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Through a glass, darkly

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

[ by Emlyn Cameron — On North Korea: a retrospective as preemptive strike ]
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Charles Cameron’s introduction: Regular readers may know my son Emlyn from previous contributions on Zenpundit [1, 2]. Here he wages a war of miniturization on the Korean fiefdom of Kim Jong-Un.

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Snow falls on Kim Jong-Il‘s funeral cortege

Reflecting on the Nuclear staring contest now ongoing between the United States and North Korea, I confront mixed feelings: Obviously one must consider different strategies and engage in a pragmatic calculus; One must consider the pros and cons, the risks and rewards, and the numerous lives which might be ended or fail ever to be lived as a consequence of any policy. It is, I need not say, a very complex issue. Worse still, it is an issue of severe import to many whose lives hang in the balance.

But I find myself grappling with a less practical question and coming away irresolute: If North Korea’s brand of surreal statism could be overthrown without bloodshed or tragedy, how would I feel? Would I be proud? Pleased? Grateful? Somehow, I can’t convince myself that I would be entirely satisfied. I feel certain that any pride, pleasure, or gratitude would be alloyed with something else. And this in spite of my knowledge that such a coup would be, well, a coup, and of the welcome it would justifiably receive.

“The bloodless anticlimax to an Orwellian police state?” I hear the likely refrain, “Terrific!”

“A peaceful end to a regime which embraced not only Stalinist propagandism, but De Facto Monarchy? Still better!” The voices continue.

“And a conclusion to tantrums and ICBM rattle throwing? Who could hope for more?” Comes the triumphal call.

And yet, I am unconvinced in the recesses of my heart. That might be strange to many people, even a tad immoral, but it’s how things stand.

In order that such a stance might make more sense, I’ll admit that I have a strange affection for the turbulent little state and its Emperor’s New Jumpsuits. This probably extends from more general conflicted feelings about overt dictatorships: I am someone who deeply loves enlightenment philosophy, and cherishes my personal freedoms. I am, all the same, a morbid person, prone to fatalism, and I harbor dark anticipations about the future of humanity. Somewhere in the middle I developed a great relish for bleak wit. For these reasons, it should come as no shock that I am a great admirer of George Orwell and a fan of his writings. Perhaps like others who count themselves among his readers, I find myself emotionally torn while reading Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm; The dystopias he presents disturb me, and yet, (in spite of my philosophical leanings) a small part of me is always tugged at by a desire to relinquish the struggle of self determination, and to escape the paradox of choice by giving in to such an oppression. The terrible certainties, even of state assigned conclusions and death, speak to some tired part in me, which recognizes strain from the ongoing alertness required of anyone who wants to be the arbiter of their own affairs.

North Korea, likewise, is a natural antagonist to the individualism I hold dear, but, perhaps because of its total conviction and flagrance in opposing my worldview, I am captivated by its iconography and insular existence. I have always been fascinated by the ludicrous spectacle, the stark imagery, and the total devotion of totalitarian nations, though I revile their premises. Having one around, therefore, leaves me in rather a strange position: I desire the grip of the North Korean state on its people broken as a matter of principle, while simultaneously fearing the death of a kind of dangerous endangered species; I am struck by the feeling that the end of the North Korean state would be a victory for my values, and the loss of one of the world’s great curiosities.

A friend recently called North Korea “an Eighth Wonder of the World”, and I agree. It is a tragic wonder, dangerous rather than glorious, but a wonder none the less.

My grandfather, a conservative philosopher, referred to himself as a “sentimental monarchist”. If a peaceful end came to the militaristic regime in North Korea, my relief would be tinged with a similar kind of sentimental loss; Something interesting would be gone, and I would feel a nostalgic pang for the missing strangeness. I fancy that I would rather keep the aggressive little power, not on a map, but on a shelf. I should like to keep it in a snow globe, I think (the state already more or less frozen as it is).

