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Making Historical Analogies about 1914

Friday, January 10th, 2014

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

The Independent has a short, quasi-sensationalist, article featuring historian Margaret MacMillan discussing what is likely to become the first pop academic cottage industry of 2014….making historical analogies about 1914 and World War I! MacMillan is a senior scholar of international relations and administrator at Oxford ( where she is Warden of St Antony’s College)  with a wide range of research interests, including the First World War on which she has published two books.  I am just going to excerpt and comment on the historical analogies MacMillan made – or at least the ones filtered by the reporter and editor – she’s more eloquent in her own writing where each of these points are treated at greater length:

Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian 

Professor Margaret MacMillan, of the University of Cambridge, argues that the Middle East could be viewed as the modern-day equivalent of this turbulent region. A nuclear arms race that would be likely to start if Iran developed a bomb “would make for a very dangerous world indeed, which could lead to a recreation of the kind of tinderbox that exploded in the Balkans 100 years ago – only this time with mushroom clouds,”

…..While history does not repeat itself precisely, the Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then,” she says. “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients. 

Several comments here. There is a similarity in that like the unstable Balkan states of the early 20th century, many of the Mideastern countries are young, autocratic, states with ancient cultures that are relatively weak  and measure their full independence from imperial rule only in decades.  The Mideast is also like the Balkans, divided internally along ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian and linguistic lines.

The differences though, are substantial. The world may be more polycentric now than in 1954 or 1994 but the relative and absolute preponderance of American power versus all possible rivals, even while war-weary and economically dolorous, is not comparable to Great Britain’s position in 1914.  The outside great powers MacMillan points to are far from co-equal and there is no alliance system today that would guarantee escalation of a local conflict to a general war. Unlike Russia facing Austria-Hungary over Serbia there is no chance that Iran or Russia would court a full-scale war with the United States over Syria.

On the negative side of the ledger, the real problem  is not possible imperial conquest but the danger of regional collapse. “Toxic nationalism” is less the problem than the fact that the scale of a Mideastern Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict is so enormous, as are the implications . Nothing in the Balkans after the turn of the century compares to Syria, then Iraq and then other states sliding into a Muslim version of the Thirty Year’s War. An arc of failed states from Beirut to Islamabad is likelier than, say, a new Persian empire run by Tehran’s mullahs.

Modern-day Islamist terrorists mirror the revolutionary communists and anarchists who carried out a string of assassinations in the name of a philosophy that sanctioned murder to achieve their vision of a better world

Agree here. The analogy between 21st revolutionary Islamists and the 19th century revolutionary anarchists is sound.

And in 1914, Germany was a rising force that sought to challenge the pre-eminent power of the time, the UK. Today, the growing power of China is perceived as a threat by some in the US.

Transitions from one world power to another are always seen as dangerous times. In the late 1920s, the US drew up plans for a war with the British Empire that would have seen the invasion of Canada, partly because it was assumed conflict would break out as America took over as the world’s main superpower.

Imperial Germany’s growing power was less troublesome to Edwardian British statesmen than the strategic error of the Kaiser and von Tirpitz to pursue a naval arms race with Great Britain that did not give Germany’even the ability to break a naval blockade but needlessly antagonized the British with an existential threat that pushed London into the French camp.

As to military plans for invading Canada (or anywhere else), the job of military planning staffs are to create war plans to cover hypothetical contingencies so that if a crisis breaks out, there is at least a feasible starting point on the drawing board from which to begin organizing a campaign. This is what staff officers do be they American, French, Russian, German, Chinese and even British. This is not to be taken as serious evidence that the Coolidge or Hoover administrations were hatching schemes to occupy Quebec.

More importantly, nuclear weapons create an impediment to Sino-American rivalry ending in an “August 1914″ moment ( though not, arguably, an accidental or peripheral clash at sea or a nasty proxy conflict). Even bullying Japan ultimately carries a risk that at a certain point, the Japanese will get fed-up with Beijing, decide they need parity with China, and become a nuclear weapons state.

