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Roff, Danks and Danks meme meets the Turing Test

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — once again learning the language i already speak ]

SPEC danks meme meets turing test


Okay, now the humor:

Pursuant to my interest in learning the language which is now my mother tongue — including such terms as sperg out and edgelord —– Adam Elkus today updated me on the concept of the Dank Meme

Dank meme? It’s another of those serpent eats tail things:

Dank Meme Urban Dict

— scrambling my mind in time for breakfast by introducing me to Thomas the Dank Engine:

I must admit I’m more used to his Tank Engine cousin:


I’m a big fan of Gordon, the fictional anthropomorphic tender locomotive, by the way — it’s a clan thing.

Intellectuals and their Romance with Political Barbarism

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Martin Heidegger, Eric Hobsbawm and Ezra Pound

A  meandering post inspired by Reason Magazine and Charles Cameron.

Reason.com is best known for giving a scrappy libertarian take on current events, crime, technology and pop culture, but recently, an article by Charles Paul Freund touched a deeper, darker vein of twentieth century history and, in my view, a problematic recurring pattern in intellectual life:

Hunger for Fascism

Al Pacino has withdrawn from a Danish stage version of Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger, after learning that the Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author had been an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany. The move dismayed some of Hamsun’s defenders, but it’s also a reminder of the appalling state of intellectual life during the rise of fascism. So many writers and thinkers embraced fascism in those years that they constituted what came to be called a “fascist foreign legion.”

Hunger (1890) is considered a classic of psychological literature, and Hamsun himself is regarded by many critics and writers as one of the fathers of literary Modernism, and an important influence on such writers as Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and many others. In a 1987 introduction to Hunger, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”

[….] Hamsun’s fascism was hardly a byproduct of hardening of the arteries. He lived for a time in the 1880s in the U.S., and came to dislike the country for its egalitarian principles, and because it had a large black population (even though that population wasn’t benefitting much from the egalitarianism). His 1918 novel, Growth of the Soil, is a pretty good example of “blood and soil” lit. John Carey, a British critic, cites a passage from Hamsun’s Kareno trilogy of dramas, written in the 1890s, as indicative of his outlook:

“I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.”

Hamsun, who gave his Nobel to Hitler as a mark of his esteem, remained faithful to the fascist cause to the bitter end. Hamsun’s most-often quoted words come from the brief eulogy for Hitler that he published in a collaborationist newspaper in May 1945, a week after the Fuehrer died.

[….] George Orwell wrote in 1946 that, “The relationship between fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs investigating, and [William Butler] Yeats might well be the starting point.” Such investigations have since been written, of course, and they include the expected chapters on Yeats as well as others on D.H. Lawrence (The Plumed Serpent may be the clearest example of Lawrence’s fascism), T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis (who at this point is probably as well known for his fascism as for anything else he did).

What was the appeal of fascism to such people? It wasn’t just that many of them were racists and/or anti-Semites (though that didn’t hurt); plenty of authors have been racists without embracing totalitarian systems. The underlying issue for many of these figures, according to investigations by John R. Harrison and by John Carey, was an antipathy to democracy.

“Many twentieth-century writers,” wrote John R. Harrison in The Reactionaries: A study of the anti-democratic intelligentsia (1966), “have decided that culture has been sacrificed to democracy; the spread of culture has meant that the level of the masses is raised, but that the level of the elite is lowered.” As for writers like Pound, Yeats, and others, “they realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes.”[….]

Read the whole thing here.

The dark romance of intellectuals with Fascism died in 1945. Their bloody affair with Communism has dwindled significantly, but lingers in some quarters still.

Why though was 20th century totalitarianism so attractive to the West’s leading thinkers, artists and writers? After all, once you got past the snazzy uniforms, the trains running on time and land for the peasants, the overt reveling in barbarism and cruelty by Fascists and Communists was hard to miss – and if you missed it, the Nazis gave choreographed tours of concentration camps and the Soviets held show trials right in the face of world media. Very little of the bloodbath was hidden, except to the willingly blind, who tended to most often be well educated and otherwise thoughtful people yet found ways to morally rationalize collaboration and fellow traveling.

