The not-so-simple issue of Philippine ‘slavery’

Published May 20, 2017

(First, a bit of an explanation: Besides my thrice-weekly column – of which this is one installment – I write anywhere from 15 to as many as 25 other articles on six different subjects during a normal work week at The Manila Times. Thus, I tend to get a little jaded; the sheer volume of work means that particular topics or what I might have to say about them rarely lingers in my thoughts. This one, however, which was written at the suggestion of Managing Editor Felipe Salvosa II, is an exception, and one I thought worthy of having its shelf life extended a bit.)

THE late journalist Alex Tizon’s moving and very personal account of “his family’s slave” – the domestic helper who served three generations of his family for 56 years – published in The Atlantic this week has set off a storm of debate, cultural recriminations, and, one would hope, a bit of national soul-searching on both the part of the Philippines, from where both Tizon and his utusan hailed, and the US, where they lived and worked.

The reactions to Tizon’s confession can be summed up in three ways. The US audience, for the most part, has responded with righteous indignation, much of directed at Tizon, but more directed at Filipino culture, wherein stories like that of Tizon’s “lola” are commonplace. The reaction from the Filipino audience has been mixed; some take offense to American judgment, others express some degree of agreement with it.

There are few issues in this country that are as potentially explosive as the role of servants in Philippine society and the economy. To the average American, the concept that anyone but the very wealthy would have servants is completely alien, even though the reality is they are quite common, even in middle-class American society. We think nothing of farming our preschool children out to daycare providers, or hiring assistants for our elderly relatives. Applying servants to normal domestic chores, however, is regarded as flaunting wealth; most of us are raised to have at least a basic ability to manage living functions like cleaning, cooking, and washing our clothes, and accept doing those things as part of normal everyday life.

The big difference, however, between servants in the US and servants here is that they are very much regarded as employees or service providers; our relationship with them is fundamentally transactional – there is a clear exchange of compensation for service. Here in the Philippines, not only is the servant expected to provide a vastly greater amount of service, the relationship between the servant and the served is much more complex.

That complexity is what makes sincere efforts in this country to transform the relationship into an objective employer-employee arrangement difficult at best, and perhaps ultimately futile. Sometimes kasambahays are strangers, hired according to reasonably specific terms, but just as often if not more so, they are beneficiaries; the poor distant cousin from the province with little education and no gainful prospects is almost a cliché. Even if they are not, most servants who stay with a family for any length of time come to be regarded as a part of the family; sometimes that relationship may be no better than the relationship between the household and the family dog or carabao, but often it is something much more.

And yes, it does amount to slavery in many cases. The reality is that many households with domestic helpers cannot really afford them according to the requirements of the law – which stipulates a minimum wage, a certain level of benefits, and standards for working periods and conditions – and it is certain that a great many servants are not being compensated or treated “fairly” according to the law, and some are not being compensated at all.

But it is not exactly appropriate to condemn a Filipino social phenomenon according to American social standards, because the American perspective will never understand just how complicated or how deeply ingrained in this culture the whole thing is. This society would immediately cease to function if the role of “domestic helper” suddenly vanished.

Yes, we – American or Filipino – can objectively say that if a person’s relationship to a household is primarily one of providing service, then that person should be provided clear terms of employment, fair and regular compensation, and appropriate working conditions, just as any worker has a right to. But in order to impose that and make it what it should be, a fundamental component of the culture, a couple of other fundamental components of Filipino culture – the expectation that everyone is obliged to take care of everyone else, and the consequent diminished importance of “self reliance” in a person’s character – need to be undone. Because as long as those parts of the Filipino culture persist, the relationship between household and servant will always be murky, and not easy to define as either “employee” or “family member.”

For the Philippines, doing away with those aspects of Filipino character would be nothing less than undergoing a cultural lobotomy; realizing that no matter how well I understand this culture, I will always have a transplanted Western perspective precludes me from sharing my own personal judgment about whether that is necessary.

Tizon defined his lola Eudocia’s role in his household as a slave, and telling her story was, as it turned out, his deathbed confession (he died in March) of his guilt for being a slaveholder. He was right, not necessarily because that is how one set of mores or another defines it, but because that is how he defined it.

As much as his last work has encouraged a much needed public debate, it is also a highly personal story, which reminds us that the issues of ingrained classism, entitlement, material poverty, and poverty of the spirit are personal, too; coming to terms with it, becoming better people, and making a better nation and world is not going to be easy, or solved with 140-character Twitter debates or “hearings in aid of legislation.”

A life of numbers

M-THEORY, or whatever a possible refined future version of it might be called, offers a solution, albeit a rather complex one, to the question of what our universe is made of; we say “our” universe, because the theory offers an almost infinite number of solutions, which in turn suggests there are probably just as many universes.

The whole framework, however, only makes sense as a solution if we accept a fundamental component that is rather difficult to conceptualize – the string, the building block of all that exists.

A string is a one-dimensional, vibrating object about the Planck length (1.616229(38)×10−35 m) in size, which moves in 11 dimensions and from our four-dimensional perspective appears to be an elementary particle, one of the possible 34 (the 17 fundamental particles of the Standard Model and their supersymmetric partners) that make up everything in the universe, and in fact, with the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson, the fabric of the universe itself.

