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Through a glass, darkly

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

[ by Emlyn Cameron — On North Korea: a retrospective as preemptive strike ]
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Charles Cameron’s introduction: Regular readers may know my son Emlyn from previous contributions on Zenpundit [1, 2]. Here he wages a war of miniturization on the Korean fiefdom of Kim Jong-Un.

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Snow falls on Kim Jong-Il‘s funeral cortege

Reflecting on the Nuclear staring contest now ongoing between the United States and North Korea, I confront mixed feelings: Obviously one must consider different strategies and engage in a pragmatic calculus; One must consider the pros and cons, the risks and rewards, and the numerous lives which might be ended or fail ever to be lived as a consequence of any policy. It is, I need not say, a very complex issue. Worse still, it is an issue of severe import to many whose lives hang in the balance.

But I find myself grappling with a less practical question and coming away irresolute: If North Korea’s brand of surreal statism could be overthrown without bloodshed or tragedy, how would I feel? Would I be proud? Pleased? Grateful? Somehow, I can’t convince myself that I would be entirely satisfied. I feel certain that any pride, pleasure, or gratitude would be alloyed with something else. And this in spite of my knowledge that such a coup would be, well, a coup, and of the welcome it would justifiably receive.

“The bloodless anticlimax to an Orwellian police state?” I hear the likely refrain, “Terrific!”

“A peaceful end to a regime which embraced not only Stalinist propagandism, but De Facto Monarchy? Still better!” The voices continue.

“And a conclusion to tantrums and ICBM rattle throwing? Who could hope for more?” Comes the triumphal call.

And yet, I am unconvinced in the recesses of my heart. That might be strange to many people, even a tad immoral, but it’s how things stand.

In order that such a stance might make more sense, I’ll admit that I have a strange affection for the turbulent little state and its Emperor’s New Jumpsuits. This probably extends from more general conflicted feelings about overt dictatorships: I am someone who deeply loves enlightenment philosophy, and cherishes my personal freedoms. I am, all the same, a morbid person, prone to fatalism, and I harbor dark anticipations about the future of humanity. Somewhere in the middle I developed a great relish for bleak wit. For these reasons, it should come as no shock that I am a great admirer of George Orwell and a fan of his writings. Perhaps like others who count themselves among his readers, I find myself emotionally torn while reading Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm; The dystopias he presents disturb me, and yet, (in spite of my philosophical leanings) a small part of me is always tugged at by a desire to relinquish the struggle of self determination, and to escape the paradox of choice by giving in to such an oppression. The terrible certainties, even of state assigned conclusions and death, speak to some tired part in me, which recognizes strain from the ongoing alertness required of anyone who wants to be the arbiter of their own affairs.

North Korea, likewise, is a natural antagonist to the individualism I hold dear, but, perhaps because of its total conviction and flagrance in opposing my worldview, I am captivated by its iconography and insular existence. I have always been fascinated by the ludicrous spectacle, the stark imagery, and the total devotion of totalitarian nations, though I revile their premises. Having one around, therefore, leaves me in rather a strange position: I desire the grip of the North Korean state on its people broken as a matter of principle, while simultaneously fearing the death of a kind of dangerous endangered species; I am struck by the feeling that the end of the North Korean state would be a victory for my values, and the loss of one of the world’s great curiosities.

A friend recently called North Korea “an Eighth Wonder of the World”, and I agree. It is a tragic wonder, dangerous rather than glorious, but a wonder none the less.

My grandfather, a conservative philosopher, referred to himself as a “sentimental monarchist”. If a peaceful end came to the militaristic regime in North Korea, my relief would be tinged with a similar kind of sentimental loss; Something interesting would be gone, and I would feel a nostalgic pang for the missing strangeness. I fancy that I would rather keep the aggressive little power, not on a map, but on a shelf. I should like to keep it in a snow globe, I think (the state already more or less frozen as it is).

