What Gary Johnson Should Have Said About Aleppo

Photo: Rick Bowmer, AP, and Aleppo Media Center via AP, License: N/A2016-09-09

Photo from Haaretz

There’s an old saying that war is God’s way of teaching geography to Americans. These days, even that may not be enough.

Now, because of Gary Johnson’s Aleppo gaffe, that city has become a little more familiar to most Americans than it was a few weeks ago. But, what’s truly regrettable about his embarrassing moment is that it puts us deeper in the dark. The media had a feast with it, and continued to neglect the conversations we need to have. Aleppo became a story with no moral…

I was rooting for Johnson to get into the debates. I was hoping he would be there to present a sober and compelling case against the neocon agenda. Combining military belligerence with thoughtless adventurism should never again be America’s default international problem-solving strategy. That argument needs to be made convincingly… both to the American people, and to the other candidates on that stage.

I appreciate Johnson’s skepticism about the utility of our military involvements. But making foreign policy needs more than gut instinct. It takes discipline to calculate and advance American interests. The better we can articulate the world, the better we can navigate it and weather its storms.

By not doing his homework, Johnson squandered a huge opportunity. He had a chance to present an informed and thoughtful argument against interventionism that all Americans need to hear. He missed it.

To be clear, I voted for Bernie Sanders during the primaries, and my vote will go to Clinton in order to stop Trump. I’m also appalled that Johnson favors private prisons and opposes the minimum wage. But my opposition to regime-change interventionism is so strong that I’d probably put him ahead of Clinton if we could rank our choices when we vote. But we can’t.

The best we can hope for is that people who can offer good sense on an issue make full use of their powers to do so when given the chance.

So, if Gary Johnson ever wakes up from this bad dream and gets another open shot at the question, here’s the kind of answer that I think would better serve the American people.


Mike Barnicle: What would you do if you were elected about Aleppo?

Gary Johnson: That’s a question that needs to be considered at length, because injustice and instability within Syria spreads beyond Syria. The civil war has resulted in over 400,000 dead and displaced millions of people. The humanitarian crisis triggers a refugee crisis which triggers an immigration crisis which triggers a resource crisis. And that triggers the rise of xenophobia and racism in the West. At the same time, huge ungoverned swaths of Syria have become like a Mad Max crucible for terrorism.

Right now, the Obama Administration is making the correct move. They should keep looking for ways to work more closely with the Russian government. The immediate goal should be to broker a cease fire that can alleviate suffering in Aleppo and other besieged cities. That will open the way to a long-term political solution.

But overall, the Administration’s policy has been counterproductive. They don’t understand what America should NOT do. We shouldn’t be joining the circular firing squad called the Syrian civil war. We certainly shouldn’t be imposing a no fly zone there, as Hillary Clinton called for. The American people need to keep in mind that ISIS and Al Qaeda don’t have planes. It was a mistake for the President to demand “Assad must go.” Even if we personally wish for that outcome, that’s not a proper commitment for US policy.

Those us of who opposed the Iraq War before it started should keep saying “We told you so.” The American people have to learn to recognize the wrong turns of history. We need to identify mistakes. Because, if we ignore them we’ll keep repeating them, and then we’re doomed to a hellish world of unintended consequences. That means we need to admit, loud and clear, that the regime-change road-show was a flop.

That doesn’t mean we should simply turn away from the crisis. We’re not isolationists. The United States still has obligations under the international doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect.” So, once we make it plain that our involvement in humanitarian interventions is not a pretext for regime change, we’ll be in a better position to accelerate our work with Russia to bring about a resolution.

Willie Geist: So an alliance with Russia is the solution to Syria. Do you think Vladimir Putin in Russia is a good and reliable partner?

Gary Johnson: The ultimate solution to Syria can’t be imposed from the outside. It has to come from the inside. The Russians can help a lot, and it’s certainly in their interest to do so. They’re at least as vulnerable to terrorism from that region than we are, and they know it. The success of any partnerships between the US and Russia will hinge upon advancing our mutual interests. Of which there are many. Once we get over our Cold War baggage, we could be very formidable partners.

But we also have to be frank with them. Overall so far, Russia’s behavior in Syria has been far more counterproductive than ours. Assad is their client. He’s killed 360,000 of his own people.

Historical trial and error offers some lessons that are valid for Syrians, for Russians, and for Americans.

When you make it your business to deny people the right to pursue their own sovereign aspirations, you’re going to make enemies a lot faster than you can conquer or kill them. You’ll never get real security that way.

The long-term solution to this crisis depends on people waking up to their own best interests in security, prosperity, and respectability. Enabling the murder of 360,000 people does not get you any of that.


For more background on Syria.

Skip the long introduction and go to Juan Cole’s presentation which starts at 8:45.



