Article Share: ‘Syria News is Everywhere, Except on People’s Minds’ by Frida Ghitis

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Frida Ghitis’ op-ed for CNN on the indifferent reaction to yesterday’s escalation in the Syrian War is thoughtful and rings true. This war is changing the world but in the rich Western world we have grown numb to its significance.

“The West’s largely hands-off approach created a vacuum that Russia eagerly filled, adding to Iran’s strength and alarming Tehran’s Arab foes, stoking regional rivalries, and wars.

In the West, the images of fleeing Syrian refugees helped empower nationalist politicians from Hungary to the United States, propelling a global trend toward authoritarianism. The multiple conflicts — diplomatic, political, military — have contributed to a growing turmoil in global politics, even as the incorrect impression that Syria doesn’t matter prevails. Even in Europe, that sentiment seems powerful enough to have so far smothered the instinctive reaction of popular fury that seems to spring to life whenever the United States flexes its military muscle.”

It’s hard to comprehend what got us here, as bloody and incoherent as civil wars are. But this is where we are at, and God forbid we have a dummy at the helm.
Read ‘Syria News is Everywhere, Except on People’s Minds’ by Frida Ghitis

Alsoof interest on the topic: For a harrowing recap of the complex tensions at play in the Syrian Civil War, see Tyler Cowen’s Bloomberg article ‘Syria War’s Game Theory is too Complex to Predict. That’s Frightening.’ He sees the situation’s multifaceted tensions as an eerie parallel to the inciting events of World War I:

“If you don’t quite follow how a single assassination, which was not even seen as so important the day it occurred, triggered the death of so many millions, and the destruction of so much of Europe, that is exactly the point. When there is no clear way for observers to model the situation, a single bad event can take on a very large significance and for reasons that are not entirely explicable.

In today’s Middle East, we also have a broadly festering situation across multiple fronts, with many smaller players, lots of internal political struggles and unstable political units, and commitments from some major external powers, including the U.S., Russia, Iran and Turkey. I find that an uncomfortably close analogy with 1914.”

In other news, I hope you’re having a wonderful day today 🙃

Reflections on The Austin Bombings

Several people in town have been killed by exploding packages. The victims seem random with a likely tinge of racism.

I think this put the whole city on edge a bit. A few delivery drivers at work had guns pulled on them. Grumblings about racial tension. Town hall meetings. I had a dream the other night of being in the blast radius of an exploding building. Friends and family seemed concerned and uneasy.

Is this what terrorism feels like?

The perpetrator killed himself last night with a bomb while fleeing from police in a car. A miserable, cowardly death. We get facts and details but no closure. Why do these things happen at all?

More disturbingly, given that these awful things do happen why don’t they happen more often?

If I’m to pay any attention to my dream the other night my subconscious mulls this over in the background. Pondering these things put me in a glum mood but having a place to write a few poorly articulated thoughts on the subject has been a cathartic exercise in its own small way.

 



Update 3/31

Austin_Bomber_update

As we look around for answers.

Whenever there’s a news story about someone killing lots of strangers, I cannot stop thinking about the book I read a couple years ago about the Columbine massacare called ‘Columbine’ by Dave Cullen. I will quote the passages that still stick with me below:

“None of the earlier school shootings had been televised; few American tragedies had. Or at least it appeared that way: the cameras offered the illusion we were witnessing the event. But the cameras had arrived too late. Eric and Dylan had retreated inside after five minutes. The cameras missed the outside murders and could not follow Eric and Dylan outside. The fundamental experience fore most of America was almost witnessing mass murder. It was the panic and frustration of not knowing, the mounting terror of horror withheld, just out of view.”

 

“Mass murderers tended to work alone, but when they did pair up, they rarely chose their mirror image. [FBI hostage negotiator] Fuselier knew he was much more likely to find a pair of opposites holed up in that building. It was entirely possible that there was no single whyand much more likely that he would unravel one motive for Eric, another for Dylan.”

 

National polls taken shortly after the attack would identify all sorts of culprits contributing to the tragedy: violent movies, video games, Goth culture, lax gun laws, bullies, and Satan. Eric did not make the list. Dylan didn’t either. They were just kids. Something or someone must have led them astray.

 

“For investigators, the big bombs changed everything: the scale, the method, and the motive of attack. Above all, it had been indiscriminate. Everyone was supposed to die. Columbine was fundamentally different from the other school shootings. It had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily, it had been a bombing that failed.”

