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Why the Joint Session Standing Ovations Creeped Me Out – Article by Marianne March

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Categories: History, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatMarianne March
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On February 28, 2017, I tuned in for President Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress. What stood out to me most, besides VP Pence and Speaker Paul Ryan’s matching cobalt ties, was the way those two men and a portion of the audience kept popping up and down, out of their chairs like plastic rodents in a game of whack-a-mole. During the roughly hourlong speech, (some of) the audience rose out of their chairs, clapping, no less than twenty times.

Clap Until Your Hands Are Raw

There is something incredibly disingenuous about giving an enthusiastic standing ovation every three minutes. What inspires people to participate so eagerly in, what is clear to any outsider, an orchestrated scene?

It calls to mind, Russian novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago, in which he describes the following scene,

At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). … For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare to be the first to stop? … After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first!

Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved!

The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

Circa 2017

Some amount of applauding and even standing ovations are not out of place at a political event, especially a presidential speech, but audience reactions to Mr. Trump’s joint session address were borderline ridiculous.

People in the gallery, and seated behind Trump, stood and applauded law enforcement, the First Lady, protectionist trade policies, “transitioning” out of Obamacare, and they clapped almost endlessly for Carryn Owens, the grieving widow of Navy Seal Ryan Owens who was killed during a raid in Yemen in late January.

During the several minutes that they stood clapping for her, Carryn Owens sobbed, clenched her hands together and looked up to the ceiling, mouthed the words ‘thank you,’ and clearly struggled to keep her composure. It was difficult to watch.

Glenn Greenwald described the moment perfectly in an Intercept article:

Independent of the political intent behind it, any well-functioning human being would feel great empathy watching a grieving spouse mourning and struggling to emotionally cope with the recent, sudden death of her partner.”

And it’s true. I imagine few could help feeling sympathy for this woman. Not only has she borne the loss of her husband, but she is now being used as a pawn to promote and glorify war and suffering.

Using Women to Promote War

And what a paltry recompense applause is. I’m sure that the widow Owens would much prefer that the men and women of Congress keep their hands in their pockets to losing her spouse. But this is a powerful tool for promoting war and it has been used for a long time.

Exalting only a country’s own soldiers, without so much as a whispered reference to the other victims of war, the deaths of innocent civilians, and using women, particularly mothers and widows, to connect an audience with less negative perceptions of war is an old trick.

This tactic is perhaps best explained in the 1964 film, The Americanization of Emily,

And it’s always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parades…. We shall never end wars by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows’ weeds like nuns … and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices.”

What is amazing is that we’re still falling for these schemes.

Again, I agree with Greenwald that,

None of this is to say that the tribute to Owens and the sympathy for his wife are undeserved. Quite the contrary: when a country, decade after decade, keeps sending a small, largely disadvantaged portion of its citizenry to bear all the costs and risks of the wars it starts – while the nation’s elite and its families are largely immune – the least the immunized elites can do is pay symbolic tribute when they are killed.”

In his address, President Trump called for “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.” And then he proceeded to show us just how he’s going to get it. How many more widows and victims will be paraded out in front of us in the years to come?

We must recognize that when we allow our emotions to be manipulated in this manner, we, too, become pawns of the powerful.

Marianne March is a recent graduate of Georgia State University, where she majored in Public Policy, with a minor in Economics. Follow her on twitter @mari_tweets.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author. Read the original article.

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Trump: The Moral Monster Beyond Hope – Post by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
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Two excellent recent editorials highlight the unprecedented danger that Donald Trump poses to liberty and basic human decency in America.

Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, writes of how Donald Trump has brought Soviet-Style politics, particularly the sweeping use of the Big Lie, to the United States. (“Trump Through Russian Eyes”. Project Syndicate. September 27, 2016)

Khrushcheva observes,

Indeed, from my perspective, many of the nastiest and most perverse features of Russian politics now seem present in the United States as well. The Big Lie – invented in Nazi Germany, perfected in the Soviet Union, and wielded expertly by Russian President Vladimir Putin – is today a core component of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

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So far, Trump has been allowed to get away with his lies. The news media have largely been what Lenin called ‘useful idiots,’ so eager to use Trump to boost their own ratings that they did not notice or care that they were also boosting his. No surprise, then, that an emboldened Trump now delivers lies of ever more breathtaking audacity.

Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen likens Donald Trump to Gilgamesh – and not in a flattering manner. (“Donald Trump is a walking, talking example of the tyrannical soul”. The Washington Post. October 8, 2016.) In the early “Epic of Gilgamesh”, the king Gilgamesh (before he journeys on his quest to obtain eternal life) is an arbitrary, capricious tyrant with no regard for any other individuals’ rights or for basic human dignity and decency. Only when Gilgamesh realizes that death is a fundamental problem affecting everyone (him, too), is he impelled away from tyranny and toward wisdom.

But it is too much to hope that Trump would all of a sudden turn from a populist demagogue and would-be tyrant into a life-extension supporter. Instead, Trump should be recognized as completely devoid of moral character, and a completely lost cause for anyone who thought that he might somehow magically transform himself into a reasonable person.

It is time to break free from the spell of the Big Lie and universally denounce Trump for the moral monster he is. All people of good moral character must stand against Trump. Support anyone else you wish (Libertarian, Democrat, Green, Transhumanist, McMullin, none of the above) – but express the conviction that a decent, humane society should not allow such an unseemly, tyrannical brute as Trump to have any degree of power.

This post may be freely reproduced using the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 License, which requires that credit be given to the author, G. Stolyarov II. Find out about Mr. Stolyarov here.

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Witness to the End of Soviet Power: Twenty-Five Years Ago – Article by Richard M. Ebeling

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The New Renaissance HatRichard M. Ebeling
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Twenty-five years ago, on August 22, 1991, I stood amid a vast cheering crowd of tens of thousands of people outside the Russian parliament building in Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union. They were celebrating the failure by diehard Soviet leaders to undertake a political and military coup d’état meant to maintain dictatorial communist rule in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The Soviet regime had ruled Russia and the other 14 component republics of the U.S.S.R. for nearly 75 years, since the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 led by Vladimir Lenin and his communist cadre of Marxist followers. During that almost three-quarters of a century, first under Lenin and especially Josef Stalin and then their successors, historians have estimated that upwards of 64 million people – innocent, unarmed men, women and children – died at the hands of the Soviet regime in the name of building the “bright, beautiful future” of socialism.

Millions Dead

The forced collectivization of the land under Stalin in the early 1930s, alone, is calculated to have cost the lives of nine to twelve million Russian and Ukrainian peasants and their families who resisted the loss of their private farms and being forced into state collective farms that replaced them.

Some were simply shot; others were tortured to death or sent to die as slave labor in the concentration and labor camps in Siberia or Soviet Central Asia known as the GULAG. Millions were slowly starved to death by a government-created famine designed to force submission to the central planning dictates of Stalin and his henchmen.

Millions of others were rounded up and sent off to those prison and labor camps as part of the central plan for forced industrial and mineral mining development of the far reaches of the Soviet Union. In the 1930s and 1940s, Stalin’s central plans would include quotas for how many of the “enemies of the people” were to be arrested and executed in every city, town and district in the Soviet Union. In addition, there were quotas for how many were to be rounded up as replacements for those who had already died in the GULAG working in the vast wastelands of Siberia, northern European Russia and Central Asia.

By the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s the Soviet system had become increasingly corrupt, stagnant, and decrepit under a succession of aging Communist Party leaders whose only purpose was to hold on to power and their special privileges. In 1986 a much younger man, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had worked his way up in the Party hierarchy was appointed to the leading position of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R.

Gorbachev’s Attempt to Save Socialism 

Gorbachev believed that the Soviet Union had taken several serious wrong turns in the past. But he was not an opponent of socialism or its Marxist-Leninist foundations. He wanted a new “socialism-with-a-human-face.” His goal was a “kinder and gentler” communist ideology, so to speak. He truly believed that the Soviet Union could be saved, and with it a more humane collectivist alternative to Western capitalism.

To achieve this end, Gorbachev had introduced to two reform agendas: First, perestroika, a series of economic changes meant to admit the mistakes of heavy-handed central planning. State enterprise managers were to be more accountable, small private businesses would be permitted and fostered, and Soviet companies would be allowed to form joint ventures with selected Western corporations. Flexibility and adaptability would create a new and better socialist economy.

Second, glasnost, political “openness,” under which the political follies of the past would be admitted and the formerly “blank pages” of Soviet history – especially about the “crimes of Stalin” – would be filled in. Greater historical and political honesty, it was said, would revive the moribund Soviet ideology and renew the Soviet people’s enthusiastic support for the reformed and redesigned bright socialist future.

