Journalists are often criticized for their political metaphors. Candidates are said to duke it out in debates, roll through battleground states, or go to their ground game in their race to the finish. Does that demean the political process? Elections, after all, are serious events. The future is being decided. The noble work of “we, the people” is under way.
True, true, and true. Democracy is sacred. Across the world, brave people are fighting for the right to govern themselves. Voting in a fair election is a fundamental act of freedom worthy of honor and protection.
But politics.... Politics is the artful science of campaigning and governing. Politics brings out the eloquent, clever, mean, and absurd in politicians and their handlers, supporters, and rivals. Impossible promises are made; outlandish charges leveled; dazzling smiles deployed. Selflessly or otherwise, politicians abandon their private lives in the quest for office. Their ideas, speech, hairdos, and mannerisms come under constant scrutiny. Was that a smirk? Does he blink too much? She said what?
Americans are at the end of another quadrennial political tournament. There have been memorable moments that have fed the political comedy machine – from Rick Perry’s “oops” to Joe Biden’s irrepressible grin, Newt Gingrich’s moon base to Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” plan. And who can forget President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” or Mitt Romney’s “47 percent”? Thanks for the memories, guys.
Real issues were discussed, too.
Over the past two months alone, the Monitor has printed a series of articles comparing the policies and positions taken by Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. If you go to CSMonitor.com/Election101, you can review where the candidates stand on women’s issues, Israel, education, Wall Street regulation, jobs, health-care reform, energy, China, gay issues, Iran, taxes, climate change, the military, immigration, guns, and the debt and deficits.
You might also check out our One Minute Debate series, which has taken the novel approach of looking not just at two sides but offering a third way. The issues range from marijuana legalization to voter IDs to transportation. And at our DC Decoder site, our reporters have been answering your questions on everything from how Washington spends your money to whether Congress is behind our economic woes.
You’ll find even more information at websites run by Project Vote Smart and the League of Women Voters. You can also go to the candidates’ home pages and to dozens of news, fact-checking, and public affairs websites. You can hunt down exotic political morsels on Google or at the library. And don’t forget friends and family. Some of them may surprise you with thoughtful political observations.
In our last pre-election issue of the Monitor Weekly, you can follow Linda Feldmann as she goes inside the intensive get-out-the-vote efforts in the crucial counties of Ohio. Or ride with Chris Killian through the swing states and hear Americans talking about dreams, disappointments, and the hope that their leaders will put partisanship aside after Election Day.
So almost every question has been asked and answered. The campaign guns are falling silent. The 2012 political game is almost over. All that’s left is the beautiful moment of democracy.
When you arrive in a new place, you register everything with new eyes – the color of buildings in the late afternoon, how the air smells, the local accents.
On Jan. 1, 2007, when the Monitor's Robert Marquand arrived in Paris from Beijing at the start of a 5-1/2-year assignment, he found a continent settling into a self-confident optimism. Long rived by war and rivalry, Europe was quietly cementing itself together with a common currency. That New Year’s Day, Slovenia became the latest member of the eurozone, and the European Union welcomed its 26th and 27th members, Romania and Bulgaria.
France, Bob recalls, seemed sure of itself, its merchants and citizens happy to have surrendered the franc for the euro. Germany had emerged from its long east-west reintegration project with a productive, export-oriented economy. Europe and its cities did not have the brimming energy of urban Asia, but to many of its people, Europe still felt like the future.
And don’t forget where Bob had landed – incomparable Paris, where, as he puts it, “the Europe of the American imagination is corporealized before your eyes.” But like the optimism felt in the first year of Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in the spring of 2007, the romantic vistas of the Old World were just the surface of things. Somewhere below, tectonic plates were shifting.
Just as scientists go looking for early warning signs after an earthquake, economic historians now can point to signs of danger preceding the near-global meltdown of 2008. One of them can be traced to Paris: Throughout 2007, a financial trader named Jerome Kerviel had made huge, unauthorized investments with the assets of his employer, Société Générale. Like most scandals in the world of high finance, what he did was complicated. He may have made millions in profit for his company, but no one at Société Générale grasped what he was up to. By 2008, it was clear that he had bet the company without the company’s permission.
