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Locked horns: reading the abstract news

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- pattern recognition in news media, also polarization, Swiss cows, and klezmer ]
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Berkane & Bergamote, two Heren cows, lock horns for the title of 'queen' in Grimetz, Switzerland

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It’s fairly extraordinary what happens when you scan a news item or op-ed piece in search of those remarks that are abstractions from the particular topic of the piece. I was struck by this today when I read:

A tradition of vigorous, nuanced debate is increasingly being boiled down to a binary choice of worldviews.

I mean, how many other topics in the same newspaper that day might that sentence have been slipped into without causing an eyebrow to lift?

Of similar interest, perhaps, and from the same piece:

ultimately, a big tent does have parameters

That doesn’t strike me as quite as open an insight, but maybe that’s just because “big tent” has more speciic resonance. And then there was:

Both views are completely valid, but they can be conflicting

That one intrigues me because on the face of it, it’s a contradiction: maybe a little set theory, expressed in the form of slightly different wording, could resolve it.

Here’s one more, still from the same piece, with a touch of zen to it — or is that psychotherapy?

By looking at ourselves, we can be better people

And this one, forgive me, is simply chilling:

are you now or have you ever been … ?

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So, “big tent” and all, are we talking about the US Congress here?

Actually, those quotes all come from a Washington Post piece by Marc Fisher titled For Jewish groups, a stand-off between open debate and support of Israel — but that’s pretty much beside my point.

The thing is, as SI Hyakawa pointed out, good writing tends to be writing that moves up and down the “ladder of abstraction” from intimate details (“my cow Bessie” — or “Berkane” or “Bergamote” in this instance) to broad-sweep analysis (“13% of livestock in the region”), because details (and anecdotes) evoke emotion while statistics and abstractions ensure that the wider picture is not omitted from the telling.

WHich is why, among other things, in a world of think tanks and white papers which favor analytics and statictics almost to the exclusion of details and emotions, my own analytic tradecraft, as expressed in the HipBone Games and Sembl Thinking projects, favors quotes and anecdotes as highly as facts and stats.

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One of the specific art acts discussed in that WaPo piece is The Shondes‘ klezmer rock punk song, I Watched the Temple Fall [lyrics, YouTube ]. Here’s what the band has to say about the song:

We wrote “I Watched the Temple Fall” because we were thinking a lot about what Jews put our faith in, and where that faith really lives. We’d been talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s notion of Judaism as a religion of time, not space, and thinking about how that related to Zionism. Confining ideas into spaces (temples, states, what have you) can falsely polarize us and take us away from the big, important stuff. We wanted to write a song that clearly said, “Look, it might be devastating to face, but the state of Israel commits actions daily that violate the basic tenets of Judaism.

Rock, punk, and klezmer I don’t know much about, but Heschel‘s book The Sabbath is one that has moved me profoundly, and reading this particular statement made me wonder what David Ronfeldt might find of interest for his Space-Time-Action (STA) theory in the song, or in Heschel’s thought.

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Well, we began this post — about the attractions of abstraction — with an image of two Swiss cows named Berkane and Bergamote locking horns in a championship fight — here’s some klezmer from Itzhak Perlman — again, see, I’m climbing back down the ladder of abstraction to the level of the individual — to round things out:

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On ISIS and Crucifixion

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- of capital punishment, shock value and terror ]
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Images such as the one above have been proliferating in western media recently. That specific image came from a Fox News report of April 29th titled Al Qaeda-linked jihadists accused of hanging victims on crosses — an interesting article on two counts.

First, the al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in question are apparently ISIS –

The executions reportedly took place Tuesday in Raqqa, where the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, an Al Qaeda-linked network, has taken over the city

– the group that refused Ayman al-Zawahiri’s guidance — in the words of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God.

— and which al-Qaeda has clearly distanced itself from:

Al-Qaeda announces it is not linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as it was not informed of its creation [and] did not accept it,” read Sunday’s statement, which criticised ISIL’s mode of operations. ISIL “is not a branch of al-Qaeda, has no links to it, and the [al-Qaeda] group is not responsible for its acts,” it added.

That’s the first point of curiosity —

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And the second?

The said jihadists are “accused of hanging victims on crosses”. That’s intriguing wording, because it doesn’t say that they were crucified — “hung on crosses” could mean that, or it could mean no more than “displayed”… and indeed, the article gets fairly speciic about that:

Al Qaeda-backed jihadists are hanging the bodies of executed enemies on crosses crucifixion-style in a town in Northern Syria, according to a Syrian opposition group.

The executions reportedly took place Tuesday in Raqqa, where the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, an Al Qaeda-linked network, has taken over the city, according to Abu Ibrahim Alrquaoui, who identifies himself as a founder of a group called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

it says, and:

Alrquaoui said he witnessed the executions himself, and took photographs that have since been posted on the group’s Facebook page, and are now being circulated on the Internet.