There are, in my view, a number of reasons. These tended to differ somewhat depending on whether the intellectual in question gravitated more to fascism or communism, but even here there is a significant, muddling, psychological, overlap between the two. So much so, that Fascism’s creator cut his political teeth as a firey socialist agitator and as thuggish a Nazi leader as Ernst Rohm could boast of his admiration for his Communist enemies’ “idealism” and street fighting courage. Indeed, in training his stormtroopers, Rohm remarked that ex-communists made the best SA men.

The first person to offer a coherent explanation of the individuals drawn to fascism was the German-Jewish journalist Konrad Heiden. In Der Fuehrer,  Heiden’s groundbreaking 1944 political biography of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement, referred to two categories of potential adherents : “Armed Bohemians” and the “Armed Intellectuals”.  The former were the freebooting roughnecks and men of habitual violence who were always restless and ill at ease in civilized society. Men like Ernst Rohm, who found in totalitarian movements a political cause to justify themselves. These men do not concern us here.

The latter group are also ill at ease in established society. The armed intellectuals are the born critics, gadflies, dreamers, autodidacts, bar-room philosophers, self-styled poets and no small number of crackpots and cranks; what these quarrelsome eccentrics lacked in muscle or raw courage, they more than made up for in the blizzard of half-baked ideas and skill at words which they employed with maniacal zeal.  Heiden’s taxonomy was mirrored a few years later by Eric Hoffer in the groups Hoffer called “practical men of action” and the “fanatics” in his classic, The True Believer The armed intellectuals were seldom noteworthy as intellectual heavyweights – men like Alfred Rosenberg and Grigory Zinoviev were third-rate minds, or worse – but they excelled at propagating ideas and simplifying them in the fashion required to build and sustain a mass movement; ideas as war banners or flags of political tribalism rather than as part of a coherent system of thought.  Or as Ortega y Gasset wrote at the time of the fascists and radicals “….ideas are in effect, nothing more than appetites in words, something like musical romanzas.”

Yet, as Charles Paul Freund indicates, totalitarianism attracted as supporters and admirers not just intellectual crackpots like Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckhart or Trofim Lysenko, but genuinely substantive men of letters, art and science. Many of these did not officially become “party comrades”, though some like philosophers Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt did, most were content to wield their pens as admirers, fellow travelers, enthusiastic supporters and public apologists. Being intellectuals, they were of course entranced by ideas – on the Right, the totemic, mythic, reactionary idolatry and the volkisch ur-narratives of messianic nationalism (much of which was the mummery of fools). Neither Hitler nor Mussolini were innovators here; the bombastic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s grandiose adventurism in Fiume, for example, presaged much of Fascist Italy’s swaggering Il Duce and his bullying blackshirts. On the left, by the intoxicating prospect of revolutionary “justice” and being on the “right side of history”, which could allegedly be explained with “scientific laws” of dialectical materialism. It was all rubbish but it was politically potent rubbish.

There were also material rewards – the Third Reich and the Soviet Union liked to lavish medals, Stalin Prizes and various emoluments on its foreign sycophants, while intellectuals who were particularly active minions, like Heidegger and Maxim Gorky, were given public honors by their respective regimes. This did not always work out well, however. Unlike Heidegger, who outlived the destruction of his Reich in 1945 to embrace and be embraced by the deconstructionist and postmodernist European left, Gorky was likely murdered by his master, an age-old risk for courtiers of tyrants. While the rewards and awards were highly esteemed, see Paul Robeson’s  pathetic, groveling, gratitude for his Stalin Prize, the primary driver of slavish loyalty was always political. Too many intellectuals in that era were fascinated with totalitarian power, accepted cruelty as strength and despised liberal democracy and individualism, unless if it was individualism as heroic symbolism for some kind of impending vanguard  – square-jawed, blond SS men, muscular Stakhanovite workers brandishing sledgehammers and so on. The barbarism of these regimes the intellectuals either ignored, explained away or embraced.

This longwinded preface brings me to a question that Charles Cameron asked me in regard to the article in Reason:

“I notice that quote about how many early 20C intellectuals “realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes” and wonder how you see it corresponding with current thoughts which view the dismantling of the Gaddafi, Hussein, and Mubarak regimes as enabling the rise of AQI > ISIS > IS?”

This is a great question.

