Thursday, June 25, 2009


The events in Iran are a perfect example of a systemic process at work.  A stable state is one which is known in physics as “far enough from equilibrium”, which means that the flow of energy through the system is sufficient to maintain the system but not too much to cause it to race uncontrollably to a bifurcation.

There is nothing unusual about what is going on in Iran. This is  what underlies every situation in which observers wring their hands and wonder why the protagonists don’t stop what they’re doing.   Why they don’t pull back from the brink,  The reason is that they cannot.  When humans reach a certain point in their impetus for change, no amount of rationality can reverse the direction they are going in. As in physics, the momentum of energy in the system reaches a point from which it cannot reverse itself.

When observers say that this has been building for a long time, they are referring to elements of the process: discontent of various kinds among various groups of the population.  In each of these groups, the energy has been steadily accelerating, until an event like a stolen election pushes the acceleration over the top.

We can expect more bloodshed in Iran.  But also, as President Obama intuitively senses (or maybe he has studied systems), a new situation is being shaped by what is happening.  Men cannot control the process, but the process itself is a forward motion.  Not necessarily better, but certainly different.  A bifurcation point leads to a new system, which can be either more or less organized than the preceding one: it can lead to anarchy, or totalitarianism.  Eventually the system will evolve to a higher level of organization and civilization.

But this too is a process. To foresee its general outlines, we need to pay attention to the fact that every evening the population stands on the rooftops and calls out “God is Great!”  This is not a sop to the power that is over them, it is a condemnation of that power for betraying the legacy of the Prophet, which was at the origin of the Iranian Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, That legacy is a striving for equality.

The fundamental difference between the Shi’a and the Sunni is one of class.  The Shi’a believe in egalitarianism, the Sunni believe in a class society.  When participants in today’s events say they are not interested in the Western interpretation of freedom, do not think they are paying lip service to the regime in power.  They want freedom with equality, not what we call “freedom of opportunity” which, as one famous revolutionary told me many years ago, means freedom to be hungry.

And if many of the Iranian women, who play such a crucial part in this saga, are wearing headscarves, it’s also in homage to the Prophet, for whom women were equals.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


However much the press behaves as though the latest breaking news is something that's never happened before,  if addictive news watching teaches us anything, it's that the same dramas infold everywhere.
This is not to say we should be indifferent.  But rather that we should put less energy into trying to make different things happen and more into understanding why things do happen.

Iran's rising middle class is behaving just like Chile's middle class did a couple of decades ago.  Remember when the women were out on the street banging on pots and pans?

What happens when a relatively underdeveloped country begins to catch up with the developed (and over-developed) world is that those who benefit most want to benefit more, while the lower classes, who may be in power, want the middle class to be patient a little while longer while they too reap the benefits of change.

This is one of the things that makes pigeon-holing groups into right and left so difficult.  Remember when Perestroika was happening?  Gorbatchev was the new left.  The die-hard communists were "the right".

Think of all the recent colored revolutions (this one's green, soon we'll be running out of colors, then what?): whichever group wants change is the left, even if they want a change to capitalism.

This would be okay if it weren't for the fact that such developments tend to blur what's really at stake, and that is the greatest good for the greatest number.  Not necessarily Utilitarianism, but certainly social democracy.

In each country the situation is different, the opposing parties represent different philosophies that correspond to those national differences.  But politics always boils down to a struggle between those who would limit the good things in life to the few with sharp elbows and a greater number who either have or haven't yet figured out how to unite their elbows to even things out.

Ahmedinejad may well have more followers than Moussavi: it's strange that the networks haven't told us what the relative populations are between town and country, upper and lower classes.  That's probably because, as in most countries, there are more have-nots.  This is probably still the case in Iran, and the people at the bottom are behind the president, which has directed progress their way.  Understandably, the more sophisticated city-dwellers want more of what they already have, that is, for women, especially, freedom from the head-scarf while still believing - perhaps - that the Iranian Revolution (with a capital R) stood for the (still) revolutionary aspects of the Prophet's teachings.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


As I try to build this new website, I hope my readers will be patient. It's likely
to look pretty messy for a while.

First, as someone who doesn't know how Facebook, Twitter or My Space work, I must confess to having underestimated their relevance.  What started as social networks all about "me" are turning into something "they" fear.

Today, I caught the tail end of Democracy Now, as Amy Goodman remembered I.F. Stone, whom most internet users probably never heard of.  He was THE opposition journalist in the fifties and sixties, publishing his own newsletter (on paper).  According to Wiki "At its peak in the 1960s, it had a circulation of about 70,000,[3] but was regarded as very influential. In fact, The Weekly was ranked 16th in a poll of his fellow journalists of "The Top 100 Works of Journalism in the United States in the 20th Century".[4]

Amy played part of a speech he gave in 1965 to students resisting the Vietnam War.  this is the piece of evidence I have been waiting to have fall into my lap (readers know by now that I'm short on research, though long on insight and opinion).  What we know recognize as a crisis of the fourth estate was no less one in 1965.  Go to Democracy Now to hear I.F. Stone's speech which could have been written today.

I actually wrote this piece about Twitters yesterday but my new web host didn't save it. Meanwhile, another element popped up: not only is the Iranian  middle class (Moussavi's supporters, let's not forget the lower classes back Ahmedinejad) giving the powers that be an internet headache, they are becoming ever more adept at staying one step ahead of efforts to shut down the sites that enable them to communicate.  I fully expect that the next piece of news will be that they are being assisted in their efforts not only by the United States government, but also by Chinese dissidents, who have been playing this game for some time.

