportation made the world smaller and improving weapons technology made large-scale destruction inexpensive even for barbarian thugs like Saddam Hussein.

Envy the British of Sir Richard Burton’s time. They could conquer half the world for simple gain without worrying about the Fuzzy-Wuzzies or the Ndebele aerosol-dropping pasteurella pestis on Knightsbridge. We — and I mean specifically the U.S. now — may have to conquer the Islamic world a second time, simply because the risks of war and the moral hazards of imperialism are less threatening than the prospect of some Allah-crazed Islamofascist detonating a knapsack nuke on the Smithsonian Mall.

I’m not joking about the moral hazards of imperialism, either. They may be a more serious danger to a free society than the short-term exigencies of war. Witness the fact that I, a radical libertarian anarchist for more than twenty years, find myself arguing for a position not all that easy to distinguish from reactionary military expansionism. Urgent survival threats make strange bedfellows. And it is all too plausible that. if we take this path, we might degenerate from imperialists by necessity to imperialists by habit and predilection.

Still. Reality is what it is. If there’s no way short of straight-up imperialism and nation-building all over the Islamic world to prevent a holocaust on American or European soil that would make 9/11 look like a garden party, then that’s what we’re going to have to do — civilize the barbarians at the point of a gun.

There is precedent; the British did a pretty good job of civilizing India and we did a spectacularly effective one on Japan. And the U.S. would be well equipped to do it again; our economy is now so large that we could run a globe-spanning empire from the petty-cash drawer. Seriously. The U.S, a hyperpower so dominant that no imaginable coalition of other nations could defeat it at conventional warfare, spends a ridiculously low percentage of GNP (6%, if I recall correctly) on its military.

Civilizing the barbarians needn’t even be a bloody process if you start the job right after their will has been smashed by a major defeat in war. The U.S. burned essentially every major Japanese city except Kyoto to the ground with incendiaries during World War Two and then atom-bombed two of them. This seemed to help. It would be nice if we didn’t have to get so drastic this time, but it might come to that yet; judging by measures like relative GDP and number of Nobel prizes earned, the Arab/Islamic world is actually further behind the civilization curve than the Japanese were in their militarist phase. They may need to be smashed flatter before a latter-day MacArthur will be able to do anything with them.

Some of my readers will be creaming in horror. Imperialism? Barbarians? How dare I use such language? How dare I argue that the U.S. has the right to commit deliberate cultural genocide?

There’s a big hole in the ground in Manhattan. That’s my argument.

If Pearl Harbor was good enough reason for us to conquer Japan and run it like a proconsulate until the Japanese learned manners, then 9/11 was damn good and sufficient reason for us to do the same number on the Islamists. That meant Afghanistan, it means Iraq, and down the road it may mean Saudi Arabia as well.

History is not over.

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Sep 18

So, Howell Raines isn’t a complete waste of air

The NYT ran a
pro-Linux editorial
today.

That’s good. They had to slip their “communitarian” spin in there, though, as if Linux hackers are all a bunch of PBS-worshiping Mother Jones readers and natural suckers for the fuzzy-sweater cause of the week.

Hah. If they only knew. I’m not going to say my gun-toting
red-meat libertarianism is typical, because it isn’t. Actually
the mass centroid of hackers’ politics is a lot like the
blogosphere’s, a sort of soft-libertarianism-leaning-towards-conservatism or vice-versa
(the centroid used to be further left but a lot has changed in the last decade).
Much less radical than me, but still enough to give the likes
of Raines a bad case of the vapors.

But let’s keep that our little secret, OK? If Raines wants to believe that open-source people are some kind of cross between Greenpeace and the Ethical Culture Society, that’s just fine. We’ll
take the Gray Lady’s backing. It’s another small step on the road to world domination.

The day will come when we will be the guys running the
world’s entire digital infrastructure (not such a stretch; we
already run the Internet). Our example will teach Howell’s
kids stuff about the power of decentralization and voluntary cooperation, all the things leftists pay lip-service to until the
last second before they’d have to actually apply them. And
the world will change out from under him. Subtly. Powerfully.
And in ways he can’t guess at yet.

It should be a fun ride.

Sep 17

Living With Microsoft

In today’s episode of the Microsoft follies, we learned that
Media Player 9
is un-uninstallable
. Deliberately.

A A Microsoft spokesthing confirmed that Media Player 9 is so deeply
integrated into the operating system that it cannot be removed without
doing a `system restore’. Which, incidentally, will wipe out your
Office installation.

It’s at times like this that, contemplating Microsoft users, one
feels as though one is wandering among people lashing themselves with
stinging nettles until blood runs off them in rivulets. One wants to
know why they don’t just stop. One is told “But it’s the
standard!”

One shakes one’s head bemusedly.

They pay heavily for the privilege of lashing themselves, too.
Except for those blessed, blissful occasions on which they pay still
more, grease themselves, bend over, and prepare to be buggered by a
chainsaw. That’s called a “System Upgrade”.

One contemplates the uptime figures on one’s Linux box and
feels — admit it! — a bit smug.

Comment

Sep 13

When there’s nothing left to say, self-parody is the way

I’m just, barely, old enough to remember the anti-war Leftists of
the 1960s and 1970s. I disagreed with them over Vietnam then, and
I disagree with the anti-war Left’s agitation against a war on Iraq
today. But as I read what comes out of minds of people like Robert
Fisk and Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag these days, I wonder if I’m
getting old and allowing a golden haze to cloud my recollection of
past decades. Because I find myself feeling almost nostalgic for
the anti-Vietnam-war Left.