The Planck length is named for the German physicist Max Planck, the father of quantum theory (work for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1918), and is essentially the smallest distance that still makes any physical sense; at less than the Planck length, the time dimension is indistinguishable from the space dimensions, and it is impossible to distinguish two separate points.

The string exists at this almost unimaginably minute scale, but visualizing a string as a very small object is actually inaccurate. A string does not have a physical form, but is rather an energetic vibration. Picture a guitar string, which vibrates in our four familiar dimensions when strummed – the spatial dimensions are side-to-side, up-and-down, and a form of a wave passing along its length, while the time dimension is measured by the frequency of the vibration. Remove the string itself but allow the vibration to remain, and that is essentially what a “string” is: Its existence is only manifested by a mathematical description that predicts its effects, which in turn can only be confirmed by indirect evidence produced by some of the most powerful, complex machines on Earth.

Further boggling the imagination is that in order for the math to make sense of the interactions of strings-as-particles – for one thing, some have mass (expressed as a function of energy, m=E/c2, according to Einstein’s famous equation) and some do not – we have deduced that the medium of space itself is something called a Higgs Field, named for its discoverer, Peter Higgs. The Higgs Field is composed of Higgs bosons; an understandable, although somewhat flawed, analogy for it is the composition of water. The interaction of this extremely short-lived (something on the order of 10-27 seconds) force carrier on different particles imparts their mass, which, after many orders of magnitude, constitutes the mass of everything. Spotting a Higgs boson, which the Large Hadron Collider was finally able to do back in 2012, has been described as being roughly the same as throwing a grenade at a solid wall and identifying a single particle of dust that gets knocked away from it.

Our entire universe and everything in it is, at the most fundamental level where the difference between mass and energy is irrelevant, is composed of a mathematical contrivance of our own making. It’s not that strings aren’t “real,” because this really happens:

Computer-generated graphic of a 14 TeV collision of protons in the Large Hadron Collider, which indirectly shows the presence of a Higgs Boson by way of its decay into four muons. Really. Image: CERN

It’s that the only way we can make them tangible is through the creation of an intellectual model. We have, in effect, created our own reality; everything we know and everything we are is nothing more than a complicated arrangement of numbers.

But is it really our creation, or someone else’s? That, obviously, is a devilish question. All these sophisticated scientific discoveries make a strong case for “intelligent design,” i.e., some form of deity, a Creator with a capital C. There is a compelling school of thought that suggests exactly what that Creator might be.

Famed American physicist John Archibald Wheeler was probably the first (or if not, he was at least the best at it) to collect various notions relating to reality as a function of perception into a sensible form; he described reality as “participatory,” and experiments with his ideas have tended to support his notion that “everything is information.” This gives rise to the idea that, if we have not created the Universe on our own, we may simply be living in someone else’s simulation of it. In recent years, theoretical physicist James Gates Jr. has discovered what appears to be computer code in the complex formulae of supersymmetry – specifically, doubly-even self-dual linear binary error-correcting block codes, which are actually relatively common on our human scale; they’re used to remove errors in computer transmissions, such as in sequences of bits in text transmitted across a wire.

In another sense, though, that doesn’t really answer the Big Question. Our perceptions of evidence pointing to a conclusion that we are living in a big reality simulation are still simply our perceptions; God as a fat, shirtless geek in front of a computer screen in his Mom’s basement, as far as we know and can ever know, is our own creation.

All life and its meaning for us, it seems, boils down to a simple yet maddeningly insoluble proposition: Either we exist because we exist, or nothing exists and we are only figments of our own imagination.

Little wiggly bits


TWO mysteries – what makes up the universe, and how did it come into existence – have driven scientific inquiry since the dawn of civilization. Within the last 20 years or so, those mysteries have been, if not exactly resolved, at least placed in a context where their solution is inevitable.

As far as where the universe came from, it is generally accepted that it began as a zero-dimensional point of infinite mass and energy, which began expanding (13.799±0.021)×109 years ago in what is referred to somewhat misleadingly as the “Big Bang.” While it might be intellectually amusing to consider where the seed of the universe came from, it is probably also futile; we have no frame of reference from which we can consider it externally, and thus, as Hawking and Mlodinow put it in their 2010 book The Grand Design, “…it would make no sense to create a model that encompasses time before the big bang, because what existed then would have no observable consequences for the present, and so we might as well stick with the idea that the big bang was the creation of the world.”

What the universe is made of has been a little harder to pin down, but science seems to have finally gotten itself on the right track to figuring it out with something called M-Theory, which was introduced to the world in 1995 by a physicist named Edward Witten.

At this point I should offer a disclaimer that what follows will likely make any real physicist reading it cringe at its simplicity, but the beauty of nature is that the horribly complex concepts we use to describe it actually can be distilled to simple terms normal humans (a large subset of our species that even some physicists would agree doesn’t include them) can understand.

If our understanding of nature is correct, the science we use to describe it should be consistent at any scale, from the very smallest particles that make up everything in the universe to the universe itself as a single object. The biggest problem in physics is that our science doesn’t do that, yet.

