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  • Freedom and Control, in Teheran and in Washington

    Posted by David Foster on December 30th, 2009 (All posts by )

    Large numbers of people in Iran are taking huge risks in an attempt to free themselves from a despicable regime. There are many horrifying reports and images available on the web demonstrating clearly the levels of brutality that the regime is willing to use in suppressing dissident voices: see for example here and here.

    Barack Obama’s expressions of condemnation for the regime and support for the dissidents have consistently been a day late and a dollar short. He eventually says what he thinks he is expected to say, but there’s not much fire in it. He comes across like an IRS official reciting some section of the tax code for the 495th time, or, at best, like a student giving a report on some long-ago historical event that he really didn’t want to study study but which was important for his grade. His genuine passion has been reserved for domestic issues.

    As Joshua Muravchik has pointed out, the current administration has been much less focused on international issues of human rights and democracy than has any other administration in decades. Why?

    A recent New York Post article (cited here) described Obama as “embittered” over the difficulties he has encountered in getting his healthcare bill through Congress. From the article:

    In an interview on the eve of yesterday’s health-care ram-through, Obama expressed his deep frustration over the legislative process.

    The president accused Republicans of abuse for employing the very rules that make the Senate the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

    “If this pattern continues, you’re going to see an inability on the part of America to deal with big problems in a very competitive world, and other countries are going to start running circles around us,” Obama warned.

    What he is saying is that other governments around the world — those tyrannical states that do not share our respect for the minority — are better forms of government, better equipped to compete in this modern world.

    This meme–that countries which are run in a top-down authoritarian manner are more effective/efficient–seems to be an increasingly common one: Tom Friedman, for example, in comparing the U.S. and China:

    One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.

    I’m not sure how much Obama and Friedman know about world history…but if they have seriously studied it, they should have observed that the vaunted “efficiency” of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes is a myth. Yeah, if leaders had perfect wisdom and were always benignly motivated, they could impose “the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward,” but in the world that actually exists, neither of these conditions is true. Consider the effect on Soviet science and agriculture of Stalin’s imposition of Lamarckian versus Mendelian genetrics, or the dreadful economic and human waste of the Danube-Black Sea canal project and the White Sea-Baltic canal project.

    In addition to overrating the efficiency/effectiveness benefits of top-down central control, I’m afraid that Obama fails to understand the emotional pull that many if not most people feel toward individual freedom. As a man who has devoted his own life to the pursuit of political power, he fails to grasp that there are billions of people who may never achieve great power over others, and indeed may not care about achieving such power, but who care a great deal about achieving a reasonable degree of personal autonomy. I’m reminded of the Civil War song “Battle Cry of Freedom,” which includes the line “Although he may be poor, there’s no man shall be a slave.”

    I don’t think Obama is a cruel man, and I have no doubt that he feels distaste for the brutality of the Iranian regime…BUT, I’m afraid that his lack of understanding of the importance of individual freedom has made him much less outspoken and effective in dealing with that regime than most American Presidents–and most ordinary Americans–would have been.

     

    17 Responses to “Freedom and Control, in Teheran and in Washington”

    1. Tom Holsinger Says:

      Or it could be that Obama and his administration are the friends of tryants and the enemies of freedom. In this instance “what” is more important than “why”.

    2. zenpundit Says:

      The U.S., like all nations has always an upper class. What we have now is a set of folks in government,, academia and the media, who having graduated from “the good schools” since circa 1962, share an overweening confidence in the benevolence and efficiency of a technocratic oligarchy. They dislike democratic accountability and are seeking to evade it wherever they can and substitute broad, vaguely worded, emergency authorities when possible. They feel a closer transnational class solidarity with EU elites than they do with “ordinary” Americans.

      Fact is, for many of them, their educations were a lot more superficial and lacking in rigor than pervious generations experienced at these same “good schools”. As a group, they are bright but they literally don’t know what they don’t know and are too arrogant to imagine that what they don’t know is worth knowing.

    3. Andrew_M_Garland Says:

      A narcissist who seeks and gains political power sees himself and governments as the important actors on a world stage.

      To his mind, governments can collect the best and brightest to the top, to make wise and difficult decisions. Protecting the Earth and forced equality are the big ideas. That is worth taking some or a lot more money from the masses, and showing them the right way to live.

