It’s time to slam the brakes on Brexit

As the runaway train that is Brexit hurtles toward what appears to be imminent catastrophe, the question arises whether there is anything an embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May can do to save the day. The answer is yes: She can rescind Article 50 notification.

She should do so. Now.

The countdown to Brexit began precisely when Mrs. May notified Brussels almost two years ago of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which states that ‘Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.’ She did so on the authority of parliament following a narrow victory for the Leave side in the national referendum of June 23, 2016.

Since then, the British government has been unable to negotiate a deal providing for an orderly Brexit that will satisfy both Brussels and the British parliament. As a result, the UK stands ready to crash out of the EU without any arrangements in place to avoid massive economic disruption, chaos at British ports, and—perhaps most importantly—a return to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

The UK could request an extension of the March 29 deadline, but the EU may only grant a short one, perhaps until the elections for the European parliament at the end of May. Given the current gridlock, there is no prospect of reaching an agreement by then if one has not been reached by now.

Calls from the Remain side are growing for a second referendum, or for cancelling Brexit altogether. Leavers call this a betrayal of the democratic will and hint ominously at civil unrest.

By rescinding Article 50, Mrs. May would not be cancelling Brexit, merely cancelling Brexit right now.

One can imagine two objections to this move, one legal and one political. The legal argument would be that she has no authority to do it. The political argument would be that it would be unacceptable to the British public. Neither argument holds water.

Legally speaking, the only thing compelling Britain’s exit from the EU on March 29, 2019 is Mrs. May March 29, 2017 Article 50 notification, which was indeed ‘in accordance with [British] constitutional requirements.’ In the Westminster system, parliament is supreme; the 2016 referendum was merely advisory. That the May government has thus far chosen to treat it as binding was a political decision, not a legal or constitutional obligation.

Parliament authorized Mrs. May to invoke Article 50 in the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 of March 16, 2017—formally known as An Act to confer power on the Prime Minister to notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU—which simply states, ‘The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.’ Notice that it said ‘may’; it did not say ‘must’ or ‘shall.’ Notice also that it ‘conferred power’—it did not ‘direct.’

Mrs. May did not invoke Article 50 right away. She waited more than two weeks. She might have waited a month. Or two. Or twelve. Or left the task to a future prime minister. So she would be well within her legal rights to rescind her earlier notification, on the ground that intervening events have proven it premature. The EU has already said it would allow this.

Politically, revocation would be the least explosive of all the available options. The majority of British voters—who would now almost certainly choose Remain if given a second chance—would likely be ecstatic. Leavers would predictably howl, but they would not be able to claim that she had subverted the democratic will. Neither the 2016 referendum nor the Notification of Withdrawal Act called for Britain to leave the EU precisely on March 29, or on any other particular date.

Mrs. May could rightly claim that many Leave supporters, and possibly most, had not voted for a disorderly exit, and she could rightly insist that it would be irresponsible for her to proceed without an orderly one in sight.

By revoking Article 50 notification, in short, Mrs. May would simply stop the clock. This would allow time for passions to cool and open space for rational deliberation about which option is best for Britain in the long run—taking the best exit deal the EU will offer, holding a second referendum, or simply staying in the EU.

In the short run, the pound would soar, markets would rise, and the entire world minus the likes of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Vladimir Putin would heave an enormous sigh of relief.

Revoking Article 50 notification would give Mrs. May an opportunity to demonstrate some judgment, courage, and leadership. Sadly, her track record to date provides little ground for optimism.

It’s time to drum Turkey out of NATO

This is the original, correct version of the piece that appeared in the print edition of The Globe and Mail missing a paragraph.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization—better known as NATO—was originally founded in 1949, as the first Secretary General Lord Ismay famously put it, “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Since then it has grown from 12 to 29 members and is universally considered the most successful military alliance in history.

What makes NATO so successful is that it is much more than a military alliance. It is a club of like-minded states, as the preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty puts it, “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” These shared commitments have socialized its members profoundly over the years to identify with each other, cementing bonds of solidarity and reinforcing what are, historically speaking, unusually robust norms of peaceful dispute resolution. Together with the European Union, NATO must get credit for solving “the Franco-German problem,” eliminating war in most of Europe, and creating what political scientists call a “security community”—a region in which the threat or use of force has truly become unthinkable.

But there is an odd man out.