However, over time the more hardline and “conservative” members of the Soviet leadership considered all such reforms as opening a Pandora’s Box of uncontrollable forces that would undermine the Soviet system. They had already seen this happen in the outer ring of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe.

The Beginning of the End in Eastern Europe

In 1989 Gorbachev had stood by as the Berlin Wall, the symbol of Soviet imperial power in the heart of Europe, had come tumbling down, and the Soviet “captive nations” of Eastern Europe – East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – that Stalin had claimed as conquered booty at the end of the Second World War, began to free themselves from communist control and Soviet domination. (See my article, “The Berlin Wall and the Spirit of Freedom.”)

The Soviet hardliners were now convinced that a new political treaty that Gorbachev was planning to sign with Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Soviet Federation Republic and Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, would mean the end of the Soviet Union, itself.

Already, the small Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were reasserting the national independence they had lost in 1939-1940, as a result of Stalin and Hitler’s division of Eastern Europe. Violent, and murderous Soviet military crackdowns in Lithuania and in Latvia in January 1991 had failed to crush the budding democratic movements in those countries. Military methods had also been employed, to no avail, to keep in line the Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. (See my article, “How Lithuania Helped Take Down the Soviet Union.”)

Communist Conspirators for Soviet Power

On August 18, 1991, the hardline conspirators tried to persuade Gorbachev to reverse his planned political arrangements with the Russian Federation and Soviet Kazakhstan. When he refused he was held by force in a summer home he was vacationing at in the Crimea on the Black Sea.

Early on the morning of August 19, the conspirators issued a declaration announcing their takeover of the Soviet government. A plan to capture and possibly kill Boris Yeltsin failed. Yeltsin eluded the kidnappers and made his way to the Russian parliament building from his home outside Moscow. Military units loyal to the conspirators ringed the city with tanks on every bridge leading into the city and along every main thoroughfare in the center of Moscow. Tank units had surrounded the Russian parliament, as well.

But Yeltsin soon was rallying the people of Moscow and the Russian population in general to defend Russia’s own emerging democracy. People all around the world saw Yeltsin stand atop an army tank outside the parliament building asking Muscovites to resist this attempt to return to the dark days of communist rule.

The Western media made much at the time of the apparent poor planning during the seventy-two hour coup attempt during August 19 to the 21. The world press focused on and mocked the nervousness and confusion shown by some of the coup leaders during a press conference. The conspirators were ridiculed for their Keystone Cop-like behavior in missing their chance to kidnap Yeltsin or delaying their seizure of the Russian parliament building; or leaving international telephone lines open and not even jamming foreign news broadcasts that were reporting the events as they happened to the entire Soviet Union.

The Dangers If the Hardliners had Won

Regardless of the poor planning on the part of the coup leaders, however, the fact remains that if they had succeeded the consequences might have been catastrophic. I have a photocopy of the arrest warrant form that had been prepared for the Moscow region and signed by the Moscow military commander, Marshal Kalinin.

It gave the military and the KGB, the Soviet secret police, the authority to arrest anyone. It had a “fill-in-the-blank,” where the victim’s name would be written in. Almost 500,000 of these arrest warrant forms had been prepared. In other words, upwards of a half-million people might have been imprisoned in Moscow, alone.

The day before the coup began, the KGB had received a consignment of 250,000 pairs of handcuffs. And the Russian press later reported that some of the prison camps in Siberia had been clandestinely reopened. If the coup had succeeded possibly as many as three to four million people in the Soviet Union would have been sent to the GULAG, the notorious Soviet labor camp system.

Another document published in the Russian press after the coup failed had the instructions for the military authorities in various regions around the country. They were to begin tighter surveillance of the people in the areas under their jurisdiction. They were to keep watch on the words and actions of everyone. Foreigners were to be even more carefully followed and watched. And their reports to the coup leaders in Moscow were to be filed every four hours. Indeed, when the coup was in progress, the KGB began to close down commercial joint ventures with Western companies in Moscow, accusing them of being “nests of spies,” and arrested some of the Russian participants in these enterprises.

Fear Underneath a Surreal Calm

During the coup attempt Moscow had a surrealistic quality, as I walked through various parts of the center of the city. On the streets around the city it seemed as if nothing were happening – except for the clusters of Soviet tank units strategically positioned at central intersections and at the bridges crossing the Moscow River. Taxi cabs patrolled the avenues looking for passengers; the population seemed to go about its business walking to and from work, or waiting in long lines for the meager supplies of everyday essentials at the government retail stores; and motorists were as usual also lined up at the government owned gasoline stations. Even with the clearly marked foreign license plates on my rented car, I was never stopped as I drove around the center of Moscow.

The only signs that these were extraordinary days were the grimmer than usual looks on the faces of many; and that in the food stores many people would silently huddle around radios after completing their purchases. However, the appearance of near normality could not hide the fact that the future of the country was hanging in the balance.

Russians Run the Risk for Freedom

During the three days of that fateful week, Russians of various walks of life had to ask themselves what price they put on freedom. And thousands concluded that risking their lives to prevent a return to communist despotism was price they were willing to pay. Those thousands appeared at the Russian parliament in response to Boris Yeltsin’s appeal to the people. They built makeshift barricades, and prepared to offer themselves as unarmed human shields against Soviet tanks and troops, if they had attacked. My future wife, Anna, and I were among those friends of freedom who stood vigil during most of those three days facing the barrels of Soviet tanks.

Among those thousands, three groups were most noticeable in having chosen to fight for freedom: First, young people in their teens and twenties who had been living in a freer environment during the previous six years since Gorbachev had come to power, and who did not want to live under the terror and tyranny their parents had known in the past. Second, new Russian businessmen, who realized that without a free political order the emerging economic liberties would be crushed that were enabling them to establish private enterprises. And, third, veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, who had been conscripted into the service of Soviet imperialism and were now determined to prevent its return.

The bankruptcy of the Soviet system was demonstrated not only by the courage of those thousands defending the Russian parliament, but also by the unwillingness of the Soviet military to obey the orders of the coup leaders. It is true that only a handful of military units actually went over immediately to Yeltsin’s side in Moscow.

But hundreds of Russian babushkas – grandmothers – went up to the young soldiers and officers manning the Soviet tanks, and asked them, “Are you going to shoot their mother, your father, your grandmother? We are your own people.” The final act of the coup came when these military units refused to obey orders and seize the Russian parliament building, at the possible cost of hundreds or thousands of lives.

Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!

On that clear, warm Thursday of August 22, that huge mass of humanity that had assembled in a large plaza behind the Russian parliament stood and listened as Boris Yeltsin told them that that area would now be known as the Square of Russian Freedom. The multitude replied in unison: Svoboda! Svoboda! Svoboda! – “Freedom! Freedom, Freedom!”

A huge flag of pre-communist Russia, with its colors of white, blue and red, draped the entire length of the parliament building. The crowd looked up and watched as the Soviet red flag, with its yellow hammer and sickle in the upper left corner, was lowered from the flagpole atop the parliament, and the Russian colors were raised for the first time in its place. And again the people chanted: “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”

Not too far away from the parliament building in Moscow, that same day, a large crowd had formed at Lubyanka Square at the headquarters of the KGB. With the help of a crane, these Muscovites pulled down a large statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police that stood near the entrance to the KGB building. In a small park across from the KGB headquarters, in a corner of which rests a small monument to the victims of the Soviet prison and labor camps, an anti-communist rally was held. A young man in an old Czarist Russian military uniform burned a Soviet flag, while the crowd cheered him on.

The seventy-five-year nightmare of communist tyranny and terror was coming to an end. The people of Russia were hoping for freedom, and they were basking in the imagined joy of it.

Freedom’s Hope and Post-Communist Reality

The demise of the Communist Party and the Soviet system was one of the momentous events in modern history. That it came about with a relatively small amount of bloodshed during those seventy-two hours of the hardline coup attempt was nothing short of miraculous – only a handful of people lost their lives.

The last twenty-five years have not turned out the way that many of the friends of freedom in Russia had hoped.

Indeed, post-communist Russia saw a contradictory, poorly organized, and corrupted privatization of Soviet industry, plus a high and damaging inflation in 1992-1994; a severe financial crisis in 1998; a return to authoritarian political rule following Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 1999; two bloody and destructive wars in the attempted breakaway region of Chechnya; widespread and pervasive corruption at all levels of government; state controlled and manipulated markets, investment, commerce, and the news media; assassinations and imprisonments of political opponents of the regime; and significant nostalgia among too many in the country for a return to “great power” status and the “firm hand” of the infamous Stalinist era. Plus, Putin’s recent military adventures in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria.

