The impact of modern agriculture on land use

Agriculture has only been around for about 10,000 years and the reasons for its success are not clear since the archeological evidence suggests that early farmers were, nutritionally speaking, not as well off as their contemporary hunter-gatherers. It may have been that since grains can be stored over years of bounty and used in lean years, farmers were better able to withstand adverse times and thus better able to sustain themselves over longer times than their rivals in lifestyles.

However, the rise of agriculture led to some serious distortions in the use of land. In nature, diversity abounds, for the simple reason that different plants species provide services for others. Some provide shade, others fix nitrogen, others protect from wind, others retain water, and so on, each enabling the others to flourish. So natural lands tend to produce a mixture of these various forms of life. The widespread growth of farming and the use of lands for single crops like rice, wheat, and corn marked a significant change since it stripped the land of its diversity.

These crops like wheat, rice, and corn have some advantages. Mainly they transform solar energy into bundles of carbohydrate energy that are tight, transportable, and relatively long lasting. Apart from the hydrocarbons like oil, these are the most concentrated form of energy. But in creating this new form of agricultural energy, we have been essentially drawing upon the reserves of energy created and stored in the land over periods of millions of years before the arrival of agriculture.

Most of this stored agricultural energy existed in the form of prairies. In his February 2004 Harper’s essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning describes how energy from the Sun is stored in this particular form of plants.

A prairie converts that energy to flowers and roots and stems, which in turn pass back into the ground as dead organic matter. The layers of topsoil build up into a rich repository of energy, a bank. A farm field appropriates that energy, puts it into seeds we can eat.

The cost of using that topsoil for farming is apparent, according to Manning. “Walk from the prairie to the field, and you probably will step down about six feet, as if the land had been stolen from beneath you.” This represent our using up of the world’s long accumulated energy capital that has been stored in the soil. Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (p. 489) similarly saw a visual example of this during a recent visit to Iowa where a church had been built in the 19th century in the middle of farmland. As a result of the land around it being cultivated over the years and using up the stored resources in the soil, the church now stands like an island about ten feet above its surroundings.

As we use up this soil this way, we have to replenish it using artificial fertilizers. “Oil is annual primary productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built up over many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year’s worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land—in 1997 we burned through more than 400 years’ worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it from someplace else.”

So after using up our inheritance that was in the rich soils, we use up our inheritance that was stored in the form of oil to cover up for the first loss, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. This process was accelerated by the arrival of what are called “wheat-beef” farming people six thousand years ago who, within the relatively short time of 300 years, became the dominant agricultural group, pretty much eliminating the hunter-gatherers. But single crop agriculture like wheat depletes the soils, leading to famines. Manning points out that between the years of 500 and 1500, “Britain suffered a major “corrective” famine about every ten years; there were seventy-five in France during the same period.”

However, as these two countries became sea-faring colonial powers, they were able to use the riches of the colonies to reduce the famines at home. This also led to inequalities in resource consumption between the colonizers and the colonized.

But as the populations of these wheat-beef communities grew because of the abundance of food, they had to keep moving on, finding new sources of prairie grasslands to conquer and use up. After they arrived in the US, this drive to open up fresh lands happened here too, as settlers moved west searching for new land in order to tap its vast reserves of soil energy.

But at some point the sources of new land became exhausted. There were no new prairie frontiers to exploit. So then what happened? The ‘green revolution’ occurred in which genetic modifications produced rice, when and corn species that, combined with the use of increased irrigation and artificial fertilizers, produced three times the yield they had before. Most people might think that this was a good thing, since it enables the production of more food that can feed more people more cheaply. Manning argues that this is the worst thing to have happened.

One reason, Manning argues, is that it moved poor people off their own land while enabling their growth in numbers. “In the forty-year period beginning about 1960, the world’s population doubled, adding virtually the entire increase of 3 billion to the world’s poorest classes, the most fecund classes. The way in which the green revolution raised that grain contributed hugely to the population boom, and it is the weight of the population that leaves humanity in its present untenable position. . .[T]he methods of the green revolution . . . added orders of magnitude to the devastation. By mining the iron for tractors, drilling the new oil to fuel them and to make nitrogen fertilizers, and by taking the water that rain and rivers had meant for other lands, farming had extended its boundaries, its dominion, to lands that were not farmable.”

It is clear that we cannot go on consuming resources at this rate. It seems to me like we have only three choices:

1. Perpetuate existing wide disparities in rates of consumption by the use of brute force. This will inevitably lead to more and more global conflicts, and an inevitable collapse as resources get used up.
2. Allow for increased rates of consumption globally as the newly emerging countries like China and India also start to consume at current first world rates. This will lead to an even more rapid global collapse than option 1 since resources will be used up even more quickly.
3. Reduce consumption rates in the first world while at the same time making resources more equitable worldwide so that we can bring worldwide rates to a level that is sustainable and yet provides the world’s population with a decent although not luxurious standard of living.

While I favor the third option, that requires global cooperation and sharing, ideas that are not that popular these days. I fear that the other two options are more likely to be adopted.

POST SCRIPT: Middle East politics round up

The invaluable Juan Cole gives a handy round up on the state of play in the Middle East, including the emergence of Saudi Arabian interests as a big factor. He also discusses something that has not been emphasized much in the media, and that is the possible reason why Dick Cheney was “summoned” to Saudi Arabia just after Thanksgiving and was “read the riot act” by the Saudi king, and the abrupt resignation this week of the Saudi ambassador to the US.

The fact that the Saudis can snap their fingers and Cheney immediately gets on a plane and goes to get lectured by them is another indication of how weakened the US has become by its invasion of Iraq. At least we can be thankful that Cheney didn’t shoot the Saudi king in the face.

The food-energy equation

In his February 2004 Harper’s essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning lays out the basic energy equation that underlies food.

All animals eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. This is the food chain, and pulling it is the unique ability of plants to turn sunlight into stored energy in the form of carbohydrates, the basic fuel of all animals. Solar-powered photosynthesis is the only way to make this fuel. There is no alternative to plant energy, just as there is no alternative to oxygen. The results of taking away our plant energy may not be as sudden as cutting off oxygen, but they are as sure.

