Friday, August 19, 2005

Column on Karl May & Arab Strife

Karl May and the History of Arab Strife

Tibor R. Machan

When as a kid in Europe I devoured that peculiar German author?s, Karl
May?s, novels?about American Indians (Winnetou is his most famous) and the
Near East (In the Desert toping the list here)?I had no idea that much
later in my life May?s research and the information conveyed in his books
would come in very handy. But I remembered enough from back then to take
another look recently at some of May?s work because, as I recalled, he
seemed to have a very detailed understanding of what he wrote about. Turns
out, he did, in fact, do the research so diligently that many came to
admire him for his historical accuracy. Among these were Albert Einstein,
Albert Schweitzer, Isaac Asimov, and, embarrassingly, Adolph Hitler. All
in all May appears to have been obsessed with getting it right about a
culture if he was to write about it, even in a fictional work.

What in our current geopolitical climate brought Karl May?s writings
about the Near East to my mind? I think one particular passage will help
one appreciate this. In the novel, In The Desert, published in an English
translation in 1977, by Seabury Press, and also, in 1980, by Bantam Books,
May has his hero, Kara Ben Nemsi (which I believe means Karl from
Germany), roam around the Middle East in the 1870s, taking his readers
throughout the Ottoman Empire, sampling the customs, laws, religions, and
ideologies of all the various peoples as he embarks upon his innumerable
adventures (which make his books so appealing to kids).

The following longish passage will probably explain why I think May?s
work has relevance and serves as something of a cautionary tale for
current events.

Quite apart from the ruins of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, so
visible at every step, there now rose before my eyes the mountains along
whose slopes and valleys people had lived whose racial and religious ties
can only be disentangled with the greatest difficulty. Light
extinguishers, fire worshipers, devil worshipers, Nestorians, Chaldeans,
Sunnites, Shiites, Mutazilites, Wahabes, Arabs, Jews, Turks, Armenians,
Syrians, Druzes, Kurds, Persians, Turkomans. At almost any moment, one may
encounter a member of these tribes, peoples, and sects, and who can guard
against the mistakes, lapses, and even transgressions a stranger may
commit on such an occasion! Even today these mountains stream with the
blood of the victims of national hatred, religious zeal, lust for
conquest, breach of faith, predatory instincts, and blood feuds. Human
habitations cluster along the rocks and in the ravines like vultures?
nests, a bird always ready to pounce on its unsuspecting prey. Here,
suppression and remorseless exploitation have created that bitterness that
can barely distinguish any longer between friends and foe, and the words
of reconciliation and love proclaimed by the apostles have been utterly
lost. And if American missionaries talk of their successes here, that can
only have been superficial. The ground is not ready to receive the seed.
Whatever other men of God may do, the most hostile currents combine in
wild rapids in the mountains of Kurdistan, and the waters will only calm
again when a powerful fist succeeds in smashing the cliffs that cause the
whirlpools, when the hatred has been eradicated and the ugly feuding
stamped out. Then the path will be open to those who preach peace and
proclaim salvation. Then no inhabitant of these mountains will any longer
be able to say: ?I became a Christian because otherwise I would have been
bastinadoed by an aga.? And this aga was a strict Moslem.?

Not being a specialist in the history and sociology of Middle Eastern
cultures, I couldn?t on my own attest to whether May had it right. Nor do
I share May?s idea of how things might calm down in the region. However,
when one reads a work such as The Arab Mind, by the widely admired middle
eastern scholar Ralph Patai (Hatherleigh Press, 2002), one cannot but come
away convinced that May was onto something here.

Now I am not a cultural or, indeed, any other kind of determinist and so
I do not believe in the currently fashionable ?clashes of cultures?
approach to understanding the strife that?s been unleashed recently by
terrorists from that region of the world. Nor do I hold to the notion that
in this strife only one side has perpetrated injustice galore. It would be
foolish, though, to dismiss the strong influence that the type of
education and upbringing in certain societies have on the population. It
is even reasonable to assume that entire generations of children would
become traumatized with the cruelties involved in how they are guided
toward their adulthood.

At one time in the past, perhaps, the scenario and cultural climate Karl
May describes could be confined to that region of the globe but now, with
oil having made these folks extremely wealthy, their form of life cannot
but become ripe for exportation. It is this, I think, that needs to be
kept in mind, among many other matters, in order to appreciate what we are
witnessing and experiencing in our time and are likely to have hovering
about for a long time to come.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Column on Religion, Ideology & Terrorism

Religion, Ideology, and Terrorism

Tibor R. Machan

General Robert L. Caslen, Jr., one of Secretary of State Donald
Rumsfeld?s policy crafters, told US News & World Report (August 1, 2005)
that ?It?s important that we point out that it?s not a religious or
cultural clash?It is a war to preserve ordinary people?s ability to live
as they choose.?