Nonetheless, for those of us who were fortunate enough to be in Moscow in August 1991, it remains in our minds as an unforgettable historical moment when the first and longest-lived of the twentieth century’s totalitarian states was brought to the doorstep of its end. The Soviet Union, finally, disappeared off the political map of the world on December 24, 1991 with the formal breakup and independence of the 15 Soviet republics that had made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The Soviet nightmare of “socialism-in-practice” was over.

Richard M. Ebeling is BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

See the original article here.

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Fooled by GDP: Economic Activity versus Economic Growth – Article by Steven Horwitz

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Categories: Economics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Steven Horwitz
May 4, 2015
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Even the smartest of economists can make the simplest of mistakes. Two recent books, Violence and Social Orders by Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast and Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson both suffer from misunderstanding the concept of economic growth. Both books speak of the high growth rates in the Soviet economy in the mid-20th century. Even if the authors rightly note that such rates could not be sustained, they are still assuming that the aggregate measures they rely on as evidence of growth, such as GDP, really did reflect improvements in the lives of Soviet citizens. It is not clear that such aggregates are good indicators of genuine economic growth.

These misunderstandings of economic growth take two forms. One form is to assume that the traditional measurements we use to track economic activity also describe economic growth, and the other form is to mistake the production of material things for economic growth.

Often at the core of this confusion is the concept of gross domestic product (GDP). Although it is the most frequently used indicator of economic growth, what it really measures is economic activity. GDP is calculated by attempting to measure the market value of final goods and services produced in a particular geographic area over a specific period. By “final” goods and services, we mean the goods and services purchased by the end consumer, and that means excluding the various exchanges of inputs that went into making them. We count the loaf of bread you buy for sandwiches, but not the purchase of flour by the firm that produced the bread.

What GDP does not distinguish, however, is whether the exchanges that are taking place — even the total quantity of final goods — actually improve human lives.

That improvement is what we should be counting as economic growth. Two quick examples can illustrate this point.

First, nations that devote a great deal of resources to building enormous monuments to their leaders will see their GDP rise as a result. The purchase of the final goods and labor services to make such monuments will add to GDP, but whether they improve human lives and should genuinely constitute “economic growth” is much less obvious. GDP tells us nothing about whether the uses of the final goods and services that it measures are better than their alternative uses.

Second, consider how often people point to the supposed silver lining of natural disasters: all the jobs that will be created in the recovery process. I am writing this column at the airport in New Orleans, where, after Katrina, unemployment was very low and GDP measures were high. All of that cleanup activity counted as part of GDP, but I don’t think we want to say that rebuilding a devastated city is “economic growth” — or even that it’s any kind of silver lining. At best, such activity just returns us to where we were before the disaster, having used up in the process resources that could have been devoted to improving lives.

GDP measures economic activity, which may or may not constitute economic growth. In this way, it is like body weight. We can imagine two men who both weigh 250 pounds. One could be a muscular, fit professional athlete with very low body fat, and the other might be on the all-Cheetos diet. Knowing what someone weighs doesn’t tell us if it’s fat or muscle. GDP tells us that people are producing things but says nothing about whether those things are genuinely improving people’s lives.

The Soviet Union could indeed produce “stuff,” but when you look at the actual lives of the typical citizen, the stuff being produced did not translate into meaningful improvements in those lives.

Improving lives is what we really care about when we talk about economic growth.

The second confusion is a particular version of the first one. Too often, we think that economic growth is all about the production of material goods. We see this in discussions of the US economy, where the (supposed) decline of manufacturing is pointed to as a symptom of a poorly growing economy. But if economic growth is really about the accumulation of wealth — which is, in turn, about people acquiring things they value more — then material goods alone aren’t the issue. More physical stuff doesn’t mean that the stuff is improving lives.

More important, though, is that what really matters is subjective value. The purchase of a service is no less able to improve our lives, and thereby be a source of economic growth, than are the production and purchase of material goods. In fact, what we really care about when we purchase a material good is not the thing itself, but the stream of services it can provide us. The laptop I’m working on is valuable because it provides me with a whole bunch of services (word processing, games, Internet access, etc.) that I value highly. It is the subjective satisfaction of wants that we really care about, and whether that comes from a physical good or from human labor does not matter.

This point is particularly obvious in the digital and sharing economies, where so much value is created not through the production of stuff, but by using the things we have more efficiently and precisely. Uber doesn’t require the production of more cars, and Airbnb doesn’t require the production of more dwellings. But by using existing resources better, we create value — and that is what we mean by economic growth.

So what should we look at instead of GDP as we try to ascertain whether we are experiencing economic growth? Look at living standards: of average people, and especially of poor people. How easily can they obtain the basics of life? How many hours do they have to work to do so? Look at the division of labor. How fine is it? Are people able to specialize in narrow areas and still find demand for their products and services?

Economic growth is not the same as economic activity. It’s not about just making more exchanges or producing more stuff. It’s ultimately about getting people the things they want at progressively lower cost, and thereby improving their well-being. That’s what markets have done for the last two centuries. For those of us who understand this point, it’s important not to assume that higher rates of GDP growth or the increased production of physical stuff automatically means we are seeing growth.

Real economic growth is about improving people’s subjective well-being, and that is sometimes harder to see even as the evidence for it is all around us.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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Political Murders in Kiev, US Troops to Ukraine – Article by Ron Paul

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Categories: Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Ron Paul
April 22, 2015
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Last week two prominent Ukrainian opposition figures were gunned down in broad daylight. They join as many as ten others who have been killed or committed suicide under suspicious circumstances just this year. These individuals have one important thing in common: they were either part of or friendly with the Yanukovych government, which a US-backed coup overthrew last year. They include members of the Ukrainian parliament and former chief editors of major opposition newspapers.While some journalists here in the US have started to notice the strange series of opposition killings in Ukraine, the US government has yet to say a word.Compare this to the US reaction when a single opposition figure was killed in Russia earlier this year. Boris Nemtsov was a member of a minor political party that was not even represented in the Russian parliament. Nevertheless the US government immediately demanded that Russia conduct a thorough investigation of his murder, suggesting the killers had a political motive.As news of the Russian killing broke, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce (R-CA) did not wait for evidence to blame the killing on Russian president Vladimir Putin. On the very day of Nemtsov’s murder, Royce told the US media that, “this shocking murder is the latest assault on those who dare to oppose the Putin regime.”Neither Royce, nor Secretary of State John Kerry, nor President Obama, nor any US government figure has said a word about the series of apparently political murders in Ukraine.

On the contrary, instead of questioning the state of democracy in what looks like a lawless Ukraine, the Administration is sending in the US military to help train Ukrainian troops!

Last week, just as the two political murders were taking place, the US 173rd Airborne Brigade landed in Ukraine to begin training Ukrainian national guard forces – and to leave behind some useful military equipment. Though the civil unrest continues in Ukraine, the US military is assisting one side in the conflict – even as the US slaps sanctions on Russia over accusations it is helping out the other side!

As the ceasefire continues to hold, though shakily, what kind of message does it send to the US-backed government in Kiev to have US troops arrive with training and equipment and an authorization to gift Kiev with some $350 million in weapons? Might they not take this as a green light to begin new hostilities against the breakaway regions in the east?

The Obama administration is so inconsistent in its foreign policy. In some places, particularly Cuba and Iran, the administration is pursuing a policy that looks to diplomacy and compromise to help improve decades of bad relations. In these two cases the administration realizes that the path of confrontation has led nowhere. When the president announced his desire to see the end of Cuba sanctions, he stated very correctly that, “…we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new.”

So while Obama is correctly talking about sanctions relief for Iran and Cuba, he is adding more sanctions on Russia, backing Saudi Arabia’s brutal attack on Yemen, and pushing ever harder for regime change in Syria. Does he really believe the rest of the world does not see these double standards? A wise consistency of non-interventionism in all foreign affairs would be the correct course for this and future US administrations. Let us hope they will eventually follow Obama’s observation that, “it’s time to try something new.”

Ron Paul, MD, is a former three-time Republican candidate for U. S. President and Congressman from Texas.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.

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The Ukrainian Regime’s Censorship Spreads West to Canada, and Political Correctness is to Blame – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: History, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
April 14, 2015
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There is nothing friendly to liberty or to Western values about the government of Petro Poroshenko and Arseniy Yatseniuk in Ukraine – a regime completely incapable of understanding the principle of individual rights or the freedoms of speech, property, and conviction that this principle entails. The Ukrainian government has just enacted a law prohibiting the private expression of Communist symbols and ideology, while elevating to “national hero” status the Ukrainian Insurgent Army of Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with the Nazi army during World War II and committed systematic acts of genocide against Russian, Belarusian, Polish, and Jewish civilians. Bandera serves as an explicit inspiration for the neo-Nazi Right Sector paramilitary organization, whose fighters have been documented by Amnesty International to have committed extensive war crimes against civilians in the Donbass region, and whose leader Dmytro Yarosh now holds a prominent position as advisor to the Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief.