The regimes of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi shared some similarities, notably official secularism and modernization, but they also had some important ideological and structural differences. Saddam’s regime and Mubrak’s Egypt were rooted in pan-Arab nationalism, a regional anti-imperialist movement the built in fervor from the 20’s and peaked in the late fifties with the personality cult of Nasserism and a characteristic that was shared initially in the early years of Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, who idolized Nasser and for a time, hoped to inherit his mantle. All of the regimes were secular, modernizing, anti-monarchical, anti-imperialist and “socialist” in a nationalist style more suggestive of Hitler and Mussolini than Marx and Lenin. Saddam’s Iraq, furthermore, was like Syria,  Baathist in its pan-Arabism and its founding generation of activists like Michel Aflaq, were directly influenced in by the European totalitarian parties of the 1930’s Left and Right and the extremist movements of the French Third Republic .

Colonel Gaddafi, who came to power in a coup in 1969, was somewhat different ideologically and probably psychologically. Initially a pan-Arab Nasserite, Gaddafi soon went his own way, drifting toward Third World revolutionary terrorism, a muddled Islamic Libyan utopianism based on a personality cult and finally as a pan-African interventionist given to bizarre and unpredictable behavior. Fearing coups, Gaddafi deliberately weakened and hollowed out the Libyan state, including the military, weakening them institutionally, relying upon competing revolutionary committees, militias, secret police agencies and the like run by members of his extended family until the entire structure was more or less entirely dependent upon Gaddafi’s personal whims. By contrast, Nasser, Mubarak and Saddam Hussein were centralizers who built states centered on the military and security services and a government dominated economy that did not tolerate political rivals. Saddam in particular, took this tendency to an extreme in a conscious imitation of Stalin and Iraq had up until the first Gulf War, a complex bureaucratic state, albeit one dominated by a Baath Party run by the al-Tikriti clan (Saddam’s rule slid more toward Gaddafi’s in practice as postwar decay and sanctions eroded the efficiency of Iraq’s government and arbitrary terror and corruption increasingly were used to prop up the regime)

These dictators, whether hostile to the West (Saddam, Gaddafi) or friendly (Mubarak) lacked the advantage of having a western, fellow-traveling, amen chorus of influential intellectuals as the Fascist and Communist tyrants once enjoyed.  Serious intellectuals and public figures had made pilgrimages to Moscow, Berlin and Rome; no one was going to play John Reed to Muammar Gadaffi’s Lenin or Saddam and say their ramshackle future “worked”. So, when Western leaders, especially the American President, decided it might be good for these regimes to go, the only westerners to defend them in the court of public opinion were those already regarded as minor nuisances, political cranks and buffoons. Furthermore, rather than being viewed as linchpins of stability against radical Islamism, many western politicians and intellectuals of the neoconservative and liberal internationalist variety saw these dictatorships as a cause of radical Islam’s growth at best, or complicit with groups like al Qaida in promoting international terrorism at worst.  Unfortunately, while both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi had a long and bloody history of funding terrorism, mainly of the radical Palestinian nationalist variety, neither were much interested in helping al Qaida or radical Salafis; Gaddafi  in fact, was fairly busy imprisoning and torturing them on a regular basis, as did the more restrained military backed dictatorship of the Egyptians during most of its existence (the brief period of tolerating Islamism, under Anwar Sadat, resulted in Sadat being assassinated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later merged with al Qaida. The Egyptian military did not tolerate them again until coerced into it by the Arab Spring and pressure from the Obama administration).

These police state regimes of the Arab world also played an indirect role in the rise of AQIISIS in the sense that their savage repression of all other political alternatives, especially democratic and liberal ones, created a vacuum in civil society that radical Islamism in all its manifestations could fill. This was not unlike the dynamic of Indochina where Ho’s  Communists were greatly helped by the French first brutally suppressing the right wing Vietnamese nationalists in the 1930’s and then Diem’s regime wiping out all the other potential rivals to the Viet Cong in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, leaving the Communists as the voice of political opposition.  The security services of most Arab states, not just Saddam’s or Gaddafi’s, were efficient enough that no real political opposition existed anywhere outside of the mosque from Oman to Morocco, except on sufferance.  These states also played a passive theological role as foils in shaping decades of jihadi discourse at home, in prison, in exile and online regarding the ruler’s “apostasy”, their strategic priority as ” the Near Enemy” and the Islamic legitimacy of supporting or rejecting peaceful, democratic politics as a tool of struggle. During the course of the years of debates, as in secular revolutionary movements, there was a “ratcheting effect” in Islamist discourse towards progressively more radical, more militant and ever more takfirikhawairijte mythologizing tendencies that glorified barbaric violence, all of which was seen clearly in early 1990’s Algeria even before the rise of the Taliban [An important caveat: it is dubious that  liberal or democratic regimes would have changed the radicalization curve for Islamists much as these too would have been regarded as apostasy by Salafi militants, though there might have possibly been fewer of them, at least outside of Egypt].