      To his mind, why allow power to the people? They don’t have the minds or special degrees to think well.

      To his mind, Iran is another government, now doing some bad things. But, enough of their people will survive. You don’t kill your wayward government friend. You talk to him, show him his errors, and support him in recovery.

    4. T. Greer Says:

      @David: I think you are seeing demons where there are none. Or at least, the author of the NY Post piece does. One must perform a series of mental aerobatics to conclude that “If this pattern continues, you’re going to see an inability on the part of America to deal with big problems in a very competitive world, and other countries are going to start running circles around us” to mean Obama believes authoritarian governments are more efficient than our own. Such a conclusion is wrongheaded on two counts: first, there are plenty of competitive “other countries” that are not authoritarian, and second, Obama is not blaming the governmental structure of the United States itself for America’s troubles, but the people operating it. He does not say that the Senate itself is bad — quite the opposite in fact. His message is of a rather more pedestrian sort: it is those damn Republicans who are making the Senate next to useless! He is blaming individuals, not institutions, for his problems.

      So lets take Obama on his own terms. Granted, it all sounds a bit whinier when you realize what he actually means — but Obama is kind of a whiny guy.

    5. veryretired Says:

      Obama is a committed statist, as is Friedman, for that matter, so it is not surprizing to hear them speaking as if the only possible way for the US to operate effectively is for the government to do things and solve problems and expedite policies, etc., etc., because it is impossible for either one of them to imagine serious situations being resolved without the leadership of the state.

      Add to this mindset the delusional belief that the current regime’s leadership has in the power of its rhetoric and persuasive capabilities, and their frustration at the various oppositional tactics of the republicans is very understandable. It is a variation on the old “raised consciousness” canard, i.e., if only your consciousness was raised to understand the situation as it properly should be, you would naturally agree with everything I say.

      Dr Hanson has a nice analysis of the delusional views held by this regime, and so abundantly on display this past year, in a column he wrote today. I linked through Instapundit. Humpty-dumpty is mentioned in the lead-in.

      My own take on the Iran deal is that the regime here considers the entire mess to be a big distraction from the important things, such as domestic policy priorities, and just wishes it would quiet down and go away. Any time and energy spent on foreign problems is wasted.

      The idea that the US and its interests might be vulnerable to significant damage from an atomic Iran just doesn’t register, much as the idea that we would ever run out of money to fund their programs is so impossible they can’t imagine it.

      These are the inheritors of the big fortune, raised in security and luxury, who think that the money will just always be there for whatever they want or think they need. Where it comes from is not their concern, and the possibility that it might run out simply doesn’t exist.

      We are observing the political equivalent of the old adage about “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in 3 generations”. The accumulated wealth and power of the nation over an entire century is being dissipated over the course of a few years.

    6. Larry Dunbar Says:

      “…their educations were a lot more superficial and lacking in rigor than pervious generations experienced…”

      So true! Without a Liberal education a Conservative mind is pretty much wasted, i.e check the seven of the last eight years. Can only get worst as our leaders opt-out for MBA’s and PhDs in science.

    7. david foster Says:

      Larry…which of our (political) leaders have PhDs in science?

    8. Jonathan Says:

      Too many of them are lawyers. It might be better if more were economists, scientists, engineers, business people…

    9. Lexington Green Says:

      They have always mostly been lawyers. Legislators write laws. Most politicians are legislators. Law training is a common avenue into politics. I don’t see that changing.

    10. Michael Kennedy Says:

      for many of them, their educations were a lot more superficial and lacking in rigor than pervious generations experienced at these same “good schools

      This is very important. It is my eternal regret that I didn’t get to see Feynman but I was too early and that was the days before student loans. The present state of academic life is so bound up in political calculation. Since the 60s, very little of the tradition of scientific rigor has survived. Max Perutz and Feynman were the ideal.

      The best we can do is pure science or engineering education but I wonder how much this is altered by politics. I fear we may never get back to any sort of credential that has validity. We will have to judge people on their individual merits but that is not a bad criterion. The trouble is that I can judge a surgeon, and even most physicians, but what can I do with unrelated but scientific disciplines.

      We will face an era of humbug for a while.

    11. Jonathan Says:

      You can evaluate people based on their achievements rather than their words.