Criticism of Bandera and his Ukrainian Insurgent Army is now illegal in Ukraine. According to UaPosition, a Ukrainian website aimed at informing non-Ukrainians about Ukraine, the text of the law legitimizing Bandera’s thugs reads as follows: “Public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for the independence of Ukraine in the twentieth century [is] recognized [as an] insult to the memory of fighters for independence of Ukraine in the XX century [and as] disparagement of the Ukrainian people and is illegal.”

As David Boaz put it, “One difference between libertarianism and socialism is that a socialist society can’t tolerate groups of people practicing freedom, but a libertarian society can comfortably allow people to choose voluntary socialism.” No libertarian or even remotely quasi-libertarian society would censor the expression of even the most strident socialist or communist viewpoints. On the other hand, legal censorship of opposing viewpoints was indeed a hallmark of the former Soviet Union. A government that attempts to censor the ideas that, at least ostensibly, animated Soviet policies, becomes just a mirror image of the Soviet regime by adopting the very same policies in essence. In addition, the Ukrainian regime has prohibited films alleged to “glorify” the Russian military and has imprisoned journalists and activists who criticized military conscription, such as Ruslan Kotsaba.

The Poroshenko/Yatseniuk government has assumed the worst characteristics of the former USSR regime without any of its few decent attributes. By validating both historical genocidal ethnic nationalism and its neo-Nazi successor movements, the Ukrainian regime has departed from one of the most important admirable aspects of the post-1941 USSR: its adamant opposition to Nazism and to the plethora of ethnically tinged fascist movements that arose in the wake of Hitler’s invasions of Eastern Europe. Indeed, one of the reasons why so many Soviet subjects of diverse ethnicities acquiesced to the tyranny of Stalin and his successors was the fact that the Soviet regime did act to protect them against the worse threat of genocide by Hitler and his petty nationalist allies. The prohibition on criticism of the Banderites is, in the eyes of many Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians, a prohibition on criticism of the armed gangs who murdered or tried to murder their grandparents.

Even more troubling, however, is that the zeal of “pro-Ukrainian” activists in the West is creating a chilling effect on speech and criticism of the Ukrainian regime even in Canada. Valentina Lisitsa, a world-renowned pianist born in Ukraine who became a US citizen and is currently residing in Paris, has become the latest victim of the campaign to silence those who disagree with militant Ukrainian nationalism. Lisitsa’s performances of classical compositions (see and hear examples here, here, here, and here) are completely apolitical and have attracted tens of millions of views on her YouTube channel. She was due to play Rachmaninoff’s Concerto #2 (earlier recordings are here, here, and here) at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, before her appearance was cancelled at the behest of anonymous Ukrainian nationalist activists, who also fueled a social-media outcry against Lisitsa. The reason? Lisitsa posted on her Twitter account satirical, often scathing criticism of the Ukrainian government and its war against separatists in the Donbass – specifically condemning the neo-Nazi and genocidal strains among the Ukrainian government’s paramilitary supporters. She has remained steadfast in defending her posts as free expression – and rightfully so, as her liberty to express her views does not require those views or the manner of their expression to be inoffensive or universally agreeable to all. Furthermore, any manner of words or imagery she used pales in comparison to the real deaths of over 6,000 civilians (and likely many more) in the Donbass, many at the hands of the Ukrainian army and its allied “volunteer” paramilitary battalions. Lisitsa was outraged at the people and policies that brought about the deaths of these innocents, and she was right to proclaim her outrage.

But whether or not one agrees with Lisitsa or with the manner in which she expressed her views, her performance of Rachmaninoff had no relationship to any of her political activities – and none of her other classical performances over the course of many years had even the remotest political aspect. By successfully pressuring the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to cancel Lisitsa’s appearance, the Ukrainian nationalist activists recreated in Canada the same politicization of classical music for which Stalin’s Soviet Union was infamous. Some of the most innovative 20th-century composers – including Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Aram Khachaturian – were often victims of Stalin’s denunciations and sometimes came perilously close to imprisonment or worse. In a free society, it is generally recognized that a person’s artistic prowess and political positions are separate matters unless the artist wishes to intentionally combine the two – as, for instance, in a work of explicitly politically motivated art. Preventing the performance of art that is inherently apolitical, on the grounds of the artist’s outside political activities, creates a chilling effect on both art and peaceful political activism. Artists, fearing that their livelihoods would be denied to them if they became too vocal about current events and ran afoul of one pressure group or another, would be incentivized to stick only to bland, uncontroversial statements or avoid discussing any subjects where significant disagreements might arise. Art would suffer, as works of technical and esthetic merit would become more difficult for audiences to access, given that anybody with controversial political views would be shut out of the talent pool.

The cultural reign of political correctness in the West further exacerbates the threat of the chilling effect on art and speech. The political repression of art in the contemporary West would come not from a top-down decree by a government, but rather due to any sufficiently vocal special interest claiming to be “offended” – not just by an idea contrary to its own agenda, but by the whole person expressing that idea. It then becomes the case that no Stalin is necessary – but the effect is the same: ideologically motivated threats cowing artists into acquiescence to the popular political agenda of the day. A person can become widely denounced, blacklisted, and shut out from opportunities that should be determined by artistic merit alone – not due to any conspiracy, but rather because the typical, middle-of-the-road decision makers in private as well as public institutions become fearful of the special interests’ ire. Political correctness is not primarily a problem of governments, but rather a problem of a deeply broken societal and intellectual culture, where not giving offense is prioritized over the pursuit of truth and justice. In the case of Lisitsa, as usual, the politically correct prohibition on offense results in the most offensive possible ideologies having a free hand to shut down dissenting views. What “offended” fundamentalist Islam has been able to perpetrate in shutting down debate in Europe for over a decade, “offended” Ukrainian nationalism is beginning to inflict in Canada now, often with the vociferous support of media commentators crusading against “hate speech” – a phrase which can mean anything they want it to mean.

The Ukrainian nationalists are able to export their agenda of censorship and intimidation to the West as parasites taking advantage of a weakened host. Political correctness is the disease that renders Western public discourse vulnerable to their arguments, while endangering the vital critical voices who need to be heard in order to prevent a tragic Western-led escalation of the Ukrainian civil war. It seems that the only way the Ukrainian regime and its nationalist allies will be able to render Ukraine more Western is to render the West more like Ukraine. We in the West need to strengthen our defenses and develop an immunity against this incursion of illiberalism by reaffirming the values of individual rights, open discourse and debate on controversial ideas, free expression of dissenting views, and resistance to the dependence of art on political orthodoxy.

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Interventionism Kills: Post-Coup Ukraine One Year Later – Article by Ron Paul

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Categories: Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Ron Paul
March 29, 2015
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It was one year ago in February that a violent coup overthrew the legally elected government of Ukraine. That coup was not only supported by US and EU governments — much of it was actually planned by them. Looking back at the events that led to the overthrow it is clear that without foreign intervention Ukraine would not be in its current, seemingly hopeless situation.

By the end of 2013, Ukraine’s economy was in ruins. The government was desperate for an economic bailout and then-president Yanukovych first looked west to the US and EU before deciding to accept an offer of help from Russia. Residents of south and east Ukraine, who largely speak Russian and trade extensively with Russia were pleased with the decision. West Ukrainians who identify with Poland and Europe began to protest. Ukraine is a deeply divided country and the president came from the eastern region.

At this point the conflict was just another chapter in Ukraine’s difficult post-Soviet history. There was bound to be some discontent over the decision, but if there had been no foreign intervention in support of the protests you would likely not be reading this column today. The problem may well have solved itself in due time rather than escalated into a full-out civil war. But the interventionists in the US and EU won out again, and their interventionist project has been a disaster.

The protests at the end of 2013 grew more dramatic and violent and soon a steady stream of US and EU politicians were openly participating, as protesters called for the overthrow of the Ukrainian government. Senator John McCain made several visits to Kiev and even addressed the crowd to encourage them.

Imagine if a foreign leader like Putin or Assad came to Washington to encourage protesters to overthrow the Obama Administration!

As we soon found out from a leaked telephone call, the US ambassador in Kiev and Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, were making detailed plans for a new government in Kiev after the legal government was overthrown with their assistance.