I’d like a little magnified globe, not unlike the coral paperweight in Orwell’s book, in which would be held the repressive slice of 1950’s authoritarianism: Marches and missiles behind safety glass. Occasionally, on a quiet night, I might chance to hear a soft, televised threat to my safety, or a report on bountiful rations; If I felt a stab of longing for the atmosphere of suspended aggression from my parents and grand parents age, I could go to the mantle and wind the little state up by hand (rather than by tweet) and hear a tinkling anthem that takes me back; I’d like to visit the trinket now and again and watch snow fallout from a nuclear winter after I shake it, or watch tiny jackboots and smiling, slightly condescending diplomats go about their days work. Maybe the mandatorily grateful workers would even build a cardboard city for my benefit, to give an impression of plenty. And once I had seen the last settling flakes fall, I would place it back above the fire place with a feeling of having harmlessly revisited my childhood, glad of a souvenir to solidify the bittersweet memory. After all, a snow globe can cast nothing else from the mantle to the floor, nor launch beyond its translucent border.

Then again, just because I’d have the terror held safely under glass, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t continue in earnest within.

Brutal Times 01

Friday, September 30th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — “You’re not haunted by the war, Dr Watson. You miss it.” Yes, this will be a series. ]
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brutal-times-dq

**

Part of what’s interesting about the upper image above, the one of a woman (presumably) wearing a burqa and holding a gun, is the number of times it has been used by the Daily Mirror — in articles on such topics as:

ISIS bans the BURKA after ‘veiled female assassin’ kills two terrorist commanders in Iraq
Desperate ISIS commanders now sending female fighters to die in combat
See US army taunt ISIS with special message in footage of coalition airstrike
Hundreds of ISIS brides sent for COMBAT TRAINING in Libya after being ‘promoted’ from role as wives

The legend under that last one reads “ISIS is using hundreds of women on the frontline in Libya” — which might lead one to believe the photo was taken there, in Libya. Why, then, would it also be applicable to two pieces about ISIS in Iraq?

That image is a glorious stimulus for hatred, though, which seems to mean it bears frequent repetition. And guess what, it might have been shot with a model, a male model for that matter, in Brixton, not Libya or Afghanistan (where blue burqas are common) or Iraq…

**

Um Hanadi (the cook, whom you’ll notice, lower image above, does not wear a burqa) is on Facebook, CNN reports:

After listing all the attacks against her, and all the loved ones lost to ISIS, Um Hanadi said: “I fought them. I beheaded them. I cooked their heads, I burned their bodies.”

She made no excuses, nor attempted to rationalize this. It was delivered as a boast, not a confession.

“This is all documented,” she said. “You can see it on my Facebook page.”

So we checked. Among many pictures of her with her dead husbands, fighters and generals, there was a photo of her in the same black combat fatigues and headscarf holding what appeared to be a freshly severed head. Another showed two severed heads in a cooking pot. In a third photograph, she is standing among partially-burned corpses. It’s impossible to verify whether the photos are authentic or Photoshopped, but we got the point.

Two questions for moralists / ethicists:

  • Is a woman killing ISIS militants morally or ethically any different from a man doing so?
  • Is a woman who cooks the heads of her and our deceased enemies a desirable ally?
  • **

    Hey, that Express piece about the “veiled female assassin” who killed two ISIS militants even gets to offer you this tasty view, with the accomnpanying legend “A woman wears a veil, which is now being banned in parts of northern Iraq”:

    muslim-woman-wearing-black-veil

    Now, is that hot, or what?

    **

    Sources:

  • Iraqi News, Veiled woman kills 2 ISIS militants in Mosul
  • CNN, The Iraqi housewife who ‘cooked the heads’ of ISIS fighters
  • Prof Pogge teaches ethics at Yale, but does he shave himself?

    Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — Pogge’s ethics, Russell’s barber paradox, and self-reference ]
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    It’s that old ouroboros [1, 2, 3, 4] rearing its ugly head again, with its tail firmly between its teeth:

    DQ 600 ethicists & barbers

    **

    The riddle, koan or potential paradox posed in the upper panel alludes to the matter of Yale’s professor Thomas Pogge, a noted ethicist, and some unbecoming behavior of which he has been accused — but as professor Judith Stark writing at Conversation suggests, there’s further interest beyond the case of Pogge and his accusers.