    12. renminbi Says:

      Dreams of My Father is not something easily read, but its unreadability is the tell-even if he didn’t write it,it reflects him. It is “all about me” ,which makes it boring ,since the man has no useful thoughts. I think he is a real misanthrope,who hates humanity,because we do not bow down to him. This is a tyrant in the making,who would readily be Chavez or Mugabe if he could.That is why he never criticises about tyranny.
      The memoir is self consciouly well written,but good writing without useful ideas is just wanking.

    13. david foster Says:

      Fouad Aami: A Cold-Blooded Foreign Policy

    14. Michael Kennedy Says:

      @Jonathan; Judging politicians by their achievements is a pretty difficult task. Chou En Lai believed it was too soon to judge the results of the French Revolution.

      It would help if we elected people who had had some sort of achievement in life already. Very few of either party could meet that criterion. Most start with inherited wealth (like Kennedy or, in Kerry’s case he married it) or as staff members of other politicians like Trent Lott. A few, like Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are going on husband’s wealth. In Feinstein’s case, she is helping to increase it with her influence in foreign relations.

      Maybe the Republicans will recruit some good candidates this year. We need a few more Coburns.

    15. david foster Says:

      See also: Obama puts the Dis in Dissident

    16. Larry Dunbar Says:

      “Larry…which of our (political) leaders have PhDs in science?”

      I don’t know of any that do, I just believe the problem of “rigor” is going to get worst, as we elect officials, without a Liberal education, in the truest since of the word, to positions of power. Religions are abandoning generational thinking and a technician, at least since the time of Hitler, never have. Liberal education, and it seems to be my opinion only as there is obviously something wrong inside my head, is the only way to protect the past and future generations from extinction.

      “They have always mostly been lawyers.”

      At least lawyers are supposed to have some kind of ethics (the rule-sets that are the wealth of a nation) built-in. If they actually follow such ethics, is an individual content of character question.

      With today’s educational class (non-Liberal), it will be a question of explicit rules and how to interpret them. Each will interpret them to their own advantage. It is a small wonder that Greenspan was amazed at the greed, because he thought ethics are written rule-sets.

      The rule-sets against greed are not written explicitly in the Supreme Court, but implicitly in those of the Supreme Court. As an example, if you feel that torture is not punishment, then your country will deal in torture, if the constitution explicitly condemns unusual punishment.

      I simply do not feel, from a technician point of view that torture works and, as an American, does not fit into the spirit of the America, I once knew. Call me wrong or wrong-headed, I am just saying….

    17. Ginny Says:

      Is it scientists we need or people who are willing to look at proofs? I’m essentially scientifically illiterate, but became suspicious very early of the global warming crew because a) i’d heard the ideology before, b) any group that makes ad hominem attacks on their opponents and tries to shut them out probably doesn’t have (or have a handle on) a really good argument themselves, c) anyone who looks at climate in such short steps has little sense of the broad picture, and d) it’s always best to test repeatedly and over a long period of time any hypothesis that puts man at the center. I love man and man’s culture, but I don’t think we are the center. Gore clearly does. Science is the discipline that makes us sceptical. If you ask me, evolution is not being well served when some of its proponents resort to tactics of ad hominem and band wagon either.

      Of course, Lex is right, from the beginning our society has been served (and generally well served) by our lawyers. Winthrop, for instance, wanted to marry early, so he became a lawyer and a judge – bringing that temperament with him to the colonies. How many of our heroes were lawyers? Adams demonstrated his understanding of fair representation by defending the British soldiers in a heated anti-British climate; Lincoln, hardly our idea of a corporate lawyer, was a railroad lawyer when that was the biggest thing going – and a good one.

      But we might also remember that our earlier leaders were much more “whole” people than we are. Cotton Mather was admitted to the Royal Society because of his scientific discoveries, Jonathan Edwards was a observant naturalist, Benjamin Franklin was both theoretical and practical. We lost something when we lost the fervency of early thinkers’ attempts to understand nature as the book God wrote and we lost something with the practical feed-back that people like Franklin understood well. (I’m saying this as the daughter of an engineer whose science undergrad credit was a biology class mainly populated by the Nebraska football team – which, I can assure you, tells you a great deal about the rigor of that course.)