We know that everything in our four-dimensional universe (three dimensions of space and one of time, all bound up in one medium we call spacetime) interacts through four fundamental forces: The strong force, which is responsible for holding atoms together; the weak force, which is responsible for radioactive decay; electromagnetism, which is responsible for, among other things, my ability to sit at a computer and type this and your ability to read it on the device of your choice; and gravity, which holds everything together in the nice, orderly way we perceive when we step outside and look up at the stars at night, or pour a cup of coffee with the certainty the liquid will stay there until we do something with it.

Quantum mechanics, which, when combined with Einstein’s special theory of relativity, becomes relativistic quantum field theory, describes the action and relationships of three of the four forces, but ignores gravity. Gravity is a bit weird when compared to the other three fundamental forces; it is extremely weak, but works over extremely large distances. Einstein’s general theory of relativity – the application of his special theory to Newton’s theory of gravitation – describes gravity very well on a cosmic scale. A theory that would connect all the forces together would close that big gap and give us a Theory of Everything, one set of rules that describes our entire reality. Witten’s M-Theory (only Witten knows what “M” means – others have suggested it might mean “magic,” “mother,” “membrane,” “muffin,” “matrix,” “mystery,” or maybe “Mets”) might be that Theory of Everything, but more likely is just a solid step in that direction.

M-Theory is an evolution of string theory, which established that elementary particles are not “particles” at all, but small, one-dimensional strings that differentiate themselves into the different kinds of particles by their form (whether or not they are strings or little loops) and the way in which they vibrate. String theory answered a couple of big questions: First of all, it provided an answer to the question, “What are fundamental particles made of?” and most importantly, it provided a potential solution to the problem of including gravity in the Standard Model of particle physics. In the Standard Model, particles can interact at zero distance, but gravity cannot – the math that should describe the graviton, the theoretical particle that transmits gravitational force, becomes a complete mess. If the particle is actually a vibrating string, there is a small distance between the particles, and the graviton works.

String theory was gradually refined into superstring theory, which resolved some problems by establishing that every particle (fermions, which transmit matter, and bosons, which transmit force) has a massive partner of the opposite type – in other words every fermion has a complementary boson, and vice versa. The only problem was, there were five superstring theories, all somewhat incomplete, but as far as anyone could tell, all equally valid despite expanding the realm of quantum physics into 10 dimensions – the four we know, plus 6 more dimensions of space.

By adding one extra dimension and including a previously abandoned idea called 11D Supergravity (the “D” is for “dimensions”), Witten found a way to show that all five theories were simply different ways of looking at the same thing; they were in effect just special cases of one unifying theory – a practical, although extremely complex, example of overlapping, valid world-pictures in Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s model-based realism.

M-Theory has its critics, and even its proponents acknowledge that large parts of it are, as they say, topics for further study – for one thing, it is far more complex than most scientists, philosophers, or philosophical scientists think a good theory should be. But so far, no one has been able to definitively dismiss it, nor string theory in general, which has been evolving for close to half a century at this point. Whether M-Theory has got the mechanics quite right or not is something the “further study” of several thousand physicists will determine, but for whatever comfort the knowledge might bring, we can say with a fair degree of confidence that everything that exists – us, our world, the stars, the very fabric of the universe – is nothing more, or less, than a collection of little wiggly bits of string, arranged and interacting among themselves in ways we are quickly coming to understand, which leaves us with just one really bothersome question:

What’s a string?

Reality: It’s all in your head

Image: Uwi Heine Debroedt

ONE of the most fundamental questions of philosophy – a fundamental question of human existence, actually – is whether or not there is a reality that exists independently of our perception. Even though it is a profound question, it is in a sense a relatively easy question to answer. But of course, that hasn’t stopped generations of philosophers of every stripe from grappling with it.

There are two basic ways to view reality. Realism, which can be broadly categorized into metaphysical or scientific realism, is a thesis that objects, properties, and the relationships among them exist independently of our perceptions or beliefs about them. The difference between the two forms is that metaphysical realism does not necessarily entail that those constituents exist in the forms defined by science. Anti-realism is the opposite: Reality is not independent of our conceptions or perceptions of it; for all intents and purposes, anything that we cannot imagine or measure does not exist. Realism, specifically metaphysical realism, among other things is the basis for religious belief.

Between the two, anti-realism is the only one that makes any sense. After all, the very definition of “reality” is a human construct; reality relies on our relating to it in some way, which we do, even if we take a position that “reality exists independently of the human mind,” we are still describing it in a human-relative way.

But anti-realism is still imperfect; we have several millennia of human history in which our knowledge of the world has broadened and evolved as we have discovered new things that we did not know before as evidence of that. Up until a little over a century ago, that history tended to support the realist perspective. Quite obviously, our discoveries did not cause the genesis of things, but rather revealed to us things that had always been there; electrons, for example, did not suddenly spring into being when J.J. Thompson figured out cathode rays must be made up of individual electrically-charged particles (which happened in 1896, for those of you keeping score at home).

Or did they?

