Bake the Cake…?! Property & Discrimination

“It’s a violation of religious freedom!”

“How dare you discriminate against gay people; that’s a violation of their civil rights!”

So which is it? Is forcing the cake baker to bake a cake for a gay wedding a violation of their religious rights? Or is refusing to serve a gay couple a violation of their civil rights? Which is the real issue?

Neither.

I’m speaking, of course, of the recent case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a class action suit challenging business discrimination of services for gay events (or gay people more generally).

Let me break this down as concisely as I can in a series of points that will, I hope, give a clear picture of what the real issue is here, and the implications.

  1. First, is this a religious liberties issue? Yes and no. The first amendment of the Constitution contains five major protections: speech, religion, press, assembly and petition. Regarding religion, there are two clauses. The first states that government may not infringe on the “free exercise of religion,” and the second bars the government from “establishing” a religion. So it is my contention that the first amendment alone is not enough to argue this case. The real argument carries far more leverage. The 9th amendment alone does a better job.

 

  1. Is this a civil rights issue? Well, again, I will refrain from answering this directly; stick with me to the end as I make my case. Still, what would be the constitutional argument for this position? The argument for this would be premised on the 14th Amendment, an often misinterpreted amendment that protects peoples’ rights to the “equal protection of the laws.” This has been the Amendment used to argue for an end to discrimination based on race, gender, et cetera. The ACLU will certainly disagree, but I find it hard to make the connection between ensuring that all people are treated equally under the law (ie, the law cannot make different provisions for different classes of people) and give the government the power to force an individual to serve another individual against their wishes.

 

  1. So if the real issue isn’t either of these, what is the real issue? This is an issue of property rights. Who owns you and your labor? A Facebook critic and debater claimed that, while I own my own labor, the government can force me to use that labor equally for those they believe I should serve, effectively preventing me from discriminating. But if I can be forced to use my labor to serve someone I choose not to—for whatever reason—is that not, in so far as it goes—government owning my labor?

 

  1. Or you can look at it another way. To force a person to sell their labor to another is to say that the customer owns the labor of the other. Do you really own your own labor? To the extent that someone must use their time, resources and labor to serve you, is that not a violation of their property—themselves and their labor? In most places, we’d call that servitude.

 

  1. If someone says they refuse to serve balding red-heads, I may be upset and offended. But I am not entitled to their labor. On what moral basis can my demand that they serve me overrule their right to their own time, labor and resources? They may be foolish, petty and even morally stunted, but that does not give me title to force them to serve me or quit work altogether.

 

  1. But what about the argument: “You’re not forced to offer that labor; you can go out of business instead.” Yes, this is a frequently-used argument, though it’s put in more humanitarian terms: “We only ask [demand] that if you choose to sell your labor, you sell it equally to everyone [who we chose].” Okay, okay, so I put in my interpretation. Well, isn’t it re-assuring that our labor is only owned by the government (or the person being served) if we choose to … work? Catch the sarcasm.

 

  1. And the other argument. “It’s only servitude if it’s uncompensated. The cake-baker would still have been compensated, so it’s not actually servitude if we tell him how to use his labor and resources.” So we can choose to work or not. If we choose to work, we are forced to use our resources and labor to serve whoever the government says we should. But not to worry; we’ll get paid for it. Argument settled, they say. Really?

 

  1. “But discrimination is terrible! We must use the power of the state to end it!” Well, discrimination can be terrible. It can be morally reprehensible. It can be immature. It can be rather benign and inconsequential. And many times, it can be quite prudent. Not serve someone because of the pigment in their skin? Not serve someone because you’re supporting a lifestyle you believe is immoral? Not serve someone because you think they’re dangerous? Not serve someone because you don’t like them? The rationale for discrimination can run from idiotic to prudent, to a mere question of moral belief.

 

  1. We all discriminate all the time. Discrimination has become a deeply negative word due to its historical association with racial discrimination. But discrimination is simply freedom of association: there are people we would rather associate with and there are those we don’t. As I said, unfortunately, some people have foolish and morally decrepit rational for their choices of association. Sometimes its quite prudent (I won’t employ a child molester to babysit). Sometimes, it’s a question of moral belief, such as the case with the cake baker refusing to use their time, money and labor to make a cake for a gay wedding.

 

  1. Exchanging your goods and services with others (ie, starting a business) does not suddenly remove your property rights and give control over your labor to the government or society at large. This point addressed again a bit later.

 

  1. Consider my response to a Facebook debater who spouted many of these arguments I’ve discussed: “Are you okay with the logical extension of that argument? On that line of reasoning, anyone who exchanges goods or services with anyone else may no longer choose who to exchange those goods or services with… I presume here that you wouldn’t make exceptions [in order to remain consistent]. For example, you must also offer your services to pedophiles, Nazis, child porn marketers, et cetera, according to your argument, if the government saw fit. Either that or quit offering goods or services to anyone. … My point is that it doesn’t really matter what the reasoning is for discrimination. If you force someone to offer their (even compensated) labor to someone they disagree with, you have to equalize it everywhere and to EVERYONE. Unless, of course, using the power of the state to force people to offer their services to people they would rather not is really just subjective and based on whoever the state (and their constituents) want to.” I later reiterated my question: “So, you’re okay with the government forcing you to sell your labor to Nazis, pedophiles, people who sell child porn (so long as you’re not assisting them in something illegal, as you said), et cetera, fill-in-the-blank? You never and would never discriminate for any reason, and if you did, you’d be okay with the government using force to stop you?” He never answered.

 

  1. I was finally able to get my debater to cede something: After claiming multiple times that we do own our labor, but not offering for a justification on why we could be forced to use that labor against our wishes, he finally admitted that we really don’t own our labor 100% because we are in “contract” with society, and thereby have already agreed to give up full power over our labor because of this. In his words, “entering that contract [offering services for sale] does give the government some say in how you distribute and sell your labor. “ What I couldn’t get from him was how, in fact, we agree to any such “contract” simply by exchanging goods or services with others.

 

  1. Besides, do we really want to equip the government with the subjective power of determining who has a right to your time, labor and resources?

 

  1. If you haven’t, yet, there are two other key posts you have to read related to this: “Negative v. Positive Rights” and “The Tale of the Slave.”

 

  1. A couple of closing points. First, it is the trademark of progressivism to use the power of the state to force whatever change on society that its adherents see fit. This was true during the French Revolution, during which Robespierre and others thought anyone who did not actively (even beyond passively) support “the civil state” were guilty of treason and ought to face capital punishment. It is still seen today when Progressives destroy property in their attempt to silence speech that they do not like. Or try to create “safe spaces” on college campuses where “offensive” things cannot be said.

 

  1. On that last point and as my final point, that is why arguing a case like Masterpiece on religion alone is insufficient. If your religious views do not align with the vision of progressivism, there is no moral or religious argument that can satisfy. But when it is understood correctly that the real issue is the violation of property rights (which is the basis of religious liberty, anyway), then the argument in favor of refusing the gay couple the services of the cake-maker are property bolstered and understood.

Thumbnail photo credit goes to bustle.com. 