The most specific thing Gary Johnson has said about Syria that I could find





Some more content


NY Times Story Straightforward Answers to Basic Questions About Syria’s War


Purple Capitalism

purple capitalism eagle

Purple Capitalism and Social Justice

Capitalism offers real opportunities to advance social justice. Across America and across the world, capitalist-driven innovation and entrepreneurship has generated profound benefits for human well-being. Yet, it’s also true that unbridled capitalism can lead to suffering and misery. The challenge of our time is to leverage the virtues of capitalism and defeat its excesses.

Purple Capitalism sees economic freedom and social justice as complementary ideals, linked by the imperatives of human empowerment and moral fairness. We’ve seen how energetic competition in open markets elevates diversity and inclusion over outdated hierarchies. We’ve seen how the pursuit of happiness is most likely to succeed when it’s built from a broad foundation of mutual benefit rather than brute, abusive exploitation. Over the long run, we’ve seen how capitalism can serve the cause of progress.

Security and prosperity are native human desires. Traditional capitalism is a system of rules for channeling those urges into a strategy for building national wealth. It favors personal self-interest over state planning to motivate individual effort. But when constructive appetites give way to destructive avarice, or when structural incentives give rise to perverse outcomes, the orthodoxies of forbearance fail. The fullest benefits of capitalism cannot be achieved without confronting the hazards of unconstrained capitalism.

A Program for Purple Capitalism

Overcome the perils of capitalism.
Be alert to perverse incentives.

Say No to private prisons.
Profit-seeking motivates investment in innovations that put more people in prison for longer times.

Say No to private armies.
Dependence on mercenary power weakens official chains of command over the conduct of policy.

Say No to private self-regulation.
Like foxes guarding chicken coops, un-monitored producers externalize costs at society’s expense.

Advance the promise of capitalism.
Be alert to progressive alignments.

Say Yes to extension of property rights.
Women and others who were once treated as property have won the freedom to own property.

Say Yes to equal opportunity.
Competitive businesses seek employees by merit, and act accordingly to extinguish workplace biases.

Say Yes to entrepreneurial innovators.
Freedom to trade goods and services fosters organic spread of skills and self-empowerment.

Crooked Sky


Posted this on FB not long ago, and now I’m cross-posting here.

Things are moving fast on this planet. If we intend to get smarter about where we want to go, it’s important not to forget where we’ve been. I started writing this several days ago for a group I’m a member of, The Open Source Party. After last night, it needed some updating. Now that it’s finally finished, I’ve decided to share it with everybody.


See that crooked sky? A few steps away, a black man was shot dead in his car.
The World Wide Web has been raining with images like this. That particular one exposed another day of horror and injustice in America. It’s a portrait of our brutal history, and of our chronic failure to overcome it.

The deluge doesn’t stop. Suddenly, a page is turned, presenting a new chapter of gore, with its own festering puzzle.

Ironically, these images are artifacts of a great technological revolution, instantly broadcast and globally shared. The Internet is awash with reminders of how primitive we are.

If we can see raw injustice in real time, can we see our way out of it? What would it take to get to a world where such horrors are rarely repeated, rather than just rarely shown?
It would take dedication to getting smarter faster about what pictures we need our electric clouds to drop. That would be a true revolution.

Maybe this machine is doing us a favor. By grabbing our attention this way, it’s making us witness our reflection so often, we might finally learn to face it.

It’s easy to say that the world seems crazier. But what makes our new reality so different is that the crazy is always on. We’ve gotten really good at equipping ourselves with instant feeds of hateful programming via globally-interconnected devices. We’ve gotten really good at saturating our minds with crazy-making stories.

Rather than just go bonkers by bingeing on out-of-control feedback, I suggest getting better at putting smarterfaster-making stories into heavy rotation.

Run-amok malevolence doesn’t deserve the last word. As humans, we still come endowed with capacities for collaborative problem-solving. Let’s leverage those.

It’s not a matter of shutting down the crazy channel. That dam has already broken. It’s a matter of tapping our reservoirs of sanity.

The wider Open Source community generally organizes around free speech commitments rather than social justice priorities. This group’s attention has been more narrowly focused on election reform. But broader kinds of conversations like this need to be put in bounds from time to time. Right now especially. There’s too much at stake to ignore it.

Fixing this election law or that ballot technology are always good things to do, but they aren’t the key to organizing a properly functioning government. And open source democracy certainly isn’t the sine qua non for a culture of well-being.

That doesn’t mean the values and programs we talk about here are simply irrelevant. Who wouldn’t agree that our governments and systems of justice need platforms that bake in transparent, accountable processes?

If we keep asking ourselves why we want that, we’ll find more in common with why other people in other change-driven groups want what they want… In every case we’ll encounter a constitutional desire to bend the universe toward fairness.