Versions of the Kerviel affair recurred throughout that fateful year. At Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and AIG, trading had become so big, fast, and risky that no one knew what was at stake or what would happen if the unexpected occurred. On both sides of the Atlantic, as a US Senate investigation later observed, there were “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself.”
In Europe, as in much of the world, 2008 ended an era. But in Europe, the shift wasn’t just from good times to bad, from greed to fear. The European project itself came into question. Should productive Germans bail out financially undisciplined Greeks? Can the EU’s southern members be trusted to get their houses in order if the north lends them money? Should the EU become bigger and stronger – or go away? Nationalism and separatism are stirring. Regional stereotypes are reviving. Doubts have arisen about further European integration.
Bob explores the European moment in this week’s cover story. At a time of profound soul-searching, Europeans are unsure they want to go forward but are rightly concerned about going back. Back is familiar and safe, but haunted by history’s nightmares. Forward is the European dream, uncharted, elusive, not always pleasant. Europe can simply be a landmass on which several dozen nations live. Or it can once again be the future.
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@CSMonitor.com.
History is like archaeology. What humans live through in the present – economic struggles, political contests, national crises – drifts to the ground and slowly gets buried under the strata of more recent events. Then one day we excavate and wonder: What were our predecessors thinking?
When Graham Allison reviews October 1962 with people under the age of 50, their usual reaction is dropped-jaw amazement. How, they ask, could leaders have felt so boxed in that they seriously entertained the idea of nuclear war?
“It just seems incredible to people who didn’t live through those times,” says Dr. Allison, director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “They can’t believe that there was a real chance of a war that would leave hundreds of millions of people dead.”
The Cuban missile crisis, which unfolded 50 years ago this week, was the closest the human race has come to nuclear holocaust. It is often explained as an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. (A good place to explore the crisis is at www.cubanmissilecrisis.org or in Allison’s book “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.”) To Allison, who has spent a career examining strategic decisionmaking, the crisis was a turning point in understanding that even the sharpest minds and best teams of advisers are prone to misperception and miscalculation.
US leaders didn’t know, for instance, that Mr. Khrushchev was under pressure at home from hard-liners when he sent short-range missiles to Cuba. The missiles were meant to be hidden, but Russian technicians had failed to camouflage them. The United States didn’t know that tactical nuclear weapons were already on the island and that Soviet commanders were authorized to use them if US troops landed. There were dozens of other factors – from the inability of Moscow to control Cuba and its leader, Fidel Castro, to domestic political calculations in the US, where Kennedy was trying to live down the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
As Allison noted when we talked recently, the Cuban missile crisis showed that “we can unloose processes that we no longer can control.” No single leader can master all the complexities or manage all the players, especially during a fast-moving conflict – especially when ultimatums are issued. The world scared itself straight in 1962. Out of the Cuban crisis came a hot line connecting Washington and Moscow, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, several generations of strategic arms reduction treaties, and healthy skepticism about military capability, security strategy, and the trustworthiness of intelligence. We are always having to relearn those lessons (see Vietnam, Iraq, and the Soviet and American interventions in Afghanistan).
The Iranian nuclear issue, Allison says, is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” Attack or acquiesce look like the only options right now. But creativity, compromise, and face-saving might lead to other solutions. Iran, Allison says, might win the right to enrich uranium in exchange for full transparency and clear verification that it is not moving toward nuclear weapons.
History shows that we can bury ourselves by misperception and miscalculation. History also shows we can dig ourselves out.
The genre known as alternative history asks “what if?” What if the Spanish Armada had sunk the English fleet? What if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War? If JFK had not been assassinated? If Hitler had?
In the hands of a skilled strategist or storyteller, “alt history” is more than just a parlor game. It can show the far-reaching consequences of small events, making us appreciate our own time or lament what might have been. You can find alt history in everything from military analysis to thrillers like Robert Harris’s 1992 novel, “Fatherland,” to science fiction like “The Terminator,” “Back to the Future,” or the current time-bender, “Looper.” Alter one or two events in the past, the formula goes, and the present becomes a very different place.