As physics has advanced into the quantum realm and we have drilled deeper to find the fundamental constituents of…well, everything, we have gone far beyond the extreme minimum scale at which we can tangibly detect something with our natural senses. We can’t see an electron – or a quark, or a boson, or a neutrino, or a photon, any of the 17 fundamental particles which, as far as we are concerned, make up everything in this universe. We can build sophisticated, powerful equipment to detect the presence of electrons, create streams of them, or trap a single electron; some years ago, scientists in Sweden even managed to create a video of the motion of an electron. But we can’t actually see the electron; the best we can do – and as far as we know, the best we will ever be able to do – is to see its effects, and infer its existence and properties from those.

Put another way, what we are detecting or creating beams of is a something of our own design – an electron is what it is because we walk backwards from the effects of its presence to define it in terms of various mathematical formulae. The cognitive model thus created agrees with the effects we observe, the models we’ve created at larger scales (such as the behaviors and properties of atoms), and the effects we expect from experiments. Ergo, electrons exist and are a part of reality, even though we will never actually see one or know exactly what it is based on our own five senses.

In their 2010 book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow introduced a concept that explains all this, an idea they called model-dependent realism:

“…the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. This provides a framework with which to interpret modern science.”

All we can know of reality is what the network of these world-pictures that we have created tell us. The concept of model-dependent realism does not require that a particular world-picture be unique or even complete; two different theories that explain observations of the same thing equally well are equally valid. This is a form of ontological pluralism (one that becomes very important in the next part of this series) that Hawking and Mlodinow neatly explain with an amusing analogy:

A few years ago the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved bowls. The measure’s sponsor explained the measure in part by saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality. But how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality?

The goldfish view is not the same as our own, but goldfish could still formulate scientific laws governing the motion of the objects they observe outside their bowl. For example, due to the distortion, a freely moving object would be observed by the goldfish to move along a curved path. Nevertheless, the goldfish could formulate laws from their distorted frame of reference that would always hold true. Their laws would be more complicated than the laws in our frame, but simplicity is a matter of taste.”

The concept of model-dependent realism doesn’t explicitly reject metaphysical realism – the notion of reality independent from the human mind – but rather asserts that our reality is fundamentally conceptually relative:

According to the idea of model-dependent realism…our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the outside world. We form mental concepts of our home, trees, other people, the electricity that flows from wall sockets, atoms, molecules, and other universes. These mental concepts are the only reality we can know. There is no model-independent test of reality. It follows that a well-constructed model creates a reality of its own.”

Expressed a slightly different way, there is no such thing as a reality that we cannot conceptualize; even if such a reality were possible, it would be completely irrelevant to us, forever existing beyond our infinite potential for imagination.

Life, the universe, and everything exists, in the only way that matters, in that wonderful place we call the human mind. Our reality is one we create, which grows and evolves as our capacity to grasp and define its complexity expands, but ultimately can never be bigger than we are.

Bloody Confusion

drug-dealer-philippinesTO characterize President Rodrigo Duterte’s savage campaign against the people who use, distribute, manufacture, and profit from illegal drugs as a source of national discomfort sounds like a tremendous understatement, but it really is not.

The number of people who are unequivocally convinced it is completely wrong, should be stopped at once, and the country returned to something resembling the status quo before May 9 of this year is actually quite small. And for many of those people, their dissent is less about morality and more about their disappointment at having their preferred political order dismissed with prejudice at the polls, and quickly mocked and forgotten in the aftermath of the election.

For everyone else, even those who are otherwise properly horrified by what is going on – as of now, about 1,900 people have been killed in Duterte’s “war on drugs” – the national atmosphere is contradictory and confusing. No decent person wants the drug trade to continue to flourish, and continue to contribute to the general lawlessness and corruption that afflicts the country. No decent person wants the sun to rise on 10, 20, 30 freshly bullet-riddled corpses every day, either.

Especially not when some of those corpses are tragic collateral damage – a 5-year-old girl killed when the ubiquitous “unknown assailants” targeted her grandfather, who was on a drug “watch list,” a 15-year-old girl killed when her companion at the mall, the attorney of a wanted “drug lord,” was also targeted by hit men – and not when the campaign is recklessly pursued on the basis of flimsy evidence. A word by a disgruntled personal rival to the local barangay captain or police is enough to get one put on a “watch list,” and that’s enough to get one killed. How many of the victims 1,067 “unexplained” killings – the figure given by National Police Chief Ronald Dela Rosa in Senate hearings this week, describing deaths not attributable to police action – were not actually “drug personalities” but people on the wrong side of a personal dispute will probably never be known, as all but a handful of the drug-related killings have involved the faceless masses, people for whom the story, and any available evidence to support it, tends to die with them.

One gets a sense of the contradiction when talking to business people or the more objective members of the media community. The general perspective seems to be an inclination to look at Duterte through binoculars, with one eye shut: On one side is the whole drug “thing,” and that’s a mess, so let’s disregard it for the time being at least, and focus instead on the other things that are happening under his nascent reign, all of which is interesting, and some of which shows a lot of positive potential. But in every conversation like that, there is an undercurrent of discomfort – the “drug thing” is the elephant in the room and everyone knows it, and there is an unspoken recognition that sooner or later, it’s going to become too big to ignore.