These nasty civilizational selfies we’ve been taking remind us how sharp that bend needs to be.

Last week’s tragedies across America demand we look for overarching values. This week’s abomination in France demand we never give up.

Big History Project Contest

I submitted a video to the “What Does it Mean to Human” contest sponsored by the Big History Project. Unfortunately, I didn’t make the cut for the top 25. That suprised me, because I thought had done a pretty good job of resonating with Big History’s themes about thresholds of complexity. In any case, there’s no doubt in my mind that they picked the right winner… Abby Lammers. She made the the same fundamental point that John Green made in the video I pointed out last time, and she did it in a very succinct and engaging way. I’m looking forward her next videos. My video is below, followed by playlist I put together of the entries I considered most worth watching, starting with Abby’s.

John Green knows what it means to be human

I’m a huge fan of the Big History Project, and just got the email about their new contest. It’s focused on getting people to create videos to answer the question, “What does it mean to be human?”

There were three example videos, including one from Big History’s big benefactor, Bill Gates (@BillGates). Another was by Jacqueline Howard (@JacqEHoward), the Science Editor at Huffington Post proxy. But the one that really stood out was by John Green (@johngreen), who’s one of the vlogbrothers on YouTube.

Here’s the awesomeness…

I’m not the Secular Progressive Reporter

There’s a website at http://paper.li/SecularProgress titled, “The Secular Progressive Reporter.” It runs unattended, aggregating content from preselected categories. @secularprogress ticks out updates.

The Secular Progressive Reporter has no authority over this blog, I’m someone else… Craig Simon, @gitis on Twitter, SecularProgress on YouTube, and aliased as Flywheel at various places around the web, including here. The other site’s proprietor is unknown to me. I’ll call that person SPR.

SPR and I clearly have many views in common. We admire Neil deGrasse Tyson and Tim Minchin. We want to showcase science. We follow each other on Twitter. We’ve chosen similar titles.

But don’t mix us up. Every page under SPR’s control proclaims:

Reason leads to science. Science undermines religion. Religion corrupts politics. Irreligion leads to progress. Thus, the future is Secular Progressivism.

That objectionable slogan will never be mine. The premise is solid, but the ensuing statements betray faulty assumptions, weak logic, gratuitous hostility, and unwarranted conclusions.

What’s written below should make the follwing sentence plain to everyone: I reject SPR’s impoverished worldview.

Let’s consider the slogan line by line.

Reason leads to science.


Reasoning is both a skill and a basic human faculty, rooted in pattern finding. We are born with a capacity for reason, just as we are physiologically endowed with capacities for sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. All of these capacities can be cultivated and refined in combination with each other. Our abilities to sense reality are complemented by our abilities to make sense of reality.

Reasoning facilitates the self-interested evaluation of reality. It’s a truth-seeking endeavor. Greater skill at reasoning motivates the gathering of evidence and the organizing of reflection. Disciplines of systematic critical method arise from that.

The skilled practice of science is a mature, symbiotic process of experiential anchoring and explanatory integration… sensing and making sense.

The very word “science” is shaped by that linking of skills. Consider some etymological cousins… decision, precision, discern, concise, conscience, and scissors. All share the root concepts of tool use in the service of intentional, purposive shedding off or cutting off. A world that exists is torn apart, its pieces refit for a world to be realized.

In light of these definitions, the notion that reason leads to science shouldn’t be controversial. It’s a fine philosophy. My argument against SPR begins with the next part of the slogan.

Science undermines religion.

When we recognize science as a truth-seeking endeavor, we unleash our powers to undermine belief in falsehood. SPR clearly associates religion with falsehood. Is this warranted?

SPR would certainly agree that “Science undermines supernaturalism.” That is, science undermines belief in explanations that contradict available evidence or break physical laws. Scientific investigation builds understanding of such laws, often by making rubble of entrenched false beliefs.

Science narrates histories of paradigmatic collapse and creation.Inadequate worldviews regarding the nature of  motion, thermodynamics, chemistry, and biology cannot withstand honest investigation. Weak beliefs are toppled as science accelerates processes for learning how to learn.

Technology these days makes a fashion of disruption; deeper mastery of science fosters an ethic for answering mystery with puzzle solving.

The process of moving closer to truth undermines trust in supernatural confabulations. That is how reason leads. Science is a tool for challenging falsehood and credulity. It strengthens our powers of discernment.

It’s safe to presume that SPR equates supernaturalism and religion. I do not. Beyond the word religion, we might also disagree on use of terms such as God and deity. But our differences are not simply a matter of competing semantic claims

It’s important to make clear that not all religions postulate supernatural deities. Benedict Spinoza inspired modern pantheism by unburdening himself of useless superstition and then equating God with Nature. His religious perspective rules out supernaturalism by allowing us to recognize the substance of the eternal Cosmos as a self-caused essential existence persisted only by itself, Just as we may cultivate a sense of reason, we may cultivate a sense of deity.


