The Writer

Frank J. Yacenda, a life-long writer, has been a journalist, editor, publisher, a science writer, a diplomat, and a public relations practitioner. See more about him here.

Let Me Be Your Editor

Frank J. Yacenda is a broadly experienced writer and editor who will help you conceive, perfect, produce, and promote your fiction or non-fiction writing project. See more here.

Check Out My New Book

Buying America the Right Way tells overseas real estate investors -- and U.S. ones, too -- what they need to know to get it right when buying in America. See it here.

Category: Political Commentary

Haters Are Gonna Hate

Haters Are Gonna Hate

If you watched the State of the Union address this past Tuesday, you saw encapsulated the two faces of America at the outset of 2018. On one side of the aisle the Republicans for the most part cheered and gave standing ovations to just about everything President Donald Trump had to say. On the other side, the Democrats sat there stone-faced and belligerent, at times not even sure whether to applaud or not when the President said things almost anyone could get behind and support.

Having watched the address, I’d have to say it was – in the commonly applicable term – “presidential,” and touched on many of the issues that Trump voters, specifically, and a broad part of the population otherwise, are concerned about. And for once Trump didn’t step on his own small victory by tweeting contrary thoughts the next morning. That’s not just my assessment, either. A poll by CBS News – certainly no advocate for the President – showed that 75 percent of viewers approved of the President’s speech, including 43 percent of Democratic viewers. Eight in 10 viewers said they thought the President was trying to unite the country while two-thirds said the speech made them feel proud.

An unscientific viewer poll conducted by CNN – again, no friend of the President – showed that 62 percent of respondents said they thought the President was moving the country in the right direction. The percentage of viewers – 48 percent – who said they had a “very positive” view of the President’s speech was the same percentage who had a “very positive” view of President Obama’s first State of the Union address in 2009. Not bad for a president that, if you listen to most of what is reported in the media, is equivalent to the devil incarnate and the harbinger of Armageddon.

In fact, rising overall poll numbers for the President underscore that he’s tapping into many of the issues a wide range of Americans care about. But you’d never know that looking at the Democratic side of the aisle during Tuesday’s address.

While it would be too much to expect that everyone would agree with everything Trump laid out, there was enough juicy goodness there that just about any American could get behind. This was especially the case with the several moving examples of heroism, citizen action, and hardship that he called out, recognizing a number of guests in the audience for their accomplishments or experiences. Still, some House and Senate Democrats in attendance had a hard time digesting how it was the citizens themselves, and not Trump, who deserved the recognition.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi later criticized the President for the many guests he honored, saying he had nothing to do with their accomplishments. Of course, the President never claimed he did and, since President Ronald Reagan started the tradition in 1982, it has become a part of every State of the Union address to recognize the achievements of individual citizens, especially when they underscore the message and policy positions of the given president. Pelosi’s criticism came across as small, but it wasn’t the only statement she made that showed how out-of-touch she is with most Americans. We’ll get to that a bit later.

Now I understand that State of the Union addresses are partisan affairs, and one side of the aisle or the other is going to get more things to jump up and clap for than is the other. That was certainly the case when President Obama gave his addresses, when it was the Dems’ turn to applaud. And it clearly was the case Tuesday with President Trump’s address. Still, there are enough moments in any State of the Union address when, as Americans, both sides have reason for support and celebration. But to watch the Democratic side of the aisle in this State of the Union address, one was forced to wonder what exactly the Dems do stand for, other than abject hatred of the President.

Clearly the most telling moment came when the President said that the black unemployment rate had reached a 45-year low. That seemed like something everyone could get behind, along with his statement that the Hispanic unemployment rate had reached an historic low. But when the cameras panned to the Congressional Black Caucus – some members of which didn’t even attend the address – nary a hand clapped. Some sets of eyes cast about, reflecting doubt about what their owners should do. Many watching this display can be forgiven for asking what it would take for the black members of Congress to at least recognize something that has benefited black people, regardless how they feel about Trump or whether they credit him or his predecessor for most of that accomplishment. On PR value alone, this was a lost opportunity and showed caucus members as petty and petulant.

Another telling moment came when the President discussed immigration, and highlighted his proposal to offer a path to citizenship for 1.8 million “dreamers” – non-citizens brought here illegally by their parents as children – more than double the 700,000 that the Democrats would protect under their proposals. Perhaps the most memorable quote of the entire address came when the President said, “Americans are dreamers, too.” As the President made clear, his primary duty, as well as the primary duty of all members of Congress, is to look after the interests of Americans. Seemed reasonable enough.