Duterte himself encouraged this kind of bifurcated thinking by presenting his critics with a rhetorical choice: Which should he defend, the peace and safety of communities, or the lives of criminals? That may be melodramatic, but it is not quite the false dichotomy Duterte’s detractors make it out to be. The vast majority of the population (present company included) that finds unrestrained killing and uncontrolled drug trafficking equally distasteful, or nearly so, realizes that on some level, and finds it difficult to either condemn or reject completely. And so the elephant in the room continues to sit there, quietly growing fatter.

Ideally, none of the 1,900 or so who have been killed so far should have died. The government ought to have been able to aggressively investigate, pursue, and capture “drug lords,” their networks of corrupt officials and police who cover for their activities and profit by doing so, the local pushers, and the irredeemable users who commit petty crimes to support their habits. For the redeemable ones who fell into the habit through bad luck or poor choices but have harmed no one but themselves, the government ideally ought to be able to provide effective intervention and care for what is, in those cases, a public health problem and not a criminal one.

Things don’t go ideally in the Philippines.

The menace of methamphetamine hydrochloride – what we call crystal meth in the US and what is commonly referred to as “shabu” here – in the Philippines is hard to overstate. Cheap and relatively easy to produce in quantity from readily-available materials, it is a perfect drug for a market like the Philippines, which has a vast impoverished population – the target market for almost any sort of drug trade, human nature being what it is – because it is powerful and addicting even in small amounts. It is everywhere in the Philippines, has been for years, and anyone who has even the vaguest awareness of what goes on in the world beyond his front door knows it.

No one can really “handle” shabu; if it doesn’t kill you immediately because it’s poison – manufacturing skill and quality control are not big priorities in shabu production – it is incredibly destructive to the human body and mind, and addiction is financially and socially ruinous as well. The great tragedy of the shabu epidemic here in the Philippines is that it preys on the least healthy and poorest part of the population; that is not a unique situation, but because that part of the population is proportionally so much bigger here, so is the problem.

In a sense, then, there is an effective rationale behind the strategy being employed by Duterte, brutal though it may be. The lower reaches of society are the least able to defend themselves against the campaign, and are the easiest targets; by swinging at the lowest-hanging fruit, Duterte is cutting off the market for the vast network of profiteers above it – the “drug lords” and those who protect and even actively participate in their trade, and who have always been much tougher to bring to heel.

It’s almost brilliant, and maybe the only way to handle a situation that has gotten completely out of control. For all the ululations against extrajudicial action, one inconvenient truth cannot really be avoided: Sometimes, circumstances grow to become so unmanageable that they transcend legality. A friend and mentor who works with me at The Manila Timesand who happens to be one of the most peaceful men I know, and finds the killing morally objectionable – gave a thought-provoking analogy: The murder of Osama bin Laden was, by definition, an extrajudicial killing. Yet very few if any complaints were made about it for that reason, because Osama bin Laden was a universally-acknowledged evil and enemy of mankind. While he believes the killings are wrong, the intent behind the anti-drug crusade is sound; given that pervasive impunity and corruption of every sort are the biggest obstacles to the country’s development, destroying one of if not the largest single sources of that impunity and corruption is entirely rational.

Be that as it may, the anti-drug campaign does not necessarily require that people die, and the fact that so many have is a bitter indictment of its one glaring flaw: The instrument Duterte must use to carry out his campaign is its own enemy. There are far too many police involved in the drug trade for that force to be trusted to carry out the strategy faithfully and efficiently. It is, to use another, duller analogy, much the same as giving the accountant who has been embezzling for years the job of auditing the company’s books; his priority is not going to be conducting an honest audit, but covering his tracks.

And so it is with the police: The ones who have the ‘intelligence’ on who the drug traffickers are and where they can be found are most likely those who are involved in some fashion. To be fair to the PNP, they represent a tiny minority of the whole force; but that tiny minority is the one the rest must rely on to tell them where to go and who to look for. PNP Chief Bato Dela Rosa has made a great show of arresting a few officers on the wrong side of the law, and few have even gotten themselves killed after being cornered and fighting back; several hundred others whose reliability is suspect have been reassigned, usually to terrifying areas in the Muslim parts of Mindanao; and in his typically colorful fashion, Bato has sworn that the “unexplained” killings – many supposedly carried out by police-directed assassins, as this recent BBC article suggested – will be investigated and appropriate consequences meted out.

And yet the killings continue – according to my news feed, in the time I’ve taken to write this, four more have died, including one not far from where I live. It has to end; at some point Mr. Duterte will have to decide that he has delivered the message he intended, and put a stop to the mayhem. He can serve both purposes by cleaning the PNP’s house, because the efforts that are being made now are clearly not enough.


A Hole in Humanity

bowieDESCRIBING David Bowie as an “artist” would be like calling the Sun a water heater; it would be literally correct, but so woefully inadequate.