 

“The final act of the killers was among their cruelest: they deprived the survivors of a living perpetrator. They deprived the families of a focus for their anger, and their blame. There would be no cathartic trail for the victims. There was no killer to rebuke in a courtroom, no judge to implore to impose the maximum penalty. South Jeffco was seething with anger, and it would be deprived of a reasonable target. Displaced anger would riddle the community for years.”

 

‘Remarks at the Peace Banquet’ William James


I found this tattered old hardcover at Goodwill that celebrates one hundred years of The Atlantic from the distant remove of 1957. Near the back of this treasure of prose, fiction and poetry is a brief speech by William James that caught my eye. Its simple title is ‘Remarks at the Peace Banquet‘ and it contains many profound and refreshingly honest insights into human nature and warfare.

Speaking on October 7, 1904 at the World Peace Conference, James humorously introduced himself by saying, “I am a philosopher, and there is only one thing that a philosopher can be relied on to do. You know that the function of statistics has been ingeniously described as being the refutation of other statistics. Well, a philosopher can always contradict other philosophers.” Ideas will forever clash and try to cancel each other out.

He quickly turns his focus to mankind and the folly that the noble philosopher’s cherished Reason too often proves to be,

“When looked at candidly, reason is one of the very feeblest of Nature’s forces, if you take it at any one spot and moment. It is only in the very long run that its effects become perceptible. Reason assumes to settle things by weighing them against one another without prejudice, partiality, or excitement; but what affairs in the concrete are settled by is and always will be prejudices, partialities, cupidities, and excitement. Appealing to reason as we do, we are in a sort of forlorn hope situation, like a small sandbank in the midst of a hungry sea ready to wash it out of existence.”

He expresses hope that reason will grow over time because reason presses in one direction “while man’s prejudices vary, their passions ebb and flow, and their excitements are intermittent.”

James is optimistic about humanity in the long-run, pessimistic in the short-run. And his misgivings are grave:

“Our permanent enemy is the noted bellicosity of human nature. Man, biologically considered, and whatever else he may be in the bargain, is simply the most formidable of all beasts of prey and, indeed, the only one that preys systematically on its own species. We are once for all adapted to the military status. A millennium of peace would not breed the fighting disposition out of our bone and marrow, and a function so ingrained and vital will never consent to die without resistance, and will always find impassioned apologists and idealizers.”

Furthermore, human nature is at war with boredom, of all things, “Man lives by habits, indeed, but what he lives for is thrills and excitements. The only relief from habit’s tediousness is periodic excitement.” And what could be more exciting than war? For in wartime, “the dams of routine burst, and boundless prospects open.”

With hindsight, we can say that the 1904 World Peace Conference was an abysmal failure. But still, speaking a decade before the outbreak of the First World War, William James words still ring hauntingly true more than 113 years later. Human nature hasn’t changed, but sure enough, reason and science has brought us a widespread increase in health, education, and living standards in that intervening time, even if we haven’t yet transcended what William James called “the mystical blood payment.”

Why Do We Still Talk About Karl Marx?

Ten years ago I picked my best friend up from the airport and he mentioned that he sat next to someone on the airplane who was reading Karl Marx’s gigantic Das Kapital. He was beside himself as to why someone would subjugate themselves to that. At the time, I didn’t have an answer but the question stuck in my mind for some reason because here I am still, thinking about that question all these years later.

Today, the book Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari gave me a reasonable answer to that question.

In the west, we’re used to associating Karl Marx with Marxism, and from there we think of communism, mass starvation and misery. But in his time he was a more significant intellectual because he was the first to think about how industrial institutions affect humanity:

“Before Marx, people defined and divided themselves according to their views about God, not about production methods. Since Marx, questions of technology and economic structure became far more important and divisive than debates about the soul and the afterlife. In the second half of the twentieth century humankind almost obliterated itself in an argument about production methods.”  

Marx’s ideas caused untold human suffering in the decades after his death but in many ways he was the first sociologist, perhaps what Charles Darwin is to biology.


UPDATE 9/3/2018:

I felt like this video from The Economist explored this subject better than I did:

“Although there is a lot to learn from Marx his solution is far worse than the disease”

Random Reading

Today was a bit of an intellectual holiday. I spent a few hours sitting in the LBJ School of Foreign Affairs on the UT Campus and half-listened to students hold mock debates about hypothetical foreign policy calamities while I read the books in the building’s library.

