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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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Various body parts for various body parts

Friday, May 31st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — mostly about a fascinating quote from Martin Luther King ]
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Let’s start with the Code of Hammurabi, 196-97:

If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.

A few days ago, I found I was feeling mildly exercised by one Dan Hodges writing in the Telegraph:

Indeed, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” quoted by one of Lee Rigby’s suspected killers, comes from the Bible, not the Koran.

Hodges was quoting Michael Adebolajo, who had said on camera:

The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. And this British soldier is one. It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone.

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It is true that Deuteronomy 19.21 reads:

And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

and Exodus 21.23-25:

And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

— but its is clear that Adebolajo — who was brought up devoutly Christian in Nigeria, converted (“reverted”) to Islam, and now references suras of the Qur’an using their Arabic names — would also be aware of Sura Al-Ma’ida (5) 45:

And therein We prescribed for them: ‘A life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds retaliation'; but whosoever forgoes it as a freewill offering, that shall be for him an expiation.

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The quote “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” is often attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, but I checked with Quote Investigator and found it was originally used by one Louis Fischer to paraphrase Gandhi’s teaching, although the Gandhi family apparently think it sounds authentic. But what interested me most was that a form of the same phrase can safely be attributed to Martin Luther King, who is quote in Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, p 208, as saying:

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction of all. The law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. It is immoral because it seeks to annihilate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

That’s quite a paragraph.

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Of note, besides the parallel structure with which King addresses violence as both impractical and immoral, are two matters I have often pointed to here on Zenpundit:

Self-reference:

Violence ends by defeating itself.

and polyphony:

It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.

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Gandhi’s position seems to come close to that presented in Matthew 5. 38-48 — in which Christ clearly countermands the lex talionis as promulgated in Exodus and Deuteronomy:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

And. for that matter, to The Richmond Declaration of Faith of 1887, as quoted today by my friend, Friend Marshall Massey:

We feel bound explicitly to avow our unshaken persuasion that all war is utterly incompatible with the plain precepts of our divine Lord and Law-giver, and the whole spirit of His Gospel, and that no plea of necessity or policy, however urgent or peculiar, can avail to release either individuals or nations from the paramount allegiance which they owe to Him who hath said, ‘Love your enemies.’ (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27)

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How — without denigrating those who are of either the Deuteronomic or the Gandhian persuasion — does one nudge the world-system gently away from justice and towards mercy, away from revenge and towards reconciliation, away from war and towards peace? Towards a new and more viable homeostasis?

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We have grieved for our own

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — another side of the human coin ]
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We have grieved for our own: now let us take thought for those in Damascus. Here, from Al-Jazeera, is a report from April 15th, 2013, the day on which two young men bombed the Boston Marathon:

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And that, at least for now, concludes my series of meditations and analyses on the late tragic events in Boston.

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Stereocognition, intelligence and the movies

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — Zero Dark Thirty & Manhunt, fact and fiction, that old saw about who it is that gets to write history, thence onwards to theology & the arts, von Balthasar & Tolkien, winding up watching UK & US versions of House of Cards with son David ]
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How’s this for stereoscopy?

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You may know I’m preoccupied with the notion of extending the stereo concept — using twin sources to add a depth dimension to one’s perception — from stereophonic audition and stereoscopic vision to stereocognition more generally.

Nada Bakos‘ image above shows a cinema in which documentary and fictional versions of the story of the hunt for bin Laden are playing simultaneously. The fiction, Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty, I saw a couple of days ago, and neither I nor son Emlyn, 17, were terribly enthused: the Camp Chapman scene was the one that touched me most deeply.

I’ll no doubt want to see both films, but it’s Greg Barker’s documentary, Manhunter, that will interest me the most, the more factual of the two. And yet that’s curious in and of itself, because as a poet I’m usually interested in the mythic and imaginative as much as or more than the “merely” factual, and I tend to think of the movies as providing a mythology for our times.

Okay, let me give you the two quotes that get to the heart of my sensibilities about fact and fiction at the movies.

What, after all, happens in a movie theater after the lights dim and the curtain rises? F Scott Fitzgerald tells us what happens in the mogul’s screening room, but it’s the same with us peons, isn’t it?

Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room, suffered analysis, passed — to be dreamed in crowds or else discarded.

And I’m also with the poet Kathleen Raine, who said:

Myth, when a real event may be the enactment of a myth, is the truth of the fact and not the other way around…

So where does that leave me?

Right now, it leaves me feeling that in the case of these two filmic treatments of the same “true story” — and no doubt many others — history will likely be “written” by the entertainment makers, not the documentarists. Paradoxically, a sad thought.

But let’s go beyond that.

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I said I’m preoccupied with the notion of using twin sources to add a depth dimension to perception — from stereophonic audition and stereoscopic vision to stereocognition more generally. Another way to say that is that I’m interested in figuring out how to think contrapuntally, and how to score contrapuntal thought — thought which holds two or more potentially conflicting concepts in mind simultaneously, so as to arrive at a deeper understanding than one perspective alone can provide…

I’ve talked about these modes of stereoscopic / contrapuntal cognition before, in posts such as Form is insight: a musical experiment and Silent reading, silent thinking, bifocal glasses, and I’m always delighted when I run across a new very bright thinker (Glenn Gould, Edward Said [Power, Politics, and Culture p. 447}, Wm Blake) playing with these ideas — today it’s the late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Truth Is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, who speaks of “the entire polyphony of revelation”, suggests that:

In his revelation, God performs a symphony, and it is impossible to say which is richer: the seamless genius of his composition or the polyphonous orchestra of Creation that he has prepared to play it

and states that “Even eternal Truth itself is symphonic.” The only stronger statement I know of concerning the contrapuntal nature of the world from within the Catholic tradition is JRR Tolkien‘s extraordinary short masterpiece of a creation myth, The Music of the Ainur [scroll down at link], with which he begins the Silmarillion.

