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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Obama, Haiti, Oracle


On the eve of what is shaping up to be a disastrous loss in the Massachusetts Senate race, and in the wake of the still patchy relief effort in disastrous Haiti, and in celebration of pretty near exactly a year of the Obama presidency, my mind wanders to that central question in modern life, the database. That is what I mean by Oracle in the title, though there are more ways to parse data than Oracle, as we know.

Every major disaster seems to follow the same script, and five days in there is a lot of confusion on the ground, those in need are not getting relief, and the international effort is bogged down. Chaos among the afflicted begins to mount as the initial shock recedes. I know I am in danger of appearing callous, and given that my only experience of disaster was the 89 earthquake here in San Francisco, I do not want to make light of the challenges faced by those who bravely go where no one wants to be.

But in this instance, as in so many, it seems to me that we are not making effective use of the new tools at our disposal. No doubt that failure is conditioned by the inertia that marks most politics at most times. But there are times in human history where entropy gives way to revolution, and this ought to be one such time, the more so given the revolutionary impact that electronic life has had on everything else.

Because what we have here is a database problem. There are evidently initial response and rescue teams scattered around the globe. They rapidly converge, but not rapidly enough, and once they are on the round, the means to move them to the actual hot spots are sadly lacking. Roads are always impassable after disasters; the afflicted always get in the way; there is always a fog surrounding information and communication. SO what those rescuers need are helicopters. In the case of Haiti, it is simply shocking that we did not have a hundred, two hundred helicopters in situ within 24 hours. That should always be the goal. And the instrument to deliver that goal should be the US Navy and Air Force.

We know people will need water and food. The world community should be stockpiling emergency supplies not where disasters happen, but where there are large concentrations of airplanes and runways. In other words, every major international airport should have a supply of water that can be rapidly airlifted to the nearest landing strip to the disaster from where those helicopters previously mentioned should move it to the site of the disaster. That coordination is all about a modern system database.

I work every day with a system database that runs one of the world's most remarkable major research universities. From my central seat, I can tell you that the database is like a teenager ... beautiful, powerful, unruly, prone to bad decisions, needs a lot of sleep (bug fixes), and always promising to be more tomorrow. But regardless of the madness that surrounds administering such a Borg, it actually works remarkably well given the immense human complexity that it endeavors to manage.

Another example of a database is the Obama campaign. The press talks about his Internet outreach and fundraising, but behind all of that was a database operation that tracked people, kept statistics, managed communication, updated and ran a web site, and evidently did a pretty good job of security also. My problem is this: notwithstanding Obama's promise to run his Presidency as he ran his campaign, why did he abandon success and repair to the tried and true? Where was that database when it was time to mobilize mass events in favor of health care reform? Where was that database when it came time to retain Edward Kennedy's Senate seat?

When I first arrived at MRU (that is the name that I give to the major research university where I hand-count bits and bytes in exchange for a few shekels delivered twice monthly), I tended to share the attitude that the database was the enemy, the great impersonal beast that wanted only to devour our individuality and reduce all variation to flat form. But I was professionally required to sell the database to the reluctant, and in doing so I came to understand that human variosity always survives the systems that are designed to contain it ... those systems strive to keep up. But persnickety abstinence is no strategy to deal with technological change, notwithstanding the Andy-Rooney common sense that is so au courant among my dear friends who like to mock social media. I have seen every excuse to resist the database. The issue is not to resist it, but to harness it to our oldest and most persistent problems.

Like disaster. And social change.

The greatest idiocy of the self-styled conservatives of the present era is their failure to see that American military might can be turned into a worldwide force for betterment and disaster relief and implied threats to the assorted ancien regimes that still haunt the planet. But this is a re-imagining. And at the heart of that re-imagining is to understand just how powerful the modern database has become. Unleash Google on disaster relief. Or unleash the amazing students who constructed the course catalog that MRU released and that I manage ... they saw in an entirely different light a problem that I understood thoroughly ... and they changed my way of understanding my own information.

So this becomes the question: when will government and international relations catch up with the technology that runs Amazon and eBay and Facebook? When it does, the Haiti earthquakes of the future will entail much less suffering.


Photos by Arod, from around town. From my ongoing series that I call "Flat Faces".

Saturday, January 9, 2010

War and Liberalism

I watched much of the new National Geographic documentary reprise of the Vietnam War the other night. Wonderful footage, but bad history. More importantly, it represents the larger liberal retreat from its position on the war at the time to a warm and fuzzy embrace of the "soldiers." The documentary was not really about the war so much as it was about how Americans who were soldiers at the time reflect now on what they felt and experienced then. That's lovely and everything, but it is not history.

This certainly derives from the current liberal ambivalence about the assorted Middle Eastern wars. While there is without doubt an isolated if principled party of across-the-board opponents to any of these wars, broadly liberalism has accommodated itself to this era by focusing on supporting our troops and defending the nation against the threat of Islamic extremism even as it affirms that Islam is a religion of peace which we all respect. So the National Geographic documentary cast this attitude backwards even while noting the sometimes hostile welcome that some soldiers experienced on returning from Vietnam and while crediting the enemy with no good traits whatsoever.