But when Trump outlined his overall immigration proposals, aimed at benefiting American workers and citizens, things one would expect to be Democratic goals, too, the reaction was anything but supportive or even willingness to listen. Key parts of Trump’s proposals include eliminating the visa-lottery program and reducing chain migration based on family relations – something many concerned with immigration issues have supported for a very long time – not only didn’t they applaud, but there actually were boos from the Democrats. Of course, not much has been made in the media of this overt show of disrespect for the President, certainly nowhere near the brouhaha that erupted when South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson shouted out “You lie!” to President Obama during a 2009 address to Congress on healthcare issues. But we’ve come to expect this kind of double standard where Trump is concerned.

Another show of disrespect came when Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez booked for the exit while the Republican side spontaneously chanted “USA, USA.” Gutiérrez later denied that his early departure had anything to do with the chant but rather that he was late for an interview appointment with Univision. Whatever the reason, it didn’t help the Dems’ optics.

If the Democrats have more to offer than intransigence and hatred of the President, it wasn’t clear what that was, either in the Democratic rebuttal to the President’s address or in those comments Pelosi made after the speech. The withered Pelosi, herself worth $101 million as of 2014*, called the bonuses and tax cuts worth thousands of dollars each that many Americans are getting as a result of the Republican-sponsored tax bill, “crumbs.” Now $2,000 or $3,000 may be “crumbs” to a multi-millionaire like Pelosi, but I wonder how many less monied Americans see those amounts that way. Even Costco CEO Craig Jelinek called Pelosi’s comments “unthoughtful.” Costco is one of 300 companies that so far have announced bonuses to be paid their employees as the result of the new tax bill, and that doesn’t even account for the benefits most working Americans will get as the result of greatly increased standard deductions on their tax bills.

The Democrat’s choice of Congressman Joe Kennedy III to deliver the party’s rebuttal to the President’s speech also reflected the Dem’s bankruptcy when it comes either to ideas or personalities. It would probably be too blatant a non-forced error to select a Clinton, so the party went back to the Kennedy name. Even many Dems asked what it says about the party when its leadership picks a Massachusetts politician, part of the Kennedy dynasty, himself worth $43.2 million*, to deliver an address focused on assisting working Americans.

Kennedy, grandson of the late Robert F. Kennedy, seemed an incongruous choice, even as he spoke in terms of Democratic identity politics, reverting at one point to the cliché of delivering part of his address in Spanish. So while the Dems argue that Dreamers are Americans, Kennedy spoke to them as immigrants, and not even immigrants who speak English. The further irony is that, as his party moves further and further to the left, Kennedy’s grandfather and granduncle, JFK, would today most likely be viewed as conservatives in comparison.

I came to the State of the Union address expecting Trump to do a credible job, and hoping he wouldn’t tweet it away the next morning, and I was gratified on both counts. I also expected a somewhat truculent and unenthusiastic Democratic side of the chamber, but I didn’t expect it to be as gloomy and seemingly hate-filled as it was. That came as a shock even to skeptical me, and it tends to underscore the existence of this phenomenon that has come to be dubbed Trump Derangement Syndrome. That may be a non-clinical term or condition, but like any disorder, it distorts judgment and leads to non-productive actions.

That’s what I think is going on with the Dems. They seem intent on being haters and not much else, and haters are gonna hate. Whether anything more productive comes from them, that remains to be seen, all the more so after Tuesday’s performance.

* Source: members-of-congress.insidegov.com

Stop the Madness

Stop the Madness

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon, since I’m not, really, but there are some things that just need to be said about how things clearly are headed in this technological world we inhabit.

News of interactive appliances, self-driving cars, bots and algorithms that determine what gets fed to us over the Internet has gotten to be pretty much old hat. Those things would be enough to give us pause, but no, nothing is about to stop there, it seems.

It’s bad enough that we have to fear our washing machine or refrigerator turning us in for some transgression, or feeding our habits to an advertising program that will just try to sell us more stuff we probably don’t need. And if I can’t open the door of the fridge to see how much milk or eggs or cream cheese is left, someone really needs to put me out of my misery, and soon. But things have already reached that stage.

There is a way of looking at things that seems to have gotten lost in the quest to come up with the next technological advance. It’s pretty simple, really: Just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it. That’s where we’re at, maybe already well past it, and the lesson seems to be lost on those who are planning our “brave” new world of technological wonders. It’s time to stop the madness, though I’m not encouraged by what I see and hear about almost on a daily basis now.