 

Catalonia & Secession

As the Catalan pursuit of independence crisis heats up and edges ever closer toward significant violence in that pursuit, it seems a prime time to share some thoughts on secession.

To premise, I have a strong patriotic streak for both my countries–the United States and Peru. And so that may premise (and hopefully alleviate opposition to) what many people might find radical. Not that I care primarily about alleviating strong opposition; I expect to come across plenty of it in this and other posts.

But nevertheless, here are five key points I want to point out in the discussion of Catalan secession/independence. As usual, I am not here on a soap box, but rather hope to provoke thought.

First, the notion that we are one nation, rather than a collection of nations, wasn’t the original vision of the United States held by the Founders (with perhaps a few exceptions), and yet I don’t think anyone would accuse them of lack of patriotism. It’s just that their patriotism lie first with their country (state) (or perhaps even moreso with their local communities) and then with the federal union of their states, and last of all with Great Britain, even though nearly 1/3rd of all Americans were still quite patriotic to Great Britain and opposed secession. (That means fewer Americans were for secession from GB, and yet even more–apparently–prepared to fight, die and kill to gain it, than those in Catalonia.)

Second, true and historical conservatism emphasizes the natural, organic and (traditionally, as it were) Biblical concepts of loyalty and relationship. Whereas political boundaries are fundamentally arbitrary (from a human standpoint), as the case in Spain points out (the Catalans don’t even speak Spanish as their primary language), the true and valuable relationship and groups and bonds have nothing to do with political boundaries. The Father of Conservatism and English politician, Edmund Burke (who I discuss here), supported the American Revolution because he believed they were fighting to preserve their political, legal and economic traditions of localism and self-government. If California seceded, my relationship with people in California (where most of my extended family lives) remains unchanged (it may take a few more steps to visit them, but then, should we have a one-world government so I can more easily visit my family members who live all over the world?) For myself, per Philippians 4, I am a citizen of heaven, loyal first to the Lord (at least, that is my striving), then my family, my local church, my associations (ie, the school where I teach), and the global church. Only after those come my town, state, and country. That’s a large part of what it meant originally to be conservative. True, meaningful and genuine relationship does not change based on where we draw a political boundary.

Third, large centralized states are the antithesis to liberty. Take the one-world government example. The more distant the seat of power and the larger the jurisdiction, the less important an impact the local regions and the people in them hold. Hitler hated states rights, and writes openly so in Mein Kampf, because he understood that he could not achieve his agenda if he did not have absolute and total control. Germany had been a federation of sovereign nations until unification in 1870-1, but even then the German states still had numerous elements of sovereignty that Hitler sought to dissolve entirely. Consider the contrast between the words of British Politician Lord Acton and German Nazi Leader Adolph Hitler.

“I saw in States’ rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will…. ” – Lord Acton

Nearly 60 years later, Hitler would write:

“[The Nazis] would totally eliminate states’ rights altogether: Since for us the state as such is only a form, but the essential is its content, the nation, the people, it is clear that everything else must be subordinated to its sovereign interests.” – Adolph Hitler

In addition to the last point, smaller political jurisdictions are more prone to facilitate liberty for the same reason Hitler hated them. Don’t like the system here? Move over there. That’s obviously easier said than done (though the smaller the units, the easier it is), but it’s certainly easier than escaping the oppression of a distant government, such as the Tibetans in China.

Fourth, there is no need for a change in political boundaries to have a long-term negative effect on economics, so long as people can trade freely across political lines. You see this clearly in the European Union, the Pacific Free Trade Zone, et cetera. If Catalonia secedes, for example, there would be no natural reason (though there could be artificial ones) that they couldn’t continue to trade with Spain and the rest of Europe, in or out of the EU. The same goes, in theory, for Great Britain with regard to Brexit, though the EU may impose various tariffs as a way to “punish” them. There will be temporary economic decisions to be made that might unsettle the waters for a bit, but is that enough justification to force a people–against their will–to remain within a certain political boundary? The same argument could be made of the American Revolutionaries, who openly declared they would go to war for what the Catalan people have so far tried to achieve through peaceful referendum (the violence there a tragic result, but not intent, yet). If California seceded and no artificial barriers were imposed, resources would flow across the border just as before and we would still get much of our produce from California, just like we do from Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, et cetera.

Fifth, where do we place the burden of proof? One social media comment raised an interesting point: our perspective tends to change when we consider our own country.  This person made the point that it’s easy to sympathize with the Catalan people, but reject any such notions shared by our neighbors. “I favor Catalan independence, but heaven forbid Texan independence.” But how do we justify he discrepancy? If the U.N. suddenly becomes more powerful and declares all countries involved to be the U.N. Nation, for example, does the burden of proof suddenly fall on the U.S. to demonstrate overwhelmingly why it has a right to secede? Do you assume that the central government always has a right to maintain the peoples within its borders unless they can either fight for or 100% prove “why” they should be independent? Is there any objective measure that can be used to say, “this group has the right to secede and this group doesn’t”? Where do you draw the line? On economic grounds? On grounds of patriotism? At what point does the larger political unit no longer get to subordinate the smaller to its control? Can we both favor Kurdish secession because of the oppression they have experienced under the Iraqi Arabs and at the same time oppose Catalan secession, or Californian secession, because we don’t think they have a good enough reason? Or is any form of disallowing political secession a form of oppression?


Thumbnail photo credit: bbc.com

The Civil War… Slavery or States’ Rights? (Answer: Both)

Was the Civil War about slavery or states’ rights? And are supporters of states’ rights, by extension, supporters of slavery?

I recently responded to a Facebook debate over these very questions (I know, I know…I should avoid that sort of thing…but in my defense, I did ask for permission to enter the discussion and was approved), and what I intended for a succinct reply quickly grew into the following more essay-like response. So instead of constantly re-inventing the wheel, I figured it would make a good blog post (I have slightly expanded it here).

First, to suggest that it was EITHER slavery OR states’ rights is far oversimplified. It was clearly both. But real history doesn’t fit on bumper stickers.

To clear one important point up , many southerners were genuinely concerned about the future of slavery in the south, and hence the language in their declarations of secession that testify to that. There is clearly no moral defense of this concern; it should rightly be condemned. However–and this is a key reminder–at the outset of the war1, and indeed even through most of the war, the end or continuation of slavery was not in immediate question or the immediate cause of the war. Lincoln did not start the war with any intent to end slavery in the south. In fact, he had earlier supported a Constitutional amendment that would have specifically protected slavery where it existed. The decision for the emancipation of southern slaves was a strategic move to destabilize the southern economy and encourage southern slaves to have a vested interest in a Northern victory.2 I comment on Lincoln’s views of slavery in the footnotes.It also exempted states like Kentucky and Missouri (where secession was still in debate throughout the early part of the war) and allowed them to retain their slaves if they remained in the Union.

With that being said, saying that the Civil War was about either slavery or states’ rights is like saying the American Revolution was about either taxes or self-government. It’s clearly both. To risk redundancy, saying that the war was really about slavery and not really about states’ rights would be to say that the American Revolution is about self-government and not about unjust taxation. (I’m not drawing a moral equivalency–for crying out loud!–just observing the facts as they stand.)

