Friday, October 24, 2014

Losing the War on Terror - more thoughts

I've been reading the book "A Bright Shining Lie" by Pulitzer Prize winning author Neil Sheehan, which reveals the massive extent to which bungling high-level military leadership failed completely to understand the nature of the Vietnamese civil war they inherited from the French after Dien Bien Phu, leading us to (a) support incompetent and mendacious leadership, and (b) supply our foes inadvertently with American weapons and ammunition.  Our blundering prosecution of counterinsurgency actually was destined to aid the very enemy we were trying to defeat.  Curiously, by reading some history books in my undergraduate days about Vietnam, I concluded this was not a war we could win, short of utterly destroying the "country" we were trying to "save" from the evils of Communism.  Even a lowly undergrad kid had a better understanding of Vietnam than our national leadership, it seems.

Although no events in history ever repeat themselves perfectly, there are many points of similarity between our current "War on Terror" (WoT) and the mess we created in Vietnam.  For one thing, the war is dividing our nation in ways not entirely dissimilar from how our nation was divided by the Vietnam War.  Liberals and conservatives are positioned on similar ground as the populace learns more about the mostly hidden issues in the WoT.  We're going down a similar path to defeat, but this time, we're impoverishing ourselves to an unprecedented extent and yielding our open society to a politically expedient sanctioning of giving up our Constitutional rights.

Second, we're again inadvertently supplying arms to our implacable enemies as our leaders (both military and civilian) struggle to come to grips with a war they evidently don't understand.  Rather than clashing political ideologies (as in Vietnam), the current war is one of clashing religious sects - sects that have been fighting and killing each other for a long time before we ever became involved.  Which side do we back?  Sending arms to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in their insurgency against the Soviet invasion backfired on us rather thoroughly - in our fear of Communism, we helped to arm Osama Bil Laden!   The "Iraqi Freedom" invasion was based on lies and actually had nothing to do with terrorism, at least until the overthrow of Saddam encouraged eager terrorists to flood into Iraq to fight the "great satan" (i.e., us).  We seem entirely to have misunderstood the outcome of the "Arab Spring" revolutions against Mideastern fascist-style secular dictatorships:  we apparently believed this was the start of a western-style democracy spreading into the Mideast, when it was clear enough that the islamic majorities eventually would elect islamic theocrats, not liberals supporting minority rights. Which side of those clashes should we support?  It seems whomever we supply with arms comes eventually to turn them on us.  Is it not in our best interests to stay out of such clashes?  Sadly, our obsession with Mideast oil has clouded our vision ...

So after 9/11, after we invaded Afghanistan (supposedly in retaliation for the attack on the World Trade Center), the inevitable reaction of the Afghanis became focused on expelling the infidel invasion (i.e., us).  What a surprise!!  Evidently, no one had read the history of that war-torn land - like Vietnam, its people have been fighting against and expelling invaders for many centuries.  What made us think it would be different for us?  Did we really think we could manage to succeed where no one has ever succeeded before?  What colossal ignorance and arrogance!

Third, like Vietnam, in the name of operational security ("opsec"), many actions of the WoT are criminal activities being hidden from the American public.  As suggested in Sheehan's book, opsec is often the perfect coverup for immoral and/or illegal activities.  Why would the Bush administration try to conceal the recently-uncovered discovery of chemical weapons during Operation Iraqi Freedom?  What possible purpose could there be to not reveal their existence, when it was WMDs that formed the cornerstone of the government's excuse for that invasion?  What sort of machinations have been (and are now) going on behind the cloak of opsec?  As the WoT has proceeded, there have been various evil deeds (including torture on captured enemy troops) perpetrated but held mostly under wraps in the name of opsec, or justified by the WoT (e.g., the drone attacks).

Do we give up our freedoms for the sake of an illusory security?  Many historical figures in our nation's past (including Benjamin Franklin) have warned against that.  Yet we currently are approaching something like a police state, with judicially-sanctioned warrantless searches, pervasive illegal and unjustifiable surveillance of all sorts, widespread police brutality, the militarization of police, etc.   That's what fear does.