When news of his death flashed across the news wires Monday, I felt as though I had been punched in the chest; again, words like “shock,” “dismay,” and “sadness” are accurate, but insufficient. That reaction surprised me. I am not a sentimental person, and before Monday I couldn’t honestly say when the last time I heard anything about David Bowie or otherwise given him any conscious thought might have been.

After I thought about it for a little while, the realization of why I felt the loss so acutely was startling. David Bowie began his career about the time I was born, and because he was who he was, he is necessarily inseparable from the perceptions of art and culture I have been ingrained with for my entire life. He was a constant: From the time I was old enough to perceive and understand it, music, style, storytelling, and the various other parts of the artistic realm have always existed as “music, style, storytelling, and the various other parts of the artistic realm, and David Bowie.”

It didn’t matter if one was a “fan” in the conventional sense or not, because he transcended that with his permanence. To this day I cannot remember my grade-school years in the latter part of the 70’s without a soundtrack consisting of “Suffragette City,” “Young Americans,” and “Golden Years” running through the back of my mind. He was always there, always doing something new and different, and it was always something that influenced a great deal of the rest of the artistic atmosphere and stuck with you, whether you actually realized it or not. And he was good at it: I came of age in the 80’s, an era of both goofy post-disco stylish excess and Cold War spookiness, and while there were a lot of artists who could capture one mood or the other, nobody but David Bowie could completely, seamlessly nail them both (this and this were both released in the same year, 1984).

And he kept it up for half a century. His last album, Blackstar, was released on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death, and is as bold and original as anything Bowie ever created. We just didn’t realize he was saying goodbye.

David Bowie’s passing was like waking up one morning and discovering there are no paved roads anymore, because his entire career was a lesson – this is how you do art. There will never be another like him, and it is hard not to feel that we are diminished, that there is now a hole in our humanity, because of it.

Making sense of those Krazy Koreans

NorthKoreaTHE impression I get from the kilometric volume of analysis and commentary that followed the latest apparent nuclear test by North Korea last Thursday is that the entire world is once again completely flummoxed about how it should react this time to the misbehavior of the bizarre little hermit kingdom.

Up until now, the pattern in these kinds of episodes has always been consistent: North Korea does a provocative thing. The enlightened world led by the US imposes or at least threatens some kind of “sanctions” as punishment for the provocative thing. After a suitable interval, North Korea agrees to stop doing the provocative thing and not do it again in exchange for some small concessions, such as food aid, or having South Korea stop blaring K-pop songs and propaganda across the border with giant loudspeakers, and the situation returns to a more or less normal state. Until North Korea decides to do some other provocative thing, and then the whole cycle repeats itself.

The only difference this time is that China, who is North Korea’s only ally of any consequence, seems extraordinarily annoyed at its wayward client state. In the past, China has worked to moderate the punitive actions taken against North Korea, something it has for the most part been able to accomplish because it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This time, however, China’s rhetoric about the nuclear test was unusually harsh, and following as it does a strange incident a few weeks ago in which North Korea’s all-girl “Moranbong Band” abruptly canceled a performance in China and returned home (reportedly because their Chinese hosts were offended by a video display the band uses which feature footage of North Korean missiles), the sense is China has lost patience with its neighbor.

All that will accomplish is to make the imposition of sanctions a little smoother; unless there is a drastic change in policy on the part of China on the one hand or the US, South Korea, and their UN colleagues on the other, the pattern as it has played out in years past will simply be repeated. One would think that at some point, the unresolved state of affairs would become intolerable. It has persisted, however, for more than 60 years – ever since the Korean War ended in a stalemate – and by all appearances a solution will continue to elude political minds on both sides of the conflict for another generation or more.

In order to try to sort things out, or at least understand what is happening and why, we need to make a few assumptions that may run against the grain of conventional diplomatic thought:

  1. Kim Jong-Un knows precisely what he is doing.

One of the common viewpoints towards North Korea’s leading Kim dynasty, especially in the case of Kim Jong-Il and his son, current leader Kim Jong-Un, is that they are reckless, crazy, or both (North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung was also thought to be a dangerous nut, but not quite to the same degree as his son and grandson). That is almost certainly not the case, which becomes apparent when we consider a couple obvious factors.

First of all, North Korea is essentially a monarchy, one whose existence is justified by the complicated (and actually rather clever) political philosophy of Juche, or in very simple terms “self-reliance,” which was developed by Kim Il-Sung in the years after the foundation of North Korea, formally adopted as national policy in the mid-1950s as the country worked to recover from the devastation of the Korean War, and intensely strengthened as a set of guiding principles in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s-early 1990s. At the core of Juche thought is a rejection of Marxist-Leninist relations of production in favor of the primacy of the people’s will; this permits, or rather requires, the emergence of a “great leader” to organize and guide the people.

Since the Juche philosophy has become an actual political and legal framework, the major objective for the leader is to justify his place. One of the easiest ways to do that is to maintain a constant state of tension with real or perceived external enemies. It is no accident that the Korean War never actually ended, because it was not in Kim Il-Sung’s best interests that it should; so long as he had the lingering threat of America and its South Korean puppet state (and to a lesser extent, those other US puppets, the hated Japanese) that he could ‘lead a defense’ against, his position was that much more secure. Likewise, it is no accident that every move towards an easing of tensions between the two Koreas is shortly followed by some provocation by the North that causes the situation to deteriorate again.