The protests continued to grow but finally on February 20th of last year a European delegation brokered a compromise that included early elections and several other concessions from Yanukovych. It appeared disaster had been averted, but suddenly that night some of the most violent groups, which had been close to the US, carried out the coup and Yanukovych fled the country.

When the east refused to recognize the new government as legitimate and held a referendum to secede from the west, Kiev sent in tanks to force them to submit. Rather than accept the will of those seeking independence from what they viewed as an illegitimate government put in place by foreigners, the Obama administration decided to blame it all on the Russians and began imposing sanctions!

That war launched by Kiev has lasted until the present, with a ceasefire this month brokered by the Germans and French finally offering some hope for an end to the killing. More than 5,000 have been killed and many of those were civilians bombed in their cities by Kiev.

What if John McCain had stayed home and worried about his constituents in Arizona instead of non-constituents 6,000 miles away? What if the other US and EU politicians had done the same? What if Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt had focused on actual diplomacy instead of regime change?

If they had done so, there is a good chance many if not all of those who have been killed in the violence would still be alive today. Interventionism kills.

Ron Paul, MD, is a former three-time Republican candidate for U. S. President and Congressman from Texas.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.

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To Prevent World War III, Do Not Arm Ukraine’s Regime – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: History, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
February 8, 2015
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I can no longer say that this Cold War will not lead to a ‘Hot War.’ I fear that they could risk it. […]The statements and propaganda on both sides make me fear the worst. If anyone loses their nerve in this charged atmosphere, we will not survive the next few years. […]I do not say such things lightly….I am a man with a conscience. But that’s how it is. I’m really extremely worried.

~ Mikhail Gorbachev

I’m uneasy about beginning a process of military engagement without knowing where it will lead us and what we’ll do to sustain it. […] I believe we should avoid taking incremental steps before we know how far we are willing to go. This is a territory 300 miles from Moscow, and therefore has special security implications.

~ Henry Kissinger

It is an extremely dangerous development, which has been brewing ever since Washington violated its verbal promises to Gorbachev and began expanding NATO to the East, right to Russia’s borders, and threatening to incorporate Ukraine, which is of great strategic significance to Russia and of course has close historical and cultural links. […] The Russian autocracy is far from blameless, but we are now back to earlier comments: we have come perilously close to disaster before, and are toying with catastrophe again. It is not that possible peaceful solutions are lacking.

~ Noam Chomsky

Outside countries should leave Ukraine to resolve the conflict itself. However, even as the US demands that the Russians de-escalate, the United States is busy escalating! […] Why is ‘winning’ Ukraine so important to Washington? Why are they risking a major war with Russia to deny people in Ukraine the right to self-determination? Let’s just leave Ukraine alone!

~ Ron Paul

One can rarely find four thinkers as distinct from one another as Gorbachev, Kissinger, Chomsky, and Ron Paul, and yet, for all of their differences, each of them is clearly guided by a systematic, thoroughly considered intellectual framework. All four of these thinkers have concluded, starting from different practical and moral premises, that further escalation of the Ukraine crisis by the United States would be a dangerous, deeply inadvisable behavior.

Two of these thinkers – Gorbachev and Kissinger – played crucial roles in helping to maneuver the world out of the existential danger of the Cold War. One might consider them to have made tactical or even moral errors, but they deserve recognition for being among the cooler heads that prevailed, helping defuse decades-long tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that could have easily ended in a nuclear holocaust.

The other two thinkers – Chomsky and Paul – are thought leaders of principled polar opposites of American thought, left-progressivism and right-libertarianism. While sharply at odds over economics, philosophy, and politics, these two systems are both vastly superior to the American political establishment, which is dominated by a tight alliance of special-interest pressure groups, whose primary purpose is to protect existing political privileges through lobbying at the expense of innovative entrepreneurs, consumers, and people of merit in general. Left-progressives and right-libertarians each have a vision of human dignity and morality that is driven by principles and conscience. The American political establishment, represented by virtually indistinguishable “neoconservative” Republicans and “humanitarian interventionist” Democrats, is driven solely by the impulse to entrench the politically connected interests of the status quo at all costs. While both right-libertarians and left-progressives strongly favor peace as an integral component in their project to improve human well-being, the amoral interventionist political establishment in the United States does not care about human well-being. Bombs will drop, drones will massacre innocent civilians, everyone will be deprived of privacy, dignity, and due process – but they will have their privileges and their dominance, even though the world might burn for it.

The “neoconservatives” and “humanitarian interventionists” in the United States speak and act out of misguided short-sightedness, but the pressure they constantly exert on President Barack Obama could be the greatest threat to world peace and the progress of human civilization today, turning a tragic but local conflict into one that could escalate into World War III.

Obama rose to power through left-progressive idealistic rhetoric, but he has shown to be far more inclined toward accommodation to the entrenched political establishment. Even so, he has been reluctant to send lethal weapons to Ukraine, as vestiges of his left-progressivism have given him justified unease at the prospect. Yet the chorus of establishment hawks has recently grown to a warmongering holler. The worst among them are John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who even seek to mandate that Obama send weapons to the Ukrainian regime of Petro Poroshenko and Arseniy Yatseniuk. This same regime has been confirmed to have murdered over 5,300 of its own civilian population, to have employed savage, indiscriminate tactics – such as the deliberate shelling of densely populated neighborhoods and the use of cluster munitions – to have reinstituted military conscription at the point of a gun, and to have incorporated overtly fascist paramilitary “volunteer” units into Ukraine’s military structure. American “neoconservative” and “humanitarian interventionist” politicians, in the name of humanitarian ideals (mostly, vague sound bites about “territorial integrity” and “national self-determination” – neither of which concepts they actually respect with any consistency), seek to aid and abet genuine moral monsters who have already killed thousands and terrorized and displaced millions.

The civil war in Ukraine has thus far been confined within the borders of Ukraine, with modest support from Vladimir Putin’s regime for the Donetsk and Luhansk separatists. (If Putin’s support were indeed decisive or fully commensurate with his abilities, he would have occupied all of Ukraine by now – but his behavior demonstrates that this is not his intention. Putin does not have any grand design on Ukraine, and his sporadic assistance to the separatists has largely been reactive, to prevent their complete obliteration.) If the United States funnels weapons to the Poroshenko/Yatseniuk regime, a local conflict will be turned into a global one, with the United States fighting a proxy war against Russia. If the United States then makes the fateful step of introducing ground troops, the proxy war will quickly turn into a direct war. From a direct conventional war to a nuclear war is only a small step, which is why the actual strategists of the Cold War – wiser men than today’s hawks – understood that it would be unacceptable for the militaries of the United States and the Soviet Union to ever fight one another directly.

Arming the Ukrainian government will perpetuate its ability to inflict a massive death toll upon civilians. Furthermore, it would be completely counterproductive to any lasting peace. Both the separatists and Putin will see it as a validation of the claim that the United States has been behind the “regime change” in Ukraine all along. They will furthermore see it as another step toward Ukraine’s absorption into NATO – an alliance that was originally formed specifically to counter the Soviet Union. One of Putin’s consistent demands throughout the past year has been for a commitment that Ukraine’s membership in NATO would be out of the question. It should be an easy commitment to give – considering that NATO has no real appetite to allow Ukraine to join, and Ukraine’s precarious situation would only endanger the security of all other NATO members, who would be compelled to assist in any of Ukraine’s wars. Yet, instead of acceding to this one demand – which could resolve everything – Western governments have given the Poroshenko/Yatseniuk regime every hope of eventual NATO membership, with no intention of following through. Still, sending weapons at this juncture would strongly reinforce this hope on the part of Poroshenko and Yatseniuk, and the corresponding fear on the part of Putin.