The irrational fear of terrorism is unwarranted - it's exactly that fear that is the goal of all terrorists.  The very name "terrorist" makes that abundantly obvious. Unfortunately, that fear is being exploited for the sake of pursuing an ill-justified war on an ill-defined enemy, with ill-defined goals and unjustified tactics that mostly serve to recruit new terrorists.  The war is one that can never end, because the terrorists can't all be killed, so the profits will continue to pour into the corporations supporting the military and security operations.  War is profitable for them, and they've learned how to exploit politicians to keep the trillions flowing into their coffers, even as Americans (and innocent civilians) die or are grievously wounded in this senseless war.  And we Americans lose more and more of our freedom.

As I've said many times, terrorism is the last resort of an enemy not otherwise capable of imposing their will.  It's a clear indication of weakness.  We only play to their strengths by perpetuating the WoT and imposing a police state on our own people.  Defending ourselves is perfectly justifiable, but not to the point where we must give up the very things we're supposed to be fighting to keep!  Not to the point where our tactics are as immoral and illegal as those of our foes.  In confronting terror, we have become a state that sanctions terror.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

It's not all of us! - or - Everybody does it!

Whenever anyone criticizes a religion these days, many liberals start calling such critics bigots or even racists (Does religion = race?  I think not!).  Recently a brouhaha on the Bill Maher show prompted one participant to add further "explanation" of his position (note:  Sam Harris linked this essay from his own blog page).  Bill Maher and Sam Harris were taking the position that islam itself bears responsibility for the violent behavior of some islamic adherents.  Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristoff considered that position to be biased and even bigoted.

My friend, RJ Evans, recently put up this essay that describes the situation as he sees it:  if you're willing to believe in a supernatural deity, you can be convinced to commit atrocities.  I came to this realization several years ago about "moderate" believers:  it's likely that if religious fanatics assume control over a government, moderates will be forced to go along with those violent events, or be killed.  They'll be confronted with the inevitable challenge to choose a side, and most of them will cave under that sort of pressure.  Perhaps they're fearful for their lives (and those of their family and friends).  Perhaps they just can't give up their faith, no matter how evil are the deeds committed in its name.  Of course, some might resist a call for atrocities by the fanatics.  But history reveals that few will do so when religion and government become one and the same.

We critics of religion argue that this tendency is an inevitable consequence of belief in a supernatural deity.  Moderates say, "It's not all of us!  They're just a minority of crazies!"  That might well be the case at present, but in the past and perhaps again in the future, it could be the law of the land.  If you believe that can't happen, I can call that belief into question.  What prevents it from happening here and now, as it has in other times and places?  In some nations, it's already happening.  It's not the "holy" scriptures (the foundation of all religions) that will prevent it.  Those writings are the source of the fanaticism that could be inflicted on us all!  You can justify nearly anything with quotes from those "sacred" documents, which to my mind renders them useless in a rational discussion.  In all such scriptures,  the supernatural deity demands complete and total submission, and is willing to kill anyone who doesn't believe as s/he/it commands.  Believers are followers, not leaders!  For each such religion, then, their deity is the ultimate authority figure, and if you accept that ultimate authority as legitimate, you must be willing to do as commanded.  It's inherent in all religions with a super-everything deity.  You can pick and choose those parts of the documents you like with your modern, moderate morality, and ignore the parts that make you uncomfortable, but the religion you cling to is precisely the source for evil deeds done in its name.  Everyone who commits such deeds also believe they, and they alone, know the true religion of their choice.

"But that's not the true ____ (choose your favorite religion)!  My religion is one of peace.  And love."  So your interpretation of your religion is the only true one, then?  What a coincidence that it's your religion that's the true one!  Isn't that the reason for the evolution of religions into many, many different subspecies?  "It's only we who are the true believers!  The rest are abominations, heretics, fanatics!"  Can you not see where such a belief leads?  Anyone who convinces themselves that they, and only they, are the sole possessors of absolute truth is likely to be a willing soldier on behalf of that truth.  When their faith is tested by the fanatics, will they be ready to sign up, or will they refuse, possibly at the cost of their lives?  History suggests the answer.