Take cars, for example. Now there’s a subject. Some of us actually don’t want our car making decisions for us. Cars that stop on their own, keep us from wandering into the next lane, open and close their own doors, and which park themselves already go further than some of us, those who were taught to drive properly and enjoy being in charge of the process of guiding a machine down the road, want. Now we’re looking at cars, and even trucks, that drive themselves. They’re already out there, sharing the roads with us. But apparently that is not enough for those who think up these things. The next step – I am not making this up – are cars that will carry on a conversation with us while they drive us around.

Am I some sort of raving radical when I say I don’t really want to have a conversation with my car? I don’t even like riding in taxis since I’d rather not converse with the driver. How much less will I want to speak with a machine? Just guessing here, but I’d say a lot. A really lot. A lot a lot. What could my car even have to say that would interest me? At least with cab drivers I can learn about other cultures and the kinds of things that brought them here. I really don’t need to hear from my car how things were in Korea or Mexico or Canada or wherever before they came here, or how they’re running hot and they just don’t feel up to par these days. And suppose their hearing or grasp of the language isn’t so good? One can only imagine the misunderstandings that might ensue.

Now we’re hearing about pills that send out little signals so that our doctors can spy on us and see whether we’re taking the bloody things as they’ve instructed. I can’t get my doctors on the phone or even send them an email, but now they’re going to be listening in on what’s going on inside my stomach? Sorry, I don’t think so. The manufacturers of these spybot pills say they’re perfectly safe. Well, I’m less concerned about that then I am about what other purposes they might be put to, like programming our refrigerators not to let us touch the bacon or the ice cream that dwells within them. Or someone hacking into those interactive pills to find out more about us, things our insurance company or Russian scammers might want to know.

We’ve become so hungry to consume that having packages delivered to our doorstep isn’t enough anymore. Now Amazon is offering “in home” delivery – literally, their delivery people will come inside our home to drop off our latest gizmo. But do I want strangers coming into my home? Hell, no. It’s bad enough they know where I live. I certainly don’t want them crossing the threshold and coming inside. And I don’t care if some hidden camera or Alexa, Amazon’s other way of getting into our house and life – and two more things I don’t want in my home — is there to observe them.

Increasingly bots and algorithms determine what we read, what ads are fed us, what vids pop up on our computer screens. Google thinks its algorithms are so smart they can tell where we are and feed us local ads. Ha, Google. FYI, I don’t live in Chicago, nowhere within a thousand miles of it, even if my ISP is located there, so you can stop sending me all those ads for vendors in the Windy City. We’re still a long way from when these things will be fool-proof, if ever, but meanwhile they’ve been unleashed on us. For instance, now we read that with the YouTube Kids application – Google owns YouTube, too, if you didn’t know – the algorithms are feeding the little darlings cartoons in which the characters drink bleach, appear as gore-covered zombies, or get it on with other characters. With parents increasingly substituting screens for actual parenting, who couldn’t see this coming? Nothing like a bot to handle the babysitting, right?

When I was a kid, my dad would take me outside on cold nights to look through a telescope at the moon and the planets. I wonder how many parents and kids do that today, and I’d be willing to wager that the only way most kids today see celestial bodies, if at all, is on a screen.

More and more we’re seeing machines and electronics and robots taking over ever-more things that used to be the province of people, of actual human beings, to do. We’re told that many manufacturing jobs will never come back because technology and robots have replaced the workers that used to be in them. And while the machines, for all their faults, get smarter and smarter, it seems people are getting dumber and dumber, with no end in sight for either trend.

There has been a question on my mind for a very long time, long before the popular future vision began to become a reality. And that is, if machines and technology can do all this stuff, what will people do? Or more precisely, what will people do to earn a living to pay for all these luxuries, all these gadgets, all these robots and technological advances? The vision of the future was a place where people could live lives of total leisure, never having to lift a finger. It seems that’s what the people developing these technologies have in mind, but is anyone thinking about the economics and the politics of it all?

I can just imagine sitting at home drinking mint juleps, prepared by Alexa, and watching on a screen as my self-driving car heads out on a scenic road that I get to enjoy vicariously from my living room. Drones are dropping off packages I’ve ordered online and bots carry them inside, while my robot vacuum cleaner does the den and my refrigerator orders up restocks of the bananas and hot dogs. My imaginary kids are playing video games and learning about life from cartoons, and all the while ads and click-bait stories about celebrities pop up on screens all over the house.

