Monday, July 31, 2017

WORDS MEAN (damn it): "Existential Threat"/"The United States"

A Congressional talking head on CNN or MSNBC this morning talked about a nuclear-armed North Korea as an existential threat to the United States. He needed to specify what he meant by "the United States." 

If he meant the American Republic, he definitely had a point: one enemy bomb going off in an American city — hell, one "friendly-fire" nuclear explosion — and many Americans and most of the US government would totally panic, and we'd be under some variety of martial law for the foreseeable future.

So, yeah, a North Korean nuclear capability and their willingness to use it against the US and what is in some ways admirable — an American horror of very large numbers of dead Americans: that combination is a threat to the existence of the American Republic.

North Korean military assets taken all together, including a fair number of nuclear warheads, is not, however, a threat to the United States in the sense of the American state or the American nation — not even if you define the American nation as only real Americans as in White, conservative, Christians (preferably Protestants in the Knox/Calvin/Puritan/Fundamentalist tradition). 

During World War II, the Germans under Hitler and Russians under Stalin did a fair job destroying states — Poland for a key example — but that was done as conscious policy and with a few lawyers and many serial killers on the ground, not by bombing cities. When the British and Americans air forces showed what aerial bombing can do and wiped cities off the Earth, that still in itself did not destroy the German state nor the Japanese. And for nations, World War II and its run-up was the time of large purges, massive manufactured starvation, and attempted genocide, but no nation — i.e., a cultural/ethnic people — was destroyed in spite of very ... let's say energetic attempts to do so: not the Jews, not the Roma, nor the Poles.

In a course I finally named just "Massacres," my students reported the disturbing fact that in spite of the casualties of World War II — Matthew White counts some 66 million dead — the human population rose during the period, including in every theater of war except Germany's Eastern Front, what Timothy Snyder calls the Bloodlands. The human population of the United States is over 325 million, and even with the most bigoted, racist, exclusionary definition of "the American nation," we have enough people to survive a million casualties in a limited atomic attack and its deadly aftermath (disease, hunger, survivor violence).

General "Buck" Turgidson in DOCTOR STRANGELOVE (1964) is a sociopath in suggesting a massive, first-strike attack on the USSR, but he has a point on American casualties : "Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks." 

What is an existential threat to the United States as Republic, State, or nation; what is an existential threat to human civilization and perhaps the human species is full-scale thermonuclear war. And with full-scale (thermo)nuclear war we're not talking directly about North Korea but first and definitely foremost about the arsenals of Russia and the USA, plus France, China, and the United Kingdom.

To remove the existential threat to the United States et al. we need reductions down to the minimum for deterrence by the major nuclear powers.

Having said that, however, I'll add that I live next door to a deep-water port on the US Pacific coast, and I get to walk past very large container ships and don't have to wait for the North Koreans to develop full ICBM capacity to be concerned about delivery into my neighborhood of a nuclear warhead. That's not an existential threat or an immediate one or a likely one, but it bloody well is a threat, and it needs to be dealt with, as do the nuclear arsenals of Pakistan and India, and Israel. 

It's long past time for negotiations of a peace treaty ending the Korean War, one that prohibits nuclear weapons on or near the Korean Peninsula. It is also time for ensuring a nonnuclear Arabian Peninsula with cutbacks on Israeli bombs, and scaling back of nukes on the Indian subcontinent — and a renewed dedication to nuclear nonproliferation planet-wide so that the increased safety of scale-backs isn't negated. 

Here's a couple Old Rules! for you. (1) From writing courses: Cut modifiers as much as possible; let nouns and verbs do the work. (2) Mass murder doesn't have to be genocide to be a horrible act; threats don't have to be existential to be serious. So let's say, North Korean development of nuclear warheads and missiles to deliver them is a threat to their neighbors and to the United State; the American government should lead the way dealing with that threat, and use it as an occasion to work on even more horrific threats.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Climate and the World Turned Upside Down (A.D. 7th Century, 1st Century and a Bit A.H.)

         One of my favorite quotations is usually attributed to Ambrose Bierce or Mark Twain, and it'd be appropriate for either of them, though it's probable neither said it. I'll pass it along, though: "War is God's way of teaching American geography" — and suggest a variation: «Planning for war is a pressing invitation to learn some history.»