With the Arab police states having cleared a space internally for Islamism to dominate underground political discourse the removal of the regimes themselves by American invasion, popular uprising abetted by foreign air support or foreign pressure did eventually enable the rise of ISIS. As much as the cruelty and corruption of the dictators drove their dissatisfied countrymen toward political Islam, they also had means to intimidate, contain or punish those who stepped too far out of line with great severity. No one doubted the ruthlessness of the Assads, Saddam’s willingness to employ terror or the Mad Colonel’s paranoid vindictiveness and when the surety of coercion and retribution disappeared, so too did the restraints on the freedom of action of Islamist radicals. American power was not a substitute for a fearsome native strongman. In the eyes of our enemies we were erratic and soft; capable of miraculous  military feats of devastation if sufficiently provoked, but usually culturally clueless where or when to use our power or against whom, often leaving allies in the lurch or ignoring them spitting in our faces. Instead of fearing the Americans the way they had feared Saddam, the worst jihadis like Zarqawi were emboldened to unleash the kind of medieval barbarism in Iraq that foreshadowed ISIS.

What alarms me regarding ISIS is that it is theologically a radical-apocalyptic Islamist movement blending insurgency, terrorism and conventional warfare that is also reviving the secular pageantry of Fascism with its grandiose mythmaking, blood rituals, compelling uniforms, Fuhrerprinzip and war-worship. It is an unholy combination that exudes a dark romanticism, a glamour of evil that rootless young Muslim men – a new generation of “armed bohemians” and “armed intellectuals” – find mesmerizing the way young Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Japanese did decades ago. Worse, while we may rightly laugh at the mummery of a dime store “Caliphate” and Islamists cribbing their P.R. style from Triumph of the Will, their success in manipulating deep cultural avatars as the key to power will inspire imitators in barbarism elsewhere that we can ill afford.

Fascism is dead – but it may not stay that way.


The best war game is a library of windows

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — Escher, Borges, simulating the future, wargames, A Pattern Language, Sembl ]

MC Escher, Relativity

Ridiculous phrase, a library of windows. Unless you think, as I do, of books as windows onto different worlds, in which case it makes a whole lot of sense, and a decent library has more windows onto more profoundly different worlds than any physical room — and here we are getting into the territory of Jorge Luis Borges (links to Library of Babel) and Maurits Escher (image above).

And let me just state for the record that Godel Escher Bach could just as well have been Escher Carroll Borges, and that a comparison between the logics of Escher and Borges is one of the desiderata of our times.

That’s a Sembl move.


Let’s expand the concept of window to include the sort of inter-worldview glimpse that Haaretz describes today here:

Last week, in a small beit midrash (study hall) named after Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem’s Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood, an emergency meeting was convened to discuss instigating freedom of religion and worship on the Temple Mount. It was a closed meeting attended by representatives of the Temple Institute, HaTenu’ah LeChinun HaMikdash (the Movement to Rebuild the Holy Temple) and the Temple Mount Faithful, as well as two representatives of Women for the Mikdash, and others. The activists met to try to understand how they could overcome the authorities, who they believe are plotting against them, and return to the Temple Mount. At this meeting, Haaretz was offered a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of the most ardent activists in the battle to Judaize the Temple Mount.