Professor MacMillan, whose book The War That Ended Peace was published last year, said right-wing and nationalist sentiments were rising across the world and had also been a factor before the First World War

In China and Japan, patriotic passions have been inflamed by the dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. “Increased Chinese military spending and the build-up of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the US as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the two countries in that region,” she writes in her essay. “The Wall Street Journal has authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China – just in case.” 

“It is tempting – and sobering –to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and England a century ago,” Professor MacMillan writes. She points to the growing disquiet in the US over Chinese investment in America while “the Chinese complain that the US treats them as a second-rate power”.

The “dispute” of the Senkakus has been intentionally and wholly created by Beijing in much the same way Chinese leaders had PLA troops provocatively infringe on Indian territory, claim the South China Sea as sovereign territory and bully ships of all nearby nations other than Russia in international or foreign national waters. This is, as Edward Luttwak recently pointed out, not an especially smart execution of strategy. China’s recent burst of nationalistic bluffing, intimidation and paranoia about encirclement are working along the path of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another similarity highlighted by the historian is the belief that a full-scale war between the major powers is unthinkable after such a prolonged period of peace. “Now, as then, the march of globalisation has lulled us into a false sense of safety,” she says. “The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.

Agree that globalization is no guarantee against human folly, ambition or the caprice of chance.

What are your thoughts?

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Serpent logics: a ramble

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- continuing my exploration of a pattern language of thoughts, both verbal and imagistic ]
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One of my favorite patterns derives from the nesting of Russian dolls inside Russian dolls, so it’s only appropriate to start with an example of what I can only call.. Matrioshka shipping!

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It’s my habit, as you may have seen, to collect certain “ways of thinking” in the miniature format provided by my Twitterstream. Whether you think of them as logical forms, patterns in a pattern language, or amuse-bouches for the mind, they are here to delight and instruct — and when you pile a whole lot of them up together, they can make you just a touch dizzy.

Today I’ll be bringing my collection up to date with two posts, Serpent logics: a ramble, and Serpent logics: the marathon. If you want a quick look at some of the neat patterns I’ve seen since I last posted on these topics, this post — Serpent logics: a ramble — is the one for you. If, after reading it, you want a gruelling, hilarious, insightful, insane, devious, extended course in this kind of pattern recognition — try Serpent logics: the marathon.

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Here’s one from today, tweeted as I was prepping this post — in a category I’ll simply call…

Counter-intuitive?

Admit it, that’s just a trifle mind-blowing, no? C’mon!

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Serpent Bites Tail:

Here’s a light-and-dark-hearted example of the ourobouros or serpent-bites-tail recursive patterm, with a hat tip to Allan Stairs:

Follow Kim Kierkegaardashian (@KimKierkegaard) on Twitter if you like mashups between the deepest of theologians and the shallowest of celebrities…

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I have no idea what category this one belongs in, so I’ll slip it in here. It’s from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, protecting our digital private parts:

Oh my! A Clash of Classifications!

The EFF even has it’s own playful-serious version of the NSA logo —

— as the DoubleQuote above — juxtaposing how the Agency views itself with how the EFF sees it — illustrates…

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DoubleQuotes in the Wild

DoubleQuotes in the Wild is my on-going collection of paired juxtapositions that say more together than they do apart. It’s a beginning training in what F Scott Fitzgerald claimed was the “test of a first-rate intelligence” — “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”.

The example above comes from Parecidos Razonables, a blog that takes off from the Separated at Birth concept and specializes in double-takes of this sort, often satirical. One of their more celebrated examples:

I’d have juxtaposed Vladimir Putin with Daniel Craig as James Bond myself, but that idea has already been taken — a Bond fan apparently photoshopped Putin’s face onto a poster of Bond in Casino Royale, and then “plastered” Moscow with his handiwork.

Apparently the Apparat, like Queen Victoria, was not amused. I’d have been flattered…

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While we’re on the subject of President Putin, here’s another category to consider…

Mixed games:

The op eds by Presidents Putin and Rouhani to which Soufan refers are Putin’s A Plea for Caution From Russia and Rouhani’s Why Iran seeks constructive engagement.