         Unlike many in their civilian leadership — Donald J. Trump for one — U.S. war planners and others represented in the figure of speech "the Pentagon" are looking very seriously at climate change as "a national security threat," and some quick history lessons can help drive home the point that they have good reason to do so.

         The major history lesson is in a book like The Great Warming (2008), which has as its subtitle Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. But Brian Fagan's book was researched and written recently, and he relates "The Great Warming" — the Medieval Climate Anomaly of ca. 800-1300 C.E. — very specifically to global warming nowadays, and stresses its threat of extended droughts. What might be more persuasive is some historical work done a good while before our time and therefore innocent of our current political debates — and on a topic very directly relevant for one national security issue.

         So here is an excerpt from James W. Thomson and Edgar N. Johnson's An Introduction to Medieval Europe: 300-1500 (New York: Norton, 1937) — again 1937 — from Chapter 7, "The Empire of the Arabs" (I have marked but left unchanged locutions neutral in 1937 but probably discourteous today). The topic is the Muslim conquests of what Christians call the 7th century and a bit thereafter, usually explained by both Muslims and historians from Christendom in religious terms. Thompson and Johnson have a different take.

          From these small beginnings at Medina the Arab church-state [sic] spread with prodigious rapidity. Within fifty years after Mohammed's death [in 632 C.E., 11 A.H.] it had conquered Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. Within one hundred years it had spread to the frontiers of India to the east, and to the west had swept across North Africa through Spain and beyond the Pyrenees. [Usual explanation for such success (an act of God for the faithful; for secular historians) political cohesion combined with, and mutually reinforcing, religious fanaticism. …]
          The facts are quite otherwise. In the first place, it is impossible at this early date to speak of Mohammedan [sic] fanaticism, except possibly in isolated instances. Mohammed himself in his conquest of Mecca displayed a fierce enough zeal; but in general no such militant intolerance as, for example, characterized the struggle of Christianity against paganism characterized Mohammedan expansion. The fanaticism of Islam is that of much later converts, and even so Mohammedanism has normally been marked in practice by its tolerance. […]
          In the second place, it is impossible to speak of Mohammed's creating any such thing as Arab unity, nor can it be supposed that in any substantial way the nomadic Arab tribes suddenly consolidated into a unified state after his death. […] [163-64]
         The expansion of the Arabs is best understood in the light of previous movements out of the desert into the neighboring Fertile Crescent. These were constant phenomena, to be explained by the vicissitudes of climactic conditions, which always drove nomadic peoples onwards. It is now known that for a long time previous to Mohammed there had been a gradual movement of Arabs into the adjoining Byzantine and Persian empires. […] The [Arabian] peninsula itself was experiencing a periodic desiccation, which made life within it ever more unbearable and drove its inhabitants to seek relief elsewhere. It seems, accordingly, highly probably that what occurred would have happened [given the weakness of Persia and Byzantium after prolonged war (and plague)] even without Mohammed and Islam. (166).

         A couple things here. First, when you hear people talk about "Islam vs. the West," tell them that to say nothing of geography — Islam has been or remains the dominant religion in regions clearly in the western part of the Old World — there is the commonplace in European history that Islam joins the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, and Germanic streams in the making of Medieval Europe. Second,  whether you accept the theory in Thompson and Johnson or not, note that in 1937 historians could find plausible that at least local long-term weather — "a periodic desiccation" — was a key factor in one of the most important political/military events in world history: the Islamic conquests and expansion leading to "The Empire of the Arabs" and, arguably, the final push taking western Europe from Late Antiquity into the early Medieval.

         Two common figures of speech for the countries on and around the Arabian Peninsula are "the Middle East" — how you'd see things if you're looking out from the British Isles toward your "Far East" — and "tinderbox": from a literal "box containing tinder, flint, a steel, and other items for kindling fires," and having as its tenor, "a potentially explosive place or situation."

         "Tinder" refers to dry slips of wood that you use for starting fires; "desiccation" means a drying out; in the Middle East and large areas in Africa, desiccation could get to desertification: taking dry areas to outright desert.

         And people will yet again move out, and there are few places to go nearby that (1) can support them and (2) do not have a lot of people already. Now add to that a large number of small-arms in the world and a fair number of people willing and able to sell not-so-small arms or teach how to make IEDs, and add to that the fairly recent and still vigorous development of Fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam, and fanatical varieties of the big three monotheisms and even in such fanaticism-resistant traditions as Hinduism and Buddhism.