Scientists have a name for the total amount of plant mass created by Earth in a given year, the total budget for life. They call it the planet’s “primary productivity.” There have been two efforts to figure out how that productivity is spent, one by a group at Stanford University, the other an independent accounting by the biologist Stuart Pimm. Both conclude that we humans, a single species among millions, consume about 40 percent of Earth’s primary productivity, 40 percent of all there is. This simple number may explain why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that which existed before human domination of the planet. We 6 billion have simply stolen the food, the rich among us a lot more than others.
. . .
Part of that total—almost a third of it—is the potential plant mass lost when forests are cleared for farming or when tropical rain forests are cut for grazing or when plows destroy the deep mat of prairie roots that held the whole business together, triggering erosion. The Dust Bowl was no accident of nature. A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem is, it’s mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can’t eat. So we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today.

Humans cannot eat most of the naturally produced biomass each year since it is in the form of grasses and trees, so we destroy that biomass by clearing those fields and planting crops that we can eat more readily or, as is more common, to use as raw materials to produce food in other forms. But each of these things carries with it energy costs. As Manning points out:

America’s biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is raw material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes. Likewise, you can’t eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can’t eat hay. You can eat unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don’t. These four crops cover 82 percent of American cropland. Agriculture in this country is not about food; it’s about commodities that require the outlay of still more energy to become food. (emphasis in original)

It turns out that about eighty percent of the grain the United States produces goes to feed livestock and that it “takes thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a calorie of beef this way” and “sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork.” Livestock produced this way creates high-quality protein no doubt, but at a cost. In addition, the US produces twice as much per capita protein as the average adult needs each day. This results in over-consumption which leads to fat, resulting in an epidemic of obesity, which now is second only to tobacco in being the cause of health-related problems and fatalities.

The higher you go up the food chain, the more energy that is wasted along the way. All of us know that instinctively but I had not fully appreciated the massive scale of wastage as you ascend each rung of that chain.

Eating a carrot gives the diner all that carrot’s energy, but feeding carrots to a chicken, then eating the chicken, reduces the energy by a factor of ten. The chicken wastes some energy, stores some as feathers, bones, and other inedibles, and uses most of it just to live long enough to be eaten. As a rough rule of thumb, that factor of ten applies to each level up the food chain, which is why some fish, such as tuna, can be a horror in all of this. Tuna is a secondary predator, meaning it not only doesn’t eat plants but eats other fish that themselves eat other fish, adding a zero to the multiplier each notch up, easily a hundred times, more like a thousand times less efficient than eating a plant.

As Manning sums up: “Prairie’s productivity is lost for grain, grain’s productivity is lost in livestock, livestock’s protein is lost to human fat—all federally subsidized for about $15 billion a year, two thirds of which goes directly to only two crops, corn and wheat.”

Even avoiding meat does not quite solve the problem since there are hidden energy costs in non-meat foods as well.

The grinding, milling, wetting, drying, and baking of a breakfast cereal requires about four calories of energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. A two-pound bag of breakfast cereal burns the energy of a half-gallon of gasoline in its making. All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces.

It seems to me that if we are going to learn how to become better custodians of the earth’s resources, we need to have a deeper understanding of how those resources are used. It seems like it would be advisable to emphasize the energy aspects of food in our educational system to create a greater awareness of where all the energy goes to and comes from. Right now, I think that students learn about photosynthesis as a purely biological process. Including the energy cycle along with it seems like a good idea, both educationally and in terms of creating increasing awareness of our relationship to nature and the Earth’s resources.

POST SCRIPT: Letting Go of God

Julia Sweeney has a CD of her monologue about her drift away from Catholicism to atheism. She was interviewed by late night talk show host Craig Ferguson.

Saving resources

One of the things that appall me is the waste of food. Whenever I have to throw away food that has been uneaten, I take that as a personal defeat. As a result, the refrigerator in our home is relatively bare since it tends to have things that are likely to be used soon. Even then, I periodically go through the refrigerator and use up everything that is there and only throw stuff away if it is beyond salvaging.

I have the impression that in our highly litigious society, manufacturers have become highly conservative in labeling packages, fearful that they will be sued if someone gets ill. And as a result, the “sell by” dates are likely quite early and a lot of perfectly good food is thrown away unnecessarily because of people adhering strictly to them. It would be interesting to see what kinds of statistics are used to arrive at the “sell by” dates.

The greater waste occurs in supermarkets. Consumers are now so picky and demand such perfection that even slightly bruised fruit or other produce is thrown away by stores, even though it might be perfectly good to eat, because they think that consumers will not buy them. At home, on the other hand, if an apple or banana is bruised I, like many others, simply cut out that part and eat the rest. This is not because we cannot afford to buy more fruit, it is simply that I cannot bear to waste food. It seems criminal to me.

In Sri Lanka when I was growing up, even in the cities vendors of food would sell their wares in small open stalls (like the ones you see in the US along country roads in the summer and fall) and you would haggle with the vendor about the price. If the produce was pristine is quality, you would pay a higher price. The more damaged or older it looked, the less you paid. Anything that was not sold that day or likely to be sold in the future was consumed by the vendor’s family and neighbors. As a result of this system, there was very little waste.

(The haggling over price was a kind of game that was played between vendor and customer and the scene over the purchase of a false beard in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian accurately captures the spirit of the game. I personally never had the heart to haggle since the vendors were obviously so much poorer than I and I felt that the small amount of money involved meant a lot less to me than to them. Hence I would simply go through the motions of haggling and would end up paying more or less the asking price. While it was more profitable for the vendors to deal with me, I also had the feeling that they thought I was not much fun.)

Food costs a lot in terms of the resources that go into producing it. In his February 2004 Harper’s essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning analyzes the true cost of agriculture. Clearing out vast areas of land to increase agriculture has a cost, all the fertilizer we use to achieve high yields has a cost, and the mechanized planting, harvesting, transport and distribution systems that are used have a cost. The food we get at our stores has used up a lot of resources and it is a scandal how much of it we waste.