Here's where the irony comes in: Ahmedinejad has long been developing ties with both the Russians (he's currently in Moscow for a conference) and the Chinese - as well as the Venezuelans.  Our analysts have a hard time getting their heads around the fact that such disparate regimes can have quite a bit in common: one of them being a concern for the lower classes in their respective societies - even if they cannot always bring to heel the middle classes who have found a way to implement the rallying cry of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama remembered his childhood, did his homework – and pulled the rug out from under Osama

I think Obama’s Cairo speech will go down as a turning point in America’s relations with the rest of the world.  No one could have done it better.

The most important thing he did was to evoke the basic Muslim tenets of justice, dignity and compassion.  That must be music to the ears of his Muslim audience.  And for Americans, it’s as if he’d translated our own familiar beliefs into terms which, though different from our own, resonate with us.

The crucial follow-through will be adopting behaviors that effectively make the transition from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to justice, dignity and compassion – from what our heads desire to what our hearts know to be superior.

By owning the Koran’s message Obama diffuses the weapons of Osama.

Unlike CNN, Democracy Now’s Juan Gonzalez noted that Obama didn’t once mention the word “oil”.  The closest he got to recognizing our “national interest” in the Middle East was his recognition of the American role in the overthrow of the highly popular democratically elected Iranian leader Mossadegh in 1953, after he had nationalized Iranian oil.

It was undoubtedly a deliberate, carefully weighed  decision not to mention oil: there will be other speeches where Obama will come down from lofty rhetoric to facts that will have to be faced.  But this is not 1944, when America, seeing victory over the Nazis and Japanese, turned its unwavering attention to securing the oil that would power the phenomenal development of the next sixty-five years.

Now the oil is dwindling and all eyes are focused on finding non-polluting replacements.  All parts of the world must participate in the gigantic challenge of reducing carbon emissions.  This new priority will allow Obama to implement a smooth transition from the boots-on-the-ground policies of the past to a diplomacy where words will recover their weight.

Only an accomplished basketballer could do that.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Riding the Tiger over Rough Terrain

It’s not enough to be aware that we’re riding a tiger.  We need to realize that the terrain change with every mile, every turn.

What’s happening is that the countries with high standards of living and sophisticated technology are caught up in a whirlwind of disparate desires, demands and customs.  We used to talk about the number of fronts involved in a war: two was bad, three was a real headache.  We’re still thinking in terms of fronts, when the fronts are all around, no matter where we stand.

Let’s say we’re standing in Kansas, the center of the United States: there’s a drug war in Mexico, Mexico is a close ally, it could become a failed state due to narcotraffickers.

Narcotraffickers used to be headquartered in Sicily, the southern Italian island.  Now the have competitors and lieutenants in Russia, Afghanistan, to name just a few on the same Eurasian continent.

Drugs are mainly transported by sea although often hidden in backpacks, intimate body parts, shipments of food or arms.  Pirates off the coast of Somalia rake in as much as drug traffickers just by swinging out in small boats loaded with sophisticated electronic equipment and boarding unarmed merchant ships carrying food, arms, drugs, oil, cement, what have you.

The highjacked arms are sometimes intended for “legitimate” military, shipments from one sovereign government to another.  Or from a sovereign government to minorities fighting another sovereign government.  At other times, arms are shipped from one minority, or rebel group, to another.

The oil is the lubricant that keeps the world turning.  Producers previously tried to make its supply last as long as possible, by jacking up the price.  Now that wind, solar, tides, and even grass can produce energy, they lower the price to make the alternatives more expensive.

Elections constitute a big conundrum for governments of the rich world: we don’t like them to return the wrong people to power, for example, Hamas.

Hamas and its cousin Hezbollah are proteges of Iran, a country with a rich history and culture that has been a pariah for thirty years since fundamentalist Shias took over twenty years after the United States and Great Britain assassinated a left-leaning elected Prime Minister.  How to wonder that Iran held a young female American journalist in jail, convicted of spying, while North Korea holds another two female American journalists on similar charges and shoots off rockets.

The United States and Russia realize that in this multiplex scenario, nukes are more of a burden then a necessity: pirates or rebels could get hold of them.  So they’d like to get rid of them.  But half a dozen other countries also have nukes, and several others are trying to make them, including, perhaps, Iran and North Korea.  The Indians and Pakistanis both have nukes, they are at odds over Kashmir, a small territory in the Himalayas, and moreover the Indians are mainly Hindus while Pakistan was severed off to gather India’s Muslim minority.

Moving in another direction from Kansas, Australia is drastically short of water, though it has plenty of land which otherwise could take some of the population strain off Southeast Asia.

Oh, and did I mention that the world economy is more like Humpty-Dumpty than Hercules, with no one knowing how to fix it?

The tiger-riders, every one of them, can only hold on tight, giving encouragement and setting an example as they fly through the air, to others here and there who are trying to be on the right side of the issues they face in their particular corner of the world.

Strong men, if well motivated - like the good kings of fairy tales - have a role to play.  The game of democratic politics revolves around trying to prevent them from creating more bumps instead of smoothing the terrain.