         Take a tinderbox, add heat, wait for a spark. Or, change the figure of speech and let ISIS evolve into something more sophisticated, add a charismatic leader (a modern Saladin), oppose it to a Christendom relearning fanaticism, tell them all "God wills it!" (Deus vult!), and be prepared to learn geography.

         If very unlucky, you'll become and expert in geography and in the history of downright fascinating times parallel to the transition from Late Antiquity to early Medieval, known some places in Europe as "the Dark Ages."

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Grade Inflation: GPAs and SATs

          USA Today reports "A's on the rise in U.S. report cards, but SAT scores founder" (17 July 2017) — and I think, "Here we go again."

            Fairly frequently over 35 years I handled grade complaints in a good-size university department of English. I usually mentioned in my annual reports that there were fewer complaints than we should have in a department as large as ours, so it was likely that colleagues were grading too leniently.
            I believed in the existence of grade inflation and that grade inflation could hurt returning students whose, averages had been good back in the day but looked less good against the inflated grades of younger competitors. Still, grade inflation was balanced by requirement inflation so there was some fairness: "Back in the day," one could graduate college with 120 semester credit-hours; by the time I left teaching, the more usual requirement was 128 hours: a half-semester more.
            Measuring high school GPA's against SAT scores must be done carefully, however, and reported carefully. For one thing, you need the numbers for who's taking the tests.
            In the 1970's, Richard Ohmann examined the "literacy crisis" and reported on it in an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct. 25, 1976). "Johnny can't read / Johnny can't write," and the cause had to be radical changes in American high schools in the 1960s.
            Not really,
            What had changed most was more young women going to college, so the issue was good news with Jane, not degeneration for Johnny: college teachers were seeing a more typical sample of (female) high school graduates.
            There has been grade inflation, but SAT averages are affected strongly by who's taking the tests, and we should expect a decline in scores because of the mostly good news that more high school grads are going to college meaning more people are taking SATs meaning a more typical sample of US high school students — and lower scores.

            Ohmann, Richard. "The Literacy Crisis Is a Fiction, if Not a Hoax." The Chronicle of Higher Education 25 October 1976.


            Erlich, Richard D. "[…] The Parable of the Masturbating Madmen." Views from a Jagged Orbit. Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2017: pp. 141-43.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Usage Note: "Bigotry," "Racism" ... and Cave 76

But when we come to sin upon reason and upon
discourse, upon meditation and upon plot, this is […]
to become the man of sin, to surrender […] reason
and understanding to the service of sin. When we come to
sin wisely and learnedly, to sin logically, by a quia [because]
and an ergo [therefore …]. — John Donne, Sermon 138

            The repeat on my 11 AM trash-TV watching today was a Cleveland Show episode on Black History Month, and then I noted a draft for this note on my iMac desktop. So apropos of little, but unfortunately usually relevantly, here's a word or two on a term it's unlikely you know, plus some loaded common usages.

Bigotry, Xenophobia: The Amity-Enmity Complex and "Cave 76"
            Like a fair amount of anthropology from the first part of the 20th century, the idea of "the amity-enmity complex" has some problematic, rather gamy associations. Think of it, then, as a fancy way of characterizing what Mel Brooks's 2000 Year Old Man was getting at with the first national anthem: "Let 'em all go to hell, / Except Cave Seventy-Six!" Or we could note that the injunction in Leviticus (19.18) to "Love your neighbor as yourself" got quoted in the Gospels of Mark (12.30-31) and Matthew (22.39) and gets a whole lot of play, while the near-by injunctions to love foreigners, "the stranger," as yourself (Leviticus 19.34) — although part of the point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan — is much less known.
            Generally, we tend to feel amity toward members of our in-groups — the folks of our family and figurative Cave 76 — and sense "stranger danger" with out-groups. What varies is our sense of who's "In" and who's "Out," who's "like us" and who is, "Well, different."
            The amity-enmity complex may have roots deep enough to reach into parts of our biological inheritance as social animals. It doesn't much matter: the tendency is long-standing, a given of our nature, and a trait that makes sense in terms of the evolution of reproducing groups and some sense of "The Selfish Gene."
            Bigotry, xenophobia, fear of the Other, the often-misplaced idea of "Stranger Danger"  — these are relatively "natural" to people, and we have to work to balance them with our curiosity, reason, compassion, and ethics. Biblical teachings get contradictory here, but the Holiness Code in Leviticus says God said to love the stranger (foreigner, alien) as ourselves, "For you were strangers in the land of Egypt," and some of us may be — indeed, some of us at some time will be — strangers again, refugees ourselves. And statistics can tell us (middle-class, White?) American kids are in more danger from people they know than from random people they don't.