Ali Soufan, the author of Black Banners, is always worth paying attention to — and his tweet, above, clearly belongs with that Alasdair MacIntyre quote I’m so fond of [1, 2]:

Not one game is being played, but several, and, if the game metaphor may be stretched further, the problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to by a lob over the net

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Let’s close with some examples from the arts, the first with just a touch of Tibetan Buddhist flavor…

One of mine:


For further details, see Death and hallucination color new work by Chinese artist Zhang Huan after life-altering Tibet trip.

And the second, a pair of images — each in itself a sort of DoubleQuote in the Wild comparing the forms of birds and mechanical objects in a single photo — posted together today by Wm. Benzon under the title Conjunctions:

Birds and cranes, New Jersey and Lower Manhattan.

IMGP3517rd - Five ducks and freedom tower

Birds and cranes, Brooklyn and Governors Island.

birds of a feather.jpg

Magnificent — what a generous eye he has — many thanks, good Sir!

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Patterns? You might think of them as Jungian archetypes, Platonic ideas, Hofstadterian analogies — or Ayat, the same word used to describe the verses of the Qur’an, signs in the calligraphy of God:

Qur’an 41 (Fussilat), 53

We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves

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And now, consider your options. Have you had enough of these damn patterns of mine — or would you like to try out for the marathon version?

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Myanmar between Woolwich and Al-Aqsa 1: interfaith hatred

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- in which jihadis take on Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, quite an interfaith haul for hatred ]
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Aaron Zelin at Jihadology posted an hour-long video entitled Woolwich Attack a week or so ago, and I found it particularly interesting on two accounts: first, that it makes a multi-faith attack that includes Buddhism in its catalogue of enemies of Islam, and second, that it uses an innovative feature of modern digital typography. Here, I’ll concentrate on the first. Here’s the video’s title:

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Christianity as a target is well represented in the form of Dr Justin Welby, the recently-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury:

Notice also the lower of these two screengrabs, this one showing Ayman al-Zawahiri (left) berating a leading Muslim spokesman in the UK, Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain (right), for speaking at the same event as the Archbishop. The damning subtitle suggests he’s one of those “who issue Fatwas according to the school of thought of the head of the Church of England”.

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It wasn’t the attack on Christians or fellow Muslims that caught my eye, though, but the unexpected presence of the monk Wirathu, the rhetorical leader of Myanmar’s recent Buddhist rioting against Burmese Muslims. I’d seen his face on Time magazine and elsewhere, but it came as a bit of a shock here in a jihadist video — I’d filed him and his 969 movement under “Buddhism” rather than “Islam” in my mental listing of violent movements with religious underpinnings.

Ugly, ugly.

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Finally, no invitation to jihad these days is complete without its mention of the al-Aqsa mosque and Jerusalem — and it is here that Judaism comes in for attack. Consider these two screengrabs:

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The video closes, significantly, with a long shot of the Dome of the Rock through a window…

Yesterday my friend William Benzon made a post titled On Describing a Painting which began:

Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts bills her article thus: The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention. OK. But I take a different lesson from it, one about one of my current hobby horses: description. Roberts focuses on an 18th Century painting by John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel. Her point is that the more you look at the painting, the more you notice and hence the more you can note in a written description. She asks her students to spend a full three hours with a single painting.

Of her own experience with that painting she observes:

It took me nine minutes to notice that the shape of the boy’s ear precisely echoes that of the ruff along the squirrel’s belly—and that Copley was making some kind of connection between the animal and the human body and the sensory capacities of each. It was 21 minutes before I registered the fact that the fingers holding the chain exactly span the diameter of the water glass beneath them. It took a good 45 minutes before I realized that the seemingly random folds and wrinkles in the background curtain are actually perfect copies of the shapes of the boy’s ear and eye, as if Copley had imagined those sensory organs distributing or imprinting themselves on the surface behind him. And so on.

She begins her next paragraph: “What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it.”

Looking at that final screengrab with this in mind, I see a close correlation between the golden Dome that focuses our attention on the Noble Sanctuary / Temple Mount, and the round, yellow-gold keffiyeh of the jihadist observing it through his window — “making some kind of connection between” them, to echo the words of Harvard’s Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities…

It’s a skilled and meaning-filled use of the medium.