Here’s the meat of the post, as yet uncooked. Back in 2005, but brought to my attention today by Rex Brynen at Paxsims, is this piece from Strategy Page:

After eight years of effort, and spending over $300 million, the U.S. Army has officially received its new wargame (WARSIM) for training battalion, brigade, division, and as big as you want to get, commanders, and their staffs. Now even the most elaborate commercial wargame would not get $300 million for development, and eight years to create the system. But wargames for professional soldiers have different requirements, and a troublesome Department of Defense bureaucracy to deal with. First, the requirements. Commercial wargames shield the player from all the boring stuff (support functions, especially logistics.) But professional wargames must deal with these support activities, because in a real war, these are the things commanders spend most of their time tending too. …

WARSIM covers a lot of complex activities that a commander must deal with to achieve battlefield success. Besides logistics, there’s intelligence. Trying to figure out what the enemy is up to is, next to logistics, the commanders most time consuming chore.

— which in turn was referenced by Michael Peck writing in a Kotaku piece today titled Why It’s So Hard to Make a Game Out of the 21st Century:

Let’s build a game. Let’s make it a strategy game. We will realistically simulate global politics in the 2030s. Perhaps a sort of Civ or Supreme Ruler 2020-type system.

Where shall we start? How about something easy, like choosing the nations in the game? It’s simple enough to consult an atlas. We’ll start with Britain…but wait! Scotland is on the brink of declaring independence from the United Kingdom. Should Britain be a single power, or should England and Scotland be depicted as a separate nation? What about Belgium splitting into Flemish and Walloon states? And these are old, established European nations. How will states like Syria and Nigeria look in two decades? It was only a bit over 20 years ago that the Soviet Union appeared to be a unshakeable superpower that controlled Eastern Europe and Central Asia.


Let’s cook that meat, let’s make a meal of it.

Peck’s piece goes into many other ways in which predictive gaming isn’t terribly productive.

But it left me asking the question, what would I do with a game-sized budget, if my aim was to push military and intelligence towards greater insight.

And my answer would be to embed information in walls. In corridors…

To build windows at sparse and irregular intervals into the internal corridors that connect any given office in the Pentagon or three-letter agency — or my local preference (hush, I know it’s the Glorious Fourth tomorrow) MI-5 and -6 — through which analysts and decision makers can glimpse snippets of information.

Which can then fall into the deep well of memory.

It is deep within that well of half-forgotten knowledge, ST Coleridge tells us, that the “hooks-and-eyes of memory” link one thought with another to build a creative third.


A wall, then. I would build a wall embedded with facts and fancies, maps and illustrations, graphs and stats, film clips and news clips, anecdotes and quotes — even, perhaps, tiny alcoves here and there with books free for the taking, music CDs, DVDs of movies, old, new, celebrated, strange…

And I would be constantly shifting and rearranging the “views” from my windows, so that what was seen yesterday would not be what would be seen tomorrow — yet with a powerful index of words, topics, themes, memes, image contents, names of actors, newscasters, authors and so forth, so that what was once seem and dimly recalled could be recaptured.


The concept here is pretty much the exact opposite of having a huge black poster proclaiming Creativity Matters!

Don’t get me wrong, creativity does matter (get that poster and others here), but it “works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform” — and the way to entice it is to see things out of the corner of the eye…

The windows I’m looking for, therefore, offer glimpses you wouldn’t necessarily notice if you were deep in thought or conversation, and conversely, wouldn’t see twice and grow so familiarized to that they’d become irrelevant by repetition. They’d be glimpsed in passing, their esthetic would be that of Christopher Alexander’s Zen View, pattern 134 in his brilliant work — the closest we have to a Western I ChingPattern Language:

The idea, then, is to seed the memory with half-conscious concepts, patterns, facts and images, carefully selected and randomly presented — so that those hooks and eyes have the maximum chance of connecting some scrap of curious information with a pressing problem.

Which is how creativity tends to work.


That way each corridor becomes a game-board — but it is in the analyst’s focused mind that the game is played and won.

What you’d get, in effect, would be community-wide, ongoing free-form gameplay in complete alignment with the web-based game we’re currently developing at Sembl. Games of this genre will also have powerful application in conflict resolution.

And peace.

Iconic: compare and contrast III

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron – Iraq war, beginning and ending, analytic power of similarity ]


I’ve thanked Zen for his Iconic Compare and Contrast post already, but I’d like to run with his juxtaposition of images from the end of the Iraq war, and book-end it with an early DoubleQuote of mine from the beginning, thus:

That’s the beginning of the war, as I saw it “binocularly” — and here’s its ending, as Zen captured it:

Different though they are — one verbal, one visual — I think they go well together. I think they belong together.