            Race-ISM is an ideology stating that there are certain large groups that form biological races, that those races differ significantly from one another, and that those differences create a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority. Until fairly recently, "race" could be applied to groups that were relatively small, nonbiological, and pretty parochial: note Winston Churchill's (sometimes perverse) comments about "the British race" or the English despising Irish and vice versa on the basis of "race" — back when the world in a sense was smaller, and "country" was another way to say "county." Nowadays, that wouldn't be RACE-ism, because most of us most of the time work on the color-coded big races: White, Black/Brown, Red, Yellow, although manners may have us using non-color terms. (Personally, I like the color-coding because it's so obviously wrong and silly: e.g., the truly Yellow race is the Simpsons.) And the color-coding/biological idea didn't get firmed up until the Early Modern period, which can be documented in a work like Thomas Rymer's attack on Othello, and Rymer's dumb-ass countryfolk — in Rymer's early-adopter racist view —who really liked Othello because into the late 17th century a lot of even sophisticated city-bred Brits hadn't learned that "Blackamoors" were inferior. "A for instance is not a proof," but Rymer's Short View of Tragedy (1693) is useful for dating when specifically racist ideology — in our sense of "race" — started coming in among the English.

And the date makes sense.
            In his "General Introduction" to The Norton Shakespeare (2000), Stephen Greenblatt has an admirable quotation attributed to Elizabeth I referring to Her Majesty's Loyal Pirate, Sir John Hawkins and his first slaving voyage, where he transported "some three hundred blacks from the Guinea coast to Hispaniola." She "is reported to have said of this venture that it was 'detestable and would call down the Vengeance of Heaven upon the Undertakers.'" Elizabeth was Head of the Church of England and knew a wicked act when she learned of one. However, Hawkins's venture grossed £10,000 — a huge sum during the period — and so "she invested in Hawkins's subsequent voyages and lent him ships" (23); business is business.
            John Hawkins et al. a century before Thomas Rymer didn't need ideology to kill some people, kidnap others, and sell them into slavery: Hawkins and crew were goddamn licensed pirates, and highly profitable organized crime is what they did. It's when the loot went to respectable heirs and assigns and new investors that there was a need for ideological rationalization; and ta-da!: theft, repression, murder, greed — and bigotry — got packaged together and theorized, and we got modern RACE-ISM. Injure first, theorize later, then get to injure more, with a relatively clear conscience; and repeat ....

             We're doing better since the 17th c. — even counting two World Wars and other assorted recent atrocities — but it's a long slog.
            The "slog" will be helped if we're careful with our language.

            Since the 17th century and modern, Western, race-based slavery, we've built into what became American society racial/racialist components, intimately intertwined with class exploitation and other nastiness. What is called "systemic racism," however, is systemic, part of a system, and not something individual, or, frequently visible to those within the system and profiting from it. It shares with prejudice and bigotry the sort of problem pointed at with the mostly-rhetorical question, "Does a fish know it's in water?" All of these are the more insidious insofar as they are semiconscious or even unconscious. But they are not racism, which is an ideology, conscious by definition.
            The distinction is important because bigotry will lay the basis for pogroms and lynchings and other relatively short-term, usually mob-based horrors. Racism, can work in a vicious cycle of long-term, systematized, bureaucratize, theorized, legally-rationalized horrors: US slavery into the mid-19th century, Jim Crow, final solutions to various ethnic "problems."
            It's hard to argue with a bigot, but they can learn from experience and — in a hypothetically pure form of bigotry — have no ideology to renounce. Racists can be argued with, but, well, good luck with that. Bigotry is like unto the fleshly sins, racism is a more serious, intellectual sin. It comes from twisting reason, and is difficult to reason people out of. Still, if you're dealing with an otherwise decent racist, say of the Huck Finn variety, someone brought up in the system, experience can teach and logic can reach.
            It happened with some religious Southerners of my generation, one I knew personally.

            It is our duty, o decent, ethical reader, to help make it happen. To start on that project we need to know the problem and label it carefully.