If that’s my life, who is paying for it? I can easily see a society – we’re almost there now — where a permanent underclass is forced to support the more privileged among us. Proles who support members of the Inner and Outer Party (thank you, George Orwell, for painting such a vivid picture of this notional future in the perhaps prophetic Nineteen Eighty-Four, the year in the title maybe just four decades early).

At one time we used to worry about big corporations taking on too much power and controlling our lives too much. Yet, these new corporations of technology have become bigger, more powerful, and with more influence on our lives than any ITT, GM, IBM, or AT&T of the past. Somehow we’ve come to see the Googles and Apples and Microsofts of the world as benign, looking after our well being and making our lives better and easier, and not as the profit-making, market-share-grabbing machines that they are. Maybe a comparison could be drawn with the Omni Consumer Products (OCP) corporation of 1987’s RoboCop film.

I also have to wonder what politics all this will lead to, with the political order mirroring and supporting the economic one. Already we’ve become polarized and divided almost as never before, and I can only see this trend growing as our societal dialogue becomes increasingly fractured, splintered, and Balkanized, with each individual picking and choosing what version of reality he or she prefers. And with the decline of the national dialogue and the dumbing-down of the population, it will become easier and easier for Big Brother (who also comes to us from Nineteen Eighty-Four) to simply manipulate and control a society whose creature comforts and diet of electronic pap fed them will take precedence over more traditional political values, like dissent and the freedoms of speech and association.

Already otherwise intelligent people appear to have a hard time writing anything that exceeds 140 (or 280, for the truly verbose) characters, and what at one time would be intelligent correspondence and debate has been reduced to gibberish, repetition, and name-slinging. A large proportion of the population sees the world through the medium of a phone, and the quality of their communication reflects this.

I’m not going to claim that technology is inherently bad – after all, I’m writing this on a laptop computer, and the thought of doing so on a typewriter is a chilling one – but we need to think about how far things can be carried before the beneficial becomes detrimental. Like I said near the outset, just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean it should be done.

It’s time to stop the madness.

The New Normal

The New Normal

The New Normal.” That phrase, already becoming hackneyed through use, pretty much tells it like it is.

Whether in New York or Nice or London or Barcelona, terrorists’ use of vehicles to mow down innocent people has become part of that “new normal.” Why bother with hijacking or blowing up an airliner when one can rent a truck, penetrate low-security areas, and make one’s twisted point with the blood and broken bones and murder of innocent people? With this approach, every low-level fanatic or miscreant worldwide becomes a tool for ISIS or other such groups to spread their message of terror.

Sad, but I believe accurate, to say, what happened in New York on Hallowe’en afternoon when Uzbeki émigré Sayfullo Saipov used a rented truck to career down a bike and pedestrian lane to take the lives of eight innocent people and injure at least another 15 embodies this “new normal.” And while it isn’t the first, by no means will it be the last time we see such an attack. What’s more, the ease and economy of mounting attacks of this nature makes everyone who ventures outside or who takes part in enjoying group activities or just taking a walk on a nice day a potential target.

It has been reported that ISIS put out the word through its social-media channels encouraging its adherents worldwide to mark Hallowe’en by doing exactly what Saipov did. Probably the only remarkable thing is that there weren’t other such attacks to mark the day and provide ISIS with more of the impact it seeks. But that should not offer any solace or encouragement. There is every reason to believe that there will be more vehicular and other low-level attacks and they will, in fact, figure into this “new normal.”

Other than personal vigilance and being acutely aware of one’s surroundings, there isn’t a huge amount anyone really can do to protect against attacks of this nature. It’s hard to tread a path somewhere between being blithely unaware and persistent paranoia. Somewhat akin to awareness of the potential for criminal activity in any public place or on any public conveyance, staying on what I would term “Condition Yellow” – being attuned to what’s going on around oneself and being prepared to react quickly to a perceived threat – should probably become the base condition for any of us when out and about.

In terms of public safety, a better response demands keen and focused policing. It’s now known that the authorities were aware of Saipov, who figured into various security investigations that were under way. Why Saipov’s plans were not uncovered and why he was not picked-up before he could carry out his heinous attack remains to be seen. Whether we’ll ever know the answer to this question also remains to be seen. We see shades of the Boston Marathon bombers, Tamarlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who also were in the FBI’s radar. The FBI even had been warned about the Chechen brothers by the dreaded Russians, but the FBI failed to take the pair into custody in advance of their murderous 2013 attack that killed three people and injured hundreds of others.