In its latest “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House dropped Turkey from the “partly free” to the “not free” category, citing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “growing contempt for political rights and civil liberties in recent years” and “serious abuses in areas including minority rights, free expression, associational rights, corruption, and the rule of law.” With an aggregate score of 32/100, Turkey is a stark outlier in NATO, well behind second-last Montenegro (67) and the overall NATO average (87). Moreover, the trend is bad. Turkey dropped 6 points from 2017, more than any other NATO member, only three of which dropped 3 points or more (Hungary, Poland, and the United States).

While Turkey’s deepening authoritarianism alone should be enough to disqualify it from NATO, its recent behavior is of at least equal concern. While perhaps not overtly complicit with the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) as some have charged, it passively enabled it by failing to seal off the flow of jihadists to, and oil from, ISIL-controlled territory. More recently, it has intervened militarily in Syria for the sole purpose of preventing the most effective anti-ISIL fighting force—the Kurdish YPG, armed and trained by the United States—from consolidating territory along its southern border. Far from contributing to a peaceful solution to the tragic situation in Syria, Ankara is inflaming it.

In 2017, Turkey also broke ranks by purchasing an advanced Russian surface-to-air missile system, the S‑400, over strong objections from fellow NATO countries. The deal not only benefits NATO’s chief strategic competitor but threatens to undermine the interoperability on which NATO’s military effectiveness depends.

It is possible, of course, that a future Turkish leader will right the ship and bring Turkey back to the fold. Erdogan himself is entirely to blame. Fifteen years of increasingly authoritarian rule have shown once again the wisdom of Lord Acton, who wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But apparently healthy, only 64, and through his own political machinations essentially President for Life, Erdogan could be around for a long while yet.

There are two practical obstacles to pushing Turkey out of NATO. One is the North Atlantic Treaty itself, which provides for accession but not expulsion. All decisions of the NATO Council are by unanimous consent, so Turkey wields a veto. One would have to rely upon Erdogan’s sense of shame to induce him to withdraw.

The other is that Turkey holds a metaphorical gun to Europe’s head. In 2016, Turkey and the EU concluded an agreement by which Ankara agreed to take in “irregular migrants” trying to make their way from Syria to Europe in return for material and financial support for resettling them in Turkey and liberalized visa processing for Turkish nationals. With more than 3 million refugees in Turkey, Erdogan could conceivably, in a fit of pique, unleash a human torrent upon Europe that would make the 1980 Mariel Boatlift look like child’s play.

At the end of the day, Turkey’s fellow NATO members may not—probably will not—bite the bullet and try to maintain the integrity of the club. But they should at least make clear that Turkey is now a member only by forbearance, not by desert.


Birding with the Zeiss Milvus 2/135

American Redstart

Any bird photographer will tell you that there is no perfect lens for all situations, but very few would even imagine using a 135mm lens for birding at all. The longer the lens, the easier to draw in a small, skittish subject. Fewer still would dream of using a manual focus lens without image stabilization. And yet three months with the Zeiss Milvus 2/135 taught me that there is a lot about this lens for a birder to love.

The best feature of the Milvus 2/135 is what bird photographers care most about: image quality. Razor-sharp and virtually distortion-free from f/2 to f/14, it controls flaring and minimizes chromatic aberration edge-to-edge better than any long lens I have ever used, even wide open. Bokeh that can only be described as luscious frames and highlights the subject, giving it truly dramatic impact. Many lenses will enable you to capture a nice image of a bird, but it takes a lens with exceptional optical qualities to give you a work of art.

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler

This is not a lens, however, that you could pair with just any camera body. My body of choice was the Canon EOS 7D Mk II, for two main reasons. First, with an APS-C sensor, the 7D Mk II gives you an effective 1.6x crop factor, allowing you to put more pixels on the bird than a full-frame camera of similar resolution. Second, the 7D Mk II’s burst rate of up to 10 fps gives you a lot of kicks at the can. This is particularly important when using a manual-focus lens, because one will want to do micro-focus bracketing whenever possible to maximize the chance of nailing the shot. Mastering manual micro-focus bracketing takes a little practice, but after just a few outings I was able to boost my yield rate to a level comparable to that of my autofocus lenses. With a tight, firm focus ring, the Milvus 2/135 is highly responsive to the tiny adjustments required.