I’d like a little magnified globe, not unlike the coral paperweight in Orwell’s book, in which would be held the repressive slice of 1950’s authoritarianism: Marches and missiles behind safety glass. Occasionally, on a quiet night, I might chance to hear a soft, televised threat to my safety, or a report on bountiful rations; If I felt a stab of longing for the atmosphere of suspended aggression from my parents and grand parents age, I could go to the mantle and wind the little state up by hand (rather than by tweet) and hear a tinkling anthem that takes me back; I’d like to visit the trinket now and again and watch snow fallout from a nuclear winter after I shake it, or watch tiny jackboots and smiling, slightly condescending diplomats go about their days work. Maybe the mandatorily grateful workers would even build a cardboard city for my benefit, to give an impression of plenty. And once I had seen the last settling flakes fall, I would place it back above the fire place with a feeling of having harmlessly revisited my childhood, glad of a souvenir to solidify the bittersweet memory. After all, a snow globe can cast nothing else from the mantle to the floor, nor launch beyond its translucent border.

Then again, just because I’d have the terror held safely under glass, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t continue in earnest within.

Review: The Rule of the Clan

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner

I often review good books. Sometimes I review great ones. The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom  by Mark S. Weiner gets the highest compliment of all: it is an academic book that is clearly and engagingly written so as to be broadly useful.

Weiner is Professor of Law and Sidney I. Reitman Scholar at Rutgers University whose research interests gravitate to societal evolution of constitutional orders and legal anthropology. Weiner has put his talents to use in examining the constitutional nature of a global phenomena that has plagued IR scholars, COIN theorists, diplomats, counterterrorism experts, unconventional warfare officers, strategists, politicians and judges. The problem they wrestle with goes by many names that capture some aspect of its nature – black globalization, failed states, rogue states, 4GW, hybrid war, non-state actors, criminal insurgency, terrorism and many other terms. What Weiner does in The Rule of the Clan is lay out a historical hypothesis of tension between the models of Societies of Contract – that is Western, liberal democratic, states based upon the rule of law – and the ancient Societies of Status based upon kinship networks from which the modern world emerged and now in places has begun to regress.

Weiner deftly weaves the practical problems of intervention in Libya or counterterrorism against al Qaida with political philosophy, intellectual and legal history, anthropology, sociology and economics. In smooth prose, Weiner illustrates the commonalities and endurance of the values of clan and kinship network lineage systems in societies as diverse as Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, India and the Scottish highlands, even as the modern state arose around them. The problem of personal security and the dynamic of the feud/vendetta as a social regulator of conduct is examined along with the political difficulties of shifting from systems of socially sanctioned collective vengeance to individual rights based justice systems. Weiner implores liberals (broadly, Westerners) not to underestimate (and ultimately undermine) the degree of delicacy and strategic patience required for non-western states transitioning between Societies of Status to Societies of Contract. The relationship between the state and individualism is complicated because it is inherently paradoxical, argues Weiner: only a state with strong, if limited, powers creates the security and legal structure for individualism and contract to flourish free of the threat of organized private violence and the tyranny of collectivistic identities.

Weiner’s argument is elegant, well supported and concise (258 pages inc. endnotes and index) and he bends over backwards in The Rule of the Clan to stress the universal nature of clannism in the evolution of human societies, however distant that memory may be for a Frenchman, American or Norwegian. If the mores of clan life are still very real and present for a Palestinian supporter (or enemy) of HAMAS in Gaza, they were once equally real to Saxons, Scots and Franks. This posture can also take the rough edges off the crueler aspects of, say, life for a widow and her children in a Pushtun village by glossing over the negative cultural behaviors that Westerners find antagonizing and so difficult to ignore on humanitarian grounds. This is not to argue that Weiner is wrong, I think he is largely correct, but this approach minimizes the friction involved in the domestic politics of foreign policy-making in Western societies which contain elite constituencies for the spread of liberal values by the force of arms.

Strongest recommendation.

