The purported end of the world came and went last Saturday, and to the surprise of few, "the Rapture" did not come to pass.
The world is not, however, out of the woods if you read Peter Nolan's superb Crossroads - the End of Wild Capitalism and the Future of Humanity. Nolan's thesis is that unrestrained capitalism, its extremes and its contradictions have put China, the US and the world of Islam on a collision course that gives the world "the choice of no choice." Either these three models of culture and capitalism will find constructive engagement or the world as we know it is in extreme peril - either from economic instability and social reaction, military conflict or environmental destruction, or all of the above.
Students of economics and geopolitics will find much that is familiar here in theory but Nolan's formulation of the world's current dynamics, risks to the system and limited options going forward - engage cooperatively or unhinge the world - are elegantly reasoned and argued. As holder of the Sinyi Chair at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, Nolan demonstrates great knowledge of and passion for China and its potential to find a harmonious route through capitalism's contradictions, although success here is by no means a given. He also argues convincingly that global capitalism requires global regulation in order not to run amok and roughshod over most of the world's population.
In this part of his thesis is the intriguing notion that the major oligopolistic global corporations have an insurmountable advantage in the world and are increasingly stateless in their ambitions and interests. Developing economy companies are starting from so far back in some areas that they cannot hope to compete. And then, what?
Readers will also find fascinating economic and political history to suggest that the underlying approaches to capitalism pursued by China, the US and the Islamic world are far more importantly similar than they are different. Property rights, individual pursuit of profits, taxation and a drive to serve the common good all have a place in these systems (and Islam has found a way to embrace interest on capital by another name.) Their differences with regard to capitalism are more perceived and exacerbated by nationalisms and cultural bias than substantive. But can these systems find ways to constructively coexist before it's too late?
Nolan reaches back as far as Biblical times to report the early histories of China, the Middle East, Europe and the infant United States, which has risen in the post WWII period to dominate the global system (and now spends $2 billion a day on military expenditures!). Moreover, the US, motivated by its thirst for oil, has alienated Islam with its unquestioning support of Israel and tends to view China as a rising threat rather than a potential and natural collaborator in meeting the challenges of global modernization. China's labor advantages will continue to depress advanced economy wages, and we shall have to deal with that.
In the last 30 years, progress has been made on many fronts. Millions have been lifted out of poverty as finance and technology have spread into the developing world. But wealth disparity has grown significantly (Egypt, by no means alone, is one example where one percent of the population controls nearly all the country's wealth); the environment has been severely degraded (decertification growing by great leaps in China, whose organic water pollutants equal those of American, India, Russia and Japan combined); and, global warming has emerged as man's unique threat to the world in which we live. In this the US has been slowest to recognize the threat, let alone take significant steps to address it, Nolan notes.
The US has fomented an unregulated form of global finance capitalism that led to the great unwinding of 2008, which has not yet played out. This is one factor, along with US dependence on autos and oil, military power and a jaundiced view of the Middle east, that leads Nolan to conclude - quoting former US defense Secretary Robert McNamara, that there has never been a more dangerous moment in human history.
This book is riddled with fascinating facts and also broad arguments to challenge any conventional American view about the legitimacy of our approach to global finance capitalism and to others who may challenge us or require a different political approach on the world's playing field. You may finish reading this book as I did, convinced that if the US is not prepared to change some of our political and economic approaches to China and Islam, we may bring Judgment Day upon the world sooner than we think and in ways not yet imagined. That said, Nolan will help persuade you that nuclear Armageddon, as one way to end the world, is by no means out of the question.
Hillary Clinton disappeared from one of the most historic scenes in recent American history and most people would not know it happened. (Perhaps more sadly, many might not care.) Please consider:
Editors of the Hasidic weekly Der Tzitung photoshopped the US Secretary of State and another woman out of the scene in which Mrs. Clinton, seated near President Obama, was watching the progress of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.
This was quickly noticed and reported - the vanishment of the U.S. Secretary of State, even virtually, being something to note. Der Tzitung's editors issued an apology and explanation. They meant no disrespect to Mrs. Clinton or the President, they said, but images of women in their publication are expressly forbidden - to "protect their modesty."