    Responding to the question posed by the title of her own piece, Should ethics professors observe higher standards of behavior?, she writes:

    This is an enduring dilemma in the area of ethics and one that has recently come to light with charges of unethical behavior brought against a prominent philosopher, Professor Thomas Pogge of Yale University. Pogge has been accused of manipulating younger women in his field into sexual relationships, a charge he has strenuously denied.

    Without making any judgment on the case itself, this situation raises larger questions about how the behavior of the experts in ethics is to be reviewed and evaluated.

    Profession and practice are, in their own way, like word and act — or are they?

    **

    In the lower panel, I’ve placed a discussion of Bertrand Russell‘s “barber” paradox that in Russell’s view partially but not fully resembles his paradox of the “class of all classes that are not members of themselves” — the question there being whether this class is a member of itself or not. I’m not in a position to argue such matters with Russell, so I’ll just say that he views both the “classes” and “barber” paradoxes as (different but similar) seeming knots which, when you pull on their loose ends, disentangle themselves, pop!:

    Russell writes of the “barber” paradox that it is a variant on the “classes” paradox in which “the contradiction is not very difficult to solve.” The “classes” paradox is harder, he says, but he finally dismisses it as “nonsense, i.e., that no class either is or is not a member of itself, and that it is not even true to say that, because the whole form of words is just a noise without meaning.”

    Or as Wm. Shakespeare might have said, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” — to which Witty Wittgenstein might have quipped, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” — which, alas, has the air of a tautology, with the entire Tractatus thereby eating its own tail..

    **

    What do you think? Is the entire question of ethicists behaving ethically or unethically moot? a koan? does it eat its own tail? does it just melt into thin air, and leave not a rack behind?

    Sources:

  • Judith Stark, Should ethics professors observe higher standards of behavior?
  • Esther Inglis-Arkell, The Barber Paradox Shook the Foundations of Math
  • Bertrand Russell, Logic and Knowledge: Essays, 1901-1950
  • Aman, or reciprocal safety under Islamic law

    Monday, December 21st, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — what eye do you use when there’s more going on than meets the eye? ]
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    Twice in one day, a week or so ago, I had reason to look up the meaning of “aman” in Islamic law. My source here was M. Reichberg and Henrik Syse, eds., Religion, War, and Ethics: A Sourcebook of Textual Traditions, p. 307, under the heading Aman (Pledge of Safety):

    Aman is a temporary pact of security whereby visitors from an enemy territory were conferred a certain level of protection from hostile acts (on life, liberty, and property) during their stay in the opposing community. Classical jurists agreed such a pact could be granted by Muslims to non-Muslims, and vice versa. Concerning protection given to non-Muslims, the overwhelming majority of jurists agreed that an adult free man may grant aman to a non-Muslim and that such an aman was to be respected by the entire Muslim community. Once granted aman, these non-Muslims were guaranteed protection for the duration of their visit on Muslim territory, and if an imam wished to retract the aman, he was obliged to guarantee protection until the non-Muslim had been escorted away.

    Jurists also examined the obligations of Muslims who had been granted aman in a non-Muslim territory. Most agreed that if a Muslim entered enemy territory on the basis of an aman contract granted by non-Muslims, guaranteeing his life and property, this agreement should be mutually respected, such that for the duration of his stay the Muslim would not be permitted to harm the non-Muslim enemies. For example, as later detailed, al-Shafi’i argued that Muslim men whose women and children had been taken captive were not allowed to free them by attacking their non-Muslim captors, if this would entail a violation of an aman agreement. It would be preferable, al-Shafi’i maintained, to ask for a retraction of the aman than to save the captives by its violation.

    **

    One of the items that sent me scurrying towards this text was a long and fascinating discussion of the Japanese (also German and Italian) internments during World War II, which Michael Lotus opened up on FaceBook. I’m not sure whether this FB convo will be accessible to everyone, but if it is, you will find it here.

