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Kahn, Russell, and Rethinking the Unthinkable

Herman Kahn (left) and Bertrand Russell (right)   To better understand the dangers of the present confrontation between North Korea and the U.S. , it is worth re-examining the first years in which thermonuclear ICBMs became available to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, climaxing in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and how the arrival of these weapons in the 1950-1970 Cold War years was treated by two influential thinkers of the era. One was the rotund, jovial American strategic analyst, Herman Kahn (1922-83); the other, the British aristocratic philosopher and popular agitator, Bertrand Russell (1872-1965).   Kahn, reputed to have 'the highest IQ ever recorded', was one of a small group of strategists of a new kind coming out of WW II, civilians and quasi-academics. rather than military professionals. Although dropping out of his mathematics Ph.D. program at Cal Tech, he never let that get in his way. Shortly after the end of WW II, he joined the U.S. Air Force's new RAND ('Research and Development') thinktank, and also soon participated in thermonuclear ('hydrogen') bomb research at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. He was soon on equal footing with his older brilliant colleagues, many of them European e'migre's who had worked on the wartime Manhattan Project. Both they and the younger native-born strategic theorists like Kahn and Thomas Schelling had their main backgrounds in mathematics, physics, and economics. Kahn found an especially kindred spirit in the expatriate Hungarian, John von Neumann (1903-57), like him a cheery and sybaritic polymath with a stratospheric IQ. Both were not only interested in nuclear weapons, but in developing computers. They drew on equally new and more general 'systems theory', using computerized mathematics, and also on the theory of games, with its imaginative thought experiments seeking outcomes of alternative 'scenarios'.   Eisenhower was not fond… Read More

The purpose of the state

You know summer is indeed over when Parliament goes back to work. For some, this signals little more than the return of bickering background noise. For others, this signals a passionate call for a return to arms. Regardless of the extent to which we pay attention to what goes on, and regardless of the extent to which we engage, as it begins to unfold, we would do well, I believe, to reflect on what the role of the state is and what it should be. What is its task and in what areas should it intervene? There are many disagreements over this most important question. Answers vary from “as much intervention as possible” to “as little intervention as possible.” I suspect, however, that a great many parliamentarians go about their business on an issue to issue basis. They do so mostly out of good will no doubt, but also without being able to provide a principled and robust explanation as to why the intervention which they support, be it an action, policy, or program, should even find itself within the jurisdiction of the state in the first place. Interventionists generally believe society’s ills are the result of design-flaws within its power structure. Such flaws allow the wrong people to wield power, hence the contempt with which the term one-percenter is uttered. In their view, this deficiency inevitably leads to exploitation and it prevents society from progressing and reaching its full potential. With a deep concern for progress, therefore, interventionists see the state as the only instrument powerful enough to remedy such flaws. Consequently, in an effort to give the best and brightest the necessary tools to lead and carry us forward, they believe state power should grow and its reach should expand. Non-interventionists generally believe society’s ills are the result… Read More

The Bright Countenance and the Obscuring Clouds

Beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies --Poet John Milton (pictured, left) (1608 – 1674); inscribed on McGill's Redpath Library. ...There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life, in which [mass man] does not intervene, blind and deaf as he is, imposing his"opinions." ..Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it. --Philosopher, Ortega y Gasset (pictured, right) (1883–1955). in Revolt of the Masses (1930). ...In today's climate, it's all -too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture....Think for yourself. --From an open letter of advice addressed to incoming university students everywhere, by a group of liberal professors teaching at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, August 29, 2017. __________________________________________________ Milton formulated his pleasant description of scholarly activity a few years before he wrote Paradise Lost. It was a visionary ideal, not an empirical account; in the actual colleges of the early 1600s, there was bitter conflict between supporters of the absolutist Stuart monarchy and the champions of Parliament, culminating in civil war. There was also plenty of more general riotous behaviour, much of it drunken. Francis Bacon claimed that students were made violent 'for want of sufficient maintenance', a little like the debt problem of students today. Nonetheless, it was widely understood that the pursuit of truth was the university's fundamental concern, however temporarily wayward the paths to it. For almost three hundred years after Milton's death, 'the bright countenance' in his mind's eye remained the central justification of university life. But by the late 19th century, the very idea of truth itself began to be undermined… Read More