The series of photographs show different men bound to crosses in what appears to be a public square area, though it could not be independently confirmed that the subjects were dead or, if they were, by what means the executions had been carried out. The pictures do not show any apparent signs of the men nailed to a cross, nor are there any obvious, visible signs of fatal wounds.

and:

Jihadists operating in Syria have previously been accused of shooting people in the head, then affixing them to crosses. In this latest case, the ISIS charged the seven men with espionage and attempted assassination of the group’s leaders, according to Alrquaoui.

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The Daily Mail, on the other hand, under the heading Syrian rebels crucified: Islamic extremists execute two men in the most public way for ‘fighting against Muslims’, states quite directly:

Islamic extremists have publicly crucified two Syrian rebels in northeastern Syria in revenge for a grenade attack on members of their group.

I wasn’t there, and can’t say definitively whether the man in the photo was hung on a cross as described by Fox or crucified as the Daily Mail has it.

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It’s a disturbing image, either way.

Crucifixion wasn’t something the Romans dreamed up as a particularly painful way of death for a specific subversive rabbi two thousand odd years ago, it was simply one of the forms of the death penalty back then — and if images of crucifixions happening today carry a more that usual shock value, it is because that particular form of capital punishment is not one we are accustomed to, and because the rabbi who was crucified has had tremendous cultural and personal impact.

The people doing the crucifying in this case — whether it was death by crucifixion or death by other means with crucifixion as display — presumably don’t share that sense of impact. The Qur’an denies that Jesus himself was crucified (Qur’an 4.157):

they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them

And crucifixion is one of the forms of severe punishment known as “hudud” prescribed in the Qur’an (5.33):

This is the recompense of those who fight against God and His Messenger, and hasten about the earth, to do corruption there: they shall be slaughtered, or crucified, or their hands and feet shall alternately be struck off; or they shall be banished from the land. That is a degradation for them in this world; and in the world to come awaits them a mighty chastisement

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I hope to say more on hudud in another post — but meanwhoile, Prof. Ali Mazrui, one of the “Muslim 500“, writing on the set of punishments mentioned in this verse, suggests“:

If God has been teaching human beings in installments about crime and punishment, and if there were no police, prisons, forensic science, or knowledge about DNA fourteen centuries ago, the type of punishments needed had to be truly severe enough to be a deterrent. Hence the hudud. Since then God has taught us more about crime, its causes, the methods of its investigation, the limits of guilt, and the much wider range of possible punishments.

Did the Prophet Muhammad say, “My people will never agree on error”? If so we can take it for granted that Muslims of the future will be less and less convinced that the amputation of the hand is a suitable punishment for a thief under any circumstances. This is a prediction. I have not the slightest doubt that the Islam of our grandchildren will never accept penal amputation of the hands of thieves as legitimate any longer. On such issues doctrinal liberalism converges with social moderation.

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Times change, and religions with them. Deuteronomy 21:18, 21 states:

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; and they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

— and although there are still some Christians in America who support the stoning of recidivist rebellious adolescents on the basis of these verses, they are certainly far outliers from the mainstream in this regard.

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For your further consideration:

J. Scott Harr, Kären M. Hess and Christine H. Orthmann, in their book, Constitutional Law and the Criminal Justice System tell us:

History records many brutal methods of execution, including being buried alive, thrown to wild animals, drawn and quartered, boiled in oil, burned, stoned, drowned, impaled, crucified, pressed to death, smothered, stretched on a rack, disemboweled, beheaded, hanged or shot. In biblical times, criminals were stoned to death or crucified. The ancient Greeks, in a much more humane fashion, administered poison from the hemlock tree to execute criminals. The Romans, in contrast, used beheading, clubbing, strangling, drawing and quartering or feeding to the lions. During the Dark Ages, ordeals were devised to serve as both judgment and punishment. These ordeals included being submerged in water or in boiling oil, crushed under huge boulders or forced to do battle with skilled swordsmen. It was presumed the innocent would survive the ordeal; the guilty would be killed by it. Later, in France, the guillotine became the preferred means of execution.

Societies have always struggled with balancing societal needs with socially accepted means of punishment. Although today’s methods are said to be more civilized, accounts of witnesses to executions raise doubts whether progress has been made. The death penalty has been an established feature of the American criminal justice system since Colonial times, with hanging often the preferred execution, especially on the frontier. Means of execution evolved as states sought more humane ways of killing their condemned—from hangings to the first electrocution in 1890, the invention of the gas chamber in 1923, the use of the firing squad and, finally, the addition of lethal injection, now the predominant method of execution in the United States.