Tree Swallow

The 7D Mk II does not excel, unfortunately, at handling noise above ISO 800, which might tempt you to try the Milvus 2/135 with a higher-end body, such as the full-frame Canon 1DX Mk II, which shines at high-ISO noise processing (and gives you an extra 4-6 fps to boot). But with a short lens, giving up the built-in crop-factor zoom is simply too much of a price to pay. Fortunately, the large aperture of the Zeiss Milvus 2/135 will help you keep ISO down to manageable levels in all but the dimmest lighting conditions.

Bird photographers come in two varieties: those who prefer shutter priority, and those who prefer aperture priority. I have always been in the former category, as I generally find that the odds of shooting a keeper image are higher when one prioritizes focus over depth of field. Shooting with the Milvus 2/135 reinforced my preference. At shutter speeds of 1/500 and higher, the lack of image stabilization was not a factor. Shots requiring 1/250 or less generally call for a steadier hand than mine, and this is the zone where IS really pays off. But I rarely found myself being called upon to drop the shutter speed that far.

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo (fledgling)

To capture a good image of a bird with a short lens, it is necessary, of course, to get quite close. I found myself practising stealth approaches and doing my best to look inconspicuous (no bright clothing!). But the payoff is that it is possible to get a very close shot—something that one can never do with a long lens—and to do so in places where dense foliage would thwart an autofocus lens even if one could focus on the subject. Warblers are my subjects of choice, because of their personality and stunningly beautiful plumage, but they are difficult to shoot because they usually either linger in the tops of canopies or forage in dense brush. No lens will help with the former, because of bad angles, backlighting, or intervening foliage, but a short lens has a decided advantage with the latter.  Warblers are also quick. A long lens might do better pulling them in, but a shorter lens is better at target acquisition. It is much easier to get the lens on the bird with a 10° rather than 3° field of view.

Northern Cardinal (f.)

Wood Duck (juv.)

Ring-billed Gull

In some respects, birding with the Zeiss Milvus 2/135 is exactly the same as with birding with a longer lens: one will do better with spot focus, center-weighted exposure, stopping down at least 1/3 so as not to blow out highlights, and shooting in RAW to give you maximum postprocessing flexibility. I like to apply a degree of denoising to the background—generally masking the bird itself, to retain detail—and some very subtle color enhancements. But with the Zeiss Milvus 2/135, I never found myself having to fix chromatic aberration or purple fringing.

If birds are not your thing, you will still find that the Zeiss Milvus 2/135 can be rewarding with other outdoor subjects. With it I was able to capture bees, butterflies, dragonflies, and frogs while on my birding outings, something I have rarely been able to do successfully with a longer lens on my camera. Creatures such as these are much more tolerant of photographers, but not just any lens can do them justice: one wants a lens with the detail and accuracy of the Zeiss to make the most of the occasion.

The Zeiss Milvus 2/135 was designed and marketed primarily as a portrait lens for studio work. But as a birding lens, it is surprisingly delightful. It just goes to show that you cannot judge a lens by its brochure.

Monarch Butterfly

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Leopard Frog



Should Jays Fans Worry about R.A. Dickey?

September is fretting season for Toronto Blue Jays’ fans. If the team is doing badly, the hand-wringing is all about whether the front office will make the off-season moves needed to field a competitor next year. If the team is doing well, it’s all about whether they will choke down the stretch, and who is holding them back.

This September the Jays-fans’-angst gaze has fallen heavily on R.A. Dickey, who was a big part of last year’s pennant run, and who is clearly having one of his rockier seasons, winning only 9 of his 28 starts with an ERA of 4.60. When Dickey is on, he is unhittable. When he is off, he might as well be tossing BP (*batting practice). So far, he has mostly been off.

What makes Dickey unhittable when he is good is his knuckleball, a pitch few use because few can throw it. Under the right circumstances, a knuckleball has a highly unpredictable flight path, which means that when the pitcher releases the ball hitters (as well as catchers!) cannot anticipate where it will cross the plate. A knuckleball literally wobbles en route, bobbing and weaving in a seemingly random manner. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali, Dickey’s knuckleball can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. You can see this very clearly in this slow-motion .gif.

But what makes knuckleballers unhittable in one context makes them mortal in another. Compared to hard-throwing pitchers with the standard fastball/sinker/changeup repertoire, knuckleballers don’t have anywhere near as much control over where their pitches go. Inconsistency is inherent to the knuckleball-throwing enterprise. This is because the knuckleball is the perfect chaotic system.

