zenpundit.com » insight

Archive for the ‘insight’ Category

Mapping our interdependencies and vulnerabilities [with a glance at Y2K]

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — mapping, silos, Y2K, 9/11, rumors, wars, Boeing 747s, Diebold voting machines, vulnerabilities, dependencies ]

www.fun1001.com | Send this image to your friend

The “bug” of Y2K never quite measured up to the 1919 influenza bug in terms of devastating effect — but as TPM Barnett wrote in The Pentagon’s New Map:

Whether Y2K turned out to be nothing or a complete disaster was less important, research-wise, than the thinking we pursued as we tried to imagine – in advance – what a terrible shock to the system would do to the United States and the world in this day and age.


My own personal preoccupations during the run-up to Y2K had to do with cults, militias and terrorists — any one of which might have tried for a spectacle.

As it turned out, though, Al Qaida’s plan to set off a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve, 1999 was foiled when Albert Ressam was arrested attempting to enter the US from Canada — so that aspect of what might have happened during the roll-over was essentially postponed until September 11, 2001. And the leaders of the Ugandan Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, acting on visionary instructions (allegedly) from the Virgin Mary, announced that the end of the world had been postponed from Dec 31 / Jan 1 till March 17 — at which point they burned 500 of their members to death in their locked church. So that apocalyptic possibility, too, was temporarily averted.


Don Beck of the National Values Center / The Spiral Dynamics Group, commented to me at one point in the run-up:

Y2K is like a lightening bolt: when it strikes and lights up the sky, we will see the contours of our social systems.

— and that quote from Beck, along with Barnett’s observation, pointed strongly to the fact that we don’t have anything remotely resembling a decent global map of interdependencies and vulnerabilities.

What we have instead is a PERT chart for this or that, Markov diagrams, social network maps, railroad maps and timetables… oodles and oodles of smaller pieces of the puzzle of past, present and future… each with its own symbol system and limited scope. Our mapping, in other words, is territorialized, siloed, and disconnected, while the world system which is integral to our being and survival is connected, indeed, seamlessly interwoven.

I’ve suggested before now that our mapping needs to pass across the Cartesian divide from the objective to the subjective, from materiel to morale, from the quantitative to the qualitative, and from rumors to wars. It also needs a uniform language or translation service, so that Jay Forrester system dynamic models can “talk” with PERT and Markov and the rest, Bucky Fuller‘s World Game included.

I suppose some of all this is ongoing, somewhere behind impenetrable curtains, but I wonder how much.


In the meantime, and working from open source materials, the only kind to which I have access – here are two data points we might have noted a litle earlier, if we had decent interdependency and vulnerability mapping:


Fear-mongering — or significant alerts?  I’m not tech savvy enough to know.


Tom Barnett’s point about “the thinking we pursued as we tried to imagine – in advance – what a terrible shock to the system would do to the United States and the world in this day and age” still stands.

Y2K was what first alerted me to the significance of SCADAs.

Something very like what Y2K might have been seems to be unfolding — but slowly, slowly.

Are we thinking yet?

A bouquet from Breivik

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — Breivik, network analysis, graphical presentation, morale and materiel, hard problem in consciousness ]



If I might wax over-the-top lyrical for just a moment…

Like an early morning bouquet of wildflowers appearing out of the mists —


or like some translucent sea creature perhaps, with galaxies in its veins and tendrils — the mind of Anders Breivik is imaged here by Britain’s Guardian datablog in a graphical mapping of the hyperlinks found in his 1500 page manifesto, and the links between the sites he links to.

Beautiful, no? Like an early morning bouquet?


Three things:

  • mapping Breivik’s online links for us is a valuable service.
  • the glamour of high-tech graphical interfaces can be deceptive.
  • there’s no map of the link between concept and act.

That last one, if you ask me, is the real bouquet.

We can know quite a bit about what Breivik read, and even figure out some of how he “connected the dots” – but the move from thinking about to taking action is the one that matters most – and we don’t have much of a handle on it.

It’s not on the map.


Such lacunae bother me.

A lot of our maps and models move between one quantity and another, and a lot of our thinking, correspondingly, has to do with materiel rather than morale — but nowhere is there a map or model of how quantity and quality affect each other, or how morale “force multiplies” materiel — even though “real life” moves seamlessly between (subjective, qualitative) mind and (objective, quantifiable) brain.

We have no map to walk us through the hard problem in consciousness — except our own insight.