Well now, White House policy expressly forbids the alteration of any official news photo, so the "modesty defense" would appear to fall short here. The editors did not need to run the photo at all - that would have defended Mrs. Clinton's modesty, if indeed it was threatened.
But to alter the photo and thereby to change the face of history is not fairly an issue of modesty. It is a not-so-subtle repression of women, in another garb. It also has that Orwellian 1984 feel of Newspeak, in which the photos of the news really aren't.
We can all look back to when women were not permitted to vote. Or to garner a fair share of property or wealth gained during marriage. Or to serve in combat military units. Laws have been passed, legal actions brought. Still women fight for equal rights and equal pay for equal work. Arguably they are further ahead in the United States than in much of the rest of the world.
One might argue that this is a tempest in a teapot and we have better things to do than to worry about the photographic exclusion of women - even as important as Hillary Clinton - in sectarian weeklies that few see and perhaps more could care less about.
I would contend, however, that this is gender discrimination dressed up as something else. Keeping images of women in the news out of the news implies that women don't make or matter to the news. And that is simply wrong. And I would add that if you address the little things, the big things may begin to take care of themselves. (This was the apparent lesson of subway cleanup efforts in New York City, well described in Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point," wherein the battle against graffiti and turnstile-jumping began a trend toward a much cleaner and safer underground.)
Maybe the White House feels it has enough on its hands these days not to react to an item like this. Maybe Hillary doesn't mind, and maybe the orthodox Jewish vote matters more. I would hope the White House enforcement arm for accuracy in media (do they have one?) would react to this in some official way, to say hey, you;re not allowed to do that, and we would like a retraction in the form of the accurate photograph published in the same place of prominence as the doctored one.
Oh, and by the way - there are better ways to respect and protect women's modesty than by distorting their accurate role in history.
The incoming, pre-attack helicopter above Bin Laden's compound was noticed and tweeted by a recluse who said he had come to Abbottabad, Pakistan to get away for a while. The meaning of the helicopter, which he reasoned at the time was probably not local (Pakistani or Taliban), would come clear later.
But that solo tweet would give the world a precise time of the attack, whatever official story might be told and in case anyone wanted to question it.
The tweet would also affirm a world in which more people than ever before in history are free enough and able to testify to things as they really happen. Video on phones, Youtube and tweets may be forces for democratization more powerful than any particular U.S. State Department policy you can name.
One effect of widespread spontaneous intelligence is that authorities are under more pressure than ever to be authentic. While there is aways a moral reason for telling the truth, there is also a pragmatic one. The price of being caught in a lie is high and the chances of being caught are growing as communications technologies spread around the world.
It is noted that some in Arab countries are using Google Earth to observe that their leaders have much, much, much more space to live in than the people they govern. (This tends to make some people believe they are being wronged.)
That being said, not everything that matters is in the public eye. Moreover, belief is important not only in terms of what actually happened - or didn't - but in what should be allowed to happen.
Swiftly in the wake of the attack and execution of Bin Laden the world was treated to online photographs of his bullet-riddled head, photos subsequently (within hours) repudiated as fakes. Our government, we are told, is debating whether the real photos are fit for public consumption. (Have any of them gone to the movies lately, or watched CSI Miami? And what would these new alleged actual photos actually prove?)
Bin Laden's body is gone - buried at sea, we are told, to assure a swift interment that respects Muslim tradition.
Bin Laden is really dead, we are told, verified by DNA our government took from his sister five years ago while she was in medical treatment. (Did anyone actually see them take her DNA?)
I do not make these observations to stoke conspiracy theories or provoke doubts about our government's candor. I do believe Bin Laden is dead, as reported. ('Birthers' may yet wonder.) At some point, the weight of official testimony (and some logic) is good enough for me.
But questions of authenticity and "so what?" rise swiftly as one reads online debate about the attack, its rationale and timing and aftermath. Much of what people say they "know" or believe seems a function of belief systems already in place and the desire to believe one alternative interpretation over another.
Some observers - and they do seem generally to be more Republicans than Democrats, though this is not a partisan issue - were quick to suggest that Guantanamo torture, specifically water-boarding, played a pivotal role in identifying the courier who led US intelligence to the compound.