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

This is a question that is looming larger and larger as countries with large populations that were once considered third world, such as China and India, are rapidly becoming industrialized and their populations rate of consumption are rising to first world levels. While we simply cannot go on consuming at the current first world rates, how we resolve this question to achieve a lasting, sustainable, and fair solution is not at all clear.

POST SCRIPT: Picking and choosing from the Bible

Stephen Colbert interviews Francis Collins and the discussion raises the key problem facing those Christians who are not Biblical literalists. (Collins is the head of the human genome project and a practicing Christian and the author of the book The Language of God.)

When Colbert asks him on which of the six days of creation god created DNA, Collins argues that some parts of the Bible are not meant to be taken literally. To which Colbert responds “If you throw out any part of the Bible, you throw out all of it.”

This is why Christian fundamentalists reject the position of those who argue that the Bible should not be taken literally.

Reduce, reduce, reduce

Environmentalists use the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” to indicate the different ways that we can lower our consumption of resources in order to save the world. It is true that recycling has become more popular now, which is a good thing.

But we must remember that recycle is merely the third item on the descending list of actions to save the world’s resources. The most important one is ‘reduce’ and I think we not paying anywhere near enough attention to that. If we really want to save the world, we have to focus our attention on the first item in the list: reduce.

Ever since I started reading Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed I have been increasingly aware of how much we consume for just no reason. His book (which I will discuss in more detail in later postings) warns that when you look back at societies that have undergone collapse in the past (see, for example, my posting on the fate the befell Easter Island), one of the factors at play is that during times of abundance, people get in the habit of consuming resources that are in excess of what the environment can sustain during average or lean times.

The unusual abundance was usually because of two reasons. One was that they experienced a period of good climate, with a nice mixture of rain and sun that enabled them to have exceptionally bountiful harvests and made them forget what it was like when things were not so good. This encouraged them to consume at a high rate and maintain high rates of population growth. Then when bad weather of other types of problems struck, they were not prepared to deal with the resulting deprivation, and the social structure collapsed.

The other situation was that when people discovered a new and lush land, they thought that the lushness was because the soil was very fertile. In reality, the soil and climate was quite inferior but the lush vegetation they encountered was the result of slow growth over a very long time, and not due to the land’s ability to replenish itself rapidly. Hence once the new arrivals had cleared the land and harvested a few good years of agriculture, the land went barren. He points to Australia as an example of poor soil that fooled the early European settlers into thinking that the soil was highly fertile, leading to the current environmental problems there.

In the case of the Earth, what we are doing is more like the second case, except on a much longer timescale. The Earth has tremendous resources that have been generated over billions of years during which the resources were not consumed but were allowed to accumulate, like interest in a bank account. These resources are either finite or replenish themselves at a very slow rate. We are like new settlers that are living off the benefits of billions of years of acquired wealth that is stored in the Earth. But we are simply consuming it as if the good times will last forever.

A good financial metaphor is that we are not treating the Earth’s resources as capital that should be invested wisely so that it can be preserved and even grow over time so that our children and grandchildren can have an even better life than we have. Instead, we are treating the Earth’s resources as if it were income. The way we live is like that of heirs to a fortune who are spending their inheritance on a wild binge of partying. We are simply running through the Earth’s capital, living beyond our means. And in doing so, we will reach a time when ‘we’ (by which I mean the human race) become broke.

As Diamond points out, the fate of past societies that treated their natural resources as income and not capital is not pretty to contemplate. The only advantage that we have over them is that we have the knowledge of what caused those collapses in the past and if we take those lessons to heart and are wise custodians of those resources, we can avoid their fates. The choice is ours. But do we have the will, let alone the wisdom?

One problem that we encounter is the inherent conflict between reducing consumption and the voracious needs of capitalism. It seems to be an article of faith of capitalism that society benefits when people spend more money to buy more stuff. The massive advertising industry is there to manufacture fake needs and drive up consumption. The holiday season we are currently in is a good example of this madness. The media actually celebrates when the shopping season breaks previous records for expenditures. This is supposed to be ‘good for the economy.’

This feature of constantly increasing consumption cannot be part of a sustainable economic system. I suspect that it happens to be a peculiar manifestation that has evolved and taken deep hold, like a weed infestation in a garden, but that societies can function perfectly well with a model that emphasizes reduced consumption and increased conservation. It seems to me that we should be designing our economic systems to serve the very long-term needs of society, and not tailoring our society to meets the needs of present day economic systems.

To emphasize the importance of reducing our rate of consumption, perhaps we should start by taking a cue from real estate agents. When asked what are the three most important things about a property, they say “location, location, location” in order to emphasize the importance of this one thing that dwarfs all other factors. We should similarly change our environmental slogan from ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ to ‘reduce, reduce, reduce’. That way we might stop deluding ourselves that our recycling efforts alone, worthwhile though they may be, are sufficient to prevent a future global ecological collapse.

POST SCRIPT: The paradox of choice

There is no question that in the affluent industrialized first world, people have a wide array of options to chose from for almost all aspects of their lives, whereas in many parts of the third world, people have almost no choices. Barry Schwartz argues that this abundance of choice in the western world has actually lowered the quality of life for the people who have all these choices, and that everyone would be better off if some of the options were shifted to the poorer countries.

It is an excellent little lecture, worth watching.

Are we owners or custodians?

In the previous post, when I said that my generation had been poor custodians of the world, I used the word ‘custodians’ deliberately.

I think there is a big difference between those who see their relationship to things in terms of ownership and those who see it in terms of custodianship.

The ownership mentality sees things this way: “If I earn money, that money belongs to me and I am free to do what I want with it. Similarly, anything that I buy with the money is mine to do with whatever I like.” In this view, if I am a millionaire, I should be able to buy five huge homes around the world, each of which uses vast amounts of resources to build and maintain but are empty for most of the time, fly around in my private planes, drive around in huge cars that I replace every year, buy lots of clothes that I discard soon after, and so forth. The feeling is that I have a right to do this because I ‘own’ these things and bought them with my own money.