And x-rays do not an insight make.

Jihad culture: its music, poetry, rituals and dreams

Monday, September 12th, 2011

[  by Charles Cameron – jihadist studies, Hegghammer, culture and influence ]


It is the evening of the tenth anniversary: the day is almost over.


In an engaging interview with Abu Muqawama posted today, terrorism and violent Islamism expert Thomas Hegghammer discusses his new project about jihad culture, or “the things jihadis do when they don’t fight”.

It is inspired by the observation that militants in the underground spend a lot of time doing things that appear to serve no immediate military purpose, like singing songs, reciting poetry, or discussing dreams. They also do unexpected things like weep on a regular basis, notably when reciting the Qur’an. The infamous Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, for example, was known among fellow militants as both “the butcher” (al-dhabbah) and “a weeper” (baki). All this “soft matter” of jihadism remains virtually unstudied; one reason, I think, is that it has been considered less consequential than the hard stuff of terror, such as attacks, resources, organizational structures and the like. My hypothesis is that jihad culture is not inconsequential at all; instead I think it may shed important new light on the processes by which jihadi groups recruit, exercise organizational control and make tactical decisions. I am sure that the military men and women reading this blog will find all this rather intuitive, because they have experienced the important role of music and rituals in their own organization.

As a first step in the inquiry, I am currently working with a great team of scholars on an edited volume that will explore various dimensions of jihad culture. I have recruited subject specialists – including a musicologist, an Arabic poetry expert, and an anthropologist of dreams – to help document and decipher al-Qaida’s internal culture.

I hope the book will cover miracle stories and the odor of sanctity, too…


Hegghammer is co-author of the forthcoming Meccan Rebellion (Amal 2011), which I very much hope to review here on Zenpundit, and which is likely to be the definitive work on the Mahdist takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979.

Needless to say, I’m delighted at the news of Hegghammer’s upcoming project.

Al Farrow: an artist who leaves me uneasy, questioning

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — art, religion, and violence ]


Al Farrow, the San Francisco-based artist, finds and shows us that violence which is one pole of religion — what I think of myself as the landmines in the garden, where the garden is pardis, pairidaeza, paradise, the opposite pole of religion — perhaps inseparable from the violence, perhaps separable — the pole of peace, eirene, salaam

He show us this uncanny juxtaposition by building. meticulously, a cathedral out of guns and bullets:


His work leaves me impressed, but ill at ease, and for that I am grateful: he makes me think.

Take a close look at one of those flying buttresses… and compare it with its cousins at Notre Dame:


That detail really brings the power of Farrow’s work home to me.


William Blake suggested that it is the artist’s function to “cleanse the doors of perception” — to give us fresh eyes, to see the world anew for us.

Al Farrow does this: it is as though in his cathedral, Catholic and Protestant Ireland meet.  Indeed, in an exhibit of his works — he has built mosques and synagogues of guns and bullets too — Christianity faces off against Islam, Judaism confronts its demons.

But there’s something more here, perhaps – the clash of war and peace, of hate and love — and how hatred can at times work with “love” as a protective shield…

Farrow himself says:

I am perpetually surprised by the historical and continuing partnership of war and religion. The atrocities committed in acts of war absolutely violate every tenet of religion, yet rarely do religious institutions speak against the violations committed in the name of God. Historically, Popes have even offered eternal salvation to those who fought on their behalf (The crusades, etc.).

In my constructed reliquaries, I am playfully employing symbols of war, religion and death in a facade of architectural beauty and harmony. I have allowed my interests in art history, archeology and anthropology to influence the work. The sculptures are an ironic play on the medieval cult of the relic, tomb art, and the seductive nature of objects commissioned and historically employed by those seeking position of power.

There’s considerable further irony, therefore, in the way in which Farrow’s already ironic work can be juxtaposed with it’s utterly non-ironic equivalent – Saddam Hussein‘s concept of the Mother of All Battles Mosque:



Farrow’s work does not instruct us to be warriors, nor to be pacifists – it draws our attention to the blend of violence and peace of which our human dreams and lives are made. As Farrow says in this video clip from an exhibit of his work in Washington:

I use real bones, real bullets, real guns, because fake bones wouldn’t shake anybody up, nor would a fake gun. The purpose of my work is actually to get people to think about that complex relationship between war and religion – or any violence and religion. And a lot of violence is committed and has been through history in the name of religion, and that’s an ongoing thing, in any part of the world you look.