Former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney was quoted saying he thought it reasonable to infer that water-boarding had been vindicated as a technique for securing vital information. This conclusion was quickly challenged by Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, who seemed to be saying she "knew" the Guantanamo torture had not been effective in this regard.
On these points I have no idea what the torture revealed and I wonder what Cheney and Feinstein really "know." (Might they publicly disclose what they know so we can determine if this constitutes proof of anything that we need not debate further?)
I do not believe in the legitimacy of torture to begin with, not only because the Geneva Convention prohibits it and because seasoned experts say torture does not work (it can produce many lies and half truths and emboldens your enemies to use it on you) but because torture as an instrument of war - like poison gas and nuclear weapons - seems morally wrong to me. So whether torture may extract a key fact from an individual prisoner is beside the point.
Opposition to torture is itself a belief - an article of faith, if you will, about humanity, even in wartime - that does not submit to proof. Unfortunately it does not seem to submit to reason either because the people who believe in it cannot be talked out of it, notwithstanding evidence and experience and morality.
While we live in a world in which much more can be seen and reported and known - which hopefully will encourage our government (more than many) to tell more truth and fewer lies - we remain challenged to do those things that we believe in, despite 'evidence' and claims and counterclaims.
In terms of our own faith and beliefs, in confronting the dangers of terrorism we would do well to keep asking who we are and who do we want to become. Perhaps in struggling with and within ourselves we will find the real war on terrorism is being fought there, and "winning" will mean we successfully defended America as a moral beacon for the world.
I do not rejoice in anyone's death but I am glad Bin Laden has met his maker and grateful to those servicemen and women who put themselves in harm's way to carry out our country's military plans. In the case of Al Qaida, a non-state terrorist organization willing to target mostly civilians, a war played outside the rules has provoked responses that have been outside the rules as well.
Victory may be sweet, but we need to be vigilant that provocation does not cause us to abandon the American principles of law and individual rights that we hold dear. That said, I find my mind filled with questions:
If we went into Afghanistan to pursue Osama and deal Al Qaida a death-blow, is our reason for being there now satisfied (having satisfied it in Pakistan)? That debate has been going on for nearly the last decade, and the NY Times reports that it has surfaced again at the highest levels.
Is it true of a networked terrorist organization that if we cut off the head, the body will die? History has its share of revolutionary and proto-revolutionary movements that have been effectively crushed by government force. Surveillance, intimidation, imprisonment and the execution of key leaders tend to be effective, but these have tended to be within national boundaries. Both the former Soviet Union and China provide illustrations here, but they are not alone. (Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the US Black Panther Party of the 1960s-70s "the greatest threat" to internal security and used all the FBI's resources to harass and disrupt them, including the alleged use of assassination.) Chris Hedges, who covered Al Qaida for the NY Times, would suggest this is not one of those cases.
What potentially helpful terrorist-fighting information was found on computer hard drives confiscated from Bin Laden's compound, (and is there any chance it might make it onto Wikileaks)?
What role did Google Earth play in identifying the compound for what it was - a refuge not just for someone important and clandestine but for the Most Wanted Man of The Century? Global surveillance of this kind would seem to be a game-changer all its own. Finding the compound on Google Earth certainly happened quickly just after the news broke.
Does Bin Laden's death make terrorist acts against the US more likely? (If we believed that, would it make us wish Obama had acted otherwise in ordering the strike?)
Some reports have suggested a connection between information gleaned at Guantanamo and identifying the compound as Bin Laden's. Are we to believe that torture (water-boarding or otherwise) played a role here? If we wanted a justification for torture, maybe some would consider this enough. (I favor observing the Geneva Convention.)
Some of these questions may be answered soon enough. I would like to say that I am confident of our government's account of events in general, but I am not. (Iraq and WMD come to mind). Events surrounding Bin Laden's death, however, will be subjected to as much scrutiny as any events in recent history, if not in all recorded history. The same technology and transparency that enables pervasive government surveillance, also enables relentless citizen inquiry, and I think the important truths here will become known if they are not already.
As satisfying as Bin Laden's death may be in some respects, I am still hungry for more answers.