But that’s essentially an aesthetic intuition.


And — apart from thanking Zen — that’s the thing I want to talk about.

The two quotes, eighty-six years apart, about an (anglophone) army in Baghdad coming there to liberate, not to conquer, are similar enough that they should give us pause for thought. They challenge us to think long and hard about the similarities between the two situations — and they challenge us to think no less hard and long about their differences.

Likewise, it’s the similarities between the two images Zen chose — of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the US exit from Iraq — that give that juxtaposition its power.  And Zen has chosen very carefully:

Not only are there two lines of vehicles stretching back from the foreground away into the distance in each image, but the angle from which the two columns are seen is about the same — and there are even two “tracks” in each photo reinforcing the vanishing point — two tracks to the right of the vehicles in the Afghan photo, the edge of the road and a what looks like the shadow of an overhead cable in the photo from Iraq.


But let’s take this a bit further. The following juxtaposition is every bit as much a juxtaposition of the Soviet and American withdrawals as the pair of images Zen picked, but this time we have an aerial view of the US convoy — so the visual “rhyme” between the two images is no longer there — and even though the aerial shot is an intriguing one, what a difference that makes!

There’s nothing in that juxtaposition to make you go, yes!

On the level of what’s being referred to, the troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq,  this pair of images has the same properties as the two images that Zen selected.  But it doesn’t capture our attention in nearly the same way.

And the same would have been true if I’d picked a different sentence from Rumsfeld‘s speech to juxtapose with General Maude‘s “not as conquerors or enemies but as liberators” — such as, “You’ve unleashed events that will unquestionably shape the course of this country, the fate of the people, and very likely affect the future of this entire region.” I’d still be comparing and contrasting two speeches from the beginnings of two occupations of Baghdad.  But there’d be no oomph to the comparison.


Because — and this is what I am trying to get at, the basic principle of HipBone analysis and what distinguishes it from otherwise similar modes of brainstorming and mind-mapping — the recognition of pattern, of salient sameness, of close parallelism or opposition is the criterion for success or failure in a HipBone-style juxtaposition.

Zen’s graphic example has that closeness — even down to those two parallel tracks beside and to the right of the vehicles.  My two quotes from Maude and Rumsfeld have that.  And it’s that closeness of match that makes a juxtaposition powerful.

Analogy works this way, rhyme works this way, fugue works this way, graphic match (in cinematography) works this way — it’s basic to the arts, basic to rhetoric, and basic to the way our analogically-disposed minds think.

It is not a method for arriving at conclusions, it’s a method for posing questions. And it sits right at the juncture where analysis admits it is not a science but an art.

Iconic: compare and contrast

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — iconic images, riot police, compare and contrast, repetition with variation ]

First, let’s be clear that both these images have been widely considered iconic.

Thus NPR reported of the first photo:

There have been countless accounts of violence recorded during the uprisings in Egypt but the image that perhaps has captured the most attention is the most recent. The image has been widely referred to as the “girl in the blue bra.”

While Real Clear Politics quotes Michael Moore on the second:

“The images have resonated around the world in the same way that the lone man standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square resonated. It is an iconic movement in Occupy Wall Street history,” Michael Moore declared on MSNBC’s “Last Word” program.

Moore was referring to police pepper spraying students at an “Occupy” protest at UC Davis.

So we have two similarities between the two images: they both show police in riot gear taking action against demonstrators, and they have both caught the public eye as somehow being representations that can “stand in” for the events they seek to portray.

Beyond that, it’s all compare and contrast territory — or variations on a theme, perhaps — and different people will find different reasons to attack or defend the demonstrators or the police in one, the other, or both cases.


These are, for many of us, “home” and “away” incidents, to borrow from sports terminology, and some of our reactions may reflect our opinions in general of what’s going on in Egypt, or in the United States.

We may or may not know the rules of engagement in effect in either case, on either side.

In a way, then, what the photos tell us about those two events, in Tahrir Square and on the UC Davis campus, may tell us much about ourselves and our inclinations, too.