And yes, I think it’s fair to say Farrow’s juxtapositions of religion and violence clearly lean us towards peace.  War does the same, no?

War, after all, destroys places of worship, along with many and varied other places – munitions dumps and churches, mosques and homes:


But just as religion has its landmines, so too it offers us its gardens – and just as a mosque or church or temple may be a rallying point offering a divine sanction to violence, so too it may be a focus for peace and reconciliation.


Out of the ashes of destruction: creation, renewal, rebuilding…

For more on Al Farrow’s work, visit the Catharine Clark Gallery page.  And feel uneasy by all means, meditate — the koan I am sitting with this month is “Stop the War” — and ponder…

Guest Post: Pundita: Missing Something?

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

We’re delighted here at Zenpundit to present a cross-post from our blog-friend Pundita — of whom it has been said that “What Julia Child did for French cooking, Pundita is doing for foreign policy discussion. She’s opened a haute pursuit to ordinary people.”

Pundita quotes Mark in this post, and also raises some interesting issues with regard to America and monarchism — and as I have been prepping a series of posts on “the impact of ritual and ceremonial in church, military and state,” we all agreed it would be good to bring this post across to ZP in the hope of stirring some discussion — and see how things develop from there.

Pundita’s epigraph for this post is as follows:

Alan Rickman‘s Sheriff of Nottingham to a scribe: “Wait a minute. Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public, and they love him for it? That’s it then. Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.”

We bid her welcome.

— Charles Cameron


Pundita writes:

The title of this post refers to the punch line in a series of TV commercials in the USA for Sears Optical eyeglasses. The ads feature amusing skits of people in serious need of a pair of glasses, such as the woman who mistakes a police patrol car for a taxicab. But helped along by bravura performances from Tara L. Clark as a blind-as-a-bat cat owner and Squirty as a wild racoon who can’t believe his luck, one of the skits is so funny it’s gone viral on the internet:

 Oh look it’s a democracy! Come snuggle with the United States!

There is nothing funny, however, about American officials who are so blind to what the United States stands for they snuggle with governments that march to a very different drumbeat than their own. Yet the officials are supported in their blindness by an equally blind populace. So in this post I’m going to break a taboo and wrestle with topics that are only whispered about in this country: monarchism and America’s involvement with it. To set the stage I’ll start with quotes from two recent news reports:

From the Globe and Mail (Canada), August 19, 2011:

Stephen Harper is working to recast the Canadian identity, undoing 40 years of a Liberal narrative and instead creating a new patriotism viewed through a conservative lens.Restoring the “royal” prefix to the navy and air force this week is just part of the Prime Minister’s attempt at “creating a new frame” for Canada and Canadians. …

From the New York Times, August 17:

A photograph taken last Friday of Gary F. Locke, the new United States ambassador to China, buying coffee with his 6-year-old daughter and carrying a black backpack at a Starbucks in the Seattle airport, has gone viral on the Chinese Internet. The seemingly banal scene has bewildered and disarmed Chinese because they are used to seeing their own officials indulge in privileged lives often propped up by graft and bribery and lavish expense accounts.


The first impression from the Starbucks episode has been bolstered by another photograph that shows Mr. Locke, his wife, Mona, and their three children carrying their own luggage after landing at Beijing Capital International Airport.Chinese who saw them then spread the word that the family had gotten into an anonymous minivan because a formal sedan that had been sent to pick them up was too small.

“To most Chinese people, the scene was so unusual it almost defied belief,” Chen Weihua, an editor at China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, wrote in an article Wednesday.

Cheng Li, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who studies Chinese elite politics, said in an e-mail: “Ambassador Locke’s photo contrasts sharply with the image of the Chinese officials who often live in a secret, insulated, very privileged fashion.

Often I’ve heard it asked why Britain’s political Right doesn’t seem much less socialist than the country’s Left. I’d say the answer is that the United Kingdom’s welfare state has as much to do with Marxism as bread and circus did under the Roman emperors. I’d also say the same answer would apply to the welfare state in the Kingdom of Norway and the Kingdom of Sweden and a number of other countries that are constitutional monarchies.

Yet my fellow Americans have such difficulty seeing monarchism that they confuse it with something else. The same blindness can afflict Americans who insist that China is not much different from the United States. In his 2008 article for the May/June issue of Good magazine (Ten Reasons Why China Matters To You), Thomas P.M. Barnett, an American security analyst, wrote that “China’s transformation echoes much of America’s past. … right now, China is somewhere in the historical vicinity of ‘rising America’ circa 1880.”