"But everybody does it!"  By a curious bit of irony, some moderates also argue that both sides of a religious divide have done evil.  They're using the fact that all religions have at one time/place or another,  been in control and committed awful deeds.  Followers of each religious denomination like to think of themselves as being persecuted - typically by some other religion, but any form of unbelief (including atheism, naturally) will serve their needs.   Some claim that religious persecution by atheist regimes is identical to that of theocracies.   I maintain there are important differences, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this blog.  Religious persecution can be, and has been, cited as justification for violent actions at some point.  No matter the reality of a situation, if someone perceives themselves to be victims of persecution, it becomes easy to rationalize violent responses.  The fact that one side has committed atrocities is no justification for the other side to do likewise - especially if that other side makes the claim they are adhering to a doctrine of peace and love.  Violence always results in more violence, not peace and harmonious co-existence.

Today's moderates evidently are blind to the dangers invariably associated with an absolute authority figure they must follow that wields a sword in defense of absolute truth and seeks to convert all others to the one true religion.  The potential for evil deeds flows from such a source in a fearful torrent, whether or not the moderates actually are participating at the moment.  If they see any criticism of religion as bigotry or racism, they're being misled by a modern sense of morality that doesn't arise from "sacred" religious documents but is, rather, a humanist morality.  A morality not imposed by some mythical supernatural all-everything authority figure who commands obedience on pain of death and rewards the faithful, but rather is based on our sense of shared humanity and empathy for others.

Criticism of religion is not equivalent to bigotry or racism.  It's absurd to equate religion with race, for one thing.  Race is a myth, for another, and modern religions generally accept believers of any "racial" character.  And it's not bigotry to criticize religion - religion is an idea, not a person.  A dangerous idea that needs to remain separated from government.


Just read an essay by Reza Aslan that seems to take a rather elitist stance when it comes to criticizing religion:  apparently, Aslan thinks that only dedicated religious scholars are qualified even to discuss religion.  He says that "Sam Harris, to me, gives atheism a bad name because he comes from a tradition of atheism that is really disconnected from the titans of intellectual, philosophical atheism who gave birth to the modern world. These were experts in religion who, from a position of expertise, criticized religion. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; he knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience."

So being a neuroscientist is a strike against his point of view?  This seems rather a self-serving interpretation of religious criticism.  Aslan is a religious scholar, so his views automatically trump those of anyone not a religious scholar?

We critics of religion may not have studied ancient scriptures in their original language or delved into ancient history, but neither have most of the followers of those religions.  In fact, many of the followers have never even read those documents!  There are passages in those scriptures that promote barbaric behavior of all sorts, and those passages are cited frequently to support that behavior.  Yes, we non-religious scholar atheists echo the "fundamentalists" (in part) because at least the fundamentalists take a mostly consistent position regarding those scriptures.  They don't cry "out of context" every time someone cites a scriptural passage that seems to contradict the myth of a peaceful, loving religion - rather, they embrace it, word for word. 

I'm most definitely not in favor of prejudice against islam - I dislike all religions that follow an absolute, all-powerful deity, for reasons I've given in this blog. It just happens that islam is the current world "poster child" for evil deeds done in the name of religion.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Losing the "war" against terrorism - latest installment

A story broke the day before yesterday that a woman in Moore, OK was stabbed and beheaded by a man who had just been fired from his job.  This man happened to be a fan of radical islam, so suddenly this nutcase becomes part of the ISIS/ISIL conspiracy to inflict islam and sharia law on the US.  Watch out folks, the terrorist sleeper cells are spreading through Mexico and penetrating everywhere.  We're all in mortal danger of being beheaded!!  Everyone who immigrated from the Middle East is a jihadist ready to inflict islam on us all!!