In physics, a chaotic system is one that is extremely sensitive to initial conditions and easily perturbed by stochastic (i.e., random) influences. The defining feature of a knuckleball is that it leaves the pitcher’s hand without any rotation whatsoever. As the ball moves toward home plate, ambient turbulence will knock it off course, and perhaps also induce a slow spin in an unpredictable direction. Every other pitch—fastball, forkball, curveball, sinker—leaves the pitcher’s hand with a deliberately-imparted spin that will, as a result of Bernoulli’s principle, decrease air pressure on a specific side of the ball and induce a motion in that direction. Good pitchers can place these pitches very accurately. Good batters can identify them shortly after they leave the pitcher’s hand and anticipate where they will go. With a well-thrown knuckleball under ideal conditions, they have no idea. Throwing a knuckleball is a bit like curling without giving the rock an initial rotation: as it travels down the sheet, it will inevitably pick up a random spin of its own and go somewhere totally unpredictable. In curling, that’s insane. In baseball, it’s brilliant.

The problem is that very minor changes in initial conditions can turn a knuckleball into a big fat grapefruit that screams “Hit me please!” These minor changes can include the roughness of the ball’s surface, the length of the pitcher’s fingernails, the timing of his release, whether the roof of the SkyDome (er, Rogers Centre) is open or closed, atmospheric pressure, wind speed, humidity, and so on.

The fact that a knuckleball is a chaotic system means that, by their very nature, knuckleballs have a relatively high circular error probable, or CEP. Even with perfect initial release (i.e., the pitcher knows exactly where he wants the pitch to cross the plate and releases the ball appropriately), the odds that it will cross the plate at any given distance from the target are significantly greater than with any other pitch, whose tight rotation minimizes mid-flight perturbations. Since knuckleballs are relatively slow pitches, unless circumstances are just right, they will have flight paths that are relatively easy to anticipate and—if their flight path takes them over the plate—relatively easy to hit.

It is no surprise, therefore, that knuckleballers as a group have less impressive records than hard-throwing pitchers. They will be unhittable a smaller proportion of the time. According to the Bleacher Report, the top 10 knuckleballers of all time have net negative win-loss records (49 percent), an average ERA of 3.81, and an average career win total of 180 games. Only one knuckleball pitcher—Phil Niekro—has won more than 300 games. In contrast, the ten best starting pitchers of all time—none of whom threw a knuckleball—won 61 percent of their games, had an average ERA of 2.73, an average career win total of 330, and a dramatically higher total award haul.

Top 10 knuckleballers W% ERA W
1 Phil Niekro 0.535 3.49 318
2 Tim Wakefield 0.527 4.40 200
3 Charlie Hough 0.506 3.77 216
4 Hoyt Wilhelm 0.479 2.67 148
5 Dutch Leonard 0.560 2.99 139
6 Wilbur Wood 0.455 3.60 164
7 Joe Niekro 0.511 3.96 221
8 Tom Candiotti 0.480 3.97 151
9 R.A. Dickey 0.417 5.58 109
10 Bob Purkey 0.451 3.71 129
Top 10 starting pitchers W% ERA W
1 Walter Johnson 0.580 2.35 417
2 Christy Mathewson 0.610 2.37 373
3 Ed Walsh 0.547 2.12 195
4 Mordecai Brown 0.612 2.26 239
5 Grover Alexander 0.605 2.96 373
6 Pedro Martinez 0.649 3.00 219
7 Roger Clemens 0.649 3.22 354
8 Randy Johnson 0.664 3.41 303
9 Cy Young 0.601 2.66 511
10 Tom Seaver 0.595 3.00 311

Why would any manager field a knuckleballer then, you might ask? Because when the knuckleball works, it really, truly, genuinely is unhittable. Even the best power pitcher is hittable when he is throwing his best stuff. The odds are low, but they aren’t negligible. Under the right conditions, the odds of hitting a knuckleball are negligible. And in the average rotation, a good knuckleball pitcher—who will also, of course, have other pitches up his sleeve—is very likely to be one of the top five starters.

All of this is by way of saying that unless Dickey is injured, distracted, or otherwise impaired, there is no reason whatsoever to worry about his having had a bad season thus far. It’s in the nature of the pitch he throws. He could have a stellar October without doing anything different at all.

So, at least, we may reasonably hope. Chaos theory says so.

Blaming for Dummies

Who is responsible for the downing of MH17, and how can we tell?

