There certainly was an important lesson in the nature of democratic politics to be learnt from the Scottish referendum, but it is not the one that so many people – for whom the false memory of nostalgia seemed to set in almost instantly – are talking about.
No, the great triumph lay not in the quality of public debate (which was often breathtakingly dishonest) or the extent of popular participation (which was frequently ugly and demeaning). The key to the real source of democratic freedom was in the result: what became clear was the sacred function of that late historical reform to the electoral system, the secret ballot.
As it turned out, virtually all of the polling in recent weeks had been wrong. In the end, the vote wasn’t very close: it was a clear and decisive No. Whatever poll respondents had said – or been afraid to say – about their intentions because they felt coerced or intimidated by the aggressive tactics of the other camp, when it came to it, they were free to do as they pleased.
This is a salutary lesson in the limits of militant political activism: you can bully people in the street, shout them down at public meetings and dissuade them forcibly from displaying posters or banners you don’t like. You can, with the help of your friends and comrades, create what seems to you, inside the bubble of mutual congratulation, to be an unstoppable momentum.
But making people afraid to voice contrary opinions just reinforces the delusion into which political tribes so easily fall when they are waging war. And, even more dangerously, it leaves them utterly out of touch with the slow-burning resentment they are creating in the opponents they are so determined to crush. The inviolable privacy of the polling booth puts paid to all that: the ordinary citizen, who may well have had his anger and resolve strengthened under fire, gets his revenge.
… The illiberal, intolerant, hateful (in the literal sense of the word) belligerence that is the very opposite of what modern democracy is supposed to be about has come well and truly out into the open.
The techniques of coordinated political manipulation in which Marxist agitators were so expert – the packing of meetings, the intimidation of the silent majority at public gatherings, the shutting down of argument and the repetition of “big lies”– cannot be dismissed as a trivial aberration. It is too easy to mutter: “Just a handful of hotheads”. This is the serious business of full-time militancy, and it is going to come into play at every major public forum where real power is in the balance if the legitimate leadership on all sides is not supremely vigilant.
Diatoms are tiny single-cell algae encased in jewel-like shells that are among the smallest organisms on Earth of which there are an estimated 100,000 extant species. (arrangements by Klaus Kemp; via Colossal)
The world is swarming with countless prokaryotes that evolve at breathtaking rates. Even so, they were not quick about inventing eukaryotic cells. Fossils tell us that the oldest bacteria arose between 3 and 3.5 billion years ago, but there are no eukaryotes from before 2.1 billion years ago. Why did the prokaryotes remain as simple cells for so damn long?
There are many possible explanations, but one of these has recently gained a lot of ground. It tells of a prokaryote that somehow found its way inside another, and formed a lasting partnership with its host. This inner cell—a bacterium—abandoned its free-living existence and eventually transformed into the mitochondria. These internal power plants provided the host cell with a bonanza of energy, allowing it to evolve in new directions that other prokaryotes could never reach.
If this story is true, and there are still those who doubt it, then all eukaryotes—every flower and fungus, spider and sparrow, man and woman—descended from a sudden and breathtakingly improbable merger between two microbes. They were our great-great-great-great-…-great-grandparents, and by becoming one, they laid the groundwork for the life forms that seem to make our planet so special. The world as we see it (and the fact that we see it at all; eyes are a eukaryotic invention) was irrevocably changed by that fateful union—a union so unlikely that it very well might not have happened at all, leaving our world forever dominated by microbes, never to welcome sophisticated and amazing life like trees, mushrooms, caterpillars, and us.
Russia expert (and few westerners know Russia today as well) Ben Judah argues in the New York Times, that “either we arm Ukraine, or we force Kiev to surrender and let Mr. Putin carve whatever territories he wants into a Russian-occupied zone of ‘frozen conflict.’” That is pretty much where things stand after Russia’s latest offensive (again, apparently catching the flat-footed White House by surprise) upended the military situation in eastern Ukraine. With a small intervention, Putin has yet again thrown Western calculations out of kilter, gained the initiative on the ground, and given the West another chance to look feckless and divided as he carries out the largest scale act of naked aggression in Europe since Hitler’s war.