To the Kim way of thinking – and there is some validity to the perspective – there is no greater defense, no greater deterrent to an external threat, than nuclear weapons, the more powerful the better. By maintaining a strong military presence surrounding North Korea, the US and its South Korean and Japanese allies are playing right into Kim’s hands.

The best evidence of who the ‘message’ of the “hydrogen bomb” (it probably wasn’t one, but we’ll get to that in a moment) was really intended for – i.e., the North Korean people, and especially the military and bureaucratic establishment whose cooperation is vital to Kim’s retaining his position – was his comments linking the downfall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi to the thwarting of Iraq’s and Libya’s nuclear ambitions. Kim is not so stupid as to be unaware that his key officers and ministers understand what a dictatorship is and realize they are serving one, and so the message is, “The strong leader who gives up his nuclear goals is weakened, and will eventually be overthrown, but I have successfully pursued that goal, and so what befell Saddam and Gaddafi won’t happen to me. So don’t screw with me.”

  1. North Korea presents virtually no significant military threat to South Korea, the US, or Japan.

A prospect that gives Western policymakers and military planners the heebie-jeebies is that North Korea, if not held in check, will escalate its actions from the long-running low-intensity conflict that it has perpetuated since the end of the Korean War to a major attack – something like an invasion in force across the border into the South, a missile attack against Japan, or a strike with either conventional or nuclear weapons against Hawaii or Alaska, which are plausibly reachable with North Korea’s current missile technology (and a lot of luck, presumably).

Although North Korean aggression has been frequent and sometimes quite serious – incidents like the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968, the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, and the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in 2010 are among the worst – Pyongyang seems to have mastered the art of pushing its enemies to the limits of their patience without going too far. Despite having one of the world’s largest armies, the Kim regime realizes that its comparatively unsophisticated forces would not last long in the face of American firepower; the Korean War was a painful object lesson for Kim Il-Sung, and it is a lesson that his son and grandson clearly took to heart. A massive attack across the border might spring enough of a surprise to wreck Seoul and cause a huge amount of damage, but would result in the utter destruction of North Korean forces – and in any case, North Korea is watched so closely by the nervous South that any attempt to amass the forces necessary to carry out such an attack would set off alarms long before it was prepared to strike. Likewise, a stand-off attack against Japan or the United States would almost certainly provoke a brutal response that the regime might not survive.

The constant aggression carried out by North Korea is simply part of the policy of maintaining a constant state of tension in order to keep the ruling order intact; and in order for the tension to be maintained, some aggressive reaction from the other side is necessary – when it is not forthcoming on its own, North Korea simply provokes it. The aggression also serves as a sort of safety valve. The country cannot maintain such a large military and keep it inactive indefinitely, and so it occasionally allows it to see some action. But only enough to maintain a proper level of alertness and discipline – the myth of “defending the country” would be shattered and the Kim dynasty would come to a quick and unpleasant end if the military was ever put in a position to be defeated and weakened.

  1. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t a hydrogen bomb (and there’s still a possibility that it was).

The assumption that North Korea’s latest nuclear test was not the explosion of a hydrogen bomb seems to be accurate; seismic data indicated an explosion with a yield of 6-9 kilotons (some estimates say 6-15 KT), which is only one or two percent of the power of even a modest thermonuclear weapon (the common US W88 warhead, which is about as small as a legitimate hydrogen bomb can be made, has a yield of about 475 KT). Yet the North Korean announcement of the test and Kim Jong-Un’s later statement made a point of referring to it as “a hydrogen bomb.” So what’s the real story?

There are three possibilities. The first, and the easiest to believe, is that the North Koreans are simply lying, and that the bomb tested was a regular fission weapon, similar to the three previous weapons the country has tested. If that was the case, it would be a bit smaller in terms of yield than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs (which had estimated yields of 15 and 20 KT, respectively), and given what is known or surmised about North Korean technical capabilities, would probably be a fairly large, unwieldy weapon – manageable perhaps as an air-dropped bomb, but almost certainly too large and heavy to mount on a missile.

The second possibility, which is much more alarming, is that it was a boosted fission weapon. In a ‘normal’ atomic bomb, the fissile material (usually plutonium) is in the form of a hollow sphere – the shape keeps it from going critical before it’s supposed to – with a “neutron reflector” (usually a sphere of beryllium, although some other materials can work) suspended in the void at the sphere’s center. High explosives surrounding the plutonium core uniformly compress the sphere, releasing neutrons to begin the chain reaction; some of the neutrons are reflected back by the beryllium pit at the center, increasing the speed of the reaction. However, the reaction can only last while the compressed core is at critical mass; once it explosively flies apart – which takes only milliseconds – the nuclear chain reaction is ended. Thus the fission efficiency of early atomic bombs was rather low, something on the order of 20 percent or less (meaning only 20% of the core material actually underwent fission, the rest being blown away in the resulting explosion).