So the contrapuntal idea is present in theology, as well as the arts…

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Stereoscopy, counterpoint.

I’ve been watching the TV series, House of Cards, with my fourteen-year old, David – we’ve now seen the whole first series of the UK version together, and the beginning of the US version, and it’s fascinating to notice the differences.

Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey):

Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson):

See both shows, form your own conclusions…

And their source?

Now I shall have to watch Richard III with David, too.

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The Controversial CTC Report

Friday, January 25th, 2013

The Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point released a report on domestic terrorism that raised hackles for a number of reasons. Despite the dismissals of liberal political pundits, the reasons for objections to the CTC report are legitimate but they did not need to arise in the first place and might have been avoided with a slightly different editorial approach or appropriate caveats (I just finished reading the report, which is primarily focused on the usual suspects). Here’s why I think the normally well-regarded CTC stumbled into a hornet’s nest:

First, in this foray into domestic terrorism analysis, the center chose to concentrate only on the threat of violence of the Far Right while ignoring other threats coming from the Far Left, infiltration by criminal insurgent networks from Mexico, notably the ultraviolent Zetas whose reach has stirred gang violence in Chicago and Islamist terrorism, either homegrown “lone wolves” or from foreign infiltration or subversion. In itself, this is understandable if the CTC plans a series of reports with a separate focus on different domestic threats; but without that context, it is a myopic analytic perspective, particularly given the demonstrated capabilities of various AQ affiliates or just south of the border, the criminal-insurgency of  the narco-cartels. Had all of these been addressed in one omnibus report, any complaints from conservatives were likely to have been muted or nonexistent. This is not to say that the radical American Far Right does not have a violent threat potential of it’s own worth studying; it does and it is real. But available evidence indicates it to be the least organized, least operationally active and least professionally competent in terms of terrorist “tradecraft” of the three.

The second and most problematic aspect of the report is an intellectually sloppy definition of a dangerous “antifederalist movement”  where noxious concepts like “white supremacy” and wacko conspiracy theories are casually associated with very mainstream conservative (or even traditionally bipartisan !) political ideas – coincidentally, some of the same ideas that contemporary “big government” liberal elites tend to find irritating, objectionable or critical of their preferred policies. Part of the equation here is that American politics are evolvng into a very bitterly partisan, “low trust” environment, but even on the merits of critical analysis,  these two passages are ill-considered and are largely responsible for most of the recent public criticism of the CTC:

….The antifederalist rationale is multifaceted, and includes the beliefs that the American political system and its proxies were hijacked by external forces interested in promoting a “New World Order” (NWO) in which the United States will be absorbed into the United Nations or another version of global government.  They also espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights.  Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government

….In contrast to the relatively long tradition of the white supremacy racist movement, the anti-federalist movement appeared in full force only in the early to mid-1990s, with the emergence of groups such as the  Militia of Montana and the Michigan Militia. Antifederalism is normally identified in the literature as the “Militia” or “Patriot” movement. Anti-federalist and anti-government sentiments were present in American society before the 1990s in diverse movements and ideological associations promoting anti-taxation, gun rights, survivalist  practices,and libertarian ideas 

This is taxonomic incoherence, or at least could have used some bright-line specifics ( like “Posse Commitatus” qualifying what was meant by “anti-taxation” activists) though in some cases, such as “libertarian ideas” and “civil activism”, I’m at a loss to know who or what violent actors they were implying, despite being fairly well informed on such matters.

By the standard used in the first paragraph, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader and the ACLU would also be considered “far right antifederalists”. By the standards of the second, we might be in physical danger from Grover Norquist,  Congressman John Dingell and Penn Jillette. No one who opposed the recent increases in income tax rates, dislikes gun-control or thought the DOJ may have abused it’s power in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz or in their stubborn refusal to prosecute Bankster racketeering is likely to welcome a report under the auspices of West Point that juxtaposes such normal and perfectly valid American political beliefs with neo-Nazism. A move that is simply going to – and quite frankly, did – gratuitously irritate a large number of people, including many in the defense and national security communities who are a natural “customer base” for CTC reports.

As I said previously, this could easily have been completely avoided with more careful use of language, given that 99% the report has nothing to do with mainstream politics and is concerned with actors and orgs with often extensive track records of violence. As the CTC, despite it’s independence, is associated so strongly with an official U.S. Army institution, it needs to go the extra mile in explaining it’s analysis when examining domestic terrorism subjects that are or, appear to be, connected to perfectly legitimate participation in the political process. This is the case whether the subject is on the Left or Right – few activists on the Left, for example, have forgotten the days of COINTELPRO and are currently aggrieved by the activities of Project Vigilant.

I might make a few other criticisms of the report, such as the need for a better informed historical perspective, but that is hardly what the recent uproar was about.

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