Washington political reporter Linda Feldmann explores two distinct futures that could branch from the Nov. 6 US presidential election. (You can read them here and here.) A second term for President Obama or a first term for former Gov. Mitt Romney would start with unique advantages and face unique challenges. But then things get interesting.
International crises could suddenly rise up – bad ones, as in the 9/11 terror attacks; good ones, as in the 1989 collapse of communism – forcing a president to improvise. A president’s personal style also plays a part. As Gail Russell Chaddock notes in a companion piece (page 29), Jimmy Carter failed to establish rapport with congressional leaders and achieved little domestically, despite a Democrat-controlled House and Senate. On the other hand, inveterate cold warrior Ronald Reagan found himself face to face with a genial reformer in Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to a historic thaw in US-Soviet relations. So count on this: The next four years will look nothing like what we imagine.
Opinion polls indicate the 2012 presidential race could be as close as the 2000 race. An amusing alt-history essay in Newsweek not long ago described what might have happened if 2000 had gone the other way: A falling-out might have occurred between President Al Gore and his mavericky No. 2, Joe Lieberman, resulting in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stepping in as vice president. And while we’re at it, Mr. Gore could have named Bill Clinton as secretary of State. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court vacancy left by Sandra Day O’Connor could have gone to a constitutional scholar and Illinois junior senator named Barack Obama. But for a few hanging chads, then, the 2008 race might have pitted Hillary Clinton and (get ready, what follows is an even bigger leap) running mate Bill Clinton against a resurgent George W. Bush and brother Jeb.
Sure, it’s parlor game nonsense – but only because we know what the present looks like. Decisions we make every moment – big ones like where to invest time or money, small ones like whether to return a phone call – affect the future. But we never know how. The cold war might have sped to a conclusion anyway in a second Jimmy Carter term. Spanish-ruled England might have reasserted its independence a few years after the Armada landed (perhaps while retaining the best paella recipes). JFK’s second term might have been mired in Vietnam.
The road ahead is always diverging. Way always leads on to way. It’s important to ask “what if?” at every fork. And it’s probably best to time travel with an open heart and wary eye.
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.
What defines a poor person?
The US Census Bureau, federal agencies, state governments, the United Nations, and economists all set different numbers. But the poverty line is as individual as the people it defines. Circumstances vary, geography is a factor, family and community play a role, and everybody makes choices.
To be poor in Central Asia or western Africa is not the same as being poor in London or Appalachia. In some cases it is better, and in some cases it is worse. Living simply can make a person look poor to a statistician, but is that real poverty? (See Jina Moore's excellent Monitor Weekly cover story -- click here -- unpacking poverty.)
You could ask the same questions about wealth as as about poverty. In Tom Wolfe’s satire on 1980s-era New York, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” the protagonist runs through his budget and shows how a $1 million salary is not enough to support his lifestyle. By most of the world’s standards, this “master of the universe” is clearly wealthy. Outside his Manhattan cocoon, he would be rich. But he feels poor.
He suffers from a problem that money can’t solve: poverty of spirit. In other words, he is unhappy. So here’s a corollary to our cover-story question: What defines a happy person? It’s one thing to achieve basic needs, another to feel comfortable, but how much money is needed to feel happy?
You probably have a common-sense view that echoes these truisms: We all need money. But money isn’t everything. Would it surprise you to learn that social scientists have actually proved those truisms true?
According to a 2008-09 study of 450,000 Americans by researchers at Princeton University, more money doesn’t just help the poor live better lives; it helps them feel better about life. “The pain of life’s misfortunes, including disease, divorce, and being alone, is exacerbated by poverty,” the authors write.
Increased incomes improves the conditions of the poor. But only up to a point. Above $75,000, money does not produce commensurate happiness. Chasing higher and higher income actually decreases your quality of life.