A more confusing statement than this is not easy to imagine from someone
who is entrusted with America?s military strategy vis-à-vis those who
would just as soon bring the country to its knees. Imagine if someone said
that the cold war had nothing to do with ideology or cultural clash but
only with whether people may choose to live as they want. Surely every
intelligent, educated person would have considered this rank ignorance. In
fact, there is no international, geopolitical strife that isn?t grounded
in some kind of religious, ideological, political, philosophical or
similar system of thought.

The very idea that people ought to have the ?ability to live as they
choose? comes from a variety of religious, philosophical, ideological, and
similar sources. It rests, in other words, on a set of ideas. Religions
are sets of ideas, as are political theories, ideologies and so forth, all
resulting from more or less careful human effort to conceptualize how they
ought to live, especially in their communities. Contrasting religion or
culture with an idea of wanting to live in peace as one chooses is utter
nonsense since that itself is one among numerous competing religious and
cultural ideas people have come to embrace and use to guide their lives.
Institutions such as laws, practices, customs, and the rest all stem from
such ideas. Religion and culture have everything to do with how we
understand we ought to live, whether by choosing our own way or getting
pushed around by others.

What is it that could lead a presumably intelligent man such as General
Robert L. Caslen, Jr., to utter such balderdash? I suggest it is yet
another religious, cultural or ideological notion, nothing less. General
Caslen is probably guided by the ideology of multicultural tolerance and
so he would like to discourage people from considering any religion,
ideology or similar systematic worldview as unacceptable, as constituting
a threat to Americans. But this is wrong.

There are religions, ideologies, and cultural viewpoints that preach
peace and mutual respect because they embrace the idea that one must
choose to embrace a creed and not have it shoved down one?s throat. And
there are religions, ideologies, and cultural viewpoints that preach the
opposite. The former can be supported, the latter cannot be, plain and
simple, by anyone who wants ?to preserve ordinary people?s ability to live
as they choose.? The idea that all religions are equally decent, that any
belief is as worthy of respect as any other is bunk?that very idea has its
opposite, namely, ?Don?t tolerate any idea that conflicts with your own,?
and then that, too, would be just fine. Unless we embrace the nonsense of
post-modernist anti-logic, this simply cannot be. (And if we embrace that
anti-logic, then anything goes anyway and nothing makes any sense at all.)

There are, in fact, vicious people around the globe, many of them
terrorists, who will use any form of destruction to vent their
dissatisfaction with whatever displeases them, and some of these people
are part of a very sizable faction of Islam. They are often called
Islamists and follow a religiously based ideology of massive violence and
disregard for individual rights and due process of law. To deny this with
the nonsense about how it has nothing at all to do with religion and
culture is to pluck out one?s eyes as one is supposedly poised to try ?to
preserve ordinary people?s ability to live as they choose.? It is to
disarm oneself in the war against such vile sorts around the world.

Instead, it is vital to know what religions and ideologies encourage,
indeed even insist upon, conformity with a program of indiscriminate
global violence. That shouldn?t be a novel project since, after all,
throughout human history several different religions and ideologies?just
think of the Holy Inquisition, Fascism, Nazism, and Communism?have spawned
exactly that kind of program. It?s shameful to deny this just as the same
kind of thing is engulfing us today. (To check whether I am on solid
ground here, please read at [

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Column on Social Security Risk

Is State Funded Social Security Risk Free?

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last several years the idea of including some private accounts
within the social security system has gained a bit of ground in the
political arena. Not that it?s been a piece of cake. For one, most people
are used to this government confiscatory program, as they are to
government schooling or the minimum wage law. The governmental habit is
rife throughout the world, including in America.

There is, also, the way promoters of the government?s confiscatory
program distort what privatization comes to. Even this tiny bit of
option?no one actually would need to go private with the 4% that could be
put into personal accounts, it?s just an option?is mischaracterized as
uniquely risky. And that assumes there is no risk with the government?s
coercive system.

Why do folks accept this canard? Why do they buy into the story as told
by Paul Krugman & Co.? Surely governments have defaulted on many of their
promises and have left people without support as they have played
political football with various projects.

Indeed, the entire social security program is in a way a hoax?no one can
really obtain bona fide security in old age from what this program
provides. Even if you have worked like a dog all your life and the
government has extorted portions of your earnings for your own good,
getting back roughly $1500.00 a month when you reach age 65 is hardly
going to make you secure economically, socially or any other way. The
money confiscated from you by the feds is barely enough to feed your pets.

So where do the champions of this utterly failed program come off with
their ruse about how the miniscule privatized portion will be oh so risky,
while the government?s scam is brimming with certainty?

The idea, I think, stems from the belief that coercive force is something
that can always be relied upon. And there is something to this, but only a
little bit.

Whenever people reach a point of exasperation, they are tempted to deploy
force?against their children, spouses, even friends, not to mention
strangers who aren?t in a position to strike back (as it happens with all
the redistribution of wealth legislation and public service conscription).
If you cannot get anywhere with some by reasoning with them, by trying to
persuade them or by imploring them to do what you want, at last resort
smack them around a bit, just as those loan sharks do with their clients
who will not pay up.