Get a grip, people.  This is simply fear-mongering to keep the expensive and unnecessary "war on terror" going - it's very profitable for the weapons manufacturers, the military, the police, etc.  Many politicians love to beat the war drums and portray themselves as strong proponents of the very American rights they've been so instrumental in taking away, all in the name of "protecting" us.  The simple fact is that the number of people in the US who have died as a direct result of terrorist acts since 11 September 2001 is quite small.  The odds of being killed by a terrorist are now considerably less than being killed by a tornado, for example.  More of our troops have died in wars on foreign soil than were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center (both of them), to say nothing of the physical and mental wounds inflicted on those troops not killed in those wars.

Terrorism is a clear indicator of the military weakness and cultural isolation of the islamic terrorists.  If they had the remotest chance of inflicting their religion by a direct military confrontation, history suggests they would do so.  After all, that's what the christians tried to do during the crusades.  Nowadays, no group in their right minds would succeed in a set piece confrontation with the firepower of the US military.  Therefore, the terrorists have torn a page from the US tactics in the Revolutionary War (and used by the Vietnamese communists in the US's Vietnam War).  They hit and run, always so as to create maximum horror, and use that fear to intimidate their enemies into massive military expenditures (which are simply a black hole for precious resources:  they produce only destruction when used, and are a complete waste when not used), and disruption of their societies by massive, mostly useless "security" measures that destroy the very freedoms we claim separate us from them (the terrorists).

Terrorism will never be defeated by direct military action and attempts to kill off the terrorists.  Never!  Violence only begets more violence.  The way to suppress terrorism is to make it irrelevant.  To pay little attention to it.  The screaming headlines terrorism generates are among the many goals of the terrorist actions - they spread the paranoia at no cost to the perpetrators, and attract the sort of bizarre folks who are only able to derive a sense of self importance through the pain they inflict on others.  By perpetuating fear, we serve the ends of the terrorists, not ourselves.  When we give up our rights for the illusion of security (e.g., "security theater" at airports), we serve the ends of the terrorists.  When ordinary citizens cringe in fear at every headline and see terrorists everywhere, we serve the ends of the terrorists.  When we elect chickenhawk politicians who portray themselves as "strong" against terrorism, and send our troops to fight and die in pointless foreign wars, we serve the ends of the terrorists.

No American should give in to the irrational terror of the jihadists (or other terrorists).  Resist the urge for vengeance and go on about your lives without unfounded fear.  See terrorism for what it really is:  a direct admission of weakness.  That's the way to become a "soldier" in the "war" against terrorism.  This does not imply a capitulation to the terrorists and there are times when direct action against terrorists is both warranted and effective.  If we learn of a terrorist cell, take it down.  If a terrorist is running amok in a mall (or whatever), shoot him like a mad dog!  Protect and serve.  But spreading fear and breeding suspicion are not the answer, nor are invasions of foreign territory with the sole purpose being to eliminate terrorists.  These are inevitably counter-productive, as recent history has demonstrated so clearly. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Death by cop ... increasing or not?

I readily admit that I'm having trouble grasping the significance, if any, of the recent spate of events where police have beaten or killed people who seemed not to represent a direct and obvious threat to the officers.  Of course, I can't say I know for sure the precise circumstances in those situations.  What seems to be the industry standard is to put the officer(s) involved on paid administrative leave, pending an internal investigation - with the preponderance of the investigations resulting in exoneration of those officer(s).  Not always, but most of the time.

Police are granted special powers over the rest of us, in order that they may carry out their duties to "serve and protect" the people in their jurisdiction.  They literally can become judge, jury, and executioner if they deem the situation to require that response.  The job they do is difficult and very dangerous - officers lose their lives in the line of duty all too often.  The assumption we make is that most of those we select to wield this power are going to be reluctant to exercise that extreme power, reserving it only for those situations that place them (and others) in serious, imminent, and obvious danger.  Officers may have only very limited time to consider their course of action in a given situation and it's reasonable that mistakes (fatal ones!) can be made.  As with any particular grouping of people, there will be some who are willing to abuse this power granted to them.  Again, we assume that the selection process should weed out most of those who would disgrace the trust placed in them, and that if someone reveals such a trait, they would be removed from that duty.  An officer who makes too many mistakes in judgment under pressure is not worthy of the responsibility.