Quebecers could benefit from a new linguistic social contract

  During the twentieth century, Montreal became increasingly shared between anglophones and francophones, the latter abandoning rural life in order to get work in the city. Add to this a constant influx of immigrants from all over the world, and it was inevitable that the questions would begin to arise as to how the city’s ethnic composition would impact language. As francophones began to fear that their language might come to be marginalized, they clamored for regulatory protection. Such was the backdrop for the passage of Bill 101 forty years ago this month. Consider the Anglophone community’s experience since then. Bill 101 ushered in a vision of Quebec as “unilingual” French, rather than the community’s preference then for bilingualism. Yet, Quebec’s English school system at that time was generating graduates, many of whom who were neither competitively bilingual nor bi-literate in French, so many of them were unable to thrive in either scenario. Since then the situation has evolved as anglophone bilingualism has improved significantly. Nevertheless, some of us have come to look for new approaches such as common bilingual French/English schools like that proposed by Julius Grey in a May 25 submission to the Montreal Gazette on Bill 101 (Also see It’s high time for bilingual schools by co-author Giuliano D’andrea in the Montreal Gazette August 24). Moreover, one can ask if the existence of linguistically–based segregated schools (even the French immersion programs) act to fracture Quebec society like religious-based institutions do in Northern Ireland. One way to address this issue and explore other new ideas would be to develop a new holistic language social contract which could comprehensively address how language groups in a more cosmopolitan twenty-first century now interact on all levels: business, social and educational. Imagine, for example, if the Montreal region had a level of autonomy where… Read More

Atomic Bombs: The Real and the Might-Have-Beens

The history of the Second World War continues to be written and rewritten, with continuing present relevance. New perspectives from the present aside, the war studies have highlighted two larger themes in all history. The first is that important 'now it can be told' revelations in documentary sources have kept on appearing. The second and often related one is the emergence of fresh 'counterfactual', 'what if?' speculations about how the war evolved and ended. The best of all examples have come in re-examining the conception, design, and development of atomic bombs in the major powers from 1939 to 1945. Niall Ferguson once edited a whole anthology of historians writing counterfactual essays about great historical events, but his enthusiasm is not universally shared. Richard Evans, another famous British historian and a leading authority on Nazi Germany, regards these ventures contemptuously, as no more than a mildly amusing game. However, all great wars, with their big winning and losing gambles, have always produced 'for want of a horse' speculations. Tales of the Bomb, both real and imagined, combining elements of geopolitics, European scientific genius, American engineering ingenuity and scale, espionage, and war both hot and cold, have inevitably been irresistible. Above all, the possibility of Hitler's Germany coming first with the Bomb (a fear driving on the Manhattan Project scientists themselves) has been mulled from 1945 to the present. Two notable examples are Heisenberg's War (1997), by Thomas Powers, on the top German nuclear physicist, and The Winter Fortress (2016), by Neil Bascomb, about the successful British and Norwegian sabotage of the indispensable German heavy water plant in Norway. But an equally fascinating 'what if?' has been the conceivable possibility that Churchill's Britain, which unlike Nazi Germany, was actually well ahead of the U. S. in atomic research in the first two… Read More

Our sick and twisted ivory tower

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. So goes the timeworn expression. But the cynical wisdom of that phrase endures. The best example of the law of unexpected consequences— tender sensibilities division— resides with Canada’s Charter of Rights. When proposed in the late 1970s by Liberal PM Pierre Trudeau— and celebrated by many politicians and media— the Charter was heralded as a protection for Canadians against the vagaries of foreign powers, unlawful search-and-seizure, prejudice of every kind. Put simply, it was sold as a code that Canadians could count on to protect them and their rights. In the gauzy days of 1982— when civil libertarians rejoiced that the Charter was enshrined in Canadian law— who could have foreseen a Canadian terrorist, captured by American soldiers after killing one of their own, being awarded $10.5 million by a Canadian prime minister? And the PM of the day saying the Charter left him no choice? No one, of course, could have anticipated the Charter as being anything but a force for good. Guided by the wise hand of the Supreme Court, what could go wrong? Yet, the Omar Khadr debacle has instead demonstrated the vagaries of a Charter that protects rights but defines no obligations on citizens. Americans, who are nothing if not believers in individual rights, are plainly baffled by the spectacle of Canada’s prime minister saying, “No mas” in the face of a terrorist who killed one of their own soldiers and blinded another. Yes, Canada’s activist Supreme Court’s definition of torture is far more liberal than the American definition. Yes, there is some debate whether Khadr threw the grenade that killed medic Christopher Speer (he’s never denied taking part in the fight). Yes, he was 15 years old, brainwashed by his jihadi father. But how does all… Read More
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