Among other miscellany, I had the pleasure of reading an essay by John Maynard Keynes about the enigmatic Isaac Newton. The essay was titled ‘Newton, The Man’ and was originally written as a speech.

Newton, in Keynes eyes, was a tragic figure as much as he was a solitary genius, who was seduced by the apple of infinite knowledge: “This strange spirit, who was tempted by the Devil to believe, at the time when within these walls he was solving so much, that he could reach all the secrets of God and Nature by the pure power of mind—Copernicus and Faustus in one.”

I greatly enjoyed Keynes rousing summation of Sir Isaac Newton’s life.

Quotes

Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.”

I believe that the clue to his mind is to be found in his unusual powers of concentrated introspection. A case can be made out, as it also can with Descartes, for regarding him as an accomplished experimentalist.”

“His peculiar gift was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it. I fancy his preeminence is due to his muscles of intuition being the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted. Anyone who has ever attempted pure scientific or philosophical thought knows how one can hold a problem momentarily in one’s mind and apply all one’s powers of concentration to piercing through it, and how it will dissolve and escape and you find that you are surveying a blank. I believe that Newton could hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret. Then being a supreme mathematical technician he could dress it up, how you will for purposes of exposition, but it was his intuition which was pre-eminently extraordinary.”

“His experiments were always, I suspect, a means, not of discovery, but always of verifying what he knew already.”

Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood. By pure thought, by concentration of mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate.

The Difficulty of Prediction

“The reason that the future is difficult to predict is that it depends on choices yet to be made, including by our governments, in circumstances that remain uncertain. We ask questions about the future to inform choices not to succumb to fatalism. By stressing this aspect if thinking about war, peace, and the use of armed force this book provides a reminder that history is made by people who do not know what is going to happen next. Many developments that were awaited, either fearfully or eagerly, never happened. Those things that did happen we’re sometimes seen to be inevitable in retrospect but they were rarely identified as inevitable in prospect. ‘History’ as John Comaroff has observed, can be usefully studied as ‘any succession of rupturing events which together bring to light our misunderstandings and misrecognitions of the present.'”

The Future of War by Lawrence Freedman

Hubris And The Polemic

“Polemos appeared in Greek literature as war’s vicious personification. One of Aesop’s fables describes how, as the God’s chose their mates, Polemos struggled to find a partner. Eventually only Hybris was left. She was the goddess of reckless, arrogant pride, from when we get the word ‘hubris’. Polemos fell madly in love with Hybris and followed her wherever she went. The moral of the story was that the nations of the world should never allow Hybris to come among them for if they did war would not be far behind.”

The Future of War by Lawrence Freedman

The Boring Robot Apocalypse

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Which world are you living in?

Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 64,070 people died from drug overdoses in 2016. This has been accompanied by a 24 percent increase in the annual suicide rate between 1999 and 2014. Something dark is afoot in America, and as the public policy professor at Harvard named Robert D. Putnam says in the linked New York Times article, “This is part of the larger emerging pattern of evidence of the links between poverty, hopelessness and health.”

Perhaps the sci-fi visions a future in which a sentient A.I. enslaves and then wipes out humankind isn’t what we should be worried about in the literal sense. As it is, a man whose body is his primary economic asset can no longer expect a living wage. 

What if the existential threat a digital super-intelligence poses to humanity is much more mundane, and already here? Instead of a fight to the death with a superhuman robot, man is quietly being faced by a devaluation of his physical world and forced to contemplate the worth of his own existence.

The answer to that question won’t come up lacking for everyone. At the same time, we can expect:

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But mostly for the rich.


While I get excited by technical progress I am also concerned by what we lose on the inexorable march toward Godliness. Perhaps that’s the modern Faustian bargain: greater material abundance at the expense of a deeper spiritual meaning.

 

 

Headlines Versus Reality

Headlines

Or, ‘Primary Sources Versus Editorial Projection’

Among the most perverse problems with our media landscape today is the way stories are filtered down.One network gets a scoop and everyone else rushes in to put their own spin on it when all along you’re best served by sticking to the original source.

Barack Obama’s first long-form interview as a public citizen came out today via the BBC. From the 40 minute audio―which is publicly available―every news network is left to give their own analysis and frame the conversation with their own headline. When, all along, it’d be best for any interested citizen to listen to the exchange for to decide what about the conversation is most relevant to their life.

So please, if you’re interested, take the time to give the interview a listen in-full.


Edit 12/29:

The same can be said about Trump’s recent interview with the New York Times. A scoop that launches a thousand editorials.