Failures in intelligence gathering and failures to act on intelligence leads are serious and have real-world consequences. Boston and New York and many of the other terrorist attacks that have taken place here and abroad where it later came out that the terrorists were on officials’ radar demonstrate the truth of this.

One thing that has come under scrutiny as a result of the Hallowe’en bombing is what is known as the Diversity Visa Program (DVP), better known as the Visa Lottery Program. Saipov had been admitted to the U.S. in 2010 under this program. While it might be a stretch to say that were it not for the DVP the New York attack – or at least others like it – would not have happened, it is a program that demands scrutiny.

As a consular officer in 1990 when DVP was first introduced, the “brain child” – to speak euphemistically – of the U.S. Congress, I and other consular officers with whom I worked were appalled by the program. Not only did it offer one more way for foreign nationals to skirt the normal strictures of our immigration law, it took the value of immigration to the U.S. and debased it, making it a matter of simple luck. Neither skills nor specific qualifications nor even family relations played any role in being selected for a DVP visa. All it took was being a citizen of what was deemed to be an “under-represented” country and having a post card with one’s name on it picked at random. Winning a visa under the DVP was the same as winning any other lottery.

Now, 27 years later, the only substantive change to the DVP is that the numbers of visas allowed have increased from 20,000 to close to 50,000. While the initial rationalization for DVP was to benefit Irish would-be immigrants, 48,000 of whom were legalized in the first three years of the program, the mix of DVP immigrants today is strongly tilted toward Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. I can’t help but ask why the most diverse country on earth needs to resort to a lottery to further that diversity?

While admission of would-be terrorists can’t be any more directly attributed to DVP than to any other U.S. immigration category, it’s pretty clear it was the source for Saipov being in the country in the first place. It’s also pretty clear that Saipov, described by people who knew and worked with him as a disgruntled truck driver with a poor driving record, lacks any of the higher-level skills that the country needs and which DPV fails to address. If, as a matter of policy, the country wants to open up immigration to other than simply family members of those already here and to encourage merit-based immigration, the answer is not a visa lottery but rather a points-based immigration system, much like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries have. To see why, be sure to read my posting on Pointing Immigration in the Right Direction.

Regardless what happens with the DVP, it’s clear that we’ve moved into the era of a “new normal” where terrorism is concerned. So be alert, stay on Condition Yellow when in public, and let’s hope those whose responsibility it is to track and apprehend those who would do us harm do a better job than they have in cases like Saipov and the Tsarnaev brothers.

There Goes, Here Comes, the Sun

There Goes, Here Comes, the Sun

It isn’t news to anyone that a full eclipse of the sun traversed the United States on Monday. You’d have to be ensconced in a lunar base on the dark side of the moon to have missed that. But if you got to experience the eclipse, especially in a place where totality occurred, you probably know how special this event was. And maybe you noticed how it was special in ways beyond the purely celestial.

I traveled from West Central Florida to the coast of South Carolina for the big event. This was the second full eclipse I’ve experienced, the first one being in March of 1970, at Cape Charles, Virginia. After that experience, I wasn’t going to miss a chance to be present for another one, especially one this close.

Without going into all the minute details, I wanted to stay flexible in terms of my precise destination since the weather was looking pretty iffy. As the morning of the eclipse went on, clouds were moving in from off the ocean and conditions were heading south almost by the minute. Viewing conditions along the coast were predicted to be fair to poor and, in the midst of all that, the Charleston weather radar went down, so I was pretty much on my own.The moon eats the sun

Charleston, which was on the southern edge of the zone of totality, was overcast as I passed through it, as was North Charleston, across the harbor. Following my inclination that conditions would be better on the coast north of the city, I continued up US 17, and that’s when I came across some signs pointing to a side road that led to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Making a snap decision, I turned right there and followed that road until it ended at the refuge. Cars were parked up and down both sides of the road, so I found a place, parked, and walked in to the picnic area and boat launch site at the road’s end. Cape Romain was actually the place, virtually on the center line of the zone of totality, I had thought to view the eclipse when I first started planning this expedition.

A long concrete pier stretched out across the marsh and clumps of people were out on the pier, interspersed with some open areas. I found one of those open spots and set myself up. It was about an hour until totality.

When I arrived there were big blue breaks in the clouds, allowing the sun to shine through, but as time went on more and more clouds moved in from off the ocean. At times the clouds obscured the sun, but when they did, one could see the disk of the moon encroaching on the face of the sun. With one layer of clouds, it was too bright to see the image. With three layers, the sun was too obscured. But with two layers, it was perfect, and the moon could be seen eating the sun – as primitive peoples believed – without benefit of eclipse glasses.