Recently, it seems the frequency of such abuse is increasing - or is it?  Has the frequency of police abuse of power actually been increasing, or is it just being exaggerated by social media?  I wish I knew, but law enforcement agencies seem reluctant to make public any information about the frequency of officer-involved killings and beatings.  See here, here, and here, to offer just a few examples of this apparent universal wish to keep secret the information by which we might be able to ascertain any trends in death (and abuse) by cops.

I can't claim the sites I've cited are completely objective - I would posit that absolute, total objectivity doesn't exist in anyone, actually, so it's absurd to use that as a means of dismissing such concerns.  I know all the arguments by police apologists and am willing to grant that in some cases, those arguments have some merit.   But in many cases, those arguments seem pretty thin to me.  Why be so secretive if there's nothing to hide?  If it was a mistake, surely they would want to admit that, right?  Well, no, we humans often are reluctant to own our errors.  And our jobs may depend on not coming clean!

Yesterday, Jon Stewart made a key point in his rant about the Ferguson police shooting of an unarmed black man:  can we not hold our police officers to a higher standard than that of a street gang?  Ignoring all of the divisive discussion about widespread racial profiling by police (which I deem to be an undeniable fact), the simple reality of many of these police shootings is that even the suspicion of a minor crime on the part of the victim is being used to justify the immediate use of deadly force (or massive beatings).  Is it not reasonable to expect that police officers might risk their own lives to avoid the needless taking of another's life?  Isn't that what we should expect from those charged with the awesome life and death responsibility to serve and protect us!

As events unfold on the media, we often hear the officer's version of the story as being forced to shoot (or beat) in self-defense, when citizen videos may contradict the officer's version.  Not always, of course - some citizen videos confirm what the officer said after the fact, but if that's the norm, then why are police reluctant to wear body cameras, and when they do wear them, why not disclose the video to the public in every case?  The fact they prefer to maintain secrecy seems indicative of a cover-up.  What's the point of wearing a body camera if the footage is kept purely internal?

My question to the police is a simple one:  if the main objective of the legal system you're sworn to uphold is justice for all, then why is exoneration of police officers your main concern in these events?  Shouldn't you be seeking to have external investigations in such cases, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest associated with your internal investigations?  Are you not remorseful over the taking of another human's life?  Or has your typical experience with much less than the best side of humanity resulted in dehumanizing others, to the point where you no longer care about whether they live or die?

We need a system for independent investigations, with full access to all the information available, including body cameras, dashboard cameras, etc.  Yes, bad apples exist and they disgrace the many officers who do their duty honorably (and at great personal risk).  Should we not be concerned to find those bad apples and remove them from the ranks of those entrusted with such a huge responsibility?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Addiction, Depression, Suicide - Thoughts on the Suicide of Robin Williams

The untimely death of Robin Williams has forced many of us to ponder some nasty realities.  Amidst the numerous tributes and expressions of condolence (as well as the ugly political opportunism by some right-wing folks, including some typically thoughtless and cynical remarks by Rush Limbaugh), there have been some posts that actually offer some worthwhile things to ponder.  They have stimulated this blog.

Addiction to various substances (alcohol, addictive drugs) and behaviors (gambling) is an awful thing to experience when it happens to close friends and family.  If you haven't experienced this first hand, it's likely very difficult to understand.  A friend of mine said his experiences with his family member left him feeling completely powerless to know what to say or do that would cause the addicted person to get off the self-destructive path they're on.  Unfortunately, it's not up to us to change their behavior - it's in their hands.  They have to want to get over their dependence on the behavior so badly, they'll do whatever it takes.  I dislike 12-step programs that say the victims are powerless in the face of their addiction.  That's ultimately self-defeating and in many cases is often just an excuse to push religion on addicts.  But by no means do I want to diminish the power of addiction.  If addicts can't break the grip of their behavior, it's not necessarily a sign of weakness - it's a sign of how powerful the grip of these addictions can be.  Solutions to the problem of addictions remain elusive. Why do people feel the need to escape from the world via their addictions?  I suppose the reasons are many and varied, but the typical result is that their behavior makes their self-esteem fall still farther in a nasty positive feedback loop that can end in total disaster and death.  Friends and family may only be able to look on in horror as this downward spiral unfolds.  In my circles, there are several such situations that have gone on and are still ongoing.  The friends and family members likely need support as much as the addict!