That’s because the quest for money and material comforts appears to shut off other forms of enrichment – family, friendships, hobbies, intellectual and spiritual pursuits, appreciation of nature. “The price of anything,” that guru of simplicity, Henry David Thoreau, wrote, “is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
The diminishing returns of wealth don’t just affect individ-uals. A 2010 report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that, over the long run, happiness does not increase as a country’s overall income increases. In Greece and other economically hard-hit countries, unhappiness has soared – to the point of rioting – as income has plummeted. But examined over a period of 10 years or more, a nation’s gross domestic happiness is independent of rising income.
There’s still more happiness research detailed in a soon-to-be-published book titled “Happy Money: The Science of Spending,” which indicates that more money makes you happy only if you use it to buy yourself time or experiences or spend it on others.
So here’s the takeaway from our social scientists: Poverty is bad. Breaking people out of it is enormously important. But poverty is also a state of mind. As is affluence. More money makes people feel better, but only up to a point. Real happiness is tied to appreciation, to deeper pursuits, and to helping others.
Or you could say: Money isn’t nothing. Nor is it everything.
But you already knew that.
Carl Ernst has read, parsed, and puzzled over the Quran since graduate school in 1975. As in the Bible, some passages are mild, some blistering. Later ones appear to cancel out earlier ones. Which has precedence?
Now a specialist in Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Professor Ernst had an epiphany when he encountered an ancient literary technique known as “ring composition.”
We read books first page to last. But before cover-to-cover reads, there were scrolls, and before scrolls, there was oral storytelling. Many older works, Ernst learned from a scholar of Hindi-language Sufi texts, were not composed in a straight-line manner. Instead, the first line of a passage would be mirrored by the last line, the second by the second to last, and so on. At the center of the passage was where the key statement sat.
Why would anyone compose a story that way? In oral storytelling, Ernst says, people had to memorize huge amounts of material. They used mnemonic devices. A famous one is the “memory palace,” in which a storyteller mentally walks through a palace, each room helping him recall part of the story. That could have influenced where the most important spot would be – perhaps in the palace’s center.
In early written literature, scrolls were common. The ends of a scroll roll up. The center is the sweet spot. So ring composition was natural in the prebook era. Parts of “The Iliad” and parts of the Bible (Leviticus, in particular) appear to use this structure.
A few years ago, Ernst began looking for ring composition in the Quran. “That was my eureka moment,” he says.
Take Sura 60. Verses at the beginning and end deal with Abraham’s battle with idol worshipers. But here’s the center: “Perhaps it may be possible for God to create affection between you and your enemies.” That seems to call for tolerance and mercy.
Sura 5 also contains a surprise. At its center: “For everyone, We have established a law and a way. If God had wished He would have made you a single community. But this was so He might test you regarding what He sent you. So try to be first in doing what is best.” That seems to endorse religious pluralism.
“This is not an illusion,” Ernst says. “The same words or related words appear at the beginning and end of the suras.”
Ernst’s 2011 book “How to Read the Qur’an” explores the intriguing idea that ring composition, common in Muhammad’s day, can shed light on a book revered by more than 1 billion people and at the center of one of humanity’s most troubling conflicts. Hearts and minds won’t change overnight. But the Quran may eventually be viewed very differently.
Cyclical or secular? That’s the question economists, historians, climatologists, farmers, consumers – just about anyone with an interest in the future, which is more or less everyone – are trying to answer.
During bad times, the idea of cyclicality is encouraging. We can ride out hardship because prosperity is just around the corner – although we also can’t relax when things are looking up because the economy is sure to head south again.
A secular change, on the other hand, means we’ve entered a new era, which is swell if that era is prosperous and plentiful – the two-decade “great moderation” that started in 1985, for instance. But secular change can also mean we get locked into sluggishness and scarcity as far as the eye can see. That’s the worry that has accompanied the Great Recession that began in 2007 and persists in many sectors of the world economy.
The drought that has gripped the agricultural heartland of the United States, Russia, Australia, India, and other food-producing regions of the world in 2012 (see this current Monitor cover story) has a cyclical/secular dimension. If the climate has changed, drought could be the new normal, with big implications for consumers, especially in poor countries. But parched conditions could also just be a bad patch of weather similar to the great droughts of the 1930s, early 1950s, and late 1980s. Tree-ring data indicate droughts even more severe than those in the 1930s occurred in pre-Columbian North America.