Almost as soon as it became apparent that someone shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17, the blame game began.  There are, of course, the usual crazy conspiracy theories.  Then there is the transparently politically motivated finger-pointing.  There are the predictable pundits and armchair experts.  Largely lost in the noise are the cautious few who insist that we don’t have all the relevant facts and have to wait and see.

Actually, we don’t have to wait and see.  There is plenty of information available on the basis of which to start assigning blame.  Most of it, in fact.  You just have to know how.

Let’s begin by noting that apportioning responsibility is a special case of determining causality.  For any event, we can usually distinguish three different kinds of cause.  The proximate cause immediately precedes it.  Intermediate causes set the stage for it.  Deep causes make the stage-setting possible.  Think of an explosive going off: the proximate cause is the completion of the circuit in the detonator; the intermediate cause is the fact that somebody connected the detonator to some explosive material; the deep causes include all of the research and knowledge that went into understanding and designing explosives. You need all three. Without any one, nothing happens.

We don’t bother asking who bears moral responsibility for an explosive going off if no evil comes of it. Nobody points the finger of blame at construction crews who blast rock for a highway. We assign blame when someone did or failed to do something as a matter of choice that resulted in harm.  Naturally, we adjust our assessment of blame depending upon whether the act in question violated some well-established rule or norm, whether it was avoidable, whether it was intentional, and whether the evil that followed from it was (or could have been) foreseen.

Now, with respect to the shooting down of MH17, there is little doubt that it was brought down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile, and whoever pulled the trigger must clearly bear some of the blame.  At present we do not know who was involved on the ground, and we may never know.  No one wants to own this.  But all signs point toward ethnic Russian separatists acting independently or with the support of the Russian military.

How much blame rests with whoever fired the missile?  Some, but not all.  This was a tragic mistake.  No one had any incentive to bring down a passing civilian airliner.  Almost certainly the SAM crew thought they were shooting at a military target.  They may have thought this because they were insufficiently trained, because they had inadequate information, or because they were not using the equipment properly.  But there is no indication that the resulting harm was deliberate.  In a court of law, they would be found guilty of manslaughter, but not murder.

More to the point, no one would have been shooting SAMs at anything if Ukraine had not been in the throes of a civil war. We know what happens in war: innocent people get killed.  MH17 was one shocking and horrific example, and as far as we know the only one so far involving innocent people from so many far away countries. But whoever set the stage for this tragedy must bear a great deal of the moral responsibility—not only for the loss of these particular lives, but for putting at risk the lives of so many innocent people in Ukraine.

Where else do we look for culpability in addition to those who pulled the trigger?  One possibility is to reach all the way back into the deep causes.  There is a civil war in eastern Ukraine because Russians and Ukrainians have not gotten along very well for much of their deeply entwined histories. (Outsiders may perhaps be forgiven for thinking that this brings to mind once again what Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.”)  It would be interesting but for present purposes pointless to ask, “Whose fault is that?” Too much has happened between now and then to draw clear lines of culpability.

In any case, things were actually working fairly well in post-Soviet Ukraine. It may have been corrupt and inefficient, but Ukraine was well on its way to becoming a modern, well-functioning democracy of the kind that could reasonably hope to qualify for admission to the European Union someday.  It was making progress on the checklist of requirements, which included respect for human rights, protections for national minorities, and a uniform standard of good governance.  It was, in short, headed very much in a direction away from civil war.  It’s hardly convincing to blame people who died decades or centuries ago when ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians had already shown that they could get along when left to their own devices.

So we must look to intermediate causes.

Things started to go wrong on November 21 last year when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reneged on a commitment to sign a trade deal with the EU, opting instead for closer ties with Russia, triggering a wave of anger and frustration that resulted ultimately in the Maidan rebellion, Yanukovych’s ouster, his eventual replacement as president by Petro Poroshenko, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the outbreak of separatist violence in the Donbas region.

Who bears primary responsibility for this sequence of events?

Where you stand on that question depends upon where you sit. There are two main narratives.  The dominant narrative in Russia is that guilt lies with the “fascists” who overthrew a democratically elected government and the Western powers who allegedly encouraged them. This is a tortured tale. Much of what goes into this story is simply false.  Yanukovych was ousted not by fascists but by ordinary people who saw their hopes for a better future being dashed.  Western governments were obviously not particularly happy with Yanukovych and were mostly pleased to see the back of him, but it gives them far too much credit to say that they orchestrated any of the relevant events.