While thoughtful men of principle and even hyper-intelligent ruthless pragmatists (like Kissinger) are against escalating the Ukraine crisis, the “neoconservatives” and “humanitarian interventionists” are neither thoughtful nor pragmatic. Many of them are driven by blind hatred for Russia and a desire to re-ignite the Cold War to re-live its alleged glory days. They would again place the world just a few steps away from nuclear annihilation, just to re-enter a paradigm which is conceptually familiar to them. They are so afraid of a possible new world of hyper-pluralism, individualism, accelerating technological progress, and the irrelevance of national boundaries – that they would place all humankind at risk just to avert their discomfort. Perhaps some of them truly believe their own rhetoric – that Vladimir Putin is a new Hitler and that the annexation of Crimea – a historically Russian territory until Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954 in order to gain support from the leadership of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – is in any way similar to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938. (Never mind that Putin has never perpetrated a Holocaust and that the ethnic chauvinists, xenophobes, and anti-Semites are predominantly fighting on the side of the Ukrainian government and wearing Nazi emblems – while many of Putin’s unofficial allies have donned the emblems used by the Russian resistance to the Nazi invasion during World War II!) Perhaps some of the hawks truly believe that the United States has a moral duty to spread “democracy” and “self-determination” at the barrel of a gun to the rest of the world, and to serve as a global policeman, punishing all violations of these vaunted American principles. Yet what the ordinary people who suffer the consequences of American foreign-policy interventionism see are not “democracy” and “self-determination”, but rather dead bodies and homes reduced to rubble. Yes, Vladimir Putin is a ruthless autocrat who suppresses dissent and free inquiry. Yes, Viktor Yanukovych was a corrupt kleptocrat who sometimes employed thugs to deter and punish criticism of his expropriation of the Ukrainian people. At worst, Yanukovych may have ordered snipers from the Berkut police to fire upon the Maidan protesters during his last days in power (although it is perplexing why the snipers fired upon both the protesters and at Berkut police themselves). But neither of them murdered thousands of innocents among their own population, nor used indiscriminate shelling against them. It is one matter to suffer under a repressive autocracy, which will spare you if you keep your head down; it is quite another to quake under omnipresent brutality, murder, and destruction, from which no one is safe and where your next trip to the grocery store could result in your limbs being torn from your body. People who, under Yanukovych, were able to eke out a modest living and hope for gradual improvement, have been devastated and sometimes utterly destroyed by the savage Ukrainian civil war. A swath of Third-World barbarism has been carved out of a region that had, for seventy years, only known drab Second-World sub-optimality. Even if Putin were attempting to resurrect the Soviet Union – quite a far-fetched allegation – the Ukrainian government is creating another Liberia in Europe.

As tragic as it might be, Putin’s most advantageous response to any US decision to send arms to Ukraine would be to immediately escalate the situation, before those arms could arrive to make a difference on the battlefield. This means that the trickle of Putin’s support for the separatists would become a flood, and it would not be surprising if Russian forces directly and openly entered Ukraine and pressed toward Kiev. Undoubtedly, the Ukrainian military would put up a stiff resistance and turn every civilian settlement along the way into another Donetsk Airport. Tens of thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians would be killed in the process, and all of their lives would be lost in vain. Nobody truly wants this outcome, but the hawks in the US Congress are blinded by their desire to punish Russia. They fail to realize that this carnage is precisely the result they would get by further goading Putin on with escalation from the American side. In the face of such thoughtless saber-rattling, one should applaud the frantic, heroic efforts of European leaders – particularly Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande – to forestall a deadly and irreversible sequence of events and to reach a diplomatic solution.

“A bad peace is better than a good war,” counsels an old Jewish and Russian proverb. Benjamin Franklin agreed. “There was never a good War, or a bad Peace,” he wrote in his bestselling Poor Richard’s Almanack – one of 18th-century America’s civilizing moral influences. Right now a sub-optimal peace – what some would consider a bad peace – is the best that could be hoped for in Ukraine. This would involve some manner of sustainable demarcation between the territory held by the Ukrainian government and the rebel People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. It does not matter whether this demarcation takes the form of officially recognized independence or broad “regional autonomy” – as long as the shells stop falling and the civilians stop dying. National borders are artificial fictions, but human lives are real. It does not matter where officials and diplomats decide to draw their lines on the map, as long as the result is a mutually acceptable understanding of future behaviors, by which living humans would be spared from slaughter.

The Minsk Agreement reached in September 2014 was unsustainable precisely because the Ukrainian government never intended to abide by the agreed-upon demarcation line; Ukrainian troops stubbornly held onto the ghastly, apocalyptic ruin of the once-state-of-the-art Donetsk Airport, despite the fact that it will never be usable as an airport again. According to the Minsk Agreement, the Donetsk Airport was to fall within the autonomous separatist-held territory. Its location was sufficiently close to the city of Donetsk for the Ukrainian army to continue to shell civilian neighborhoods. Understandably, the separatist rebels could not tolerate such a situation of perpetual bombardments, and so they threw their forces at the airport in wave after wave of bloody assaults, until it finally fell. Unfortunately, what also fell in this struggle was the entire premise of a sustainable demarcation line. The Ukrainian government would not respect its commitments, so the separatists saw no need to respect theirs as well. They have launched an offensive in the hopes of creating more buffer territory around their capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk. Tragically, this offensive involves shelling of population centers such as Debaltseve and Mariupol, whose residents are innocent victims, much like the inhabitants of Luhansk and Donetsk. In perpetrating these attacks, the separatists have become as bad as the regime forces they oppose – using the same indiscriminate tactics and the same mass-impact weapons.

It does not matter which side bombards the civilians of Eastern Ukraine, who used to be one another’s neighbors and whose social, cultural, and economic lives used to be tightly intertwined. All of these assaults are a savage, ultimately pointless folly. The lives they take can never be restored, and the ill will they engender can never abate. This is why the idea that the Ukrainian government should ever regain de facto control over the separatist-occupied regions is an absurdity. Who would accept living under a government that murdered their neighbors and families and ruined what meager livelihoods they had? A lasting peace agreement might keep these territories nominally within the boundaries of Ukraine, in order to save face diplomatically, but the actual governance of these territories must be delegated to the people who live there, even if these people would make economically and politically counterproductive decisions. Donetsk and Luhansk might well become neo-communist enclaves and will certainly need decades of painstakingly slow economic recovery to restore 2013-level standards of living. However unfortunate this may all be, it is better than children being blown to bits. If peace is restored, along with free movement across borders (which existed prior to the civil war), the more ambitious and talented residents of these territories will be able to emigrate to the West, to Israel, or even to Russia, where their prospects would be greatly improved. Such emigration has already been happening for decades and has enabled the best minds and the better cultural vestiges of the former Soviet republics to be preserved.

With two key points – (i) broad autonomy for the rebel-held areas, separated by a buffer zone to prevent shelling of population centers, and (ii) a commitment for Ukraine never to join NATO – a peace plan might just avert escalation of the savage Ukrainian civil war. There may still be occasional violations of any resulting cease-fire, since neither side has full control over its fighters. However, redirecting the incentives and conversation away from escalation and toward peaceful coexistence is imperative to avoid making this tragedy worse. Eventually, if peace becomes the general rule rather than the exception, armed attacks in the region could equilibrate to a level very close to zero, and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics could become unofficial statelets, like Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia – de facto autonomous enclaves that are governed poorly but pose no threat to world peace or to anyone outside their boundaries.

If, on the other hand, weapons are sent to the Poroshenko/Yatseniuk regime and events spiral out of control into a World War III, then all of human civilization would be in grave danger. Decades of economic, technological, and cultural progress could be wiped out in days. The infrastructure – not just in Eastern Ukraine but in the West itself – could be devastated sufficiently to bring about another Dark Age, if humankind survives at all. Gone would be the dreams of colonizing other planets, dramatically extending human lifespans and curing chronic diseases, creating radical abundance through technological innovation, and obliterating age-old superstitions and oppressions. The old hawks who seek to relive the Cold War would plunge the world into a predicament far worse – all because they could not let go of their fear, their hatred, and their obsolete zero-sum “us versus them” worldview. Putin would, of course, also be complicit in such a scenario, but not because he would have made the first move. His foremost objective – as has been the case for every Russian autocrat – will be to avoid humiliation and save face, to claim a dignified resolution with an image of strength – no matter what the substantive outcome, in order to avoid domestic unrest. For Russian strongmen, much is forgiven – but losing a war (or seeming to lose it) is unacceptable and is practically a sentence of deposition, if not death. This is why, if the West ratchets up military pressure on Putin, he will have no incentive to put the brakes on the deadly cycle of escalation.

The saber-rattling of hawks in the US Congress and their supporters threatens the progress and the very survival of humankind. One can only hope that cooler heads – the thinkers, the thoughtful idealists, the pragmatists, the diplomats – will prevail and enable a local conflict to remain local and to eventually subside. The next few decades will be crucial for setting the course of human civilization for millennia hence – if people of conscience will be able to wrest those millennia from the short-sighted jingoists who would rob us of them.

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Review of Ilia Stambler’s “A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century”: A Source of Perspective, Insight, and Hope for Life Extension – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: History, Science, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
September 13, 2014
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A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century by Ilia Stambler is the most thorough treatment to date of the ideas of famous thinkers and scientists who attempted to prolong human lifespans. In this detailed and impressively documented work – spanning 540 pages – Dr. Stambler explores the works of life-extensionist thinkers and practitioners from a vast variety of ideological, national, and methodological backgrounds. Dr. Stambler’s opus will enable today’s advocates of human life extension to understand the immensely rich and interesting historical legacy that they can draw upon.