Yet, a policy of deploying coercive force against recalcitrants is at
most a very short term, temporary solution to solving any kind of human
problem. This is true, of course, with social security as well. The
collection of this part of what the government extorts from us falls way
short indeed from solving the problem of old age economic insecurity. It?s
a pittance. Without personal savings or some other support system to
supplement it, social security will get you virtually nothing. So,
clearly, it is no solution to the problem it is supposedly designed to

And that is just what the fate of all coercive measures tends to be.
Force against other people only works well as a policy of self-defense or
retaliation. But never as the first step. The horrendous risk of deploying
coercive force is to create a citizenry that?s complacent about its
security and misguidedly relies on the government to take care of it in
old age. That is a far greater and more destructive risk than anything one
may face with the stock market or other investment options where the money
left in one?s own hands to manage for one?s own good. If people realized
there is no mythical risk-free government social security, that it is
indeed the ruse the critics must always have known it is, most of them
would likely start thinking early in their lives about their old age
security, get competent advice about it, and reap the fruit of this policy
of prudence so they really do have something to fall back upon when the
need arises late in their lives.

There is no bona fide guarantee with government?s coercive policies, only
the illusion of it, as with all reliance on a policy of coercive force in
human relationships.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Column on Free Will (sans Typo)

Is Free Will Real?

Tibor R. Machan

Here we have one of the all time favorite philosophical topics, one
rarely omitted from any thinker?s agenda, yet one, also, that?s constantly
revisited, by thinkers of every generation. And that?s for good reason.

If what I am doing when I write these lines of thought is
something I must
do, just as the rain has to fall when it does, though involving more
complicated processes, the issue of whether it is true that there is free
will cannot even be established. For establishing anything at all would be
no more than behaving as one must?there could be no right or wrong about
the matter. One cannot sensibly consider whether it is right or wrong that
a river flows as it does, or a virus kills as id does. What must be isn?t
subject to right versus wrong. At most one can ask whether it is
beneficial or harmful to some life form. (This is why scientists need to
be objective, think independently, as do juries or indeed anyone who seeks

What hangs up the case for free will so persistently seems to me
to be
the idea of causation. Ever since the beginning of recorded human thought
there has been a dispute about what kind of stuff exists and there have
been very influential thinkers who have answered that there is just one
kind of stuff, namely, bits of matter (specifically, the candidates have
been atoms, strings, monads, you name it). If this is so, then there could
only be one kind of causation in the world, since a cause is dependent on
the identity of whatever is involved in a causal relationship. If there is
just one kind of thing, then, there is just one kind of causation. So
since bits of matter exhibit the causal relationship of mechanical or
similar interaction?a movement here causes a movement there?any novel
movement, initiative or free action is out of the question.

But there is the contrary view that there are innumerable types
and kinds
of things in the world. As the world evolves, new types and kinds of
beings emerge and, so, different causes, too, emerge. Once a human being
has emerged in nature, given its unique nature?especially that of its type
of consciousness?a new kind of causation also emerged, which involves, by
all accounts, being a first cause, an agent. This is what makes sense of
personal responsibility for what someone does or fails to do; it also
makes sense of being able to be right or wrong not just in ethics or law
but, also, in science or philosophy; it is also the basis for the vast
measure of human creativity and destructiveness in evidence throughout

Some who object to this kind of free will claim we can have it
both ways,
namely, personal responsibility along with unavoidability or determinism.
Yes, they say, we are responsible, but only in the sense that, say, a
rainstorm is responsible for a mudslide. Such an event was unavoidable, in
the sense that if the circumstances lined up in a certain way, it had to
happen, no choice about it could exist. Applying this to people, it means
they do have an intermediary role in how some things happen in the world.
But they couldn?t have acted other than how they did?only if some of those
circumstances or factors had been different could they possibly have done
something else. Que sera, sera, is the real situation for us all?what will
be, will be. That kind of ?responsibility? isn?t what free will, morality,
law and creativity are about?these all assume people could act
differently, all things being equal apart from their self-produced choices.

The ?couldn?t have done otherwise? position, I take it, rests on
notion that everything is the same kind of thing, ultimately, so is
governed by the same kind of causation which leave no room for initiative
or agency. But that everything is the same kind of thing goes against what
we have in evidence around us throughout the world. Is a pebble the same
kind of thing as a human heart? Is a reflexive movement of the eyelids the
same kind of thing as the creative movement of Mozart?s composition of his
music? Is a mathematical equation the same kind of thing as a volcano?

It is patently obvious that there are major differences between
things or processes and to contend otherwise is very odd. Robert Laughlin,
the Stanford University physicist argues against the idea of just one kind
being making up everything even in the field of physics, which is a
place where it is advanced. See his A Different Universe (Basic Books,

OK, we will not resolve the matter here and probably never reach
consensus on it, being as it is one of the most ancient debates. But
consensus isn?t a requirement for truth. For my money there is no
reasonable doubt about it, human beings, unless crucially incapacitated,
have the capacity to initiate some of their conduct. Which is what
morality, law, art and even simple inquiry into the nature of things