The other main answer lays the blame at the feet of Vladimir Putin, first for pressuring Yanukovych to kill the EU deal, then for engineering the secession of Crimea and its annexation to Russia, and finally for arming, supporting, and tacitly encouraging Russian nationalist separatists.

This answer is much more persuasive.

Ukraine would not be aflame today if Putin had not repeatedly and deliberately meddled in its internal affairs; if he had not blatantly violated a core principle of modern European international relations — namely, the inviolability of national borders; and if he had not treated Ukraine like a pawn in some anachronistic great power game. No one has more clearly or more effectively subverted Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, violated basic international norms, and put innocent lives at risk.  None of this was necessary.  It was all avoidable.  Most of it was intentional.  While the particular tragedy of MH17 might not have been foreseeable, tragedies of one sort or another were inevitable.  No one has more blood on his hands.

Obama’s Bad Reasons for Bombing Syria

Barring a spectacular miscalculation of the kind that thwarted British Prime Minister David Cameron the other day, it’s looking almost inevitable that U.S. President Barack Obama will unleash a minor barrage in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. In doing so, he will be seeking to accomplish five specific goals.  He will achieve only one.  In the process, he will make a very bad situation worse.

Why does Obama want to attack Syria, and why is he largely doomed to fail?  In no particular order, his reasons are as follows:

The first is to uphold U.S. credibility.  While no doubt heartfelt, this bespeaks an appalling ignorance both of human psychology and of how little goodwill the United States now enjoys around the world, particularly in the Middle East.  Credibility is in the eye of the beholder; it is not in the eye of the beheld.  Washington cannot control the reputational implications people will draw from U.S. military action.  True, if you say you will do something often enough and never actually do it, people will eventually stop believing your threats; but if you do something when you said you would do it, they will not necessarily conclude that you always keep your word, particularly when they already firmly believe that you do not.  Far more likely, people will conclude that Obama is an idiot for doing something stupid just because he said he would (and bear in mind that when he first drew a “red line,” he never actually specified what he would do); that he has as little respect for international law and the UN Security Council as his predecessor did; that he has even less concern for international legal fig leaves in the form of “coalitions of the willing”; and/or that he has some insidious ulterior motive, most likely having to do with Israel, U.S. corporate interests, the Democratic Party’s prospects in the next election, or the country of his birth—wherever that is.

The second reason is to defend the norm against the use of chemical weapons.  This norm needs no defence; it reflects a widespread and growing revulsion, which Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people has, in fact, buttressed dramatically.  Bombing Syria is not going to make Assad and his ilk suddenly internalize this revulsion.

The third is to deter Assad (and others) from using chemical weapons again.  Assad has demonstrated that he will do whatever he thinks necessary to stay in power.  Largely symbolic military strikes have no chance of changing that.  We do not know which other despicable leaders out there are capable of using chemical weapons against their own citizens, but you can be sure that if they thought they faced a choice between gassing their own people and going down, Obama’s strikes against Syria are not going to weigh in the balance.

The fourth is to punish.  The United States is not talking about the kind of military action that would really hurt Assad.  At this point, the only thing that Assad would even notice is something that would cost him either his job or his life.  He is already living in a war zone.  Pinprick U.S. attacks will not alter that.

The fifth is to feel good.  This one will work.  I have no doubt that the president, Secretary of State John Kerry, and various other American officials, legislators, and citizens are rightly morally appalled by Assad’s actions, and that their sense of justice demands some kind of action in response.  Doing nothing is almost impossible psychologically.  Even if strikes accomplish nothing else, at least they will be able to say that they did something, and will sleep better at night.

Until they realize that they have made a bad situation worse.

Why will it be worse?  It does not take long to see that nearly-unilateral U.S. military action has essentially no upside and a great deal of downside.  Among the two who have made this case most cogently are Harvard political Scientist Stephen Walt in a recent pithy if unsentimental piece in the New York Times, and the writers at The Onion, whose satirical op-ed purportedly by Assad himself is by far the best account of the box Obama is in that I have yet seen.

If military action had a reasonable chance of actually accomplishing something constructive, I would be all in favour; but it does not.  It will neither deter nor punish Assad; it will succeed only in killing more Syrians (very likely more innocent Syrian civilians than guilty Syrian officials); it will not buttress U.S. credibility where it matters, or the norm against the use of chemical weapons; it will inflame anti-American sentiment in the Middle East; it will further alienate Russia and China; and it will deal yet another blow to the idea of a rule- and procedure-governed international order.

