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New Post at The Chicago Progressive

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Musician, producer, professor and friend of mine, Joe Tortorici has a brand new e-zine start-up on the arts and social  commentary, The Chicago Progressive.  I will be contributing short ( 500 words or less) posts on national security.

Granted, I am not a political “progressive”, being more of a cranky realist-libertarian, Boydian, conservative pragmatist, but the important problems in national security today are substantively less Democrat vs. Republican than Smart vs. Dumb. The bipartisan strategic track record since 1991 is less than impressive and since 2001, extremely poor.  We can do better  and that will start with conversations across political lines that are usually impossible on domestic issues but were of critical importance in past foreign policy successes.

Here was my piece:

AMERICA’S STRATEGY  TO BATTLE ISIS

President Obama’s strategy against the genocidal ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria has been the subject of much criticism, some of it informed, much of it not, from pundits on both the Left and Right. Translating foreign policy goals into an effective military strategy is always the most difficult task for an administration and historically, short of WWII, American presidents generally find crafting strategy for a limited war to be very hard, and fighting a foreign insurgency the hardest of all.

The President’s strategy, a cautious effort at hedging and balancing competing U.S. priorities, has clear pros and cons. First, the positives:

  • Risk in blood and treasure are deliberately minimized by reliance on airpower, trainers, aid and proxies instead of masses of American soldiers. This is not Iraq 2003 Redux;
  • America is playing to its strengths—targeted firepower, intelligence sharing, training and arming local fighters—against a fast-moving, elusive, insurgency;
  • Minimal intervention means American allies like the Iraqi government are forced to actually fight in their own defense against ISIS and work out their political problems instead of passing the buck to the U.S.;
  • One proxy, the Kurdish Peshmerga, are highly motivated to fight, and do, in relatively well-disciplined units;
  • ISIS is a strategically isolated and a morally abominable enemy without real allies, not an underdog or object of world sympathy.

Now for the cons:

Read the rest here

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Furnish on “ISIS: Apocalypse .. How?”

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an important post with notes for Hagel & Dempsey, also my own thoughts on overlapping eschatologies ]
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Moire effect from Marvic Textiles bois-de-rose

Moiré effect from Marvic Textiles bois-de-rose

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Tim Furnish has a significant piece out today on his MahdiWatch blog, ISIS: Apocalypse…How?

What most interests me here, since I’m an eschatology watcher and it deals with what I think of as “eschatology squared” — the turmoil that results when opposing eschatologies run up against one another, creating some pretty strange intellectual moiré effects — is Furnish’s much needed comment to some of his fellow Christians:

[T]he last thing the US military or intelligence community needs is to have the genuine war against apocalypse-fired Islamic militants conflated with a narrowly Evangelical Christian view of matters. The US government is a secular, not a religious, one — and although I have repeatedly criticized the refusal of the leader of the world’s largest Christian-populated nation to do anything about global persecution of Christians, I do NOT want our forces engaged in an Evangelical Protestant “Crusade.” Furthermore, and just as (if not more) importantly, opposing and defeating the Islamic “apocalyptic strategic vision” — which is shared by groups besides IS[IS] — can only be done by analyzing said vision on its own Muslim terms, using Muslim (Arabic, Turkish and Persian) sources. Frankly, in this fight, I don’t give a damn in this context what Revelation or Ezekiel or Daniel say — it matters more what’s in the Qur’an, the Hadiths, and Islamic commentators thereupon. I say this to my Evangelical brethren: it’s not always about you and your interpretation of Christian Scripture. The rest of us (Catholic, Orthodox, Lutherans, etc.) in the fold might have something worthwhile to say on the topic, too — but this fight against IS[IS] is neither the time nor the place.

You’ll want to read the whole piece, but other things Tim covers include the actual extent of ” what al-Sham constituted in Middle Eastern history” and more generally some observations about, and comments addressed to, SecDef Hagel and General Dempsey.

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Synchronously, Richard Landes today tweeted:


I hope to hear more from him about the similarities & differences — stay tuned.

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Wikipedia describes moiré effects thus:

In mathematics, physics, and art, a moiré pattern is a secondary and visually evident superimposed pattern created, for example, when two identical (usually transparent) patterns on a flat or curved surface (such as closely spaced straight lines drawn radiating from a point or taking the form of a grid) are overlaid while displaced or rotated a small amount from one another.