Let’s start with states’ rights, the legal and immediate question of the war. In 2017, we can’t really understand the states’ rights arguments in the way they were viewed in early American history because we live in a day and age of increasingly centralized power. Local self-government had much of its roots in the Middle Ages, which then endured very importantly in England itself, and many of the American conservatives throughout the colonial period had enjoyed self-government for so long that it was considered, to them, to be part of the unwritten, but very real British Constitution.

The southerners were very much in this vein of belief that power ought to be distributed between multiple sources, in line with the Jeffersonian position (and most of the Constitutional Framers). The modern central state that we have today was not the federal government of the U.S. founders, and as southerners saw it becoming more and more powerful, cesetion was their recourse as negotiations broke down.

This was not something they made up. Multiple states only ratified the Constitution itself on the promise by Constitutional supporters that it did not bring an end to state sovereignty. The states were the primary political unit (like the countries in the UN), and the federal government was formed by the states for pragmatic purposes, mostly related to foreign affairs. During its ratification process, Virginia ratification delegates deliberately said they would only ratify if they retained their right to secede if the federal government went beyond the limited powers granted in the Constitution. Rhode Island and New York maintained similar provisions. When the southern states seceded, the reality that the U.S. was becoming a centralized modern state was on the forefront of many peoples’ minds both in the north and south.

Robert E. Lee wrote, “I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only are essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”4

Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were both against slavery on moral grounds. Lee called slavery a “moral and political evil.”5

The question of secession (and states’ rights more generally) had a more vigorous northern tradition than southern. In fact, New England states had been the first to seriously consider withdrawal from the Union during the War of 1812 due to what they considered unfair federal tariff laws and a federally-imposed embargo. As one of many examples, the Connecticut legislature proclaimed in 1812, “It must not be forgotten, that the state of Connecticut is a free sovereign and independent state; that the United States are a confederacy of states; that we are a confederated and not a consolidated republic.”6 The Massachusetts governor, MA Supreme Court and legislature all concurred and issued a similar statement. New England secession was openly debated at the Hartford Convention of 1814-1815. Later, after the Fugitive Slave Law of the 1850s required active state participation in the rounding up of slaves who had escaped to the north, multiple northern states actively nullified the law—instructing their police forces to ignore it, and several passed “personal liberty laws” for this very purpose.

As for the soldiers in the war, most war memoirs and letters show that soldiers, by and large, were first and foremost concerned with self-government and the self-determination of each political society to decide its own course, as the Founders had been in 1776.

The question of states’ rights and secession was pushed to the point of crisis because of the question of the expansion of slavery. With newly acquired territory from Mexico in 1848, and a population balance in the north putting far more northerners into the federal government than southerners, attempts to compromise on decisions about whether or not newly created states would be permitted to have slavery or not frequently broke down, and those that went through were fraught with controversy. Voting fraud during the vote on statehood in Kansas led to bloodshed there as early as 1854. (There were only 2 slaves in Kansas at the time!)

Also, the abolitionist movement in the North was very small, but very loud. Led by people like William Lloyd Garrison, a small number of passionate abolitionists were very active. Of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had profound effect on northerners, drawing many into the abolitionist viewpoint. With that, free-soil parties, like the Republican Party, were formed on the basis of preventing the expansion of slavery into newly created states. (It is important to note that many northerners were opposed to the expansion of slavery because they thought it would crowd out work opportunities for northern laborers moving west.)

Nevertheless, southern concerns that an increasingly powerful federal government filled with more and more abolitionists who might seek to end slavery were real. There is no illusion about the fact that many southerners were very intent on ensuring the institution continue. (As a side note, only 25% of southerners owned slaves. The aristocratic structure of southern society ensured that it was these people who held the vast influence over southern policy.) With people like Jackson and Lee as exceptions, many certainly had their personal financial investments anchored in slavery, and even George Washington had not been able to overcome his financial dependence on the enslavement of humans (while he lived; he bequeathed them freedom after his wife’s death), despite his disdain for the institution as a whole (I commented on this briefly in my previous post, as well.)

So clearly it’s not an ‘either-or’ question. When the war broke out, Lincoln nor his generals were fighting to end slavery; that wasn’t in the question with regard to immediate causes of the war, though many southerners were concerned about the trend in powerful central government that might limit or seek to end the institution.

Real history doesn’t fit onto bumper stickers.

And more than anything, it is so important to understand (and accept) that people who argue that the war was fought for states’ rights are not supporting slavery and may, in fact, be supporting the very traditional and conservative principle of self-government. They can both argue that point and argue that southern slave-holders were profoundly hypocritical in their views on liberty and condemn slavery as the despicable institution that it is; there is no dissonance with that position. To explain or endorse the states’ rights cause of southern secession is not even a defense of the Confederacy, let alone to support slavery or even ‘white nationalism’. Likewise, we shouldn’t ignore the slavery issue and its broad cultural acceptance at that time, nor be insensitive or uncharitable to those who bring attention of this reality to the forefront. But let’s not pretend that the evil of slavery is still being supported by the vast majority of those who see the argument made by Robert E. Lee, as quoted above.

I ask for charity both ways. A rarity, to be sure.

As in all things, condemn what is evil and immoral and praise what is good and virtuous, rather than picking teams and calling names. Let’s be charitable, understanding, and honest.


Some will argue that Lincoln did not start the war because the south fired the first shots at Ft. Sumter, which in fact they did. However, most historians agree, on account of Lincoln’s discussions with his Cabinet, that he very much intended to provoke them, even after the Confederacy government had offered to pay for the land occupied by federal bases, including Ft. Sumter. 

In August of 1863, Lincoln wrote his friend, attorney and federal agent James Conkling, “I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. .. I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you.” 

Lincoln was opposed to slavery as an institution. He wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is.” But he also argued that the “physical difference” between blacks and whites prevented them from ever being able to live together, and argued clearly that whites ought to have the superior position. He supported a plan to encourage blacks to move to Liberia. He later on did appear to have been glad of the opportunity to free slaves as a consequence of the war on moral grounds, but even after the emancipation declaration, he would still contend that he would have sought war to preserve the Union with or without the end of slavery. 

4Quoted in 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask ©2007, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Ph.D, page 76.

Ibid.

6 Ibid, page 31.

 

Do You Aspire for Political Power?

I was recently having a conversation with someone who explained to me her interest in politics. Her ultimate goal she said: to become president. She was quite convinced of it, too.  A self-described “control freak,” she had a plan for moving up the political ladder and ultimately emerging in that prized executive position.

Now, I pledge to never disparage anyone with the terribly powerful weapon and tool of my metaphorical pen, and that is not my purpose here. But the interaction struck me and I had to hold my tongue politely in the setting that did not allow for further discussion of the matter. Still, I managed one bit of cordially-delivered advice.

The advice? That politicians are the only people with the legal authority to use force, violence and the threat of each, and the reality of that ought to be sobering.