This sense of ownership also extends to the Earth and its resources. Although no one, of course, owns the Earth, the fact that I feel I am entitled to use up whatever resources that go into enabling my lifestyle means that I essentially feel entitled to the ownership of those resources as well.

Contrasted with this attitude is the custodian mentality. This says that we never really ‘own’ anything. Everything we have we are custodians for, given the privilege of looking after and using until we pass them on to the next user. When I go to a store and buy something, I am essentially buying not the object itself but the right to be its custodian. I get the right to use it exclusively while it is in my care but I also have the responsibility to look after it well. The same applies to the Earth and its resources. We are custodians of it and charged with taking care of it, not its owners to do what we like with it.

I am fortunate enough to have paid off the mortgage on the house I live in. If I think of myself as the ‘owner’ of the house, then I am free to do what I like with it, consistent with the zoning laws of my community. If I like, I can trash it. If it thus loses value, that is my own business and no one else’s. I can even raze it to the ground and build either a new house or leave it as open space. In the ownership mentality, it can be argued that the only considerations that should influence my decision is whether it is beneficial to me, since I am the ‘owner’.

But surely I have a responsibility to the Earth and my neighbors and my descendants as well? Trashing the house or destroying it so as to put up a bigger new home, even though my children have gone away to college and my space needs are less, would not be a good decision for a custodian of the Earth to make since it would be a waste of resources, even if it led to an increase in my property values and made me personally richer.

The same questions apply to every purchase I make. When I pay for a car, I become a custodian of the vehicle as well as the resources that went in to making it. Hence I have a duty not to waste it but to take care of the car and make it last as long as I can. The same with clothes.

If we cannot shift our thinking away from thinking of ourselves as owners to thinking of ourselves as custodians, the fate the Jared Diamond describes (in his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed) happening to past collapsed societies could well happen to us. Those societies that collapsed did so because segments of those societies short-sightedly thought in terms of their own interests and not of the long-term viability of the entire community.

Since in this case it is the Earth itself that we are custodians for, we will have nowhere else to go to escape if we fail to act as good custodians.

POST SCRIPT: Russell’s Teapot

Just a reminder that every Monday the website Russell’s Teapot puts out a new cartoon. These cartoons are funny but are not just gags. They also contain a lot of interesting information. Last week’s cartoon (“Who put the X in Xmas”) dealing with Christmas myths ties in nicely with my series of posts on the dubiousness of much of Biblical history. To make the cartoon image larger, keep clicking on the cartoon image.

The age of consumption

Some time ago I was having breakfast with a few friends and during the casual conversation I said that I felt that our children and grandchildren would judge our generation harshly for what we have done to the world.

One of my companions was surprised and after a moment’s thought told me why she disagreed. She pointed out that our generation (the so-called ‘baby boomers’ although I hate cute labels like these) had brought about advances in civil rights, greater equality for women, more tolerance for gay and lesbian lifestyles, and made tremendous medical advances that had resulted in finding cures for some diseases and even the elimination of some.

I agreed with her on all these points. But my concern was more about how we have treated the Earth’s resources, its environment, and its climate. I have written about global warming before and will write in the future about the consequences of our actions on the environment, but what I told her was that I feel that the people of my generation have not been good custodians of the resources of the planet. We have been so wasteful and profligate with the planet’s resources that we are risk leaving future generations resource poor.

My friend challenged me on this too. She pointed out that our generation has become more conscious about recycling in a way that our parents never were.

This is also true but I think that the advances that we have made in recycling have been more than dwarfed by our massive increase in the consumption of resources. There is no doubt that the current generation of people in the first world has the highest standard of living ever. All the scientific and technological advances that we have been witness to in our own lifetimes have resulted in us being able to possess lots of material goods.

But what this has spawned is even greater levels of consumption. Some increase in consumption is inevitable and even desirable because it means that more people are able to live better lives. No one would doubt the merits of the increased availability of potable water, more food and less hunger, more widespread availability of indoor plumbing and electricity, homes that are better able to withstand the elements, and so. All these things enable those people who are currently living in poverty and squalor and susceptible to disease to live better and healthier lives. Increases in consumption to achieve these ends are clearly desirable.

But what bothers me is the increase in consumption just for the sake of it, just because we can. I am referring now to the kind of lifestyle that is driving people to build huge mansions and own multiple homes on vast areas of cleared land that are vacant most of the time. I am referring to a culture that sees consumption for its own sake as something desirable, where luxury is flaunted, where people feel the need to buy new stuff before the old stuff is completely used up, and where waste is endemic.

This is a disease that afflicts the affluent and also those members of the middle class that aspire to the affluent lifestyle. The media celebrates celebrities and corporate tycoons living lavish lifestyles. This infects the middle classes who seek to emulate the very rich by also living an extravagant lifestyle. The global reach of the media creates similar desires in the affluent classes of the second and third worlds, who also live high consumption lifestyles, which creates similar pressures on their middle classes, and so on.

A lot of this consumption is not based on any physical needs but instead seems to result from a competition to flaunt wealth and consumption, for show, to let others know how ‘successful’ we are. This attitude is like a virus that has spread all over the world.

As a result of all this wasteful and image-driven consumption, I worry that we are rapidly using up the world’s resources without even the benefit of a better quality of life. I worry that at the rate we going, we are going to leave future generations very resource poor.

POST SCRIPT: Analysis of ISG group report

Senator Russ Feingold gives a good summary of the few strengths and the many weaknesses of the report put out by the Iraq Study Group.

And editorial cartoonist Oliphant gives his perspective on the responses to the report.

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‘Tis the season to be petty, fa la la la la, la la la la!

Now that the season to wage culture wars over holiday symbolism has arrived, Tom Tomorrow reports on the kind of petty and absurd incidents that this ridiculous hyping of the ‘war on Christmas’ spawns.