Linens and silks can offer us beautiful examples of such superimposed patterns. The image at the top of this post is from Marvic Textiles and their lovely bois-de-rose fabric.

I am suggesting that when Islamic eschatologist discuss Christian eschatology, as was the case with Safar al-Hawali‘s treatment of Hal Lindsey in his Day of Wrath — or Christian eschatologists discuss Islamic eschatology, as in the case of Joel Richardson‘s book, Mideast Beast: The Scriptural Case for an Islamic Antichrist — the effect of one eschatology superimposing itself on another produces further “superimposed” patterns worth contemplating as such.

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Form is Insight: painter’s eye, cinematographer’s segue

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a follow-up to Form is Insight: parliamentarian scuffle, photographer’s eye -- Breugel's Fight between Carnival and Lent comes to a movie house near you ]
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Jem Cohen‘s film, Museum Hours, is set largely in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, with a particular focus on Pieter Breughel the Elder. Less than 10 minutes into the film, this shot, showing a detail of one of his paintings:

is followed seamlessly — as though nothing had happened — by this one, a “detail” one might say, of the Vienna street, perhaps indeed as the viewer steps into it right outside the museum:

Between the two shots — in the cut — we move from the sixteenth to the twentyfirst century, and from curated museum to careless street. The painter’s eye is echoed by the cinematographer’s segue: litter remains litter.

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The first image is a seemingly insignificant detail taken from the area of Breughel’s painting containing the “figure of Carnival”:

which you can easily spot, low down and slightly left of center, in the painting as a whole, here:

The painting itself, which goes by the title The Fight between Carnival and Lent, presents Breughel’s juxtaposition of festive and fasting seasons which follow one another seamlessly in the calendar of the church, while their respective impulses wrestle constantly for dominance in the hearts of humankind…

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Drew Martin at The Museum of Peripheral Art blog notices the successive “litter” shots from inside and outside the museum in Cohen’s film, too, and writes:

The most brilliant thing about this movie is the use of segue. In one scene, a series of shots focus on details of a Bruegel painting with the guide’s voice listing the objects “.. discarded playing cards, a bone, a broken egg ..”, and then the images switch to nondescript ground shots in Vienna, as he continues “.. a cigarette butt, a folded note, a lost glove, a beer can.”

When I write of the power of juxtapositions and of the eye that perceives pattern, then, I am not speaking of something that is entirely subjective and personal, but of a faculty native to the human, yet woefully under-practiced, under-explored. My intention is to suggest that this faculty is not merely of use to the artist or art-historian, but basic to a rich and full cognizance of the world around us. It is one techne of reading the world, one of many.

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How’s this for another juxtaposition from the same film?

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Form is Insight: parliamentarian scuffle, photographer’s eye

Monday, August 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- insight -- from the artistic eye via the ayat of the Qur'an and poetic and scientific "readings" to the craft of intelligence analysis ]
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You might think this was an image taken from some art book by EH GombrichArt and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation? — or John Berger — Ways of Seeing, perhaps? — but it’s not. As you might have guessed from my title, or from seeing it elsewhere recently, on BoingBoing, Twitter or wherever.

It’s a journalist’s photo of a brawl in the Ukrainean parliament, where debate is still as lively as it was on the floor of the US House of Representatives in 1798:

or 1858:

A Parliamentary brawl, it would seem, is one mode of the continuation of politics by other means. Or is it just politics as usual?

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The illustration at the head of this post is indeed “art criticism” in the tradition of Gombrich and Berger, but it’s not an illustration of Old Masterly technique — it’s an artist’s comment on a press photo of a recent brawl, as indicated above, in the Ukrainean parliament. Here’s the photo itself:

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It’s masterful — and indeed Old Masterful enough that Manzil Lajura posted the photo itself with the two attendant images on FaceBook under the title “Pelea en el parlamento Ucraniano convertido en arte renacentista” — roughly, Brawl in the Ukrainian parliament transformed into Renaissance art..

And yes.

Lajura’s post was then picked up and tweeted by James Harvey:

And thence onwards into viral multiplicity.