Birds overheadWith about a half-hour to go, a family of four set up next to where I was. It turned out they had come from Denmark, just to see the eclipse. As more and more people arrived, and looking up and down the pier, I was thinking how many people, not just on that pier but from coast-to-coast, had come to share in this event. I was hoping we’d get a clear view, not just for myself but for others, like that family, who had never experienced a total solar eclipse before.

Minutes before the moment of totality, more clouds passed in front of the sun. Inland and to the south things were totally socked in, with lightning strikes to the west. A bank of clouds was moving in off the ocean, but a big band of blue stood between where we were and it. The wind was blowing the lower clouds quickly, and then the wind blew them past, and there was the sun, framed by two high, thin, motionless clouds, and that was when the eclipse entered totality. And our view was unobstructed for the entire duration of the eclipse, as short as it was at about two minutes and 40 seconds. Speak about making the right decision and lucking out.

If you haven’t experienced a total eclipse, you don’t know what that moment of totality Totalityis like. Even 99.99% totality is not the same as 100%. It is when the sun is completely obscured by the moon, when the sun’s corona can be seen flaring out from behind the moon, when day turns almost to night, and when earthbound creatures express their confusion by going wild, that makes a total eclipse the awesome event that it is. Even knowing that an eclipse is happening and that it’s a natural phenomenon that has a beginning and an end, it can be a disconcerting experience. It is no wonder that people over the ages spun such myths and felt such fear around eclipses.

I have to say that the first eclipse I experienced seemed more awesome, and I think it had mostly to do with the environment. At Cape Charles, I was right on tidewater, and there were flocks of birds, and it seemed the tides reversed and the birds went crazy at the moment of the eclipse. At Cape Romain, it was marshes, and the few birds that there were had passed overhead minutes before the eclipse and flew on. But as a sheer celestial event, this eclipse was as awe-inspiring as any. This eclipse, any eclipse, reminds that we’re on an object somewhere out in space, spinning around a star, out in the vastness of the universe.

Plane flying close to the sunAt that moment of totality, I think most people experiencing it for those couple of minutes might have forgotten the differences, the views, the beliefs, the expectations that separate Major cloudsus. For those couple of minutes we weren’t liberals or conservatives, Americans or Danes, dog lovers or cat lovers or none of the above. We were just humans, curious, eager, awe-inspired humans, beneath the shadow of the moon as it crossed the face of the sun. It’s too much to expect that the feeling would last much beyond the eclipse and the return of the sun from behind the moon, but it was nice while it lasted.

After the eclipse was over, it took more than four hours to get to the Interstate, with the flood of people returning to wherever they came from – the plurality of cars on my route had Florida license tags – and from there things got easier. By the next morning the eclipse seemed already to have receded into the past, a curiosity for strangers to ask about in passing.

The marsh near totalityBoth on the way to South Carolina and on the way back, things seemed to be more homogenized than they had been in years past. Chain restaurants and fast-food joints, more than ever, supplanted a lot of the local down-home places that formerly one could find with ease across the South. I finally found the kind of down-home place I had been searching for, Grannie’s Country Cookin’, on US 301 in Starke, Florida, and it was worth the wait. The Jurassic-sized slab of meatloaf and the giant flaky biscuit and the grits and mashed potatoes and gravy were what I’d expect at a place called Grannie’s, and not some pseudo chain Grannie’s. But the average age of the patrons was somewhere north of 60, so I had to wonder how long it will be until the entire country is homogenized, fast-foodified, Amazoned, Uberized, Facebookifed, plasticized, devicified, electronicuted. What will the roads, and the country, look like for the next solar eclipse to come here in seven years, in 2024?

It’s a disconcerting thought, and the roadsides, and our world, will be darker for it. And not because the sun is in eclipse.

All photos by the author.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here, and if you like the post please comment and share it.

Getting Out of Stalemate With North Korea

Getting Out of Stalemate With North Korea

Anyone can be excused for thinking the stalemate we find ourselves in with North Korea is a bloody mess without any really good outcomes, and they might well be right. It isn’t the first time we’ve been stalemated with North Korea, though the stakes and potential consequences are rising with a nuclear DPRK. So here I come to wade into this situation, which has proven intractable since the Korean War drew to a close on July 27, 1953, not with a victory for either side, but with an armistice that stopped the fighting and left both North and South in a state of war that has continued until today.