I was a grocery store, waiting in line to check out. The man in front of me approached the cashier with a cart full of groceries. The cashier said “Happy Holidays!”. Well, it goes without saying that the man was furious at this. How dare she not say “Merry Christmas”. He literally stormed out of the store in anger, leaving his groceries behind for the employees to put away. As he was leaving, he said “I’ll never shop here again!”

Whatever our views on this topic, can we at least all agree to not take our annoyance out on employees such as shop clerks and cashiers and waiters? These people are usually underpaid and overworked (especially during this time of year), usually have no say about company policy on how to greet people, and are routinely treated with lack of consideration, if not discourtesy and outright rudeness. People should never use their power as customers to vent their spleen on such employees, who have no option but to bite their tongues for fear of losing their jobs.

I thought that I would repost something from November 30, 2005 that deals with my own views on the silliness of such culture wars.

“Merry Christmas” or “Season’s Greetings”?

In a comment to a previous post on Thanksgiving and Christmas, John made an interesting observation. He said that, given his reading of my political and religious leanings from my blog, he was surprised that I had used the term “Christmas shopping season” instead of the more generic “holiday shopping season,” since I am obviously not a religious person.

I must admit that I was taken by surprise by his comment. I had written “Christmas” season almost without thinking because I see it as such. But perhaps I should not have been surprised because I am also aware of how touchy the issue of Christmas has become.

For example, somebody named John Gibson has actually written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. And Bill O’Reilly, who can always be depended on to waste his outrage on the trivial, has declared that he is going to “save” Christmas by bringing back the greeting “Merry Christmas” and fighting those stores that have promotions saying “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” A guest on his show suggested that these more generic greetings do not offend Christians, to which O’Reilly replied “Yes, it does. It absolutely does. And I know that for a fact. But the smart way to do it is “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Season’s Greetings, Happy Kwanzaa.”

Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell, in a fierce competition with Pat Robertson for the Religious Doofus of the Year award, says that he too is fighting to save that holy holiday and that he’ll sue and boycott groups that he sees as muzzling Christmas. Finishing a strong third for that same award:

American Family Association President Tim Wildmon,…wants to see “Merry Christmas” signs displayed prominently “if they expect Christians to come in and buy products during this so-called season.”

And he isn’t worried if they offend people who aren’t Christian.

“They can walk right by the sign,” Wildmon said. “It’s a federal holiday. If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation.”

So John was quite justified in being puzzled as to why, in this climate, I was so casually tossing the word Christmas around when everyone seems to be so touchy about it.

To be quite honest, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see people like Gibson and O’Reilly and Falwell and Wildmon getting into a lather about what is the proper thing to say at Christmas. How can adults waste their time on the trivial when there is so much other stuff to think about?

As for me personally, I just can’t take this matter seriously. I have never been offended by other people’s religious beliefs. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a multi-religious society, had friends of other faiths, and celebrated their religious holidays as well as my own. It does not offend me in the least when people wish me greetings that are specific to their own religious traditions or in some neutral terms. What is the sense in being offended by someone who is wishing you well? The words do not matter in the least. It is the sentiment behind it that is important.

I have always liked Christmas as a holiday, especially its focus on children, and its message of promoting peace and goodwill among people. I am glad that even people who do not share its religious orientation still share in the peace and goodwill message. I do not appreciate the fact that it has become largely a merchandizing tool.

I simply do not care how other people view Christmas or how they express their views and it amazes me that some people are using it as yet another means of waging a cultural war. Why are some people so touchy? When someone wishes me “Season’s Greetings,” I take that as a thoughtful gesture of friendship and caring and I am touched by the sentiment. The same goes if they wish me “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanzaa” or “Happy Solstice” or any other greeting from any other religion. I return the greeting in kind, even if I am not a believer in that faith, because all that such an exchange signifies is that two people wish each other well. If someone says to me “Merry Christmas” and I reply “Same to you,” this is not an affirmation of faith any more than “Season’s Greetings” is an act of hostility to religion. To take such greetings as a challenge to one’s beliefs and start a fight over it is to demonstrate churlishness to a ridiculous degree. O’Reilly and his partners in this stupid battle need to grow up.

I am talking here about how the holiday is interpreted in the private sphere of person-to-person interactions. If some company puts advertisements in the paper and tells its employees to greet customers by saying “Season’s Greetings,” why should it offend me? The same thing if they order their employees to say “Merry Christmas” instead. That is not something that bothers me, because such mandated greetings are not borne out of personal care and concern but are just marketing tools and are meaningless in terms of content and intent, whatever the words used. It is in the same category as the mandated “Have a nice day.” You can always tell, by the eyes, the tone of voice, and the smile (or lack of it) if the person is genuinely being friendly or simply saying it because it is required. The actual words are immaterial.

If Bill O’Reilly gets all warm and tingly when a store employee is forced to say “Merry Christmas” to him and gets angry when that same employee is forced to say “Season’s Greetings,” then he is a man in need of serious therapy because he clearly cannot distinguish the real from the counterfeit. I hate to be the one who breaks the news but he should realize that the employee probably does not care for him personally, whatever the greeting.

The question becomes different when we talk of the public sphere because then we are talking about the government taking an official stand on religion and this raises tricky political and constitutional issues. There it seems to me to be appropriate to be scrupulously religiously neutral because I am a believer that a secular public sphere is the one most likely to lead to peace and harmony between diverse groups. Governments are supposed to be representatives of everyone and to single out one particular religion or ethnicity for preferential treatment is to create discord.

But when it comes to private exchanges between people, we should all relax and let people express their good feelings for one another in whatever way they choose and are most comfortable with and not try to make it into a battle for religious supremacy. You can always tell when people genuinely mean well and when they are pushing an agenda, whatever the actual words used. We should learn to accept the former gracefully and ignore the latter.

POST SCRIPT: Holiday punditry

We started with Tom Tomorrow and we can give him the last word too.

A national disgrace: The case of Jose Padilla

There is perhaps nothing that exemplifies the disgraceful contempt displayed by this administration for law and human rights than the way they have treated Jose Padilla, the man labeled by the government as a ‘dirty bomber’ although the indictment that was finally brought against him says nothing of the sort and has been reduced to vague charges of being involved with terrorism. But because of the huge amount of government propaganda surrounding his arrest, he will always be thought of in the public mind as having planned to detonate a radioactive bomb in an American city.