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In my second post in this series, I’ll point to a significant development in graphics and technology introduced in this video.

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Serpentine logic: enantiodromia, or a sudden turn of events

Saturday, September 14th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- an intriguing example of enantiodromia aka reversal or the hairpin bend ]
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Let’s start with this tweet from Glenn Greenwald on September 11th 2013, a dozen years on from that tragic day:

Click on Greenwald’s link, and you’ll find it leads to an article by Mike Riggs, and refers specifically to this image of an ad in a DC metro station:

Riggs, who had written his article Oath Keepers Group Places Massive Pro-Snowden Ad Inside Pentagon Metro Station a couple of months eariler on July 24 2013, clearly thought that OathKeepers’ ad was strange enough to comment:

Last Thursday as I was rolling into the Pentagon Metro station I noticed from the train window a giant sign that read, “Snowden Honored His Oath. Honor Yours! Stop Big Brother!”

Before I could snap a picture or see who’d sponsored the sign, the train was rolling out. For the rest of the weekend I wondered who had the chutzpah (and the inventiveness) to praise Snowden at the Pentagon stop, where it’s far more common to see ads from lobbyists praising the merits of some piece of military tech.

Turns out it was the Oath Keepers, “a coalition of current and former military, police, and other public officials [who] have pledged not to obey unconstitutional commands.”

Following hot on the heels of Greenwald’s tweet of September 11, Charles Johnson wrote a piece on LGF titled Why Is Glenn Greenwald Promoting an Extreme Right Wing Militia?

And that in turn led to friend JM Berger’s tweet, also on Sept 11th:

And the enantiodromia here, the sudden switcheroo? That’s to do with Greenwald suddenly tweeting an appreciation of the OathKeepers — not his usual allies by any stretch of the imagination. So this one might equally be filed under “strange bedfellows”.

Or a “one two combo” perhaps? Left jab right cross, to be specific?

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So where does the word come from? Carl Jung more or less borrowed the word from Heraclitus, as quoted by Diogenes Laërtius (ix. 7) in a passage that defies easy translation. Fortunately, as Wikipedia helpfully notes:

Plato in the Phaedo will articulate the principle clearly: “Everything arises in this way, opposites from their opposites.” (sect. 71a).

Jung explains Heraclitus’ meaning as he understands it:

In the philosophy of Heraclitus it is used to designate the play of opposites in the course of events — the view that everything that exists turns into its opposite…

and as he himself uses the term:

I use the term enantiodromia for the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time.

Would you prefer a more contemporary reference? John Perry Barlow even gave a TED talk about it:

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Enantiodromia turns out to be one of the classic forms of paradox in history — t’s a form I’ve written about before on Zenpundit, in my post Jung in Tehran, aka “enantiodromia”, and also referred to in a comment on Pamela Geller.

Here are two notable examples. The first comes from Reinhold Niebuhr‘s The Irony of American History:

Everybody understands the obvious meaning of the world struggle in which we are engaged. We are defending freedom against tyranny and are trying to preserve justice against a system which has, demonically, distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise of a higher justice.

The second is from UK’s Labour MP, Sir Gerald Kaufman, who once said:

My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town a German soldier shot her dead in her bed. … My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.

Right or wrong, Kaufman was in effect asserting the danger of enantiodromia

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Note well that enantiodromia is mostly used to refer to a single switchback: iterative enantiodromia would be a form of boustropehdon.

Note also that David Myatt, whose comment on enantiodromia in Heraclitus I linked to above, is an interesting fellow in his own right, having been a leading UK neonazi for decades, then converting to Islam and preaching jihad and praise of bin Laden — now finally settling into his (hopefully, final) role as an English country gentleman and proponent of moderation in all things — an ex-twice-extremist anti-extremist, itself quite an enantiodromic turn of events…

Hurrumph! Enough for one post…

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Sent to Coventry and much else besides

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- shall we say, not a great enthusiast for war? ]
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This image of Winston Churchill in the bombed out ruins of Coventry Cathedral is almost a self-referential paradox in itself, if you still believe the canard that he knew the Germans were going to bomb Coventry that night, and did nothing about it to avoid divulging allied knowledge of the German ENIGMA code.