It is frustrating, to be sure, that the international community is unwilling to act.  But life occasionally presents us with situations that have no good options, only bad ones.

It would be a tragic irony indeed if America’s noble impulse to act in the face of atrocity merely resulted in further atrocity, or made more likely the unprecedented capture of a chemically-armed state by Islamist extremist zealots, as Russia and China so obviously fear.

It is already a tragic irony that the best possible response—symbolically significant as well as normatively and legally progressive—is unavailable to President Obama because of his country’s antediluvian antipathy to the International Criminal Court: namely, indictments and bounties for the capture and delivery of Assad and his chemical-happy cronies to The Hague.

The Case Against the Case Against Empathy

Twitter is a poor medium for debating complicated subjects, so my “Possibly the dumbest thing I’ve read ever” comment on Paul Bloom’s recent New Yorker piece,The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy,” understandably contributed little to the advancement of understanding.  I’m still learning the pros and cons of Twitter.  But alea iacta est, so in response to reply tweets such as “Did you read the article, or just the title?” (thank you for that), here are the issues I have with it.

To begin, Bloom conflates at least four distinct psychological phenomena and calls them all “empathy.”  Admittedly, both dictionaries and common usage aren’t good at keeping these distinct, largely because English is a living language and dictionary definitions eventually follow common usage.  But our job as scholars is to clear up confusion, not promote it.  Here are the four phenomena, with my preferred labels for each:

  1. Empathy.  This is the capacity to see the world from another’s perspective.  It is merely to understand, not to agree with.  Reagan and Gorbachev managed empathy, in the sense that they both came to understand that the other feared nuclear war more than anything else, but neither made a convert of the other.
  2. Sympathy.  This adds to cognitive understanding both cognitive and emotional agreement: you both understand and share.  Reagan and Thatcher  did not merely empathize with each other; they sympathized.
  3. Compassion.  This is feeling sorry for someone in a way that tugs at your heartstrings and makes you want to help.  You may not understand how that person sees the world, and even if you do you may not share the perspective and the feeling; but you are a nice person who wants to relieve what you believe (probably correctly most of the time) to be someone else’s suffering.  The idiot who offered to shoulder a convict’s burden on the Via Dolorosa in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian was moved by compassion, and clearly didn’t know enough about the convict to anticipate being stuck with his cross.
  4. Pity.  This is compassion’s evil twin, because it adds a self-esteem booster in the form of “thank God I’m not like that.”

Now, these distinctions are important, because empathy as I have defined it is almost never a bad thing.  Empathy won’t cure all the world’s ills, and from time to time it will just help you understand more clearly that there are no feel-good ways out of a jam (Churchill understood earlier than most that the only way to defeat Hitler was to thump him).  But you are only ever better off not empathizing in trivial kinds of cases—for example, when someone secretly thinks you look fat.  Sympathy, compassion, and pity, on the other hand, can get us into really big trouble some of the time.  Not all of the time; some of the time.

How much of the time?  Anecdotes about ill-defined “empathy” resulting in outcomes that someone else would not have chosen don’t establish general points—they merely illustrate challenges.  Bloom’s piece is strong on anecdotes, but makes them sound like general points.  He admiringly quotes Thomas Schelling, who writes: “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her.  But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”  Probably true, but hospitals in general are much better funded than six-year-old girls with brown hair.  Or take Newtown.  Compassion is surely part of the reason why “in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, [Newtown] was inundated with so much charity that it became a burden.”  This is a classic example of unintended consequences, or a function of what Schelling called micromotives and macrobehavior—the solution to which is to coordinate and plan, not to diss compassion.

Bloom tilts at windmills and lets innuendo convey the message that empathy is bad and reason is good.  There is just enough hedging in the piece to supply plausible deniability on this charge, but we all know how catchy journalism really works.  Little qualifications on the side don’t affect most readers’ takeaway.

At the end of the day, nobody really disagrees with the statement that “Moral judgment entails more than putting oneself in another’s shoes.”  But you can’t make rational judgments on the basis of misunderstandings.    Our various mental faculties coevolved as they did precisely because they were adaptive together.  We need both empathy and reason.  No one illustrates the point better than Tom Schelling, whose hyper-rational approach to solving problems helped lead to the unnecessary deaths of 58,000 Americans and some 3 million Vietnamese.  A little empathy would have prevented that.