    The other occasion was a paragraph that caught my eye in Jenny Taylor‘s blog post You cannot fight religion with atheism. I’ll give you the full paragraph for a bit of context, but it’s the remark about the secret covenant that I’m interested in here. Jenny ts discussing the British response to IS and how it will be perceived from different angles:

    And I’m not sure I see it the Church’s way either. That’s because none of it has a proper mandate from the people; the people who will inevitably suffer on the streets of London and other cities once the secret ‘covenant’ Britain’s MI6 have had with international Islamists is revoked by what will be seen as a declaration of war. [And if you don’t believe me about that, read Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate just out.]

    Abdel Bari Atwan‘s book to which Jenny links is highly regarded by folks such as Peter Bergen, so I went looking for a mention of MI6 in its pages, and found:

    Musab Al-Suri confirmed to me that a tacit covenant was in place between MI6 and the extremists…

    — after which, he talks about Saudi entities and indivisuals funding al-Qaeda. I was intrigued, and checked in Atwan’s earlier book, The Secret History of al-Qaeda, and read this equivalent but slightly longer passage:

    I believe there was an unwritten truce between bin Laden and the Al Saud based on the understanding that so long as al Qaeda did not target the royal family or Saudi nationals, the regime would shut its eyes to the organization’s activities. The truce would have collapsed after 11 September 2001, when the US put enormous pressure on the ruling family to purge itself of terrorists and cut off sources of funding for their activities.

    Atwan also quotes Abu Musab al-Suri in his Secret History:

    London was the centre for communications between Islamist groups and groups opposed to the governments of their own countries. We maintained communications with jihadi leaders outside Britain, in particular Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri who used to call me regularly and I would take his calls in a telephone box in the London suburbs … John Major’s government was very clever and served the security of Britain and the interests of its people by accepting our truce by which we meant that we would never target Britain … as long as the security forces left us alone … When Tony Blair came to power in 1997 he tore up the unwritten understanding and stabbed the mujahedin in the back by changing the laws and harassing us.

    Note that there is no specific mention of MI6 here, and the reference is to an “unwritten understanding”.

    This is all hearsay, in fact — Atwan describing al-Suri’s thoughts rather than direct quotes from al-Suri — so I’m left wondering whether anyone actually offered the British a truce, or whether what’s really going on here is that al-Suri mentioned to Atwan that the British were taking advantage of aman protection against jihadists attacking a country (in this case, the UK) which had given them shelter.

    Is this secret, tacit and unwritten truce really a truce at all, or just a mutual recognition of the existing limits of warfare under Islamic jurisprudence?

    **

    Consider in this context how Bin Laden himself chastizes Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, 9n this excerpt from Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? p.41:

    You have perhaps followed the media trial of brother Faisal Shahzad, may God release him, during which the brother was asked to explain his attack [against the United States] in view of having taken an oath [not to harm it] when he was awarded his American citizenship. He responded that he lied [when he took the oath]. It does not escape you [Shaykh `Atiyya] that [Shahzad’s lie] amounts to betrayal (ghadr) and does not fall under permissible lying to [evade] the enemy [during times of war]…please request from our Pakistani Taliban brothers to redress this matter…also draw their attention to the fact that brother Faisal Shahzad appeared in a photograph alongside Commander Mahsud. I would like to verify whether Mahsud knew that when a person acquires an American citizenship, this involves taking an oath, swearing not to harm America. If he is unaware of this matter, he should be informed of it. Unless this matter is addressed, its negative consequences are known to you. [We must therefore act swiftly] to remove the suspicion that jihadis violate their oath and engage in ghadr.

    It’s interesting that Dr Fadl, aka Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif, the prominent Jihadist ideologue whom Lawrence Wright terms an “Al Qaeda mastermind” makes a very similar claim in his Refutations, in whichb he retracts his previous suppoort for AQ on grounds of religious law:

    Fadl acknowledges that “terrorizing the enemy is a legitimate duty”; however, he points out, “legitimate terror” has many constraints. Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks in America, London, and Madrid were wrong, because they were based on nationality, a form of indiscriminate slaughter forbidden by Islam. In his Al Hayat interview, Fadl labels 9/11 “a catastrophe for Muslims,” because Al Qaeda’s actions “caused the death of tens of thousands of Muslims—Arabs, Afghans, Pakistanis and others.”