In substance, I agree with Dr. Stambler’s central observation that life-extensionist thinkers tended to adapt to the political and ideological climates of the societies in which they lived. I do suspect that, in some regimes (e.g., communist and fascist ones), the adaptation was partly a form of protection from official persecution. Even then, Soviet life-extensionists were unable to avoid purges and denunciations if they fell out of favor with the dominant scientific establishment. My own thinking is that life-extensionism is a powerful enough human motive that it will attempt to thrive in any society and under any regime. However, some regimes are more dangerous for life-extensionism than others – especially if they explicitly persecute those who work on life extension. If, on the other hand, complete freedom of scientific inquiry exists (with no barriers to performing research that respects all human rights or getting such research published), then significant progress can occur in a variety of political/ideological environments.

Even so, I have been tremendously interested to delve into Dr. Stambler’s discussion of the deep roots of life-extensionist thought in Russian society, where ideas favoring life prolongation have taken hold despite a long history of authoritarianism and more general human suffering. I even remember my own very early years in Minsk, where I found it easy to adopt an anti-death attitude the moment I learned about death – and where, even in childhood, I found my support for human life extension to be largely uncontroversial from an ethical standpoint. When I moved to the United States, I encountered far more resistance to this idea than I ever did in Belarus. While most Americans are not opposed to advanced medicine and concerted efforts to fight specific diseases of old age, there does still seem to be a culturally ingrained perception of some “maximum lifespan” beyond which life extension is feared, even though it is considered acceptable up to that limit. I think, however, that the dynamics of a competitive economy with some degree of freedom of research will ultimately enable most Americans to accept longer lifespans in practice, even if there is no intellectual revolution in their minds. The key challenge in the United States is to remove inadvertent institutional obstacles to progress (e.g., the extremely time-consuming FDA approval process for treatments), and also to prevent new obstacles from being established. Once radical life extension does occur, most Americans will explicitly or tacitly embrace it.

Dr. Stambler portrays American life-extensionist thinking as aligned with a capitalist, free-market, libertarian outlook – and this is often true, but it may be an exception to the book’s thesis that life-extensionist thinkers adapt to the predominant ideological environments that surround them. My own observation regarding American life-extensionism is that it does seem to correspond with a type of free-market libertarianism that is far outside the current ideological mainstream (though it is growing in popularity). The views of Peter Thiel, Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Reason (of FightAging.org), and Max More are far from the views of the political establishment in Washington, D.C., which tends to be much more in favor of a centralized welfare/security nation-state with elements of corporatism, but not a libertarian free market. The love of liberty is a strong part of American history and culture – and continues to feature strongly in the attitudes of many Americans (including some wealthy and prominent ones) – but I do not think the political establishment reflects this idea at all anymore.  An interesting thought on this matter is that it might have become easier in recent years for life-extensionists not to represent the dominant paradigm in their society or regime and still to prominently pursue life-extension endeavors. If this is so, then this would be an encouraging sign of a greater emerging diversity of approaches, and generally greater tolerance of such diversity on the part of regimes. After all, the American regime, for all of its flaws, has generally not been cracking down on the libertarian life-extensionists who disagree with it politically. At the same time, as Dr. Stambler points out, the United States remains the leading country in life-extension research – and this occurs in spite of the political disagreements between many life-extensionists and the regime.

A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century offers tremendous value to readers in encapsulating a diversity of vantage points on and approaches toward human life extension throughout history. While many of the pioneers in this area failed to achieve their ultimate goal, they did advance human biological knowledge in important, incremental ways while doing so. Furthermore, they navigated political and ideological environments that were often far more hostile to unhampered technological progress than the environments in many Western countries today. This should enable readers to hold out hope that continued biomedical progress toward greater human lifespans could be made in our era and could accelerate with our support and advocacy.

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The Benefits of a Non-Religious Upbringing: A Firsthand Account – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
January 26, 2013
Recommend this page.
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This speech was delivered at the Second Annual International Day of Protest Against Hereditary Religion on January 20, 2013. You can see recordings of the speech and subsequent question-and-answer session here.

                Greetings, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for attending my speech. It is an honor to present at the Second Annual International Day of Protest Against Hereditary Religion. I will focus on the issue of hereditary religion from a perspective that, in my view, receives all too little attention. Unlike most individuals – and even unlike many atheists – I was not a victim of hereditary religion. I was raised in a non-religious household and have never been religious and was never seriously attracted to religion. I would like to provide my firsthand account of how the absence of religious indoctrination during my childhood enabled me to thrive as a thinker and maintain a high quality of life in adulthood. Through my presentation, I hope to provide a glimpse into the advantages that all children can and should have.

                I was born during the very late years of the Soviet Union, when Gorbachev’s perestroika was already well underway. While the Soviet regime was always atheistic in name, religious freedom was openly tolerated by that time. By the time I was four, Belarus had declared independence from the USSR, and the post-Soviet government no longer had a view of religion one way or the other. Most people who pretended to be nonreligious during earlier eras of the Soviet regime no longer needed to do so, and so there was a widespread apparent revival of Orthodox Christianity during my early years. My family, however, was among those who were truly non-religious, so they never needed to pretend. I was raised largely free from structured ideology, either religious or communist. There was no real emphasis on atheism placed during my childhood, either. I was not taught that religion or religious people were bad, though I was taught about the history of religious atrocities – such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Wars of Religion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Much of what I learned on this subject was through my own reading of history books, of which there were plenty around the house, and to which I had unrestricted access. My family had no wish to be confrontational, so I was generally asked not to engage in any religion-oriented conversations in public. However, I do remember a situation where I and my grandfather – after whom I am named – were walking on the streets of Minsk and were hailed by Christians selling bibles and religious pamphlets. My grandfather replied firmly that he was an atheist and was not interested, though he did engage them in argument. It was around that time that he had read the Bible from cover to cover on his own, which seemed to reinforce his own atheism, as it does for many who actually delve into that text.

                As a child, I was not expected to think anything about religion, though I did anyway. I was, however, kept away from any sources of religious indoctrination. I want to share a few of the thoughts that went on in my mind at the time:

●             Prior to the scientific age, humans believed that gods inhabited high regions – mountains and the sky. However, humans climbed Mount Olympus and did not find the ancient Greek gods. Humans went into space and did not find heaven or any gods. Moreover, humans have discovered that the sky is not a solid platform or a place that can be inhabited generally; instead, it is a visual effect created by the fact that the Earth has an atmosphere. (I had memorized all the layers of the atmosphere, too.) Thus, it is impossible for gods to live there. Beyond the atmosphere is outer space, where no gods have been observed, either.

●             Prior to the 19th century, humans believed that only a god could have designed human life. However, Darwin’s theory of evolution demonstrated that it was possible for one species to evolve into another in an entirely natural process. (Yes, I knew about evolution – though in very simple terms – at that age.)

●             When I was asked by believers “If there is no God, then who created you?”, I would respond that my parents did. If the question was formulated somewhat differently – as in “What makes your existence possible?” – I would give an answer in terms of material causation – i.e., that I am made of cells, and cells are made of molecules, and molecules are made of atoms, and atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Generally, the conversation would proceed until I reached the smallest subatomic particle I could name, which was the quark, and which the believers asserted that God had to create. I generally answered that, while I do not know about the components of a quark, someday science would find out. I was fascinated with numbers from a very early age. I had learned to count at age two, before I learned to read, and by age four I was already delving into very large and very small numbers – to the hundreds of powers of ten, both positive and negative. I grasped that there was no limit in either direction to how large or small these numbers could get, and so I thought that there was also no upper or lower limit to humans’ eventual ability to understand existence at any magnification.

While my reasoning about religion at ages four and five may seem somewhat simplistic now – and the more sophisticated theists could find responses to my reasons for not believing in the existence of God back then – a habit of free thought was nonetheless established very early on in my life. It was never broken. I never hesitated to form my own opinions and to express them, sometimes in ways that got me in trouble with the various powers that be. I am, however, a better person because of this – because I acknowledge the power of evidence, reason, and my own mind in attempting to discover truth. While I may be wrong about particular ideas (and have been wrong in the past), the overall open-ended dynamic of my thinking enables me to overcome any specific errors and to improve my understanding.  I have never been subjected to successful indoctrination into a static, dogmatic worldview whose adherents fear questioning and challenge. The old Soviet system and its communist propaganda machine had already disintegrated by the time of my childhood, while the Orthodox religion – which now has a close affiliation with Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime in Belarus – was not yet strong enough to try to impose itself. I moved to the United States in time to avoid the worst of Lukashenko’s tyranny. Had I spent my teenage years in Belarus, I would likely have been imprisoned for political dissent. I was fortunate enough to have grown up during perhaps the freest era in the entire history of the former USSR. When I moved to the US, I certainly had more intellectual freedom than I would have had in Belarus had I remained.  But I also came to a society where atheism was a lot less common and a lot less understood.