As I’ve indicated before, I am very interested in the process of comparison and contrast that the juxtaposition of two images — or two quotes — seems to generate. And I’ve quoted my friend Cath Styles, too:

A general principle can be distilled from this. Perhaps: In the very moment we identify a similarity between two objects, we recognise their difference. In other words, the process of drawing two things together creates an equal opposite force that draws attention to their natural distance. So the act of seeking resemblance – consistency, or patterns – simultaneously renders visible the inconsistencies, the structures and textures of our social world. And the greater the conceptual distance between the two likened objects, the more interesting the likening – and the greater the understanding to be found.

I’d like to examine these two particular photographs, then, not as images of behaviors we approve or disapprove of, but as examples of juxtaposition, of similarity and difference — and see what we might learn from reading them in a “neutral” light.


What I am really trying to see is whether we can use analogy — a very powerful mental tool — with something of the same rigor we customarily apply to questions of causality and proof, and thus turn it into a method of insight that draws on our aha! pattern recognition and analogy-finding intuitions, rather than the application of inductive and deductive reason.

And that requires that we should know more about how the mind perceives likenesses — a topic that is often obscured by our strong emotional responses — you’re making a false moral equivalence there! or look, one’s as bad as the oither, and it’s sheer hypocrisy to suggest otherwise!

So among other things, we’re up against the phenomenon I call “sibling pea rivalry” — where two things, places, institutions, whatever, that are about as similar as two peas in a pod, have intense antagonism between them, real or playful — Oxford and Cambridge, say, and I’m thinking here of the Boat Race, or West Point and Annapolis in the US, and the Army-Navy game.

Oxford is far more “like” Cambridge than it is “like” a mechanic’s wrench, more like Cambridge than it is a Volkswagen or even a high school, more like it even than Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford — more like it than any of the so-called “redbrick universities” in the UK — so like it, in fact, that the term “Oxbridge” has been coined to refer to the two of them together, in contrast to any other schools or colleges.

And yet on the day of the Boat Race, feelings run high — and the two places couldn’t seem more different. Or let me put that another way — an individual might be ill-advised to walk into a pub overflowing with partisans of the “dark blue” of Oxford wearing the “light blue” of Cambridge, or vice versa.  Not quite at the level of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, perhaps, but getting there…


So one of the things I’ve thought a bunch about is the kind of analogy that says a : A :: b : B.

As in: Egyptian cop is to Egyptian protester as UC Davis cop is to UC Davis protester.

Which you may think is absolutely right — or cause for impeachment — or just plain old kufr!

And I’ve figured out that the reason people often have different “takes” on that kind of analogy — takes so different that they can get extremely steamed about it, and whistle like kettles and bubble over like pots — has to do with the perceptual phenomenon of parallax, whereby some distances get foreshortened in a way that others don’t.


So my thought experiment sets up a sunken garden — always a pleasure, with two video cameras observing it, as in this diagram:

And from the two cameras, the respective views look like this:

In this scheme of things, Aa (Oxford) seems very close to Bb (Cambridge) seen from the viewpoint of camera 1 — but from camera 2’s standpoint, Aa (Oxford) and Bb (Cambridge) are at opposite ends of the garden, and simply couldn’t be father apart.


Now, my thinking here is either so obvious and simple as to be a platitude verging on tautology — or one of those subtle places where the closer examination of what looks tautological and obvious leads to the emergence of a new insight, a new “difference that makes a difference” in Bateson’s classic phrase.

And clearly, I hope that the latter will prove to be the case here.


What can we learn from juxtapositions? What can we learn from our agreements about specific juxtapositions — and what can we learn from our specific disagreements?

Because it’s my sense that samenesses and differences both jump out at us, as Cath Styles suggested — and that both have a part to play in understanding a given juxtaposition or proposed likeness.

Each juxtaposition will, in my view, suggest both a “sameness” and a “difference” — in much the same way that an arithmetic division of integers, a = qd + r, gives both quotient and dividend.

And then we have two or more observers of the juxtaposition, who may bring their own parallax to the situation, and have their own differences.


Tahrir is to Tienanmen as Qutb is to Mao?

Or is pepper spray just a food additive?

And how do icons become iconic anyway? Are they always juxtapositions, cops against college kids, girl vs napalm, man against line of tanks?  Even in the iconic photo of Kennedy from the Zapruder film, the sudden eruption of violence into the stateliness of a presidential parade is there — a morality play in miniature.

Any thoughts?

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