    The most original argument in the book and the interview is Fadl’s assertion that the hijackers of 9/11 “betrayed the enemy,” because they had been given U.S. visas, which are a contract of protection. “The followers of bin Laden entered the United States with his knowledge, and on his orders double-crossed its population, killing and destroying,” Fadl continues. “The Prophet—God’s prayer and peace be upon him—said, ‘On the Day of Judgment, every double-crosser will have a banner up his anus proportionate to his treachery.’”

    As Hannah Stuart comments in Critiquing Radical Islamist Claims to Theological Authenticity on the respective views of Bin Laden, Dr Fadl and others:

    While their interpretations differ, it is testament to the strength of the Islamic obligation to honour an oath that senior al-Qaeda figures view perceived transgressions with such severity.

    America’s Anti-Agoge

    Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    “….Instead of softening their feet with shoe or sandal, his rule was to make them hardy through going barefoot. This habit, if practiced, would, as he believed, enable them to scale heights more easily and clamber down precipices with less danger.”

    – Xenophon, The Polity of the Lacedaemonians

    Be quiet! In your position, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman! Then why the fuck did you accept the position? Who the fuck hired you? You should step down! If that is what you think of being headmaster, you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!”
    Jerelyn Luther, the Shrieker of Yale

    “I personally am tired of hearing that first amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here.”

    – Brenda Smith-Lezama, Vice President of the Missouri Students Association 

    Much has been written this week of the protests at Mizzou and Yale universities now sparking more absurd copycats elsewhere.  Pundits have covered the dangerous illiberalism of campus political correctness and speculated that the students are the result of a generation of helicopter parenting. There were earlier essays recently on the “coddled” nature of elite university students generally and skewered Ivy League students in particular as the products of a deeply flawed, intellectually shallow,”meritocratic” rat race that serves as the gateway to the nation’s elite. There have also been conservative suggestions that the students lack the maturity to vote and a furious counterattack by social-justice faction lefties defending the students and their authoritarian anti-free speechsafe space” ideology.

    While all interesting and moderately important, I don’t think any of this gets to the heart of the matter.

    Up until today, every society in history has had a process, formal or informal, to prepare the next generation of leadership and inculcate virtues in them that would assure their society’s cultural continuity and physical survival. The ancient Chinese mandarinate was based on mastery of Confucian classics; the British Empire had its public schools and storied regiments where the sons of the gentry and peerage bonded; the samurai and daimyo of Tokugawa Japan continued to uphold bushido and cherish antique tactics in warfare centuries after Japan’s unification made such things more ritual than reality.

    The definitive example of an educational rite of passage from student to member of the ruling class however, remains the Agoge of ancient Sparta. Established, according to Spartan legend, by the semi-mythical law-giver Lycurgus, the agoge (“the upbringing”) existed to mold Spartan boys through a ferocious training regime into the hoplite soldier-citizens who comprised the social apex of Sparta’s militaristic oligarchy. The agoge ceaselessly battered the students with physical exertion, corporal punishment, exposure to the elements and hunger in a bid to harden them  in mind and body. There’s much about life under the agoge that moderns, even admirers of classical Greece, would find distasteful or even appalling, but it was very effective at inculcating that ascetic toughness, communal discipline, martial prowess and laconic wit that Spartans prized.  For at least three centuries, the agoge helped sustain Sparta’s qualitative military edge and its hegemony over the Greek world and subsequently, its political independence for two centuries more. Not a record that was frequently matched in history.

    America too has a system of education to prepare – or rather, certify – our future business, academic, judicial and political leaders based on matriculation at a small number of highly selective, elite universities and liberal arts colleges. Broadly speaking, this includes roughly the top 100 higher education institutions ranked by US News & World Report and narrowly, for filling the very top tiers of finance, law and government service, the Ivy League plus a handful of comparable schools. This would place Mizzou at the bottom of the barrel of our elite education system while Yale is at the very pinnacle. The kids going to exclusive, elite, universities are very bright for the most part, but even more so they are wealthy.