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Michael Yon discussing “possibly one of the largest peaceful uprisings in history”

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- catching up on Thailand ]
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Michael Yon calls it “possibly the largest or one of the largest peaceful uprisings in history”. As Zenpundit readers know, it’s the religious side of things I am most interested in, but “peaceful uprisings” also catches my attention.

The peaceful uprising in question is that of the Whistleblowers in Thailand — a loose assortment of groups protesting government corruption, whose November 2013 protests derailed an amnesty bill that would have allowed former premier Thaksin Shinawatra to return from exile with immunity from prosecution.

According to Yon’s text, and as partially illustrated in the above DoubleQuote built from two of his own images, Whistleblowers and their supporters include “Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs”.

And given that Thailand is officially a Buddhist country and the CIA World Factbook gives its population as 93.6% Buddhist, Buddhists can no doubt be found in many groups — but Yon specifically cites two Buddhist groups among the six or seven he lists as associated with the larger Whistleblower movement:

  • Buddha Issara group: non-violent (guards repel attacks in self-defense)
  • Dhamma Army (Santi Asoke): non-violent.
  • The monk in the upper panel is Dhamma Army leader Pra Phothi Rak.

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    Let me return to that opening quote of Yon’s. Here it is in context:

    One of the great untold stories of this uprising is that it must be one of the largest peaceful uprisings that the world has ever seen, yet it has been poorly covered by mainstream media. The lack of violence from millions of Whistleblowers is one probable explanation.

    Michael Yon has done his share of war reporting, as evidenced for instance in his book, Moment of Truth in Iraq, so it’s a pleasure to see him reminding us of those working for change by peaceful means. What’s not so great is the general media concept that if it bleeds, it leads. The result, in Michael’s words?

    Practically no conventional media corporation would afford to dedicate high-end journalists full-time to a subject that garners little readership. We saw the same in Afghanistan. Quality costs money. The money is not there. So we get garbage in and garbage out.

    Hence Michael’s mission — to bring us the under-reported news.

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    Recommended reading:

  • Are Thai Protestors Violent?
  • Whistleblowers: a Meta-Organization
  • Anatomy of Current Thai Protests
  • Michael is a former Green Beret reporting in depth from conflict zones around the world. You can follow his work by signing up for his mailing list. It is funded by donation.

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    Whodunnit, WaPo?

    Friday, March 21st, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- a small matter -- of some concern to journos and scholars perhaps -- of truth in attribution ]
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    My twitter feed this morning included this:

    Now Stéphane Lacroix is a scholar of salafism and politics at Sciences Po whose little book with Thomas Hegghammer, The Meccan Rebellion, marks him as someone the mere mention of whose name generates a click-through, a download and — time permitting — a careful reading.

    I clicked, I saw, I printed to .pdf.

    And that’s where things got just a little strange.

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    In the upper panel below, you’ll see what I saw when I clicked through to the WaPo site as suggested by McCants:

    — while in the lower panel above, you’ll see what I saw when I hit their “print” button.

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    I’ve “enlarged” the credits in those two screencaps, and I do understand that the WaPo “Monkey Cage” blog-post in question was likely posted by Marc Lynch, fow which I’m grateful, and that even the “for print” version gives Lacroix credit at the very end of the piece, noting in italics:

    Stéphane Lacroix is an associate professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris, France.

    Today, I notice all this. In a year or three, though, if for some reason I want to quote the piece after finding it by a quick search for MB-related file-titles on my laptop, I’m liable to attribute it to Lynch rather than Lacroix. Because the downloaded .pdf copy I now have stored away tells me the piece was “By Marc Lynch”.

    Whose opinions I also respect. But who didn’t in fact write it.

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    From my POV the world is perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing — not even my inclination to change things I notice and find unhelpful.

    Like failing to distinguish “written by” from “translated by” and “posted by” — or “date posted” and “date last updated” from “date downloaded” for that matter…

    Because — forget truth in advertising, it’s a lost oxymoron — we could really use something as basic as truth in attribution, okay?

    Thanks.

    And now I’ll go read the article.

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    Flight 370: or the search for a landing strip

    Monday, March 17th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- whose own quest is for a long-enough strip of reliable mental silence to land an original thought on ]
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    Here is Foreign Policy‘s map of landing strips that Flight 370 might have used, offered with the caveat that as with a wiki, individuals may add or have akready have added spurious information or uninformed speculations at this point:

    You may of course prefer the greater density and spread of James Fallows‘ offering from The Atlantic — both are interactive, but Fallows’ version as formulated by Atlantic reader David Strip doesn’t allow you to add landing strips if your own devising, though “if you click on any of the individual dots on this map, you’ll see popup information about the site — runway length, location, elevation, etc.”

    Thankfully, someone at NASA was not satisfied by the “in the box” thinking for which Google is renowned, raised their scopes to the heavens and looked “outside the planet”:

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    Conclusion?

    In the memorable words of Alan Watts: Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown

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