The war on drugs is just as ineffective and counterproductive as was prohibition of alcohol.  As I see it, you can't solve this problem at the supply end.  If you remove one supplier, there are dozens willing to take that place, because there's so much profit in it.  The path to a solution has to be at the demand end.  How can we keep people from abusing certain behaviors that in and of themselves are not necessarily destructive?  I wish I knew.  I wish someone knew.  Rather than waging war on the supply side, and jailing people for their addictions, we should be using our resources to do the research into the challenge of preventing people from self-destructive behaviors on the demand side.

Depression and addiction aren't always associated, but depression apparently often leads to the sort of need to escape reality that addicts seek.  Not all those who are depressed are addicts of one type or another, but their suffering is real and often in silence - until it's too late.  There are many causes for depression - it can be a fatal illness, sadly.  Those suffering from depression in its many forms, including bipolar disorders, desperately need support but may shun the very people who could help the most.  Frankly, it's depressing to consider depression!  But if we can't face the issue, and it's as widespread as it seems to be, then we won't ever find a solution and tragedy will continue.

And of course, depression often leads to suicide attempts.  I've known people who have committed suicide and those of us left behind struggle to understand why someone we know and love would cause us so much pain.  We ask "Why?" "What could I have done to prevent this?"  Suicide ends the pain for the person who kills him/herself, but the pain goes on and on for the friends and family, who often struggle with their guilt over what they could have or should have done to stop this tragedy.  Thus, suicide is a selfish act, but for the person seeking to end their own personal pain, it seems there as if there's no other way for them.  There's no point to casting blame on the person who committed the suicide, but it's easy to understand the agony and even anger on the part of those left behind.  I don't pretend to know why a popular and successful public figure commits suicide - it seems all too common.  Wealth and fame aren't always good things, I guess.  Some of those left behind become so depressed over the suicide of a beloved friend or family member, they also give in to their pain.  Again, I can't pretend to have any solutions, but suicide always is an occasion on which survivors are forced to reflect.

What's the meaning of a life?  I've written about that here and here, but I can't claim any particularly satisfying or deep insight.  I know that as I get older, every year I lose more friends and family.  What I'm left with is their legacy:  the things they accomplished during their lives, the humanity we shared, the joys and sorrows we experienced together.  I don't believe in some cosmic purpose for life, so I see the search for that to be futile and not worth the effort.  If there's any meaning to our lives, it's how we go about creating a meaning for us as individuals through our friends and family, our professional work, our charity, our giving back for the blessings we have, and so on.  If the suicide of Robin Williams is to have any positive outcome, it will be the people moved by it to give something back to humanity for the gift of their lives.  I'm convinced we help ourselves the most when we push our "selves" to the back burner and seek to use our abilities and learned skills for the benefit of as many as possible.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Still an idealist

The definition of an idealist is "a person who is guided more by ideals than by practical considerations."  Although guided by those ideals, I also try to remain aware of practical reality.  In particular, the latest installment of the never-ending conflict in the Middle East puts my ideals to the test.  Yes, that part of the world has been in violent dispute for thousands of years.  Radicals, goaded on by their leaders, employing their personal interpretations of religious faith, have used terrorism, genocide, and war to try to carry out their political ends.  I say "try" because it's pretty evident they've all failed to achieve a stable peace through violence.  It's widely accepted that it's a form of insanity to keep doing the same things over and over again and expect a different outcome.  I'm told by some that it's foolish to hope for the madness that permeates the region (and occasionally spills out on the rest of the world) to end one day, to hope that the warring sects eventually will come to realize the futility of their violence.  Well, my message here is that I just can't give up that hope, even though my understanding of this unreal "reality" is that there's no such hope in the near future.