    This upper class status includes the campus protestors screaming loudest about their wretched oppression. The hunger striker of Mizzou’s father is a multi-multi-millionaire while the Shrieker of Yale reportedly comes from the relative poverty of her parents $750,000 home. The aggressive authoritarianism on display at Yale, Mizzou, Amherst, Dartmouth or Claremont is less the “Rage of a Privileged Class” than the petulant tantrum of the 1%.  In other words, despite their heroic efforts at a public pathos orgy of political correctness to portray themselves as victims in grave danger as they bullied and assaulted professors other students, these are spoiled rich kids used to getting their way, pitching an unholy fit to get undeserved power over others who disagree.

    However obnoxious and unlikable these petty tyrants are or how totalitarian their demands to end free speech and academic freedom, fire and expel all their critics or put social-justice commissars in charge of every university department, they didn’t educate themselves. The students embody, perhaps in a more militant form, what they were taught. The problem isn’t that this year has a random surplus of student radicals, or that sinister racist conspiracies exist in the administrations of our most left-wing universities as protestors claim or that these helicoptered students are all psychologically fragile waifs raised in a culture of self-love and psychodrama. No, the problem is that the system to educate our future leaders tends to inculcate deep hostility and loathing toward their fellow Americans, extolls anti-empirical, witch-hunting dogmatism as a virtue while rewarding narcissism and anti-social aggression in interpersonal relations. This needs to change.

    We have built an American anti-Agoge that cultivates values, ethics and habits in future leaders that are politically repulsive in their authoritarian rejection of Constitutional rights and are antithetical to ruling wisely or well. At times they would seem to conflict with a life as a functionally competent human being. Half of all Yale students in this pressure-cooker require at least some mental health counseling. This is an astounding statistic. Imagine if Polybius or Livy had written that half of the sons of the Patrician class were at least slightly mad. A toxic ruling class that is certain that they have been victimized by the citizens they govern and who lack the normal resilience to withstand minor stresses of life without concocting conspiracy theories or taking to their bed is a recipe for disaster. In a liberal democratic state such as ours, dependent as it is on the values of an open society to function politically, this state of affairs is a sign of political decay and creeping oligarchy.

    What is to be done?

    We did not arrive at this juncture overnight and fixing a fundamentally broken academic culture will take time, but here are a few simple suggestions to start.

    1. Legislation to Secure Academic Freedom, Due Process and Free Speech on Campus:  This will defang the PC bullies, social justice warriors and their allies in university administration by hamstringing their ability to coerce and punish dissent. Obviously, this will be easier in public universities but these provisions could be attached to receiving Federal funds, including guaranteed student loans.
    2. Draconian Reduction of University Administrative Positions relative to Tenured Faculty: This will save a great deal of money better spent elsewhere in by axing bureaucracy while de-funding and disempowering the diversity commissariat on campus that is the source of much illiberal mischief. Again, this is a matter more for state level action initially.
    3. Restore a Core Undergraduate Canon rooted in Real Courses in Real Academic Fields: This will reduce the Melissa Click problem of academic sinecures for full-time radical political activists posing as professors with Fifty Shades of Gray “scholarship”. The money saved by getting rid of an army of administrators in #2 leaves a lot of room to hire mathematicians, biologists, historians, economists, physicists, philosophers and linguists who earned a doctorate in something real.
    4. Require Elite universities Receiving Federal Funds to allocate 20% of their Student Body to Students from Middle-Class, Lower Middle Class and Working Class backgrounds, Geographically Balanced: I have mixed feelings about this in principle, but it would definitely break up the overwhelming UC-UMC Superzip monoculture at our gateway institutions and bring new talent and perspectives into our ruling class that the university administrators at present work extremely hard to systematically exclude. It will also increase social mobility and provide competition for the progeny of our game-rigging “meritocratic” elite.

    .

    None of these will usher in a utopia. Much of radical academia will muddle through doing what they have been doing until retirement, but the system itself will be on a trajectory for better health rather than for getting steadily worse.

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