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So what does this have to do with intelligence — in the analytic sense, or the general sense of intellectual capacity?

Just that it’s a matter of “reading” a surface for more than superficial insight — for “signs” (ayat, the word also used to describe verses in the Qur’an).

What I’m calling “reading” here takes many forms, visual and artistic in this instance, verbal in the case of “closely read” texts — but generalizable as the ways in which we “read” the world. In my post What the Dickens? Symbolic details in Inspire issue 3 exploring the evidence for al-Awlaki’s involvement in the thankfully foiled mail attacks on two Chicago synagogues, I quoted Fazlun Khalid, Islam and the Environment:

The Qur’an refers to creation or the natural world as the signs (ayat) of Allah, the Creator, and this is also the name given to the verses contained in the Qur’an. Ayat means signs, symbols or proofs of the divine. As the Qur’an is proof of Allah so likewise is His creation. The Qur’an also speaks of signs within the self and as Nasr explains, “… when Muslim sages referred to the cosmic or ontological Qur’an … they saw upon the face of every creature letters and words from the cosmic Qur’an … they remained fully aware of the fact that the Qur’an refers to phenomena of nature and events within the soul of man as ayat … for them forms of nature were literally ayat Allah”. As the Qur’an says, “there are certainly signs (ayat) in the earth for people with certainty; and in yourselves. Do you not then see?” (Adh-Dhariat, 51:20, 21).

— and gave some additional details in a more recent update post, Eavesdropping on Twitter — about al-Awlaqi and Dickens.

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For the mystic, such signs are revelatory of the divine within the natural; for artists, hallmarks of true beauty; for a scientist, for a poet, perhaps, letters in the calligraphy with which the world is written, for jihadists and natsec analysts alike, signals in a significant code — a language used by jihadists in communication, a code analysts must surely learn to read. Here’s Galileo, with a scientist’s view:

Philosophy [nature] is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes. I mean the universe, but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. The book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures without whose help it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word of it, and without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.

Recognizing the Fibonacci series / golden ratio spiral, as in the photo of the Ukrainean brawl, is just one of the ways to “read deeper” whatever sights, sounds, texts and images come our way — one of a thousand. William Benzon, blogging at New Savanna today, mentions another. He quotes J. Hillis Miller on Kenneth Burke:

Burke came to Harvard when I was a graduate student and gave a lecture about indexing. What he was talking about was how you read. I had never heard anybody talk about this. He said what you do is notice things that recur in the text, though perhaps in some unostentatious way. If something appears four or five times in the same text, you think it’s probably important. That leads you on a kind of hermeneutical circle: you ask questions, you come back to the text and get some answers, and you go around, and pretty soon you may have a reading.

Who are these folk? They are the kinds of folk who would have been recruited from Yale’s English department in the glory days of OSS and CIA

But what kind of analysis? Attempting to distinguish “signal” from “noise,” officials at the CIA and Defense Department debate competing methods of data-sifting and weigh the aggressive, “hypotheses-driven” style of interpretation favored by the Pentagon. Probability and risk are continually assessed, and sometimes the talk can sound nearly philosophical. Referring to the search for illegal weapons in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared on Aug. 5 that “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”

If such matters arose at a university, they would attract the attention of philosophers of science or even theorists of literature, who study how to tease meaning out of texts. And indeed, the academy has profoundly shaped the rough-and-tumble espionage trade since the founding days of the CIA. In his classic 1987 study, “Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961,” Yale historian Robin W. Winks showed how professors took a crucial role in creating and manning the agency and its forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). No university played a greater role than Winks’s own. “From Yale’s class of 1943 alone, at least 42 young men entered intelligence work, largely in the OSS, many to remain on after the war to form the core of the new CIA,” Winks notes.

It wasn’t just globe-trotting historians and social scientists who made the leap. As Winks emphasized, Yale’s literature specialists played a key role in shaping the agency’s thinking.

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The photographer and editor who took and “framed” that image of the Ukrainean parliamentary brawl had an ‘eye” for pattern-recognition — in terms of “form” as much as “content’.