Vengeance for wrongs committed is poor excuse for violence.  It can't bring back those killed in previous violence, and whatever "satisfaction" is served by murder in the name of vengeance is ephemeral.  Such hatred only serves to destroy the hater from the inside.  For believers, consider Leviticus 19:18 ... "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD."  That message appears over and over in the bible.  And in the koran, a similar sentiment can be found "The recompense for an evil is an evil like thereof."  Of course, in those same documents can be found very contradictory calls (or even demands) for violence against their enemies.   Apparently, in Abrahamic religions, vengeance is not entirely left in the hands of their deity - or at least the message in this regard is pretty mixed.

Ironically, the unceasing violence that dominates the Middle East is thoroughly covered with the cloak of "religions of peace".  Like politics, the mindset of religion is dominated by unthinking, unquestioning obedience.  Religion and politics often are bedfellows in the rape of humanity - not always, of course, but history says this is a common situation.  Sometimes politicians see religion for what it is:  a means of exercising control over people, and so some politicians seek the suppression of religion since it can be a competitor for that control.  But religions typically survive (or even thrive) under political suppression - believers often see themselves as being persecuted for their beliefs, even as believers persecute others for their different beliefs.  One need only to look at theocracies or nations dominated by one religion to see the fruits of such tribalism.

Nationalism and religion are simply tribalism made manifest.  Tribalism is the ultimate source of "us versus them" - it requires conformity (obedience, control), rewarding those who support the tribe and punishing those who don't.  Tribalism simultaneously can induce compassion (reserved for the tribe members) and encourage cruelty (toward members of other tribes).  Tribalism is buried deeply in our evolutionary heritage and so has become instinctive.  We find comfort in the security of surrounding ourselves with people of similar beliefs and are discomforted in the presence of those who differ from us.  It's the wellspring from which bigotry, hatred, and violence flow.  That sort of "thinking" likely was helpful to the survival of early humans and so is hard-wired in our brains.  But what was helpful in days of primitive human existence is not at all helpful today.  Seeking company only of like-minded people nowadays is seen by many as harmful and counter-productive:  being challenged by someone of a different mindset is seen by many as a good thing.  Interestingly, some of those mouthing such words are, in fact, wholly dismissive of opposing viewpoints.  This had led the US to a deeply divided society:  liberals in one tribe, conservatives in another, who pour invective on the "enemy" and their leaders.  Wake up, folks!  This is unproductive tribalism and, given free rein, it ultimately can lead us to violence.

Since I'm an idealist, I must maintain the hope we can overcome this.  There are some who proclaim the secular humanist viewpoint that it's unhealthy to surround ourselves with those of entirely like minds.  We can think things through and if we do so, it should be possible to suppress our tendency to yield to tribalism, to push back the anger and the bloodlust that tribalism generates to support our wish to impose vengeance on those who differ from us.  Our experience tells us that achieving vengeance only hardens the will of the "tribe" upon which we exact vengeance - it creates a never-ending "feud" that can only achieve more of the same.  It creates new recruits for our "enemies", ready to sacrifice themselves just to kill us.  Surely we can agree not to give in to primitive urges, choosing instead to embrace diversity.  Tribalism is no longer the path to human survival.  We must work together to solve our many challenges in the modern world, or we risk falling back to a much more brutal form of existence.

Friday, July 25, 2014

That very rare commodity-a manager who was a real leader: Ken Crawford

I'm made some short FB posts about this, but this blog gives me a chance to be somewhat more complete.  On 23 July 2014, yet another friend and colleague of mine - Dr. Ken Crawford - died.  It seems 2014's toll on my friends and family continues.