If that seems cyclical, there’s still a secular dimension. The 21st-century combination of global population and global trade is unprecedented. Never before have 7 billion people lived on this planet (with 2 billion more on the way by 2050). Never before have far-flung markets been so interconnected.
If droughts merely come and go, feeding the burgeoning world population would be difficult enough. If droughts are a more permanent condition now because the climate is growing warmer, feeding the world will require the best and brightest in agriculture and resource management.
You may not recall the drought of 1988. There was plenty of other news that year – a US presidential election; the start of anticommunist revolutions in Eastern Europe; a devastating earthquake in Armenia; the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. But the ’88 drought at one point covered 45 percent of the US, and until hurricane Katrina it was the costliest natural disaster in US history. A study commissioned by Oxfam indicates that if an ’88-scale drought recurred in 2030, poorer countries that import corn and wheat would face a shock so severe that famine and social unrest would be the result.
A sharp rise in food prices in 2007-08 roiled populations from Mexico to Sri Lanka and helped set the stage for today’s Middle East upheaval. So far, the drought of 2012 has not caused panic, largely because governments from Egypt to India warehoused foodstuffs for just such a contingency.
Prudence is important even if Earth’s weather isn’t undergoing secular change. Rains come and go. Years of lean follow years of plenty. But feeding 9 billion people by midcentury is more than a cyclical challenge. It will require levels of innovation and co-operation never before seen in human history.
“Internet” is a workmanlike name for the 50-year-old nervous system of packet switches, servers, and routers that spans the globe; is commonplace in homes, at work, in cars; and absorbs every moment of every smart-phone owner in line at every bus station or coffee shop.
“World Wide Web” is a friendlier term. But it’s essentially the same idea – a phrase that indicates the far-flung threads spun of communications technology. But what’s the name of the result of all the human business that occurs on the Internet, the cumulative effect of quadrillion bits of data being processed, and the prolific harvest of ideas, notions, relationships, associations, riffs, and nonsense that pour out of this wonder of technology? Music, like the Internet, is a technology. “The Marriage of Figaro” is what Mozart named one magnificent result.
In biology, we give intelligent creatures generic names: dust mite, for instance, or humpback whale. Those life-forms we become more familiar with get unique designations, sort of like URLs: Albert Einstein; Cousin Louie, who is likely to say anything at a family dinner; Molly, the terrier who loves to play ball.
As the Web becomes denser and faster year by year, futurists believe there will be a point where it, too, will seem to exhibit unique intelligence. Already, as Greg Lamb notes in a Monitor cover story (click here to read it), IBM’s Watson supercomputer, by tapping the infosphere at hypersonic speed and besting the reigning “Jeopardy!” game show champions, has come close to passing the “Turing test” in which it seems indistinguishable from human intelligence.
When the Mars Curiosity rover follows its advanced programming, makes last-minute adjustments on its own, and lands flawlessly on the fourth planet’s surface; when Google’s autonomous cars navigate California’s highways; or when Apple’s Siri seems to be listening to us and responding with useful information (some of the time, at least) – there’s intelligence at work that is at least as impressive as a dust mite or terrier.
Some scientists refer to the coming age as “transhuman.” More dystopian observers describe the Internet as a “global brain” or “hive mind” and imagine human-machine “cyborgs.” But why be so ominous? When humans act together, we call ourselves “the people,” as in “We, the people” or “The people have spoken.” When we think together via the Internet, that’s us, the people, too.
For now, we’re calling advanced information technology artificial intelligence, or AI.
AI has a long history rooted in high levels of logic. As computational power has exploded, the brute force of all that data processing has run rings around the elegant logic trees envisioned by AI pioneers like Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy. The term AI lost its original meaning. Technologists appropriated it. It is artificial because it is human-made. And it increasingly shows signs of intelligence.