The news article by Deborah Sontag in the December 4, 2006 issue of the New York Times reveals the depths to which the government has sunk in its cruelty to this man. This is something that will be a source of shame for a long time, if it isn’t the case that we have lost all sense of shame already.

In an affidavit filed Friday, [Andrew Patel, one of his lawyers] alleged that Mr. Padilla was held alone in a 10-cell wing of the brig; that he had little human contact other than with his interrogators; that his cell was electronically monitored and his meals were passed to him through a slot in the door; that windows were blackened, and there was no clock or calendar; and that he slept on a steel platform after a foam mattress was taken from him, along with his copy of the Koran, “as part of an interrogation plan”. . . [The lawyers] argue that he has been so damaged by his interrogations and prolonged isolation that he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is unable to assist in his own defense. His interrogations, they say, included hooding, stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the administration of “truth serums.”

As Digby points out:

I think isolation and lack of a sense of time and strange repetitive interrogations may be even more cruel than physical punishment. The belief that it will never end, that you’ve lost all normal sense of personhood and control — that your mind is being stripped away and there’s nothing you can do about it — must be terrifying.

This one telling detail alone illustrates the extent to which the government will stoop in its cruelty. To take him to a dentist, in addition to shackling his legs and manacling his hands, the government put on thick noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his eyes so that Padilla would not see or hear anything from the outside world while making the trip, thus keeping his isolation from humanity complete. Even the guards’ faces were hidden behind plastic visors because how terrible it would be if he should make eye contact or even exchange a smile with another human being, or that he should see the sun or trees or hear birds or even a bit of music from a passing car. Experiencing those sensations would have the disastrous effect of reminding him that he was a human being and not just a collection of cells subject to experimentation on the effects of sensory deprivation.

Of course, those seeking to justify this kind of treatment will employ the usual trope to justify execrable behavior and point to someone who might do even worse: “al Qaeda wouldn’t take their prisoners for a root canal.” They will try and portray Padilla as someone who is actually being treated well and is just a whiner complaining about minor discomfitures. But Digby sees through this bogus toughness.

I know that all the tough guys on the right will say that Padilla is just being a typical whining malcontent but I have a feeling that most of them would crumble into blubbering babies after five minutes in his position. This treatment is extremely inhumane.

It seems like Padilla is already a broken man, so destroyed psychologically that he is unfit to stand trial. In his affidavit, Mr. Patel said, “I was told by members of the brig staff that Mr. Padilla’s temperament was so docile and inactive that his behavior was like that of ‘a piece of furniture.'” He was denied access to any lawyers for 21 months so that even now he is mistrustful and unsure whether his lawyers are on is side or are secretly working against him. Furthermore, according to the New York Times report:

Dr. Angela Hegarty, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, N.Y., who examined Mr. Padilla for a total of 22 hours in June and September, said in an affidavit filed Friday that he “lacks the capacity to assist in his own defense.”

“It is my opinion that as the result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation, Mr. Padilla does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation,” Dr. Hegarty said in an affidavit for the defense.

No one has better expressed outrage over Padilla’s treatment and the cruelty with which the government is treating so-called enemy combatants than Glenn Greenwald. He is also amazed that a country that prides itself on being a nation of laws has sat back and let this happen not only without an outcry, but with some sectors even cheering the government on. And if this can be done to Padilla, who is a US citizen who was arrested within the US, think what must be happening to those unfortunates who are not citizens or who were captured abroad or are being held in foreign prisons.

As Greenwald says:

As I have said many times, the most astounding and disturbing fact over the last five years — and there is a very stiff competition for that title — is that we have collectively really just sat by while the U.S. Government arrests and detains people, including U.S. citizens, and then imprisons them for years without any charges of any kind. What does it say about our country that not only does our Government do that, but that we don’t really seem to mind much?

Along those lines, it is hard to express the contempt merited by the drooling sociopaths who not only endorse this behavior but, with what can only be described as serious derangement, laugh about it and revel in its cruelty and its lawlessness.

In a subsequent post, he examines the reasons for the public apathy on this issue and points to the disgraceful attitude taken on this issue by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post.

This is the reason why. Over the last five years, the media (with some notable and noble exceptions) essentially embraced the central premise of the Bush administration — that in order for us to be protected, we must place our faith in the Leader and know that he is doing Good, because he wants to protect us.

He may err at times. He might even go a little too far or be a little zealous in what he does to make us safe. But there are Very, Very Bad People in the world who want to kill us — Padilla is “accused of plotting a dirty-bomb attack”! — and the Leader needs the power to get his hands dirty and take care of them. The last thing we should be concerned with is what the Leader does to them.

Greenwald gets it exactly right. What is happening is a disgrace.

POST SCRIPT: Staying in Iraq “until the job is done”

As the Iraq Study Group delivers its report today, the Daily Show looks at all the advice the Bush is getting and what he is likely to do.

Return of the best and the brightest?

Many years ago, David Halberstam wrote a book about the Vietnam war called The Best and the Brightest. In it he pointed out how the architects of the Vietnam war under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were considered brilliant thinkers and strategists, successful in many other fields before they entered government. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara came from being the head of General Motors and was supposed to be a real genius, brilliant with numbers and having a reputation as a formidable thinker and strategist in the corporate world. Others like McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow were also seen as the very smart people.

And yet, as Halberstam pointed out, this did not prevent Vietnam from becoming a total debacle. It seemed that all the brilliant minds and their strategizing could not prevent the US from sliding slowly and painfully into defeat. The problem was, of course, that strategy cannot save you when the underlying political decisions are bad. In Vietnam, that bad decision consisted in sending in forces to prop up a corrupt minority government in the face of an insurgency that was determined to oust the foreign US forces and had already defeated the French colonial power. The insurgents even had the support of a substantial fraction of the local population, as well as the backing of the significant standing army of North Vietnam, which in turn was headed by the wily General Giap. This combination of factors almost certainly doomed the US to a bad end. In such a situation, all that strategizing can do is perhaps determine what is the best way to leave.