I first met Ken when he was a forecaster in the Fort Worth, TX, Weather Forecast Office (WFO), thanks to my late friend and colleague, Al Moller.  Ken then moved to Slidell, LA, as a deputy station chief (Deputy Meteorologist-In-Charge); then he became MIC at the Oklahoma City (OKC) Office, and was still there as the MIC when the office moved to Norman (OUN).  Subsequently, he left the NWS and became a Professor of Meteorology at OU.  At the end of his career, he left the university to be involved with the Korea's national weather service.

Although I met him many years earlier, it was when the OKC office moved to OUN, and I followed not long after, when Dr. Bob Maddox became NSSL's Director, that my interactions with Ken really developed significantly for me.  Bob and I talked many times about our professional relationship with the Norman WFO across the street from our building on OU's North Campus.  We agreed on what to do and so convinced Ken that it would be a good thing if a research meteorologist from NSSL had an office in the OUN WFO.  Ken embraced the idea from the start, of course.  I was duly ensconced in the OUN WFO and, although as a non-NWS employee I wasn't authorized to issue forecasts, I had daily interactions with the staff.  Not only could I get to know and observe the people who actually made the local forecasts, but I could observe the office dynamics.  Those were some wonderful years for me and perhaps I might tell that story someday, but not now.

What I saw in Ken as the station chief was something I'd never encountered from a manager before.  Let me illustrate that with an anecdote:  When I would talk with "outside" people about the great things happening at the OUN WFO, they'd typically say something like, "Well, Ken Crawford has assembled a team of superstars there.  What else did you expect?"  The thing was, the group of people at the OUN WFO was, at that time, the same team (except for two people who were induced to leave the office) he'd inherited from the previous MIC.  Under the previous MIC, the office had been pretty low on the respect bar and Ken had effectively transformed the staff, but used the same people!!

How did he accomplish this?  Ken always operated under the principle that he would not be successful as a manager if his staff was not successful in their endeavors.  He understood that the people working for him aren't identical robots - they're individuals with particular strengths and weaknesses, so the idea is to use their strengths to contribute to the success of the office and to encourage them to improve in areas where they're weak.  Everyone was made to feel like an important member of the team.  And so the office prospered, even as his staff prospered (including winning various awards and kudos for their performance).  Ken always was supportive of his staff and was willing to "buck the system" should the need arise to help his office be successful.  I'm pretty confident that most, if not all of them, would have followed Ken wherever he led them, because it was clear that he reciprocated that respect.  How rare that perspective seems to be!  What a shame it's so rare - but Ken showed me by his actions how a good manager of people needs to operate.

When I was working in that WFO office of mine, one day it dawned on me that the 35 or so NSSL mesonetwork sites were just rusting away in a warehouse, and that they might be installed as a permanent mesonet for the benefit of the WFO operations.  When I brought up my idea to Ken, he then told me of his dream for a statewide mesonet that would have at least one station is every Oklahoma county!!  I was floored, but quickly discarded my own paltry idea to get behind Ken's Mesonet project.  He honored me by inviting my participation in the Mesonet Advisory Committee, a story all on its own and a time when I was very excited about what we were creating:  the Oklahoma Mesonet.  Circumstances forced me to give up my participation, but I'm very proud of what we set into motion on its way to becoming a reality.

When Ken became a faculty member, I had the opportunity to be a member of some of his grad student advisory committees.  I wasn't surprised to see the same overriding concern Ken showed to help those under his supervision to become successful.   Ken was an excellent meteorologist, above all, and that showed in his teaching.  Complex topics made sense when Ken explained them!  And he sought to challenge students to improve in their weak areas, even as they used their strengths - a familiar theme, implemented in a new context.  The panoply of his successful graduates is powerful testimony to the acuity of his vision for what he should do to be successful himself.

His death leaves a hole in our weather community that can't ever be filled, to say nothing of the loss felt by his close friends and family.  Yet, those of us who mourn his passing are supported by the gratitude we feel for having been his friend and colleague, or family member.  Ken was a very, very special person, who leaves us the gift of his presence and the inheritance of his achievements.  It's selfish to dwell on our grief over his absence - he'd want us to move on, capitalizing on what we do well and seeking to improve on what we do poorly, as he showed so many of us how to do in so many ways.