It it walks like a canard and quacks like a canard…

For a rebuttal of the suggestion that Churchill knew Coventry would be the target that night, see Sir Martin Gilbert, Coventry: What Really Happened [pdf, pp. 32-3] — the post-literate can listen to this Angry History podcast instead.

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As an aside, I wonder what Churchill had in mind when he coined his celebrated mot about Russia:

It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.

According to Wikipedia, the Poles had delivered their early Enigma-breaking theories, tools and sample cryptologic bombs to British military intelligence in Warsaw on 25 July 1939. Churchill’s broadcast, The Russian Enigma, was given on 1st October 1939.

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And another aside, while we’re here — just to note that conspiracy theories are often among the gaseous components of a fog of war…

On the other hand, conspiracy theories can often be revealing of popular and or archetypal hopes and fears. In the present case, the anxiety revolves around situations such as that invoked by Caiaphas’ claim “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people“.

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Coming at the destruction of Coventry Cathedral from another angle…

I have mourned before the losses at Bamiyan and Monte Cassino:

Here’s what’s happened to the Green Mosque or Mazjid Sabz, famous for its dome (upper panel only, lower panel h/t Bilal Sarwary), in the course of fighting in Afghanistan — the country whose oldest mosque it is:

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And yet prayer continues:

FWIW, the lower panel image (above) is from a Christian Science Monitor article titled Israeli settlers respond to mosque burning allegations — the caption reads in part:

Palestinian men pray Monday near a burnt part of the carpet in a mosque that was damaged in the West Bank village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem. Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of setting fire to the West Bank mosque on Monday

The upper panel image, as far as I can determine, shows the continuing celebration of Mass in a German church after Allied bombardment in World War II.

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It is at least worth pondering the words of these Trappist sisters in Azeir, Syria…

They came to Azeir to continue in spirit the work of the monks of Tibhirine, about whom I wrote, giving extensive background and the entire text of Fr. de Chergé‘s great, final testament here. The sisters write:

Today we have no words, except those of the Psalms that the liturgical prayer puts onto our lips in these days:

Rebuke the Beast of the Reeds, that herd of bulls, that people of calves…oh God, scatter the people who delight in war…Yahweh has leaned down from the heights of his sanctuary, has looked down from heaven to earth to listen to the sighing of the captive, and set free those condemned to death…Listen, God, to my voice as I plead, protect my life from fear of the enemy; hide me from the league of the wicked, from the gang of evil-doers. They sharpen their tongues like a sword, aim their arrow of poisonous abuse…They support each other in their evil designs, they discuss how to lay their snares. “Who will see us?” they say. He will do that, he who penetrates human nature to its depths, the depths of the heart…Break into song for my God, to the tambourine, sing in honor of the Lord, to the cymbal, let psalm and canticle mingle for him, extol his name, invoke it…For the Lord is a God who breaks battle-lines! … Lord, you are great, you are glorious, wonderfully strong, unconquerable.

We look at the people around us, our day workers who are all here as if suspended, stunned: “They’ve decided to attack us.” Today we went to Tartous…we felt the anger, the helplessness, the inability to formulate a sense to all this: the people trying their best to work and to live normally. You see the farmers watering their land, parents buying notebooks for the schools that are about to begin, unknowing children asking for a toy or an ice cream…you see the poor, so many of them, trying to scrape together a few coins. The streets are full of the “inner” refugees of Syria, who have come from all over to the only area left that is still relatively liveable…. You see the beauty of these hills, the smile on people’s faces, the good-natured gaze of a boy who is about to join the army and gives us the two or three peanuts he has in his pocket as a token of “togetherness”…. And then you remember that they have decided to bomb us tomorrow. … Just like that. Because “it’s time to do something,” as it is worded in the statements of the important men, who will be sipping their tea tomorrow as they watch TV to see how effective their humanitarian intervention will be….

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