America’s choices here (as in the Middle East) are few and they are ugly. We can back Ukraine with enough weapons, money, political will and if necessary air power and boots on the ground to tip the balance on the ground, or we can watch Russia conquer as much of the country as it wants. A Russian victory here won’t be the end; Putin is an empire builder and his goal is to restore the Kremlin power in all the former lands of the USSR, for starters.
A Russian win in Ukraine will change the world. Putin’s flagrant violation of every standard of decency and restraint leaves the United States with the choice of confronting him or living in a Mad Max world ruled—if at all—by the law of the jungle. Putin is a thug who believes ultimately in nothing except power, and thugs everywhere are watching what he gets away with. The more successfully he demonstrates that American power has turned into a scarecrow that looks impressive but doesn’t move, the more crows everywhere will come flocking to the feast. So far, Putin has done an excellent job of demonstrating that NATO is a collection of incompetent windbags and that President Obama is only as intimidating as the teleprompter he reads from. The whole world is watching the serial miscalculations that the EU and the U.S. have made on this issue; our inability to read the international situation could not be more evident, our reluctance to act is no secret, our stomach churning fear of taking on bullies is obvious to all, and the divisions and institutional shortcomings that make it impossible for the west to respond effectively in real time are on full, inglorious display.
If Putin now wins in Ukraine, all these unflattering conclusions about American incompetence and indecisiveness will be seared into the memories of every leader on Planet Earth. President Obama will be an empty suit and the next president of the United States will inherit a much uglier world and a weaker alliance system than President Obama found on his inauguration day.
You might have thought that the lesson would be obvious. In the past year, we’ve had an elementary tutorial in the uses of raw military power: in Ukraine, where Russia manufactured a “rebellion”; in Iraq, where the Islamic State expanded its footprint; and in Asia, where China harassed ships of nations claiming islands China considers its own. But the implications of these events seem to have escaped the Obama White House and Congress.
They are systematically reducing U.S. military power as if none of this had happened. Defense spending has become just another line item in the budget, increasingly disconnected from our strategic interests and potential threats. It’s a money pot of possible reductions to pay for burgeoning retirement benefits, mainly Social Security and Medicare, which are largely immune to cuts.
Our strategic needs are twisted to fit available defense dollars, as opposed to defining realistic military missions and then estimating their costs. An example: The Pentagon rules out future “prolonged stability operations . . . on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan.” Big savings! Unfortunately, it’s easy to imagine such a need: say, a lengthy occupation of Middle East oil fields on which the world economy depends….
Meanwhile, potential missions multiply: fighting terrorism; deterring cyber-attacks; protecting Europe (after Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine gambit, more troops are needed there); coping with Iran’s nuclear program; containing North Korea; maintaining open shipping lanes; dealing with a resurgent China (termed “the pivot to Asia”). Harrison chides the administration for neither spending enough to meet its strategic goals nor downsizing the goals to fit smaller defense budgets.
More scathing is a unanimous report from a congressionally mandated task force, the National Defense Panel. It warns that defense cutbacks “constitute a serious strategic misstep [that has] caused significant investment shortfalls in U.S. readiness and . . . have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve.” The report wasn’t the work of cranks. The panel was co-chaired by William Perry, defense secretary in the Clinton administration from 1994 to 1997, and retired four-star general John Abizaid; it also included Michèle Flournoy, President Obama’s undersecretary of defense from 2009 to 2012.
Since World War II, U.S. global leadership has rested in part on military might. It has often provided the stability that gave political and economic policies the time to succeed.
More than 1,400 young girls have been raped and brutally exploited in the northern England town of roughly 250,000 over the past 16 years, while nearly everyone in authority did all he or she could to look the other way.
An independent investigation released last week says: “It is hard to describe the appalling nature of the abuse that child victims suffered. They were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated.”
In other words, the local government tolerated sexual violence on a vast scale. Why? In part, because the criminals who committed these sickening acts were Muslims from the local Pakistani community, and noticing their depravity was considered insensitive at best, racist at worst.
The British home secretary says “institutionalized political correctness” contributed to the abandonment of hundreds of girls to their tormentors. Imagine something out of the nightmarish world of Stieg Larsson, brought to life and abetted by the muddle-headed cowardice of people who fear the disapproval of the diversity police.
In Rotherham, multiculturalism triumphed over not just feminism, but over the law, over basic human decency, and over civilization itself.