                I have always tried to maintain a great deal of respect for post-Enlightenment interpretations of religion. Spending my teenage years in the suburbs of Chicago, I thought, initially, that this was pretty much how the majority of Americans viewed their faiths. I attended friends’ Bar Mitzvah ceremonies and engaged in interesting discussions with moderate Christians and Muslims. In that area, even those who called themselves conservatives generally considered religion to be a private matter and focused more on this-worldly political and economic subjects – for which I could respect them and have civil discussions with them. Ironically, it was the politically correct segment of the American Left (which, I understand, is not the entirety of the Left) that tried to crack down on my expression during that time, because I criticized premodern or “traditional” religious paradigms – including Aztec human sacrifice, the Hindu caste system, and traditional Chinese practices, such as foot binding, which were bound with religious views of women’s submissiveness and dependency. To the politically correct Left, all cultures and religions were equal as a matter of dogma – except, of course, for post-Enlightenment Western individualism and rationalism. I realized that atheists and freethinkers generally have as much to fear from this sort of indoctrination as they do from religious fundamentalism of any particular stripe. It does not matter, for instance, whether a blasphemy law or censorship of speech in the schools are based on the dominance of one particular religious sect, or on the fear of offending any religious sensibilities. Either way, the crucial human faculty of reason is muffled, and the capacity for intelligent critical thinking is stunted. Only the freedom of the mind can lead to the discovery of truth and the improvement of the human condition.

                Only when I went to college in Hillsdale, Michigan, did I discover that true premodern fundamentalist Christianity was far more prevalent than I had thought. The student body and professors at Hillsdale are split roughly along traditional conservative and libertarian lines. The libertarians – even those who are  personally religious – tend to be tolerant and to incorporate Enlightenment ideas of individual rights and free expression into their religious views. Many of the traditional conservatives, however, thought that religion was the only legitimate foundation for morality. Those of them who were raised entirely in religious settings – with no allowance for interaction with other worldviews and perspectives – were bewildered at how I, as an atheist, could do anything worthwhile at all. One of them – indeed, one of the better-behaved ones – was listening to me play the piano in one of the practice rooms in the music building. He then came in and asked, with sincerity, “That was beautiful, but I want to know… why? If you do not believe in God, what is the point in doing anything beautiful at all?” Another fundamentalist Christian, with whom I had quite a few discussions, suggested to me at one point that he and I could have nothing in common because I did not believe in God and his entire life was based on that belief. In return, I asked him whether he thought that two plus two made four. When he agreed that this was the case, I pointed out that I thought the same, and that this was indeed common ground. I tried my best to find as much of this sort of common ground as I could, and I made it a personal project of mine to give numerous presentations on campus about the possibility (and, indeed, the superiority) of non-religious objective morality. My many essays on the subject from that time period are freely available for all to read online.

                But it always baffled me how little I was able successfully get across to the fundamentalist Christians at Hillsdale that their way was not the only way. I never tried to de-convert them; rather, my objective was always simply to cultivate mutual respect and to lead them to recognize that, yes, atheists can be just as moral as some of them – while religion is no guarantee of moral conduct and can often be used to excuse genuine atrocities.  Perhaps I reached a few individuals, but many seemed impervious. As new groups of students came in every year, they came with the same preconceptions. It was like a vicious indoctrination machine was working to turn out fresh batches of carriers for the fundamentalist religion meme, with all the built-in defenses that meme entailed. I thought that, if only I could get them to drop the idea that morality requires religion, everything else about them could be maintained without too much harm. I realize now, however, that the pernicious notion of the Christian religion being the sole foundation of morality is one of the defense mechanisms that are deliberately inculcated into children by the cynical professional purveyors of Christian fundamentalism. Most children, and most human beings, want to be moral. Fortunately, in the real world, morality is a matter of actions and not beliefs. Thus, people of any persuasion can act morally by following rather simple negative and affirmative rules of conduct. Yet if, early on in their lives, people form a repeatedly reinforced association between morality and a particular religious persuasion, they will develop a visceral aversion to abandoning that persuasion – even if reason and experience show it to have numerous flaws. They fear that, if they cease being Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu – for that matter), they will cease to be moral human beings. This fear keeps them in the flock and keeps them paying money to the peddlers of their particular denomination’s doctrines.

              Yet reasons to be skeptical about religion abound. No person who is alive can avoid having doubts about pre-scientific systems of thought, formed millennia ago by people who were far less knowledgeable than even the average person today – and who were certainly far less civilized and moral in their personal conduct. Memes of hatred and insularity serve as the immune systems of fundamentalist religions. The more tolerant, post-Enlightenment interpretations of religion avoid these tactics by de-emphasizing institutional religious obedience and shifting their focus toward more abstract theology and more concrete real-world problems with secular solutions. This is an admirable attempt to salvage essential humanity from the grasp of dogma. Yet whether a child is born into a fundamentalist household or a more moderate religious household remains a matter of sheer chance. The children raised by fundamentalists continue to be subjected to an intellectual bubble, where questioning is discouraged and conformity in both thinking and practice is expected at the very least, and enforced through the threat of bodily punishment and social ostracism in many cases.

                I want every child to have the intellectual freedom that I had. I was surely raised with rules and discipline and expectations for moral behavior – but those can exist in complete independence from any expectation of religious or even broader philosophical adherence. Since morality is a matter of action and not thought, parents can expect their children to adhere to certain norms of conduct while leaving them free to think and believe anything they wish. I am not against religious adults who are intelligent and tolerant about their religion. But the choice to be religious or not must be made in an informed fashion, without the pressures of guilt, ostracism, or punishment. Thus, indoctrination into any belief system – without the allowance for dissent or even doubt – is a form of child abuse. It warps and stunts a child’s intellectual development and renders the child ripe for exploitation by knaves, charlatans, and demagogues in authority. Every parent needs to give his or her children the latitude to discover truth for themselves, and to commit errors in the mind of the parent, as long as those errors do not damage the children’s bodily well-being.

                As for me, I never felt myself to be constrained in my thinking – even during the times in my life when I was regimented in my routines of action, as I was in various public schools. I never felt that there were areas of existence or of my own interest that I could not explore. I never felt that I was a bad person for considering certain ideas and evaluating them on their merits. While many religious persons claim that there is a “void” in the human being that only their conception of a god or gods can fill, I never perceived such a void. Perhaps the void only occurs to those who abandon some part of their upbringing with which they were acquainted through repeated reinforcement; perhaps it is a form of nostalgia for a past to which they can no longer claim full allegiance. I, however, was always comfortable with reality as I perceived it through my senses and evaluated it through my mind. Existence is vast and extremely multifaceted. There is enough still unknown, still remaining to be discovered, that it never seemed fruitful to me to add another layer of obfuscatory complexity by superimposing a supernatural dimension upon the natural world. As for any intellectual errors of my past, they have not troubled me, since I consider myself to engage in a continual learning process, where improvement and not shame is the focus. It is better to have a good answer now, and to aspire toward making it better, than to blame oneself for not having the perfect answer the first time.

                As a self-supporting adult, I consider the lack of indoctrination and the ability to exercise complete independence of thought to be my greatest asset. Any situation I encounter – be it in the work I do for a living or in the endeavors I engage in as part of living well – can be approached using reason and evidence. I try to understand the fundamental constituents of the situation and their natures. I then use my analytical abilities and previously accumulated knowledge to construct a solution or improvement. Where I need to rely on the work of others, I use my reasoning abilities to evaluate for myself the degree of that work’s reliability. Everyone makes mistakes on occasion, and so do I. However, adherence to reason is a self-correcting mechanism that can extricate me from the mental traps and vulnerabilities that plague some people for an entire lifetime.

                In the years since I have graduated from college, I have been increasingly amazed at the breadth and open-endedness of existence. Life entails literally billions of possibilities and choices. While some people are, unfortunately, entangled in intellectual straitjackets and are pushed by their indoctrination along very specific and narrow paths (with well-known pitfalls along the way), I have always been determined to make a path of my own – based on my own values, my own talents, and my own flourishing. I will never allow dogma to blind me to possibilities for improvement. The earlier one embarks on this individualized journey, the easier it becomes to avoid common failure types in life. My plea to all parents is to allow their children this precious opportunity. Freedom of thought is the greatest gift you can give to your offspring, and it does not cost a penny.

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