I was reminded of those days in the current breathless speculation around the Iraq Study Group (ISG), the body headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton whose report on what to do about Iraq is eagerly anticipated within establishment circles and is due to be released on Wednesday, December 6, 2006.

What struck me is this extraordinary situation in which the US government is seemingly outsourcing an important policy and military decision to a group of people outside the government. As Robin Wright of the Washington Post reports: “In the history of U.S. foreign policy, there’s been nothing like it: a panel outside the government trying to bail the United States out of a prolonged and messy war.” What does it say about the level of competence of this administration when the president, asked about what he plans to do about Iraq, says that he is waiting to see the recommendations of outside groups like the ISG?

The composition of the ISG is also interesting. It was formed by a hitherto obscure outfit called the US Institute of Peace which says on its website that it is an “independent, nonpartisan, national institution established and funded by Congress.” The ISG group membership seems to be composed of your standard issue, run-of-the-mill politicians (one could even label them political hacks), except for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. None of them seem to have any expertise with the Middle East.

Robin Wright says that “The panel was deliberately skewed toward a centrist course for Iraq, participants said. Organizers avoided experts with extreme views on either side of the Iraq war debate.” This sheds an interesting light on the Washington mindset which venerates “centrism” or “moderates,” without those words having any operational meaning other than simply standing for a very narrow range of opinions around the status quo.

Exactly what, for example, might constitute an “extreme” antiwar view? Since no one is seriously suggesting that the US government surrender to the Iraqi insurgents or re-installing Saddam Hussein as the Iraqi leader (even though an increasing number of people, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, are saying that average Iraqis are worse off now than they were before the invasion), one can only conclude that what the ISG considers an “extremist” view is that calling for a complete withdrawal of US troops beginning immediately. Thus the deck has already been stacked to produce a report that will not disturb the status quo, since it has eliminated one option that is widely supported.

The ISG group has supposedly listened to ‘expert’ advice given by four ‘Expert Working Groups’ and a Military Senior Advisor Panel.. But there is some cynicism as to whether the expert panels are just window dressing for a pre-ordained conclusion. As one member of one of the expert groups says: “[The ISG] doesn’t have to take any of our recommendations. . .They can come up with something entirely different. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what they do.”

In fact, although George Bush has said that he is looking forward to hearing what the commission is going to recommend, the very fact that he has been so outspoken in what he will and will not do seems to have caused the ISG group to try and tailor its recommendations to what they think that Bush may consider accepting, rather than what the expert groups might suggest are the best options.

One of the curious things about the ISG is the murkiness of its origins. It suddenly appeared in March of this year. Its website says that this “effort is being undertaken at the urging of several members of Congress and the White House welcomes it.” Who are these members of Congress? It does not exactly say and I have been unable to pinpoint exactly how and why the ISG came into existence. The only person I could find who is named as an initiator is congressman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia).

One possibility is that this murkiness is deliberate in order to hide one of two possibilities. The first is that the White House, despite its public statements of confidence about how well things are going in Iraq, privately agrees with those who say it is a disaster and is now seeking a face-saving mechanism to extricate itself from the mess without actually admitting they have blundered. This means that they have already decided what they want to do and the ISG will provide them with those options, but the White House does not want to admit that the ISG is merely a front group.

The second possibility is that the White House is still in such a state of denial, and that this detachment from reality has so alarmed even those people close to the administration (such as Bush’s father), that they cobbled together this commission to put further pressure on the White House to try and get them to face the facts rather than continue to wallow in delusions.

My guess (and it is only that) is that it is the second option. This is because the latest leak from the ISG says that they will “recommend withdrawing nearly all U.S. combat units from Iraq by early 2008 while leaving behind troops to train, advise and support the Iraqis.” Support for my guess comes from the harsh pre-emptive attack on the ISG from the most fervent and last-ditch supporters of the Iraq war, such as the Weekly Standard, the National Review and assorted columnists.

Given that Bush seems to think that leaving Iraq would mean that he has failed, that he has said that it will be up to future presidents to decide when and whether to withdraw all US troops, and “I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me”, I predict that after the ISG presents their report to him he will say, “Thanks, but no thanks” and go on doing whatever he wants. Of course there is a little wiggle room between “all troops” and “nearly all U.S. combat units” to allow him to reverse course but, as Bush has famously said, he “doesn’t do nuance” and I doubt whether he will exploit that particular loophole.

Perhaps the last best hope for this country is that Barney looks like a smart dog. If he can be persuaded to turn against Bush, Bush might finally realize that his Iraq policy has been a failure.

POST SCRIPT: The God Delusion

Watch an excellent interview of Richard Dawkins talking about his new book The God Delusion on the BBC show Newsnight.

It is so refreshing to see a low-key interview in which the interviewer is thoughtful and quietly tries to probe the author about ideas, rather than engaging in a debate. There is no interrupting and no crosstalk and no grandstanding, and yet the questions posed were challenging. It was so unlike a lot of talk shows where the host sees the show as a vehicle for expounding his or her own views, rather than having the guest elaborate on their ideas.

The time to negotiate

In William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (act IV, scene III), there is a memorable passage that goes:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

As usual, Shakespeare captures well the sense of drama of arriving at some crossroads in one’s life where one can sense that one is on the cusp of events, where subsequent events can unfold in dramatically different directions depending on the decision one makes. Should we seize the moment and take the chance of achieving great success? Or do we, because we fear the consequences of failure, hold back and play safe and thus end up missing the chance for glory?

Part of the reason that quote has resonance with so many people is that we can all recall points in our lives when we were required to make an important decision quickly because events were moving rapidly. Should we go with the flow, take it at the flood, or should we hold back? The consequences of our decisions may not have been as momentous as the rise and fall of nations and armies, but they were important to us nonetheless.