And as I said, I spoke with lighthearted understatement that somewhat masked the formidable reminder. I will not mince my words here.

Do you aspire for political power?

Please remember the same.

This is not a treatise on political power and its proper role or extent. It is merely a warning.

Saint Augustine theorized that those in power are by and large those who are already inclined to such an abuse of that power, as those not so inclined are most often found in the more docile of vocations. This, of course, is quite counter to the general perspective we are taught of government officials from our youngest days: that those bearing our team label are sacrificial benefactors out for our own good. (You already know how I feel about “team politics” from my post, “I Am Not Partisan”.)

Sure, in response to some of your protests, there are politicians who are not naturally those already inclined to seek the position for its own sake. But am I really that far out on a limb to suggest that these are by far the exception rather than the norm? Saint Augustine and many others would not think so. When the Hebrews demanded a king, the Lord told Samuel to warn them of the ways the kings would turn the people into his very slaves.1 If the vocation of painting draws those who naturally tend to be artistic, then why are we so ready to proclaim that the vocation of power must be a great a sacrifice born by those in its pursuit for the greater good of those they have power over? Does it not likewise tend to draw those who are naturally “control freaks”?

In one of the first posts of this project (“What is the State?”), I made the assertion that the state is a monopoly on force.

Do you aspire for political power? Do you aspire to be a member of this prestigious monopoly with the power to hold the metaphorical gun of legal force?

There is an old adage that we all knew from a young age: “power corrupts.” And when we learned about the kings of France, we added, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And there may be some truth here in a colloquial sense, as some who seek political office often find their benevolent aspirations twisted cruelly into an activity of self-advancement. But perhaps it is a far more accurate reality that power draws out the natural corruption of human nature and gives it far more dangerous an impact than the more benign professions.

Again, this is not a treatise on the role or legitimacy of power. It is, to sound like a broken record, a caution. A warning.

Indeed, I am not altogether opposed to a pragmatic pursuit of political position (and on this, there will be divided opinion among my readers), so long as all such pursuits are used for the advancement of liberty, anchored in the most unshakable of moral caliber. Such pursuit and integrity is a rare find among the political class.

We have come so far from God’s warning to the Hebrews that a king would “draft your sons,” force some to “plow in his fields and harvest his crops,” “take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials,” and “take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest.”2 Indeed, we have come to revere the very power that God told Samuel was a rejection of His sovereignty.3

This is the power to tax. The power to wage war. The power to wield the only legal metaphorical gun and the power to use it.

And for those who want to add, “the power to build up or to destroy,” do not be misled. The power of government cannot build up. It cannot create. It can only feed on the productivity and creativity of others. All true conservatives have understood that truth and beauty can never be the product of force. As the great conservative Edmund Burke (who I discuss here) wrote,

“In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing, the Thing itself is the Abuse!”4

And the great 20th Century writer, conservative and libertarian-leaning J.R.R. Tolkien, expressing his views in The Lord of the Rings, expresses his views in Gandalf’s reply to Frodo’s suggestion that he take the Ring (which in a later letter, Tolkien says symbolizes power itself):

“No! With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly! Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused.”5

Do you aspire for this power?

Then be sobered by the reality of this danger and proceed with humility, integrity and a deep and abiding fear of what the weapon and tool in your hands really means.


1 1 Samuel 8

2 Ibid, verses 11-15

3 Ibid, verse 7.

4 This comes from one of his early essays, though it was repeated as a motto throughout much of Burke’s political life. Numerous commentaries can be found on it with a simple Google search.

5 The Lord of the Rings, page 60. A very interesting and thorough look at Tolkien’s views on power as expressed through The Lord of the Rings can be found here.

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 2 – Definitions: Conservatism & Liberalism)

In the first post in this series, I explored a few key ideas and thinkers that help to establish the context for the development of distinctly conservative and liberal thought. To review, a tradition of some extent or another of natural law had existed in England for a long time, manifesting itself in the stipulations of the Magna Carta, the English Petition of Right (which I did not get into) of 1628, the English Civil War and the English Bill of Rights in 1688. To note, thinkers such as Samuel Rutherford and more specifically John Locke, who we will explore in depth in Part 4, drew these to their full conclusion that all people are a natural right to life, liberty and the protection of their property.

As the narrative proceeds into the 18th and 19th Centuries, the ideas of conservatism and liberalism begin to take on more specific parameters. Let’s nail down a few of these before proceeding.

Defining Conservatism & Liberalism

I’ll begin with straight forward definitions. Conservatism is an ideology that holds to tradition and societal norms. Conservatives tend to favor maintaining the status quo by definition, including its various institutions and structure. They want to “conserve” the way things have been.

In American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Bruce Frohnen defines conservatism as, “a philosophy that seeks to maintain and enrich societies characterized by respect for inherited institutions, beliefs and practices, in which individuals develop good character by cooperating with one another in primary, local associations, such as families, churches and social groups aimed at furthering the common good in a manner pleasing to God.”

Liberalism comes with a less clearly defined definition, as any dictionary search will turn up several definitions, the first of which is something along the lines of, “holding to liberal views.” Well, that sure helps (sarcasm meter high).

The fact of the matter is that both terms need context for clarity. If conservatives in a given context desire to maintain tradition and the order that exists, it is often presumed that a liberal must be someone inclined to push for change. This is sometimes, but not always, true. The context of the original use of the word liberal has formed a basis for its classical definition. Also in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Ralph Raico defines classical liberalism as “the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade.”

The word classical is added to liberalism today to describe this emphasis on individual liberty because the word liberal today has taken on meanings more aligned with progressivism, a term I’ll explore fully in later posts. In its context, we can drop that qualifier classical and simply refer to the liberal of the 17th through 19th Centuries; readers can know that I am referring to the historical context until we reach the 20th Century and the explanation of changing terms.

One more point before moving on. Are conservatism and liberalism mutually exclusive or opposed to each other? As with many umbrella-type labels subject to numerous degrees and varieties, it depends on who you ask. You could both argue that they do in are in some respects, and not necessarily in others. Insofar as libertarianism has its roots in classical liberal thinking (they are similar, though not entirely), I will take a later post and explore this question more fully. For the time being, understand that there are not always black and white lines of separation between some of these ideas, and reality more often plays out in the grubbiness of politics than in rhetoric. That’s what we’ll see in Great Britain.

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(A note on my sources: I combine a variety of sources in my historical narrative, combining lectures from Liberty Classroom with my own extensive reading, research and study from my years of teaching much of this content in High School. )

I Am Not Partisan

I am not partisan. I am not a team player in politics.

To be partisan is to be loyal to a political team—usually a political party—regardless of whatever policies that team pursues or puts forth. Sure, most people who are very passionate followers of their party have their limits and will abandon their party in time if it strays too far. This is why you saw massive numbers of Democrats switching to the Republican Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s, preferring Richard Nixon to an heir of Lyndon Johnson. (Yes, this touches on where we’re going in my recently started series, “The History of Conservatism, Liberalism and Libertarianism.” Sign up for email notifications to find out when the next one in that series is published.)