I like my historical thinking to be clear. Notwithstanding the moral and ethical dimensions of war, whenever we look at history primarily from a moral perspective we are bound to end up where we started, that is with our own unchallengeable point-of-view. History in that sense, and perhaps that sense alone, is like science: all points of view must be subject to disproof. In general, a moral view of war resists disproof.

My own view of Vietnam has certainly changed. Back then, I viewed it first and foremost as a crime, and the fact of its being a mistake I saw as the just deserts of an imperialist nation. I was a radical youth of the 70s and I could not understand how an honest person could embrace the war. I certainly had no sense of nuance about it. For me, the possibility that the North Vietnamese Army or the Viet Cong might commit atrocities or ultimately be opposed to freedom was inconceivable. Life is simpler when your youth is spent in an era of ideological clarity.

Fortunately ideological clarity muddies up pretty quickly, and aging certainly has the fortunate tendency of driving liberals away from ideology. My case is one in point. I think what is clear now is that the war was primarily a mistake, on in which decision after decision concatenated to drag the nation into a quagmire in precisely the era which started with an opportunity to become a champion of freedom. The opportunity was quickly lost - swept away in the ineluctable circumstances of Korea and the entirely avoidable circumstances of Vietnam. The opportunity was short-lived, and the failure to embrace it led to a decades long triumph of the right in foreign policy. That to me is the American contribution to the Cold War.

The most tragic American figure is, of course, Johnson who could not imagine himself a president who lost a war. He tried every different strategy, but the enemy's strategy simply did not admit of failure. It is key to realize that that too was an opportunity that had a finite window. They could not do it now. I'll come back to that in a moment.

Now as if to contradict my opening thesis, there is no doubt that the American soldiers were the biggest chumps in the war. They had no stake in it other than to survive. They could neither win nor lose. This was an era in between the "greatest generation" and "post-9/11 hero" idea of soldiery. A lot of that has to do with the draft - in a society whose institutions were in the grip of conservatism while its sociality was ripping tradition to shreds, being drafted was like being tossed through a time warp. One day "do your own thing", the next day "die is a paddy". We on the left in that era were wrong to eschew the soldiers. I remember that especially among the Trotskyists there was much reference to Trotsky and Lenin's championing of the soldiers, but those bookish and democratic centralist ideas did not have wide application. The soldiers were an embarrassment to people who saw the war as a "drag" and they were fodder for people who saw the war as evil.

But the war was neither a drag nor evil. It was a struggle for supremacy that was lost before we began.

I saw none of that in the National Geographic piece.

I also saw no analysis of the military aspects of the war. This is of a piece with one of the great failings of liberal thought. Let me put it this way: I think military history should be a part of the curriculum of every high school and college in the country. There is no history without war, and understanding war both in general and in its specifics is the sine qua non of understanding history. Love 'em or hate 'em, Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, Frederick, Napoleon, Rommel, and Giap are great teachers whose lessons transcend the particulars of their era and their purposes. they understand strategy and tactics, the interplay of the large and the small. They understand psychology. They understand the long-lived and the ephemeral. But most importantly, given that virtually every social structure we have was forged in war, refusing to study it out of moral superiority to it is an arrogance that we cannot afford.

Bizarrely, the modern right has abandoned the study of war also. We know that they have abandoned pretty much any principle with which they might have formerly been associated. They liked Iraq and Afghanistan when dubya was in charge; now they're "agin it". They want to bomb anybody who vaguely resembles anybody who might not like us. They have no strategy; they just oppose anything we support.

But Obama has no strategy either, and he is being merely responsive. Just like Johnson, even though I think he more plays the role of Nixon than Johnson. Just as with the Viet Cong, there is no way to defeat the enemy; all we can do is outflank them and make them irrelevant in historic terms. So a strategy looks to do that. But this, frankly, is an easier enemy than the North Vietnamese because they have no state, they have precious few followers, and the societies which they haunt yearn to join in the era of obscene riches that is the postmodern free-trade mania. That is the sense in which the Viet Cong strategy will not work for the jihadis. Where the issue in Vietnam was to find a way stem the rising influence of the Soviet Union by defeating their proxies in a war in which they were not involved, the issue in the war on terrorism is to invest the Muslim world in the larger world and its issues over and against their millennia-old cultural and political inversion. We have more tools for that fight than we did in the 50s and 60s.

So the National Geographic documentary did us a disservice. Not merely did it misrepresent and muddy the history of the war, but it infused our view of it with current moral attitudes founded not on insight but on self-absorption. That is a metaphor for what ails liberalism at a time when we should be looking to be triumphant.

Photos by Arod from the Canadian National War Museum in Ottawa.