No matter how much we rely on and learn from AI, however, it cannot answer the biggest question: Where did intelligence come from? As the biblical Job was asked, “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts? or who has given understanding to the heart?”
Technological achievements are breathtaking. But the original breath each of us took was no human accomplishment. A higher and more profound Intelligence created intelligence.
John Yemma is editor of The Monitor.
Millions of people worldwide are trapped in what amounts to modern-day slavery.
Shackles and whips are seldom used, but individuals desperate for money are lured into jobs in which they work for meager wages, live under the threat of violence, are subject to sexual abuse, and constantly fear arrest or deportation.
Of all the ways that workers are exploited, the most poignant stories tend to be those of women caught up in sex trafficking. A recent report by the Britain-based Anti-Slavery International group, for instance, notes that many women leave impoverished homes “with dreams in their eyes, fear and excitement in their minds at what awaits,” but too often are duped into a life of prostitution, where they are intimidated, abused, and blackmailed. A woman who manages to break free might still be charged with prostitution or illegal immigration. If she returns home, she faces shame. In some cultures, she faces death.
Stephanie Hanes’s Monitor cover story examines this difficult subject. She makes clear that forced prostitution must be combatted for the crime that it is. But because of the age-old human fascination with sex, it is all too easy to focus on that problem and overlook the many other ways that women, children, and men – as many as 27 million, by some estimates – are exploited in global industries built on cheap, often forced, labor. Everything from the produce we eat to the mineral components in our cellphones, from the clothes we wear to the unskilled workers cleaning our buildings, may be part of this system.
Forced prostitution is one of many forms of exploitation. And even it is nuanced. Sometimes the force is overt. Sometimes it is psychological. And sometimes prostitution is a choice.
Please understand: Pointing this out is not meant to minimize the problem. The United Nations estimates that at any one time as many as 2 million sex workers are under coercion. Celebrities, activists, religious officials, politicians, and concerned citizens rightly decry the practice. But the compelling nature of the problem of sexual exploitation often diverts attention and resources from other forms of forced labor.
What can any of us do?
For one thing, we can be alert to situations in which women, men, and children are living in the shadows. We can also be more conscious of choices we make that feed the demand side of human trafficking. Cheap goods are great, but what are the conditions of the workers who made them? You can get an idea of how what we buy affects human trafficking by clicking here. There's also a link to a website that can help you understand what steps you can take to lessen that effect.
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This week, our Commentary team launches a series of debates on election-year issues. On page 35 are the pros and cons of marijuana legalization. We’ll also explore affirmative action, immigration, voter ID laws, foreign policy, health care, job creation, and the federal budget. You may agree with one side or the other. But just in case you don’t see the world only in black and white, we are also offering an essay that explores a middle way.
What’s a middle way? It’s a concept much maligned in our polarized public sphere: compromise, give and take, an acknowledgment that one side doesn’t have all answers.
To our readers:
We've adjusted our policy for comments on our articles.
In the past, most articles on our website allowed readers to comment. A few -- on subjects that experience had shown were not bringing out the best in some commenters -- did not have that option.
As of today, we've shifted so that we do not take comments on our articles except when a blogger or writer specifically allows them. In other words, comments will be the exception now, not the default option.
We've made this change after extensive analysis of the comments our articles have received over the past two years. Some have been thoughtful. Some have added useful information or pointed out our mistakes. Thank you for those. But many comments have been non-productive.
You can still reach us to tell us you like or dislike an article, to give us a news tip or story suggestion, and/or to correct the record. In most of our articles, you can click the author's byline and follow the prompts to email that person. Or you can comment by going to the "Contact Us" link at the bottom of every page (be sure to refer to the article you are commenting on). And many of our staff-written articles are posted on our Facebook page, where comments are always welcome.
Like most things on the Internet, this change is not necessarily permanent. We value our readers and want CSMonitor.com to dignify their intelligence, empathy, and civic-spiritedness. We will be looking for new ways to support and engage those qualities .
-- John Yemma, Editor
p.s. -- By the way, I'm enabling comments on this post. Feel free jump in.