Still, there are many people who clearly side with their party through much that might be otherwise considered contradictory positions. A clear sign of partisanship is when a person accuses the opposing party of doing something and then later praises or supports, or as is more often the case, makes excuses for their own party when it does the same.

We all see it. Especially in our political opponents and in the media. It’s something that is so blatantly obvious, yet so common. The message sent is, “Don’t accuse that guy of wrong; you’re on the same team!” Where we don’t see it so much is in ourselves.

After his notorious Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, Psychology Professor Phillip Zimbardo said, “Most of the evil in the world comes about, not out of evil motives, but someone saying, ‘get with the program; be a team player.’” (More on that experiment here. Some caution advised for younger viewers due to the nature and results of the experiment.)

Human nature is prone to just such a mode of categorization. That is why it is so easy to assume a collectivist view of the world, a topic I addressed a couple posts ago (“The Reality of Collectivism”). That is why so many young Germans in Nazi Germany could end up committing the atrocities of the racial and biological hygiene programs and the full horror of the holocaust. Most of them, as young men, if given a chance to choose those actions from the comfort of their childhood homes, would be appalled at it.

And of course, that level of brutality, the psychology of which was specifically being studied in the Stanford Prison Experiment, is beyond the more “mild” accusations I am making. Still, it serves a good and sobering tool to demonstrate the dangers of this sort of thinking.

Fundamentally, there is no principle behind a partisanship that stays true to team rather than a constant standard. For those who say that there is, we often call that situational ethics, which, by definition, hardly fits any definition of principle. It is either okay to steal, or it is not. I cannot say the other team is wrong to steal, but there must be some good reason for it if mine does it.

I am not partisan. I do not adhere to a political team. My standards and beliefs are far and above any situational ethics, a concept I personally find repulsive, if I can be about as blunt as I have on this site. To the extend a political party aligns with my principles, those areas have my support. To the extent they violate my principles, those areas do not.

Many Democrats scoffed at George W. Bush when his military authorizations caused greater unrest in the Middle East, but were silent when the Obama administration pursued similar policies. Many Obama opponents among Republicans readily screamed about and scolded his healthcare legislation, but now support measures that keep most of it intact.

I would go so far as to call this cognitive, if not moral, dissonance. A harsher, yet fully applicable term: hypocrisy.

But there is nothing that can tie me to a team. I belief first and foremost in a Truth built upon the Word of God and His revelation. All else flows from there. I also support, as should be most obvious to my readers, liberty. (I lay out my case here: “On What Basis Liberty? Part 1“.) Not because I support all the activities protected by liberty, but because I believe that the power of the state is too great a danger to equip with the power to punish on its own ebbing and flowing standards of morality. (More on that in my post, “Church & State”.) Christians, of all people, should see the clear tide of acceptable opinion marginalizing and looking to correct or punish our “narrow-minded” views, and yet in many cases we are often as guilty of being team players as the next guy—just as ready with the excuses. (Want to know my recent thoughts on the Libertarian Party? Sign up for my email.)

To what extent will you violate principle and truth to stay true to your team—to your political party? To what extent will you make excuses for your favored candidate when he or she acts in opposition to what you know is true and right?

 

What is Fascism?

Many people claim—most often with despair—that we’ve elected a fascist president to the American White House. And a worse offense could not be fathomed by many who thought the time had finally come for a woman president.

Now, I’m not a Trump supporter or a Trump opponent. Though it may seem like a paradox, I take a broader and a more specific view. If you want more thoughts on that, sign up for my email! So, having said that, I don’t have any agenda in this post with encouraging readers to any extent of support or disdain. As with many of my posts, my purpose here is to bring clarity, not to utilize hyperbole to influence opinion. I believe that good opinion must be well-informed.

So, the accusations have been sounded: Trump is a fascist! And yet, I would guess that many who throw this term around do so with a tragic level of ignorance about the genuine meaning of the ideas involved with and behind fascism.

And to be clear (does that sound a bit too Obama-ish?), fascism isn’t a clear-cut set of ideas. Although Germany and Italy both followed fascist ideologies, there were certainly differences. Still, a generally good idea of the commonalities of various fascist regimes can be accurately identified.

So what is fascism? A bit of history helps, as usual.

Benito Mussolini

Fascism as a formal ideology with a political platform was founded by Benito Mussolini in Italy. During World War I, Italy had joined the fight on the side of the Allies in time to benefit, they hoped, from the peace terms. Yet, many in Italy were unsatisfied with the terms that finally emerged from Paris in 1919. Additionally, war debt and economic stagnation plagued the country, like most countries in Europe, and the popularity of socialism and its extreme version of Marxist-communism saw a huge leap in popularity.

Keep in mind that many socialists were actually opposed to communism, a point I’ll clear up in coming posts. But for now, it is suffice to say that a general desire for social and economic control by the government had become increasingly popular since the early 1800s, and the desire to implement this control by revolutionary means and authoritarian regimes saw a surge in the wake of World War I.

A quick point of distinction. Marxist ideas (ie, communism) place the worker as the center and central unit of society. Ultimately, Marxism advocates for the dissolution of political boundaries in favor of a united working class and the elimination of private property in favor of commonly-shared means of production and eventual social, economic and political equality. That this can never actually be realized notwithstanding, it was reaction to this idea that spurred the creation of the Fascist Party.

In Italy, the Fascist Party was started as a distinctly anti-Bolshevik (many communist parties took the name of their Russian counterpart) party. At its heart wasn’t the plight of the working class, but rather the pursuit of national glory. In direct rejection of the dissolution of political boundaries, its adherents sought to glorify the nation-state, epitomized by the government of that nation-state. And more specifically, the glorification of the nation-state being the foundation for political morality and the highest of ends, violence in pursuit of power and glory was not only condoned; it was celebrated. You might call fascism fiercely aggressive nationalism. Fascists and Bolsheviks broke out in fire fights across Italy prior to Mussolini’s rise to power in 1921, and when he was in power, Mussolini had no qualms about banning all other political parties and ensuring the “disappearance” of any potential political rivals. We see similar trends in Germany with the rise of the Nazi Party and their first attempt at sparking revolution in Germany in 1923 (which failed). Clearly, later actions by the Nazis in Germany followed the fascist praise of violence with precision.

On the economic front, fascism is profoundly socialist and admittedly anti-capitalist. (I discuss related terms and ideas here.) Mussolini and fascists in other countries, like the Nazis in Germany, ultimately sought to control and oversee the economy with strict regulation and direct take-over of major industries, setting up government-protected and directed monopolies. Bear in mind that this was the common trend of western society (and had been for a decades) and it was Mussolini’s economic policies that Franklin Roosevelt in the United States admired and sought to emulate (without the direct violence).

Romanesque Fasces

One more point of interest. In pursuit of the glorification of the Italian nation-state (created as a merging of multiple distinct regions in the 1860s), Mussolini adopted the Roman symbol: fasces. Obviously, this is where the name comes from. It is a symbol of national unity, strength, glory and power. The ax included epitomizes its praise of aggression. The fasces, in line with other Romanesque cultural elements adopted by the U.S. government, can be found in our capital, but often without the ax.