I don’t claim to be a Korea expert, and neither am I a proficient war gamer or military planner, so I want to make that clear up-front. But I do know a bit about international relations and can see what often works, and doesn’t work, in dealing with rogue states like North Korea, and also have peripherally followed U.S. dealings with Pyongyang over the past couple of decades. So those are my bases for offering the analysis that follows.

Unfortunately, in the current situation it’s easier to engage in Monday Morning Quarterbacking, to look at all the things done wrong by previous administrations rather than offering any reasonable alternatives looking forward. But those past bad decisions can offer some guidance about what doesn’t work with North Korea, if not what might.

I’d like to start by debunking some of the myths that people hold about North Korea and its leadership. Perhaps the most common one is that Kim Jong-un, the chubby 33-year-old with the funny haircut who serves as current Supreme Leader of the DPRK, is a madman, deranged, or some sort of a nut case. While no one can argue that he’s not idiosyncratic or a tad bizarre, that is a long way from being mentally deranged. Was Hitler, or Saddam, or Stalin, or Mao, or any of the other mass murderer-leaders of the past century, mad? On some level, perhaps, but that does not mean they did not run their respective states according to a plan and set of objectives that they had set out, and drove toward them with a singular purpose of mind and relentless brutality. It is no different with Kim Jong-un, really, and a huge mistake to simply write him off as a nut job.

The other thing I think it’s important to understand, and which even I have only recently come to better appreciate, is that the common goal of all of North Korea’s leaders, including its current one, is reunification of the Korean peninsula and people under one government – theirs. While Kim Jong-un threatens and goads the U.S., it is more because he sees the U.S. as a threat to his regime and his goal of Korean unification. The flip side of that, of course, is that the U.S. stands as the major defender of South Korea’s existence and freedom, and relinquishing that role is really not an option. So we are pitted in an intractable face-off with the North Korean regime.

One would think that the prosperity and progress South Korea has made in recent decades would serve to bolster the South’s position and eventually lead to the demise of the North from within. Still, it’s estimated that something like 30 percent of South Koreans would like to see unification with the North, and a large proportion of the North’s population, brainwashed as they might be, are staunchly loyal to their country, as well as to its regime and ideology. The thought that we might see a popular uprising that leads to the overthrow of Communism in the North, such as what we saw in Eastern Europe, is at best wildly optimistic and, at worst, delusional. What we see in North Korea is not just imposition of a social, economic, and political system, but a cult of personality, built around the Supreme Leaders, and the pervasive feeling of persecution and misunderstanding by the outside world.

Which leads us to the current stalemate and how to approach it. Arguably, previous administrations never should have allowed North Korea to become a nuclear state. The time to take firm action to prevent this really goes back to the Clinton administration, but instead of direct action that administration resorted to wishful thinking, offering concession after concession to North Korea, instead of standing firm and not allowing itself to be duped. Things weren’t much better under the Bush administration, and of course the Obama administration preferred to ignore the whole thing rather than stand up to Pyongyang. So now it falls to the Trump administration to try to clean up the mess it has inherited from previous administrations.

There has been much drivel issued in the media about how Pres. Trump’s threats to Kim Jong-un are inflammatory and risk destabilizing things. It’s hard to imagine how things can be any more destabilized than they were anyway, and that destabilization lies with North Korea. Trump was just trying to term things in the same kind of rhetoric as Kim Jong-un uses. I don’t know if the President actually expected that to get through to the Supreme Leader any more effectively than the usual diplomatic garble does, but it’s more humorous than anything, since what Kim Jong-un and the North Koreans do and say goes beyond rhetoric. Like any bully, they can use any kind inflammatory language they like, but speaking back to them in their own language doesn’t deter they from being any more of a bully than they are. So like North Korean rhetoric, I have to assign Trump’s rhetoric as being issued for public consumption rather than anything operational.

My big concern about the President’s threats is that they verge into the category of Obama’s useless “red line” threats to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It’s not a good strategy to make threats one can’t or won’t enforce, just like it’s not usually a good idea to pretend you have a gun when dealing face-to-face with an armed gunman. The temptation is there to call the question, and Kim Jong-un showed himself as perfectly willing to call that question, just as Assad did with Obama, when he threatened to send missiles near – though notably not at – Guam. Not the threat of a madman, but the carefully calculated response of a clever actor on the world stage.