Outspoken opponents of religion typically associate it with primitive cosmologies and tyrannical institutions. Those are dangers they wish to see undermined. I observe those same dangers within a broader context… people who portray themselves as truth echoers, delegated as such by some cosmically-founded agent or absolutist principle. That is the larger problem. Members of religious cultures are not immune to such dangerous delusions, and neither are proponents of scientific ones. The antidote is honesty about one’s own potential for getting things wrong.

Voltaire argued, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” To imagine the prospect of encountering God raises the stakes of human existence. It fortifies the obligation of truth seeking as a fundamental human interest. Shedding the fetters of supernaturalism permits a more honest encounter with nature, and promises a more durably sublime one. Enthusiasm for a true religion is best served by endeavoring to cherish truth.

Religion corrupts politics.

Yes, there is much evidence of this. To be fair, we could list social pathologies that are far more corrupting. And, to be fair again, the practice of politics has been no less corrupting to religion than vice versa.

Perhaps we can agree on a practical approach to overcoming corruption: It requires that our religious and political institutions be fortified to uphold and reward habits of truth seeking.

Irreligion leads to progress.

Here we see SPR’s call to action. The word religion is deployed pejoratively, as if its conquest would herald a transformative advance for human wellbeing. Boiled down, however, the sentence is a muddled restatement of the original premise, which was “reason leads to science.”

“Supernaturalism cripples progress” puts things better, presuming the point is to break constraints or warn of danger. But the tone of SPR’s shrill, name-baiting formulation, “Irreligion leads to progress,” resonates with insult. It conveys an alarming hostility moored in lazy disregard for human complexity. I object to this part of SPR’s slogan, and feel obliged to go on the record by saying so. Please, dear reader, don’t confuse us.

SPR and I might agree on the general desirability of progress, but I prefer to animate that desire through constructive endeavor. Obsessive name baiting does nothing to advance the frontiers of scientific discovery. A more honorable call to action would light a candle rather than curse the darkness.

Thus, the future is Secular Progressivism

SPR apparently hoped to finish with a syllogism, but instead spouted silly determinism. In fact, nothing about the existence of reason predicts fulfilment of a cosmic master plan. There’s no guaranteed destiny. Wishing for freedom doesn’t establish freedom, only the opportunity to reach for it.

Reason well exercised can take us a long way, but the endeavor is ours to direct.


SPR wants to raise a flag for secular progress, but upholds a poor standard. Proclaiming piety for reason obliges better explanations of what reason is, and what it motivates. Secular Progressivism is an appealing banner, but SPR’s version is too tattered and empty to merit a following.

If SPR wants to renounce the original slogan and win me as an ally, this alternative works better.

Reason leads to science. Science leads to making sense of what we sense. Truth seeking leads to knowledge of nature. Alignment with nature leads to progress. Secular Progress is a truth seeking endeavor.

Staying Awake to Anti-Islamic Bigotry

I’m a big fan of Bill Maher and rarely miss his show. I agree with a lot of what he says, but certainly not everything. I’m also very attentive to Sam Harris. He’s become one of the leading proponents of the notions that consciousness and free will are illusions (ideas I oppose), and he’s been exceptionally disciplined and precise in making his arguments.

So I was very attentive to the famous debate with Ben Affleck about liberal attitudes toward Islamic illiberalism, and I posted my response in a couple of places online, including Juan Cole’s Informed Comment and as at the Young Turks YouTube channel. My response is below the video.

Here’s why I think Harris’s comments on Islam reveal his bigotry. At one point in the discussion on Bill Maher’s show he described his “onion layer” theory of ruthless Jihadi murderers at the center, and violence-condoning conservatives the next layer out, together accounting for a huge percentage of the world’s Muslim population. He also described an outermost layer of “nominal” Muslims who would reject such violence.

In his view, evidently, the only good Muslim is a “nominal” Muslim. Yet, I think he would admit that, throughout history, devotees of supernatural religions have continually re-interpreted their founding texts to sanctify an astoundingly wide variety of cultural behaviors. For example, Islamic culture once led the world in scientific investigation and architecture on the justification of seeking the patterns of God

My point is that supernatural religions by definition allow for lots of flexibility. They are ungrounded by evidence, and can be put to any use that adherents prefer… their truths are in the eye of the believing beholder. Self proclaimed “devout” Muslims can therefore consider themselves obliged to behave as benevolent humanitarians OR crusading murderers, just like Christians. Yet Harris would insist that any devout Muslim is a threat. Wrong and unfair.