Knowing what fascism is and where it comes from helps to debunk the idea that fascism is merely passionate nationalism*. It is its celebration of violence to achieve its ends that distinguishes fascism. And despite and cultural conservatism it brings with it (such as celebrating the cultural traditions of the nation), it is also distinctly anti-capitalist and authoritarian.

If you’re up for a more extensive reading on Fascism, here is a link to a very thorough article over at Mises.org. At that post, author John T. Flynn presents comprehensive research and come to the following list of the components of fascism as implemented through policy. As the author says, fascism “is a form of social organization…

  1. In which the government acknowledges no restraint upon its powers — totalitarianism
  2. In which this unrestrained government is managed by a dictator — the leadership principle
  3. In which the government is organized to operate the capitalist system and enable it to function — under an immense bureaucracy
  4. In which the economic society is organized on the syndicalist model, that is by producing groups formed into craft and professional categories under supervision of the state
  5. In which the government and the syndicalist organizations operate the capitalist society on the planned, autarchical principle
  6. In which the government holds itself responsible to provide the nation with adequate purchasing power by public spending and borrowing
  7. In which militarism is used as a conscious mechanism of government spending, and
  8. In which imperialism is included as a policy inevitably flowing from militarism as well as other elements of fascism.”

(Source: https://mises.org/library/what-fascism)

(A note on coming posts: Back in my post, “The Issue of Standards”, I discussed the ambiguity of the typical left-right paradigm. The terms conservative and liberal carry a complex, confusing and dynamic—changing—history. As I am able, this will be the focus of coming posts. Sign up for my email to know when each one is posted!)

*I’ll have a post in the future expanding on what nationalism is; history always presents a much more complex and interesting picture than the media narrative.

Middle East Conflict – Part 5: U.S. Policy and Yemen

I wasn’t sure if I would get back to this thread right away or not, as I’ve had a few more lined up on the docket. Then I was watching CBS Evening News tonight (with Scott Pelley), and they had a story intended to pull the heart strings of viewers. Interviewing a Yemeni refugee, they analyzed Trump’s executive orders halting any new refugees entering the United States from a number of Middle East Islamic countries.

Here’s the video:

Now, before I get blasted for my heartlessness on refugee policy by some or my ignorance of national security concerns by others, let me save you the trouble: Commenting on those is not the primary purpose of this post. Want to know my personal opinion on those? Sign up for my email.

I certainly do not have any problem with the story, or CBS interviewing the Yemeni girl. Her story is genuine, as far as I can tell, and there are many like it. It is just such tragedies as this that cause me to feel obligated to clarify reality–a reality all but ignored by the media and unknown by many people. That reality? That the U.S. military is currently subsidizing, equipping and actively assisting the Saudi Arabian government in its massive military operation against Yemen, including deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian aid groups, like Doctors Without Borders.

Here’s the situation in short:

The capital of Yemen (Sana’a) is currently under the control of the Houthis, a term that designates more of a political sect than a religious one, though the Houthis are primarily a branch off of Shi’ite Islam. These Houthis are currently being attacked by Saudi Arabian forces, who, with U.S. support, are siding with an ISIS/Al-Qaeda group inside of Yemen to overthrow the Houthis. In the process of what are primarily air and missile strikes, scores of civilians have been killed. According to the U.N., the war has displaced up to 2.8 million Yemeni (more than 400,000 families), killed around 4,125 civilians and wounded over 7200 (as of October 2016) (More information here, also linked at the end.)

What’s the backstory?

From 1978 to 2012, Ali Abdullah Saleh was the “elected” (staged elections without other options) president of Yemen (North Yemen until the unification of Yemen in 1990) – one of the many dictators in the Middle East (read about the rise of these dictators here). In 2009, the Obama administration began giving massive sums of money to Saleh to help fight Al-Qaeda in North Yemen (from over $30 million in 2009 to $176 million in 2010). Instead of fighting Al-Qaeda, Saleh used this money to help finance war against Houthis (who are not affiliated with Al-Qaeda). When Saleh began using this money against anti-regime protesters in 2011 (an outflow of the widespread “Arab Spring”), Obama cut the funding, but also authorized Hillary Clinton’s State Department to help ensure the election of Saleh’s vice president in a one-man election.

Ousted, Saleh then left with massive portions of his military, ironically joining the Houthis, who were happy to welcome their former enemy so long as he could now help them attack the new government in Sana’a. Saleh and the Houthis easily overthrew the new president and re-took the capital, despite the Iranian warning that doing so would provoke Saudi Arabia. The Iranian warning proved to be right, as it was not long after in 2012 that the Saudi government began its attack on Yemen.

Why did the U.S. agree to aid the Saudis? Notwithstanding a long-time alliance with the Saudis, there was a deliberate effort on the part of American policy-makers to “placate” (words from the White House under Obama) the Saudis after tension regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, a deal that upset the Saudi royal family.

So where does that put us now? I could go into detail into the all the consequences of the U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia, but I’ll leave that for my sources below. The United States is arming, equipping and actively helping an attack that is creating many of the very refugees that tug on our emotions with stories like that shared by CBS News. And these policies, for now, continue under Trump.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are no good guys and bad guys here. The Houthis are no saintly regime or group (they are actually largely socialist totalitarians). But U.S. policy-makers are not responsible for the actions of the Houthis. Like everyone else, they are only responsible for their own.

I’ll leave you with a couple of items. Human Rights Watch has put out a report on the events in Yemen in 2016. This report goes into a great deal of detail on the war crimes in Yemen from both sides, including Saudi attacks on hospitals and civilian targets. And it’s not their clumsiness doing that; the U.S. is offering our own precision-targeting abilities as part of our aid. You can review the report here.

And here’s a video I pulled from that report. Yes, this one also tugs at heart-strings. This one helps round out the story.

 

Middle East Conflict – Part 4: The Current Mess in Syria

A quick TV sound bite just doesn’t do justice to the current mess the U.S. has decided merits its own entanglement in and attention to in the Middle East. That’s what this post will ultimately attempt to clear up.

My first three posts on the Middle East conflicts laid out important background necessary to understanding the current scenario. You can access those here: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Now on to our fourth part (but perhaps not our last…?).

Recall the U.S. interventions discussed in the previous post. If you need a refresher, I’d recommend revisiting that post before continuing with this one. If you’re prepared with where we’re at in the narrative, then read on!

There is one more event that I need to discuss to help build our context, this one vaguely alluded to in the previous post. To complicate the web of policy, prior to the First Iraq War in 1990-91, the U.S. policy had actually been in support of Saddam

A group of Iranians during the 1970s

Hussein during his war with Iran (1980-1988). In 1979, after a long-brewing backlash against the U.S.-backed Shah in Iran, demonstrations turned into revolution—or perhaps more accurately described, as is often the case in revolution, in multiple revolutions with varying ends. Ultimately, fundamentalist Shi’ite Muslims won the day, installing the Ayatollah as sovereign in social, religious and political life, and transforming what had progressed into a remarkably secular culture back toward their version of Shari’a.

Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989)

In all this mess, the U.S. was a natural adversary of the new regime. In addition to propping the Shah up back in 1953, they also allowed him sanctuary in the U.S. in 1979 when Iranians demanded he stand trial in Iran.

Consequently, when strongman dictator, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, declared war on and invaded Iran the following year in 1980, the U.S. (and other Western countries) readily offered financial and supply aid. The long and bloody war essentially ended in a draw. (Incidentally, the Ayatollah’s effective halt to the Iraqi army and the war itself helped rally

far greater support for the Ayatollah among Iranians than prior to the war). And it was just a few years later that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, sparking the U.S. retaliation that resulted in the 1990-91 operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. And we’ve made it back to that part of the story.

You’ll have to forgive me for unsatisfactorily omitting narrative elements that help to clarify the Second Iraq War beginning in 2003. For now, it is sufficient to explain that after the First Iraq War, the United Nations had demanded a close eye be kept on Saddam Hussein, and biological, nuclear and chemical development facilities were to be accessible to inspectors on demand. At first relatively compliant, Hussein slowly restricted their access throughout the 1990s, prompting U.S. bombing of Iraq under President Bill Clinton in 1998. But it wasn’t until 2003, with an alleged goal of taking out presumed nuclear weapon programs (which proved nonexistent), that we began a full-fledged invasion.

That story is important in regard to the current situation in Syria. Of the Iraqis, about 60% adhere to the Shi’ite tradition and 20% to the Sunni tradition. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, had risen through the ranks through the revolutionary activity of his uncle, and once dictator, implemented both some secular socialist policy, and strict one-party rule (a common theme for the Middle East dictators of the second half of the 20th Century, if you haven’t caught that). While I’m not going into extensive detail regarding the terrors of his regime, he put down opposition brutally, killed thousands of Kurdish Iraqis with poison gas, and bombed some his own towns. At the same time, he allowed for some economic and educational freedoms not known before in Iraq. A mixed record with terrible abuses, to be sure!

Why does all this matter? Because when the U.S. deposed him in 2003 (declared a stunningly rapid success at the time), it opened the floodgates to Al-Qaeda, a Sunni-based military, members of which flowed into Iraq from Afghanistan and other nearby states, building on the already angry rhetoric spewing from people like their leader, Osama bin Laden. For a decade, the U.S. found itself caught in in the middle of a vicious civil, sectarian war. Oddly enough, that put the U.S. on the side of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, which, with the U.S. military, virtually kicked the ruling Sunnis and their adherents out of Bagdad (which is now 85-90% Shi’ite). Numerous Sunni militias formed in opposition, and many eventually joined Al-Qaeda.

But we still need to link back to Syria. Don’t worry; we’re still headed there.

After a few years of siding with the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq (which of course, inadvertently supported the Ayatollah in Iran), the Bush administration began a policy switch (called the “Redirection”) in 2006, shifting support back toward Sunni groups, but primarily in neighboring Syria. Wikileaks documents from that time expose a deliberate desire to provoke a Sunni uprising in Syria with the intention of destabilization there. This was corroborated by further leaked Pentagon papers in 2011. Now operating under the Obama administration, these latter documents state that, “there is a possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria, and this is exactly what the supporting powers [of anti-Assad groups] want in order to isolate the Syrian regime….”. Who is referred to as the supporting powers? The U.S. and her allies. The same leaked documents listed “The West, Gulf Countries and Turkey” as the “supporting” powers, while also listing “Russia, China and Iran” as the powers supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime (background described in Part 2). (In fairness, the same leaked document admitted that such a organization as mentioned would threaten the peace process of Iraq.)

Quick clarification: The “Salafist” ideology referenced here is the radical Islamic fundamentalist ideology that drives Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other ideologically-affiliated groups.

In other words, U.S. policy in Iraq was in support of Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups, while at the same time favoring, or at least not opposing (but to be clear, not directly facilitating) the creation of a fundamentalist group in eastern Syria that would destabilize that country and help promote the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. (Yes, I know the big question is “why.” Keep reading; I will get there.)

That fundamentalist group proved to be ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the U.S. policy actively supported ISIS (and obviously, the U.S. is no friend of ISIS; quite the opposite), but it is hard to imagine the creation of ISIS without U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

But I get ahead of myself…again.

Opposition to the Assad regime in Syria grew steadily in 2011 into a full-fledged sectarian, multi-faced civil war that many of my readers will have followed on the news for years, now. From the beginning, U.S. policy has been clearly on behalf of “moderate” rebel groups in Syria. Why use quotes? Because moderate, of necessity, must be used loosely. Virtually all opposition groups to Assad are sectarian and fundamentalist, though certainly some are more extreme than others.

Of these groups, perhaps the most powerful in early opposition days of 2011 and 2012 was al-Nusra (alternatively known as the al-Nusra Front), which was essentially the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda.

The problem is, many of these “moderate” groups supported by the U.S. ultimately became arms procurement groups for al-Nusra, meaning that many ultimately got their funding by selling weapons to al-Nusra, some of these weapons even supplied to them by the U.S.

So why did the U.S. even care about destabilizing and ultimately seeing the replacement of Assad in Syria? I alluded to this before. Two key U.S. allies, Israel and Saudi-Arabia, were both clearly upset by U.S. support of Shi’ites in Iraq. Assad, himself a nominal Shi’ite, is a primary ally of Iran. As both the Bush and Obama administrations have been clear about, though somewhat hidden under humanitarian rhetoric, taking out Assad would be a clear strike against Iran and a clear benefit for both Israel, which has a vested interest in ensuring that their own bordering enemies don’t grow too strong, and Saudi-Arabia, an avowed enemy of Assad.

Back to ISIS.

Virtually non-existent in 2012, ISIS was another group pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. In 2013, it had a falling out with al-Nusra, putting the two groups at odds. In 2014, as many will recall, the nearly unheard of ISIS suddenly captured major Syrian cities, and expanded rapidly across eastern Syria and into Iraq, reaching as far as the outskirts of Bagdad. And of course, as many readers know, ISIS has declared itself an Islamic Caliphate, brutally claiming the lives of countless Christians, non-Sunni Muslims, westerners, and anyone else who doesn’t pledge allegiance to their ideology and rule.

So now what? The complexities of who supports who against who with who is enormous, and I won’t go into all that detail in writing. My goal has been to explain how things have come to where they are now. In conclusion, I include two videos below. The first, in addition to the visual benefit, does an excellent job explaining the current mess. The second is a piece by investigative journalist Ben Swann with revealing statistics on the tragedies of what has transpired in the Middle East.

Googling “before” and “after” pictures of Syria reveals many terrible scenes like this one, taken in Aleppo, one of the largest cities in Syria.