The administration did score an enormous victory this past week in getting an unanimous vote of the UN Security Council – including China and Russia in support – approving massive new economic sanctions against North Korea. This was a real accomplishment on the part of our UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley. Now one might wish that more than the third of the DPRK’s exports would be subject to the sanctions, but I would think that the limitation was important to gaining the support of China and Russia. Additionally, I think China’s oil exports to North Korea were not subject to the sanctions for the same reason.

The problem with any sanctions is that, with a regime such as North Korea’s, most of the impact falls on the general population rather than on the regime itself. North Korea has shown repeatedly that it’s willing to let its people starve to death rather than give in to demands of the outside world. This time will probably be no exception to that. So I wouldn’t put a huge expectation on the sanctions making any difference.

From anyone’s perspective – including even that of China and Russia – the real danger that North Korea poses is its nuclear capability. It certainly is a real and immediate danger to South Korea and the other countries of the region, and once it develops a means of delivering a nuclear warhead, a real danger to the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. And that delivery capability might not be that far off.

Much has been said that the North Koreans don’t have an ICBM that would enable a nuclear warhead to survive re-entry, and also that their ability to aim their missiles is less than competent. But they are making strides, and resolving these issues is clearly on their agenda and possibly within their grasp. But given these shortcomings, the North Koreans may still be able to inflict severe damage on the U.S. with only one, or a few, nuclear warheads that they send into orbit and detonate while over the U.S. This would lead to the dreaded electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which would effectively cripple our entire electronic and electric infrastructure, putting us into something close to the Stone Age. And we are completely unprepared for such an attack. A North Korean satellite already passes over the U.S. every 12 hours, so that capability is not simply notional.

There also is the threat of cyber warfare, for which we’re also not particularly well prepared, and in fact North Korea could already be engaging in that kind of attack against us.

Again, arguably, it fell to the Clinton administration to have eliminated North Korea’s developing nuclear capability at that time, when it was far less evolved, dispersed, and dug-in than it is now. But that didn’t happen, and the carrots offered then were ineffectual, so now we have to deal with it. The question for the Trump administration – or any administration, really – is whether we can live with a nuclear North Korea or not. Given the risks as I’ve outlined them, I think we might have a real and, if not present, future danger in allowing North Korea to further develop its nuclear capability. In saying that, I know similar things were said about Soviet, and then Chinese, and even Pakistani and Indian nuclear capabilities, and of course now Iranian nuclear capability, too. The one thing that differentiates the DPRK and Iran from the other cases is that we’re dealing with what have proven themselves to be rogue states. Whether that makes them any more prone to using nuclear weapons than the world’s other nuclear bad actors is a key question, but one I’m reluctant to delve into at this point given its scope.

If we are to attack North Korea militarily and not inevitably cause a blood bath in the South – the 10-plus million people living in Seoul, South Korea’s capital, are just 30 miles from the DPRK border, across which lie enormous artillery batteries that would rain death on Seoul – it would have to be a kind of blitzkrieg (lightning war) to simultaneously take out North Korea’s conventional military capability along with its nuclear and launch infrastructure. I think initially it is more critical to take out the conventional capability and then go back and finish rooting out and wiping out the nuclear infrastructure.

One problem is that North Korea today is not Poland in 1939, when Hitler conducted his blitzkrieg against it, and then against France and the Benelux Countries in 1940. How we could mass sufficient air, sea, and land power to make such a coordinated attack against North Korea before the North figured out what was going on and mount a preemptive strike against the South is, at best, an open question. One hopes that our intelligence about North Korea is better than it appears, but the North almost assuredly has its own intel capability, augmented by whatever support it would and does receive from China and Russia. While if we ever felt the need to launch a military attack against the North this – in my assessment – almost certainly would be how it would need to be done, it admittedly still isn’t a great answer.

Anyone who reads my essays knows that I like to offer solutions to the problems considered. I wish I could do that in this case. Alas, I don’t feel I can, other than in general prescriptive terms. I think we do need to keep North Korea from further developing its nuclear capabilities, for the reasons presented, but how we achieve that remains elusive. I think it will take action – diplomatic, economic, political, or other – by China to influence its maverick neighbor to curb its activities, but while that possibility might be growing closer, it’s still not something we can count on any time in the immediate future. Perhaps in the trade off of favors, threats, benefits, and costs the President is engaged in with the Chinese, something could be on the table to achieve this.

So there we are, in stalemate, with neither side about to resign, as they might were this simply a game of chess. Comments, thoughts, countervailing or other arguments welcomed.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here, and if you like the post please comment and share it.