Of human and inhumane circles

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — infernal and celestial geometries ]
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It is well known that the Platonic “ideal” circle is not to be found in the “real” world of people and things, since it would be composed of an infinte number of non-dimensional points. Human and inhumane circles, however, are another matter.

SPEC DQ circles

The upper circle shows spectators who gathered around the mangled body of an alleged homosexual, thrown from the roof of a seven-storey building by members of the Islamic State, and stoned the still breathing victim to death.

The lower circle is intended as a counter-weight to the atrocity shown above it. It is the Zen master Hakuin’s enso or zen brush-and-ink circle, perfect in its imperfection, its human spontaneity, and certainly not in the Platonic “ideal” sense.

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The Topological Musings blog quotes Plato from The Republic, deftly avoiding any mention of circles…

And do you not also know that they (mathematicians) further make use of the visible forms and talk about them, though they are not thinking of them but of those things of which they are a likeness, pursuing their inquiry for the sake of the square as such and the diagonal as such, and not for the sake of the image of it which they draw?… The very things which they mold and draw, … they treat in their turn as only images, but what they really seek is to get sight of those realities which can be seen only by the mind.

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Three circles: the utterly inhumane, the perfectly imperfect, and the impossible.

For a “transgressive” study of the issue of homosexuality and the seventh circle of Dante’s Inferno, see John Boswell‘s Dante and the Sodomites, in Dante Studies, No. 112 (1994), pp. 63-76. What exactly “transgressive” means, I have yet to understand. I do however, personally, abhor people throwing other people off high buildings and / or stoning them to death.

UN Human Rights Commissioner Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — WINEP hosts Countering Violent Extremism and Ideology discussion ]
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Addressing the Washington Institute for Near East Policy earlier this month, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Jordanian Ambassador to the United States said of the IS / Daesh “caliphate”:

I think it requires a much deeper sort of analysis than what we often see coming through to us via the media outlets.

He went on to explain what he meant — emphasizing not military force but an Islamic theological response to the Daesh doctrinal claims:

We listened very carefully in Geneva to the remarks made by Walid Muallem, the foreign minister of the Syrian government, and he was dismissive of the efficacy of the airstrikes. Now this is something that I think has to be studied because we have learned from other sources that this may well be the case – or at least, if they were not supplemented by a concerted discussion within the Islamic world to confront, line by line, the thinking of the takfiri groups, that the results may not be what we hope they will be, and fall short of where we want them to be.

The letter that I have alluded to [..] was issued by a hundred and twenty-six Muslim scholars back in September as a response to the July Jumaa sermon issued by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And what I found really quite unfortunate is that this letter which was remarkable, in the sense that it was scholarly, it was backed by Muslim scholars from all over the world, it dealt by each of the points raised in the sermon, rebuttal followed by another rebuttal to each of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s points, that this received far less in the way of media attention than the decisions to launch airstrikes and take very active military operations. Because I felt at the time and still do that this letter needs to be supported and alluded to and spoken about and referred to by politicians in the Islamic world and beyond — not least because if it isn’t shown that the Islamic world is responding, at least from a scholarly angle, then we will continue to see the phenomena we see in Europe and we saw in germany yesterday, of demonstrations basically targeting Islam as a religion, as opposed to the takfiri ideology where the denunciations should be properly be directed.

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Here, then, so that we can better grasp these issues as they can be understood within Islam, is the Letter al-Hussein spoke of:

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The Letter can also be downloaded as a .pdf. Among the highlights of the Executive Summary:

9. It is forbidden in Islam to declare people non-Muslim unless he (or she) openly declares disbelief.
10. It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’.
11. It is obligatory to consider Yazidis as People of the Scripture.
12. The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus.
13. It is forbidden in Islam to force people to convert.
14. It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.

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For those of you who watch the video of the WINEP discussion, I should warn you that the close captioning is inexcusably poor. I’m betting, eg, that Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein did not say “jihadi nostra” (cute though that might be) when the context clearly suggests “Jabhat al-Nusra”.

Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!


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