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Nina Paley’s OTSOG genius

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Nina Paley is as strong an argument as I know both for the idea that individual genius exists, and (not so paradoxically) that it arises OTSOG -- "On the shoulders of giants" as Robert Merton has it ]
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It’s always a delight to find the same rich insight in divergent cultures — in this case, from Airborne, Down to Earth: words of Wallace Black Elk, which I collected and arranged in The Greenfield Review, vol 9 ## 3-4, Winter 1981-82 (upper panel):

SPEC WBE Paley

and in the latest film offering from Nina Paley (lower panel).

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I have said before that I vastly and deeply admire Nina Paley’s animated feature based on Valmiki‘s Ramayana, Sita Sings the Blues. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch the first six and a half enchanting minutes… and the whole film will be here for you when you have just under an hour and a half to spend:

Nina also is a paragon of the movement to make cultural works available without the current restrictions of copyright, as she explains, and has placed Sita Sings the Blues in the public domain..

You’ll hear all about her upcoming feature about and around Passover / Pesach — from which the corpse > become mummy > become flowers image is taken — when the time comes…

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h/t Bill Benzon at New Savanna

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Some very welcome news: JM Berger & Jessica Stern

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- forthcoming book announced ]
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JM Berger at Intelwire frames it like this:

ISIS: THE STATE OF TERROR

Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger co-author the forthcoming book, “ISIS: The State of Terror,” from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book, which will debut in early 2015, will examine the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, how it is transforming the nature of extremist movements, and how we should evaluate the threat it presents.

Jessica Stern is a Harvard lecturer on terrorism and the author of the seminal text Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. J.M. Berger is author of the definitive book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy, and editor of Intelwire.com.

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JM also tweeted:

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For another angle on Berger & Stern’s thinking, see their recent joint contribution to a round table at Politico:

A counterterrorism mission—and then some.
By J.M. Berger and Jessica Stern

When the Obama administration sends mixed messages about whether its campaign against the Islamic State insurgent group is war or counterterrorism, there is a reason, if not a good one. As explained by President Obama last week, the United States plans to employ counterterrorism tactics against a standing army currently preoccupied with waging war.

In many ways, our confrontation with the Islamic State is the culmination of 13 years of degraded definitions. Our enemies have evolved considerably since Sept. 11, 2001, and none more than ISIL, which has shed both the name and the sympathies of al Qaeda. The Islamic State excels at communication, and it has succeeded in establishing itself as a uniquely visible avatar of evil that demands a response. But on 9/11, we began a “war on terrorism” that has proven every bit as expansive and ambiguous as the phrase itself implies. It is a symptom of our broken political system that we require the frame of terrorism and the tone of apocalyptic crisis to take even limited action as a government.

Ultimately, it’s hard to escape the feeling that our policies still come from the gut, rather than the head. And ISIL knows exactly how to deliver a punch to the gut, as evidenced by its gruesome hostage beheadings and countless other atrocities. Its brutality and open taunts represent an invitation to war, and many sober strategists now speak of “destroying” the organization.

Bin Laden once said, “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there.” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of ISIL, may be counting on just that response, and for the same reason—to draw the United States into a war of supreme costs, political, economic and human.

A limited counterterrorism campaign may insulate us from those costs, but it is not likely to be sufficient to accomplish the goals laid out by the president. ISIL is a different enemy from al Qaeda. It has not earned statehood, but it is an army and a culture, and more than a traditional terrorist organization. Limited measures are unlikely to destroy it and might not be enough to end its genocidal ambitions. Our stated goals do not match our intended methods. Something has to give — and it’s probably the goals.

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I reviewed JM’s previous book for Zenpundit, and mentioned Jessica Stern‘s work, which I greatly admire, in my post here, Book Review: JM Berger’s Jihad Joe. Their upcoming collaboration promises us an insightful, foundational, and must-readable analysis — richly nuanced, clearly presented, and avoiding the pitfalls of panicky sensationalism to which so much current reportage is prone.

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Ferguson compared: Kelsey Atherton compiles the tweets

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- easily the clearest and most powerful critique of recent events in Ferguson comes from KD Atherton and friends ]
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Kelsey Atherton has Storified a fine compilation of tweets comparing Ferguson police, their weaponry, posture and tactcis, with military equivalents, in what is essentially an extended DoubleQuotes approach to understanding the “militarization” of US police. Please note that the piece runs two pages to see the second, you need to click for it at the bottom of the first page.