The same holds true for the leaders of nations. It is easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and see where bad decisions made at momentous times have led nations and leaders astray. But at the same time, one can learn lessons from those failures. And the lesson that I draw is that the time to negotiate peace and grant concessions to your opponent is when your own side is very strong, your adversary is weak, and it looks like you can easily achieve an outright victory without conceding anything at all to those who oppose you. The more you seem to be invincible, the more you should be willing to negotiate.

But unfortunately, the temptation is strong for those leaders who see themselves as invincible to do just the opposite, to dismiss talk of negotiations and try to achieve a crushing victory. And in doing so, they often fail and in subsequent negotiations have to concede a lot more than they would have had to do earlier.

In Sri Lanka, for example, with its long running ethnic conflict, the older generation of leaders of the Tamil minority were asking mostly for a weak form of federalism for the country, with some form of regional autonomy and equal standing for their language along with the language of the majority. But at that time, the majority Sinhala community had all the power both legislatively and militarily and thus did not feel the need to concede anything significant. When a nascent Tamil insurgency subsequently appeared as a result of the breakdown in the political process, the government still felt it could crush it militarily. But by trying to impose their will by force, they bred an even stronger Tamil insurgency that is now paralyzing much of the country and has fought the government forces to a standstill. In any future peace deal, if it hopes to end the conflict, the majority Sinhala government will have to concede a lot more now than it would have had to do thirty years ago.

The same thing applies to US actions in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran. Before the US invaded Afghanistan because of the presence of al Qaeda there, the government of that country tried to negotiate with the US about how to deal with the al Qaeda in their midst but these offers were brushed aside seemingly because the US felt (correctly) that it could easily overthrow the Taliban government militarily. Thus they felt no need to engage in negotiations.

But now the tide has turned and the Taliban is coming back with a vengeance. Now it is apparent to all that the US and NATO forces are stretched thin in that country and are barely hanging on. The recent NATO summit in Latvia could not even drum pledges of support for the 1,000 more troops that the NATO commanders on the ground have been pleading for for months.

It is not unthinkable that the US will soon have to negotiate with the Taliban in the near future. In fact, just last week, the Pakistan Foreign Minister (and Pakistan is the country most intimately involved with Afghanistan and thus most likely to know the true state of affairs there) stunned some NATO foreign ministers by suggesting that “the Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan and Nato is bound to fail.” He further went on to urge “Nato countries to accept the Taliban and work towards a new coalition government in Kabul that might exclude the Afghan president Hamid Karzai.”

It is becoming increasingly likely that the final resolution of the situation in that country will be on much weaker terms for the US than it might have achieved before the invasion or even just after, when the US was perceived as being strong.

The same thing applies to Iraq. Before that country was invaded, the US was perceived to be strong. Iraq had been weakened by years of harsh sanctions, the UN inspectors had access to that country, and Iraq was no threat at all to anyone. But then the US made the decision to invade, despite the efforts of that country to negotiate to avoid war, and the result is plain to see. US troops in Iraq are now stuck in the middle of events they no longer control and it is not hard to see that the eventual end result in that country is far worse than what might have been achieved by negotiating instead of invading.

Then take the case of Iran. Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, the Iranian government offered to negotiate with the US, in which they were willing to lay everything on the table. Clearly they were concerned about US strength and the possibility of being the next on the list of the ‘axis of evil’ countries to be invaded. But those overtures were brushed aside. Now the tables have turned. With the US forces stuck in Iraq, it is Iran that is in a position of strength and it is the US that will have to initiate talks with them, and ask them for help is solving the Iraq mess. The US will go into these talks in a much weaker negotiating position than it could have had just three years ago. All Iran has to do is watch from the sidelines while the US position gets weaker by the day.

The same holds true for the Israel-Palestine situation. There was a time when Israel seemed invincible in that region and could have negotiated from a position of strength for a two-state solution that would have included complete withdrawal from the occupied territories and the internationalization of Jerusalem, in return for full recognition and peace treaties with all its neighbors, a viable Palestinian state, and Palestinian acceptance that their refugees relinquish their right to return to their homes within Israel that were annexed when Israel was created.

But instead Israel used their military strength to build more illegal settlements in the occupied territories, trying to create a fait accompli that precludes a two state solution. Like in Sri Lanka, the lack of progress in the political front has led to the creation of a militant alternative. Recent events with the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza have shattered the myth of Israeli military invincibility and if history is any guide, the powerful sense of injustice and resentment fed by the occupation will breed an increasingly strong resistance to Israeli occupation. Although the power relationships have not been reversed in that situation and Israel is still very powerful militarily, the perception of the balance of power has undoubtedly begun to shift away from Israel.

The lessons seem to be clear. The time to seek negotiations and make deals is when you are strong or perceived as being strong. But alas, it is precisely at moments of such strength that leaders fall for the temptation of thinking that outright military victory can be grasped. And while some kind of military victory can be achieved by the stonger power in the short run, when dealing with peoples and nations which harbor a deep sense of injustice, such victories often turn out to be Pyrrhic, bringing eventual ruin to the victor.

The passage from Julius Caesar which started this essay actually has the speaker urging going for total victory because of perceived military superiority. On the eve of a climactic battle against Mark Antony and Octavius, it is Brutus who says to his ally Cassius:

Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe:
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

I can well imagine that the neoconservative advocates of immediately going to war with Iran might find in these words a stirring affirmation of their strategy of invading one country after the next while the US still clings to the remnants of its reputation of strength. But we must remember that Brutus, the person who spoke those resounding words and went for military victory, was ultimately overextended and defeated.

What should be ‘taken at the flood’ is the decision to talk and negotiate a just peace. Otherwise we too risk defeat at the next Philippi.

POST SCRIPT: Real table tennis

Most people in the US think of table tennis as a casual game, going to the extent of giving it the childish name of ping pong. But take a look at the game when played by real experts.

I saw the Chinese national team play in Sri Lanka when I was in college. Our own national team was hopelessly outclassed and only scored points because of the graciousness of the Chinese players who did not want to humiliate their host opponents. But the Chinese team also played exhibition games amongst themselves, like the one in the video, and they completely blew everyone away with their skill, technique, and amazing reflexes.