Yes, yes, I still think “Hanoi Jane” and her crowd were basically
wrong. Wrong about the consequences of a North Vietnamese victory
(Communists turn out to be murderously repressive — what a shock!);
wrong about the motives and interests of the U.S.; wrong about almost
everything except the level of incompetence, buffoonery, and myopia
afflicting the generals and politicians running that war.

But there was one important difference. The anti-Vietnam-war Left
may have been deluded and prone to masturbating in front of Che
Guevara posters…but if you sifted through enough of their ranting
you could detect the outlines of a principled case, or several
principled cases. There was one argument on which they persuaded me;
though I was not of draftable age, I found I agreed with them that the
military draft was an intolerable form of slavery years before I
encountered Robert Heinlein’s pithy objurgation that “A nation that
cannot find enough volunteers to defend itself will not survive
— and does not deserve to.”

But try as I might, I can’t detect a principled case anywhere in today’s
anti-war Left. Which is all the more curious since I think they
could be making one. Several, in fact: starting with the argument
that we should abandon the path of war not even because of what it does
to our enemies but because of what it does to ourselves. At every
level from the personal to the political, warfare is a brutalizing
experience that erodes our freedoms and empowers the nastiest elements
of human psyches and societies.

There are principled responses to that case, but that particular
argument is not my point. My point is that today’s anti-war
rhetoric, as exemplified by reports on a planned September 11
“Teach-In and Panel regarding Oppression” at UCLA, never seems
to even confront the question of whether war against Afghanistan and Iraq
is justified by the Islamist threat. Instead, the topic is “U.S. Law
and Policy Against Immigrants of Color”, as if there is any kind of
equivalence between the U.S.’s border policies and the catastrophic
mass murder of 2,500 people.

There is a curious kind of evasiveness at work here. We can see it
at work in the arid deconstructionism of Susan Sontag’s NYT op-ed, Real
Battles and Empty Metaphors
. Even the title announces that she’s
going to lucubrate about the relationship between language and
reality, not confront reality itself. A similar denial is evident
it the rhetoric of Noam Chomsky; prodded for commentary on the war,
he recites a litany of past American wrongdoing as if that somehow
banishes the question of how soon Saddam Hussein will have nuclear
weapons and what he will do with them when he gets them.

Maybe I’m getting senile, but it seems to me that the Left of my
teens was in better contact with reality than today’s crew. There
really was a military-industrial complex and the desire for war
profits probably did drive some of the political support for the
Vietnam war. The military-industrial complex is still with us today,
but the Left seems to have forgotten even the little it once knew
about political economics and isn’t even bothering to raise that
issue. Perhaps this amnesia is a post-traumatic effect of watching
Marx take a header into the dustbin of history; we’ve come to strange
days indeed when I have to conclude that my libertarian self could
easily write a better Marxist critique of Dubya’s war propaganda than
anyone on the Left has yet issued in public.

Instead, what we’re seeing is a rhetoric that is half a retreat
into language-chopping and half an expression of contempt for the
U.S. — contempt so out of balance that it’s doomed to be tuned out by
anyone less far to the left than the unlamented former Congresswoman
Cynthia McKinney.

When did the Left descend into such empty self-parody? And why?

Watching “real existing socialism” self-destruct must have been
part of it. I speculated on the psychological effects of that
political collapse in a previous essay Socialists
to the Stars
, about Scottish SF writers Ken McLeod and Iain Banks.
But something weirder and more diffuse happened to the Left on
this side of the pond, and I’m not sure what it was.

Some days I wonder if Greg Egan, the reclusive West Australian
author who has produced some of the best hard SF of the last decade,
may not have called it right in the following passage from his novel
“Teranesia”:

“Feminism was working, and the civil rights movement was working, and
all the other social justice movements were getting more and more
support. So, in the 1980s, the CIA [...] hired some really clever
linguists to invent a secret weapon; an incredibly complicated way of
talking about politics that didn’t actually make any sense, but which
spread through all the universities in the world, because it sounded
so impressive. And at first, the people who talked like this just
hitched their wagon to the social justice movements, and everyone else
let them come along for the ride, because they seemed harmless. But
then they climbed on board the peace train and threw out the driver.”

“So instead of going to the people in power and saying, `How about
upholding the universal principles you claim to believe in?’ the
people in the social justice movements ended up saying things like `My
truth narrative is in conflict with your truth marrative!’. And the
people in power replied `Woe is me! You’ve thrown me into the briar
patch!’ And everyone else said `Who are these idiots? Why should we
trust them when they can’t even speak properly?’ And the CIA was
happy. And the people in power were happy. And the secret weapon
lived on in the universities for years and years, because everyone
who’d played a part in the conspiracy was too embarrassed to admit
what they’d done,”

Egan’s account is implausible only because it seems unlikely that
the CIA is quite that subtle. But he’s right in pointing out that the
rise of the language of postmodernism — the sterile, involuted,
pseudo-profundity famously skewered by the Sokal Hoax
— seems to be an important correlate of the decline of the
American Left.

Self-parody is where you end up when you have nothing left to say.
And when all you can talk about is `discourse’ that’s a damn short road,

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