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Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones 3: a Judaic perspective

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on the godliness of collateral child slaughter, viewed from the perspective of "he will become cruel to the compassionate" ]
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Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps, Psalm 137

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At the end of my second post in this series, I quoted the words of the rabbi, Jesus, as an appropriate transitional figure between Judaism and Christianity:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous….

I have mentioned that Anglican Christianity is my own “home” tradition, and it is. But I am a citizen of the world, and cannot afford to be bound by my own assumptions. As I consider Israeli actions in Gaza, therefore, I want to recall that Judaic assumptions may differ markedly from those I was raised with.

Thus Eliav Shochetman recounts the midrash, “He who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate” and quotes Maimonides as explaining its meaning in his Guide of the Perplexed thus:

compassion towards the wicked – is cruelty to all beings

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Here is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, writng in First Things under the title The Virtue of Hate:

During my regular weekly coffees with my friend Fr. Jim White, an Episcopal priest, there was one issue to which our conversation would incessantly turn, and one on which we could never agree: Is an utterly evil man — Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden — deserving of a theist’s love? I could never stomach such a notion, while Fr. Jim would argue passionately in favor of the proposition. Judaism, I would argue, does demand love for our fellow human beings, but only to an extent. “Hate” is not always synonymous with the terribly sinful. While Moses commanded us “not to hate our brother in our hearts,” a man’s immoral actions can serve to sever the bonds of brotherhood between himself and humanity. Regarding a rasha , a Hebrew term for the hopelessly wicked, the Talmud clearly states: mitzvah lisnoso — one is obligated to hate him.

Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist and writer, put it pithily in an interview with Deutsche Welle:

I never agreed with Jesus Christ about the need to turn the other cheek to an enemy. Unlike European pacifists I never believed the ultimate evil in the world is war. In my view the ultimate evil in the world is aggression, and the only way to repel aggression is unfortunately by force. That is where the difference lies between a European pacifist and an Israeli peacenik like myself. And if I may add a little anecdote: A relative of mine who survived the Nazi Holocaust in Theresienstadt always reminded her children and her grandchildren that her life was saved in 1945 not by peace demonstrators with placards and flowers but by Soviet soldiers and submachine guns.

To understand further the differences between Judaic and Christian attitudes to what Soloveichik termed “The Virtue of Hate”, it may also be helpful to research the difference between the two faiths’ understandings of love. Soloveichik’s own God’s Beloved: A Defense of Chosenness would be a good place to start.

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For a non-Judaic western position comparable to that of Amos OZ and Meir Soloveichik, consider this passage from Machiavelli in his The Prince, XVII. Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It Is Better to Be Loved or Feared:

I say that every Prince should desire to be accounted merciful and not cruel. Nevertheless, he should be on his guard against the abuse of this quality of mercy. Cesare Borgia was reputed cruel, yet his cruelty restored Romagna, united it, and brought it to order and obedience; so that if we look at things in their true light, it will be seen that he was in reality far more merciful than the people of Florence, who, to avoid the imputation of cruelty, suffered Pistoja to be torn to pieces by factions.

And for a modern similitude to the apparent difference between Judaic and Christian emphases explored in these last two posts, consider George Lakoff‘s analysis of American politics in terms of the Strict Father vs Nurturant Parent mindsets:

Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline – physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

Thinking as I so often do in terms of koans, real life would seem to demand an admixture of both — and the question of how to move between them, one that only wisdom can answer.

Good luck with that.

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The image at the head of this post illustrating the verse “Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps” comes from Ilia Rodov, With Eyes towards Zion”: Visions of the Holy Land in Romanian Synagogues, in Quest: Issues in Contemporary Jewish History, Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.6, December 2013. It shows an early 20th century wall painting from from the Great Synagogue of Iasi, photographed by Zussia Efron, from the collection of the Center for Jewish Art of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

By the bye, Amos Oz also has a “balancing acts and mirror images” quote in that interview he gave:

I believe the majority of the Palestinians are not in love with Israel, but they do accept with clenched teeth that the Israeli Jews are not going anywhere, just like the majority of Israeli Jews – unhappily and with clenched teeth – accept that the Palestinians are here to stay. This is a basis not for a honeymoon, but perhaps for a fair divorce just like the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

How’s that for balance with requisite nuance?

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