In my retort (The National Petition Bureau will see you now, Dr Barnett), I pointed out that Chinese make the pilgrimage to a bureau that’s a CCP placemarker for an emperor’s go-fers. I added in exasperation, “Ah yes, I remember as if just yesterday the tens of millions of American peasants in the 1880s who pilgrimaged to the nation’s capital every year to seek redress from the emperor.”

Dr Barnett turned out to have a sense of humor or at least a fair-minded attitude about receiving criticism because he linked my post at his blog. Yet that did little to allay my concern that Washington’s foreign policy establishment was blind as a bat to the fact that modern China is an imperial society with a frownie face of Communist Party dictatorship painted on it, and that modern Britain and a good number of other NATO-member countries are basically monarchist societies with a smiley face of democracy plastered on them.

One could even make an argument that modern Mexico’s most entrenched problems are rooted not in the rule of the Spanish but in indigenous imperial civilizations that predated Spain by thousands of years.

In fact, the more one starts looking around the world for societies that are not holdovers from the days of kings the more one appreciates that the United States of America has very few natural allies; i.e., countries that represent a real break with monarchism and the class systems that uphold it.

Norwegians might bristle at their society being described as monarchist. They would point out that their noble class has no political power anymore and that Norway today is an egalitarian society. However, it is an egalitarianism so rigidly enforced that the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik believed after he set off a bomb in Oslo that he would be caught and killed by the police before he reached Utoya island.

His faith in the omniscience of Norway’s government was dashed but the point is that the country’s egalitarian “open society” is maintained by the second largest deployment of public-space CCTV cameras outside the United Kingdom. And Norway’s generous public welfare system means that from cradle to grave Norwegians are easily monitored by the state, which helps the government make sure Norway stays an open, egalitarian society.

Yet Americans insist on describing such states as Leftist! Karl Marx would roll in his grave if he saw what passes today for many Leftist governments.

These same Americans decry their government’s close alliance with absolute monarchies such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They do so without realizing that there is a long history of the United States being closely allied with monarchies; that many of these are no longer “absolute” but “constitutional” with parliamentary forms of government and voting rights makes them no less monarchist.

Americans were also miffed at what they considered snobbishness when they heard the Swedish Chairman of BP, Carl-Henric Svanberg, expressing concern for the victims of the Gulf oil spill by referring to them as “the small people.”

Translation malfunction, explained his apologists. There was no malfunction; English is Svanberg’s second language. And he wasn’t being snobbish, he was being Swedish. Noblesse oblige and all that; one must always look after the basic needs of the small people so they don’t revolt.

None of the above is meant as a criticism of the countries I’ve mentioned or their people, and one would be hard-pressed to find nicer peoples than the majority of Swedes or Norwegians — and Canadians for that matter, who also live under a constitutional monarchy. I see no harm in people upholding traditions that provide them with a sense of order and give them continuity with their past, which is why I cheered on the royal pomp associated with the marriage of William and Kate. If it helped Britons get clearer on their values I was all for that.

The harm comes when Americans are so unclear on their own values, their own past and traditions, they can’t engage closely with the rest of the world without becoming terribly confused. One consequence is that the more the U.S. government has tried to mesh with the “international community,” the lower America’s standing in the world has fallen.

Americans can’t turn the situation around without first acknowledging that the international community is in large measure of bunch of royalists. Arriving at this realization doesn’t mean Americans should eschew friendly relations with people in such societies or that official Washington should spurn engaging with the governments on issues of mutual interest. It does mean that Americans are asking for ever greater trouble by lumping “democratic” monarchies” with American democracy.

Over at ZenPundit, Mark Safranski has again expressed concern about what he calls an emerging American oligarchy, an elite that’s manipulating the rest of the American populace to accept its rule. Meanwhile, Fareed Zakaria is seriously proposing that America replace its president with a prime minister and Congress with a parliament — with an upper house, I suppose, to be stuffed with Mark’s oligarchs, duly elected of course, so that Americans will stop the troublesome habit of vehemently disagreeing with one another.

Now just see how one thing leads to another. First you’re snuggling with liberal monarchies, then authoritarian ones, then one day you’re asking, ‘Why is there no USA anymore? Why is there only the international community?’

Missing something?

Switch to our mobile site