In a boosted weapon, a small amount of fusion fuel – typically tritium and deuterium, isotopes of hydrogen, in a gaseous form, which could account for North Korea referring to it as a “hydrogen” bomb – is placed in the void at the center of the core, replacing the “reflector.” When the implosion occurs, the early stage of fission in the plutonium core exerts enough pressure on the gaseous fuel to cause a fusion reaction, which releases a large amount of fast neutrons, speeding up the fission process and consuming the fuel much more efficiently. The fusion reaction is so small that it doesn’t really contribute much to the overall power of the bomb, but it can improve the fission efficiency by a great deal, raising it to perhaps 50%, which results in a larger explosion. The benefit of a boosted fission weapon is that a higher explosive yield can be obtained from a smaller amount of fission fuel, which means the bomb can be made smaller – small enough, perhaps, to fit on a rocket or be configured as an artillery shell. It is also not quite the large technological leap from conventional fission bombs that a true H-bomb is, requiring only the additional ability to produce and handle tritium and deuterium.

The third possibility is that it was an actual hydrogen bomb, a true thermonuclear device, which simply failed to explode properly. A hydrogen bomb is actually two bombs in one: A fission bomb (the ‘primary’), the explosion of which compresses a second bomb consisting of a heavy casing (usually of uranium, which can be made to fission, or sometimes an inert material such as lead, which reduces the yield and is a cheaper option for testing) containing the fusion fuel (usually lithium deuteride) and a hollow plutonium rod (the ‘sparkplug’). Radiation pressure from the exploding primary compresses and then heats the fuel of the secondary stage, which begins a fusion reaction that releases an enormous amount of energy.

The basic concept of a hydrogen bomb is not terribly complicated, but actually building one that works requires a degree of engineering capability and precision that most observers doubt North Korea has. Nevertheless, since the basic design is not a mystery (the configuration is called Teller-Ulam after its first inventors, physicists Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam working in the US, but it was eventually independently worked out by scientists in the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China), it is at least remotely possible North Korea attempted to build one, but that it simply “fizzled” – i.e., the atomic primary stage of the bomb, a powerful weapon of several kilotons’ yield in its own right, exploded, but failed to ignite the secondary fusion stage.

The assertion that it was a “hydrogen bomb” seems likely to be intended for the North Korean people and the military establishment, an assurance that efforts are being made to increase the strength of the country’s defenses. Whether it was a hydrogen bomb or not doesn’t really matter to the outside world – the real point is that any remaining mystery about whether or not North Korea has or is capable of producing functioning nuclear weapons is now resolved. Even if the country’s capabilities have only risen to the point of being able to manufacture relatively simple atomic bombs, a 6 to 9 KT explosion could level a medium-sized city (for reference, that explosion would be three or four times the power of the second and larger of the two explosions in this video). Whether or North Korea has tried to advance beyond that level of technology or is simply aspiring to, they have apparently gotten basic atomic weapons pretty much figured out. That presents a challenge to the US and its allies, and even China, a challenge which is much more complicated than that posed by Iraq’s or Libya’s abortive attempts to get a nuclear program off the ground, or even Iran’s much more advanced program: None of those potential ‘nuclear threats’ ever resulted in actual weapons, and as the history of disarmament efforts has demonstrated so far, it is far easier to compel a country to stop trying to build a bomb (those efforts have so far all been successful) than it is to force a country to give it up once it has actually produced it (the only country that has obliged was South Africa).

  1. China doesn’t want a collapse of the Kim regime or a unified Korea that would potentially put US troops on its border.

That first assumption is probably true – keeping in mind, of course, that trying to figure out the subtle contradictions of the Chinese mind is tricky at best – because a disorderly collapse of the Kim regime would result in an as-yet unknown outcome. As far as the worry about “millions of refugees” crossing into China, as many analysts have suggested, that concern might be overblown; one should probably presume it would be a bigger problem for South Korea than it would be for China.

The other assumption, that China would not want a US-allied, unified Korea on its border, is true so long as one presupposes that a unified Korea would look exactly like South Korea, and that China would not be able to exercise any sort of positive influence on it at a level that at least fairly matches US influence. There is no reason that any of that would necessarily be the case. For one thing, the reunification of Korea, which would spell the definitive end of the Korean War, removes the reason for the US being there.

Unlike Japan, where the continuing US military presence is ultimately the result – many generations removed – of an original US occupation, South Korea did not start out under US administration; the US presence there is a result of the war, and, it is important to remember, began under sanction of the UN. Once that sanction ends – and bear in mind, China is a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power – the US cannot unilaterally justify its continued presence; at least not at the level it is now present in South Korea. Any agreement to unify Korea would probably involve Chinese participation anyway – which it rightfully should, since the country borders China – and would almost certainly stipulate a US withdrawal. The political and economic relationship would certainly continue, but that wouldn’t present any more of a problem for the Chinese than the US relationship with any other country in the region.

All of this, however, is a moot point: Unless the US and its allies take the virtually unthinkable step to actually reach into North Korea and remove Kim Jong-Un, the Kim regime – and as a result, the current, unsatisfying status quo – will exist for at least as long as he does.