All in all, it’s hard (yes, I do tend to write in deliberate understatements) to show anyone walking away from the mess with clean hands. Perhaps we should understand that there are no praise-worthy members of this conflict. Millions of Syrians are now refugees, displaced, many finding solace in the same ideology that drives ISIS. Towns once thriving metropolitan areas are haunted by rubble and silence. Numbers uncounted have had their lives destroyed or taken. This does not imply that the situation under the dictators was good, but its certainly hard to make the claim that things are better. Perhaps, going forward, we should consider the unintended, or often very much intended, consequences of policy. So far, nearly every policy decision has led to its own bitter fruit of greater problems and more lives destroyed. A dose of humility and reflection may be in order. Watch the two videos below:

Middle East Conflict–Part 2: Protectorates to Military Rule

In the last post, I offered clarity on the nature of the Middle East prior to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In this part, we’ll continue that narrative from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire to the creation of individual, if somewhat complicated modern-like states.

After the Young Turks—a political movement that sought stronger ties to Europe and pushed for a modernized Turkey—was able to bring the Ottoman government under its control in 1908, they followed up with their program by eventually signing a military alliance with Germany. I don’t have time to get into all the reasons for that particular decision here, nor is that particularly relevant to our discussion, but they hoped a favorable outcome in the war would give them greater influence on the world stage, and longstanding conflict with the Russians was certainly a part of their decision.

Whatever the reasons, the results proved catastrophic for the empire, and the once large and powerful Ottoman Empire came to an end. In Paris in 1919, among the number of treaties forced on the losers of the war by the Allies* was the Treaty of Sévres, the treaty made with the Ottomans.

Under the treaty terms, Turkey would be left with most of Anatolia. The vast majority of the remainder of Ottoman territory would become League Mandates—essentially, protectorate states of the newly created League of Nations. In practice, this meant that Britain and France would govern these territories. So what were these territories?

mid_east_ethnic_lg

Ethnic groups in the Middle East (I am aware you can’t read the key; a quick Google search will turn this or a similar map up)

Hold that thought for a moment. Remember how complicated the Middle East was? The region is awash in various ethnicities. To name a few: Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Azeri, Arabs, Jews, Persians, et cetera. This is only on the broad level, as within each of these and the other ethnicities are different groups that can be more and more localized. In additional to ethnic differences were vast arrays of cultural differences region by region and even village by village, differences hard to perceive to westerners observing through media reports. Also, there were key religious differences, differences beyond the standard three thought of by those who have not studied the region: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. The most volatile of differences perhaps is between the Sunni and Shi’ite (alternatively, Shi’a) traditions of Islam, which have been in conflict since the death of Mohammad (forgive me for not expanding on this here, as I am sensitive to length).

So how do you organize such differences into protectorate states? Add onto these differences the basic understanding that the modern idea of a political state was all but a foreign concept.

mandateNevertheless, the League of Nations (again, mostly the British and French) set about drawing up borders and labeling the regions within them. And each new protectorate was promised independence as soon as it had learned how to self-govern. That was the mandate in the Treaty of Sévres.

In essence, modern political states—or nations (in our context)—had to be invented.

And so the protectorate states of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan (later to be renamed Jordan), Iraq, et cetera, came into existence. In Syria, my ultimate direction with this background, the Syrian people group (versus the Kurds, Assyrians or Arabs), having gained the name of their nation, quickly assumed that the nation must be mostly Syrian—that Syrian must be the “national” ethnic group. The same in Lebanon, Transjordan, and so forth. In rich sarcasm, there is but little alternative conclusion: what can go wrong? The politics that followed the dismembering of the Ottoman Empire varied state to state, but a general trend can be observed: dominant groups within each nation thought the country was uniquely theirs, as I said before. A tribal mentality among the leaders would be more and more resented by other tribes and groups, before military dictatorships would ultimately come into power. But I get ahead of myself.

Some protectorate states, such as Palestine and Iraq, were put under British control, and others, such as Syria and Transjordan, came under French jurisdiction. Both nations maintained relatively strict control over their mandates (the French more so than the British), as the terms of independence had been based on the vague and open-ended condition that each nation learn to govern itself. And particularly in the case of France, the French regulators in their territories operated mostly to benefit France at the expense of the local population.

European dominance ended with World War II. Despite emerging as victors, the British economy and military apparatus could no longer support their vast colonial empire, and the French, under German control for the duration of the war, were clearly in no better a position. The Middle East mandate nations were neglected by their European overlords.

And naturally, Middle Eastern overlords filled the void. However, the process by which these overlords could come into power was rooted in the European governance system. In an effort to turn their invented states into functioning nations, the British and French had supported the creation of highly-integrated and diversified militaries. Why? Apart from the practical goal of using the military as their enforcement branch, the Europeans were attempting to build a sense of nationalism – a strong sense of nation (for example, “we are Jordanians” as more predominant than “we are Arabs”) – in a place where no such idea had previously existed. Where better than a nationalistic military made up of many different ethnicities?

And as Europeans withdrew to lick their wounds, many military dictators rose to the forefront of the political scene. Where civilian leaders were reputed to be seen as sectarian and corrupt**, military leaders boasted on their nationalistic and diversified bases.

A young Muammar Qaddafi of Libya

A young Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, one of the multiple military dictators to take control of former League Mandate countries

Still, most states were ruled by civilian governments ruled in the wake of the European withdrawal. One key event resulted in numerous military dictatorships coming to power: the Israeli War of Independence of 1947-1948. Despite massive financial and military support from Middle Eastern and North African countries all over the region, from Syria to Iraq to Saudi Arabia to Egypt, the Palestinians still ultimately lost the war, throwing nearly every nation in the area into instability. Civilian governments further lost credibility with their people, and some wanted the stability and diversity offered by military rule.

And as they did so, military commanders took over. During the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Algeria and Yemen all saw their governments taken over by military dictators. In Syria, the military commander Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Bashar al-Assad, took over the government***.

Hafez al-Assad

Hafez al-Assad

What did these military dictatorships look like? Contrary to the naïve opinion that they were strictly Shari’a-based, most were, in fact, mostly secular in nature. Also, most, including the government under Hafez al-Assad, were highly authoritarian (see this post for more on the basic terms) and fascist.

As expected, honeymoons celebrating the new governments were short-lived, if lived at all, and opposition was shortcoming. But with the military apparatus in place, dictators like Hafez al-Assad did not tolerate dissent, putting it down quickly and brutally. For most, when their sons or heirs took their place, the same policy continued, and does so still under Bashar al-Assad in Syria (where he still has control).

And they earned themselves the reputation they are notorious to westerners for today: strict, harsh, intolerant and powerful authoritarians. And one by one, these military dictators and their dynasties have been or are replaced. Part of the reason: what has been labeled “the Arab Spring.” Part has been due to Islamic radicalism. Finally, Western intervention, as in Iraq, Libya and now Syria, has also played a key role. But this is where the modern narrative really begins to get messy. Why and how did the U.S. and other European powers get involved in the modern state of affairs? More than that to come.

 

*To note, Woodrow Wilson of the U.S. had lofty goals for the Paris Peace Conference, but few points were realized; the British, French and to a lesser extent, the Italians, essentially had control of the peace terms.

**And notably, for our purposes, in Syria, where the French had not allowed indigenous populations to be involved in the government.

***Assad did not officially become Prime Minister until 1970, but moved through the ranks and worked to operate a coup in 1963. He would rule until 2000.