He leads of with a sequence of tweets from Andrew Exum aka Abu Muqawama, of which this is one:

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Two of the tweets Atherton posts use what I call a DoubleQuotes in the Wild format:

and:

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Here are some other examples, pulled from a total of 45 tweets all told — including some from friends of this blog:

One point nicely made by Adam Weinstein is that the “militarization” isn’t military much beyond the gear:

See also this:

Here’s Jimmy Sky:

— which pretty much confirms a point I was making in DoubleQuotes in Foreign Policy: Ferguson and the world.

Three from Nathan Bethea offer further perspective on Iraq:

Again, that last tweet reinforces what I was suggesting in DoubleQuotes in Foreign Policy: Ferguson and the world.

My next-to-last pick: Jason Fritz makes a triple point:

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After requesting further tweets that might be relevant to his Storify story, Atherton includes a handful of tweets from @kudzu81 aka ibreakthings, offering this moderate critique:

Atherton’s own conclusion, which he posts as a sub-head to his Storify:

The general consensus here: if this is militarization, it’s the shittiest, least-trained, least professional military in the world, using weapons far beyond what they need, or what the military would use when doing crowd control.

All in all, an impressive performance — much kudos to Kelsey Atherton, be sure to read his whole piece on Storify — and follow him on Twitter.

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Of bombs and cemeteries, documents and doubts

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a meander of thoughts, from Gaza and Gothic via documentary style photoraphs to juxtaposition and its possible modes of reading ]
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"Israel bombs the dead in Gaza cemeteries" - Jan 2009

As the photo above documents, this strange “twist of fated” has happened before — image drawn from Bin Laden demands holy war as Israel bombs the dead in Gaza cemeteries, Daily Mail, 14 January 2009.

Gazan Gothic.

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My friend Bryan Alexander hosts the Infocult blog, where he showcases gothic elements in our daily lives. It’s a fascinating blog to follow, and a day or three ago Bryan discussed gothic elements in the shooting down of the MH17 over the Ukraine. One rebel source, for instance, reported:

According to the information received from the people who collected the corpses, a large number of the corpses are “not fresh” – these are people who died a few days ago.

Macabre. Gothic.

Bryan’s post concluded thus:

Infocult offers this hypothesis: all intense politics ultimately tend to the Gothic.

– and that’s what brings me back again to Gaza.

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I ran across Gazan Gothic redux in a Foreign Policy piece titled Ramadan in Gaza — in a paragraph that reads:

My six-year-old nephew Bashar told me that he thinks Israelis are crazy. After an airstrike hit a cemetery, he asked me innocently, “Have they meant to kill the dead again, aunt?” I have no words to explain.

That’s gothic for you, and could serve as a fine data point to support Bryan’s hypothesis. But wait a minute…

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That morning I also read — and this had me off on quite a tangent — Arthur Lubow‘s piece, Documentary Art, in the Threepenny Review. Lubow offers a different trajectory from “intense politics” — one that ends in a form of art, not an expression of gothic.. He asks:

What makes a documentary photograph also a work of art? When does its news remain fresh, even after the daily paper or monthly magazine that printed it has faded?

He quotes photographer Walker Evans [Let us now praise famous men] on the difference between two kinds of “current events” photography:

An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, although it certainly can adopt that style.

and writes of the photographer Bruce Davidson, two of whose books he is reviewing:

A photograph of a shattered car in an empty field is a ghastly, violent image. The driver’s window is blown out, the seat is blood-soaked, the doors hang open like broken arms. But to comprehend the horror of this picture, you need to know things that you can learn only from a caption. This was the car that Viola Liuzzo, a volunteer civil rights worker from Detroit, was driving in Alabama when she was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1965. It is, as Evans would have it, a literal document.

Compare that to another Davidson photograph, taken six years earlier. A pretty girl with a full mane of sun-streaked blonde hair is primping in the mirror of a cigarette machine. A handsome boy alongside her is carefully rolling up a sleeve of his T-shirt. They have placed their drinks on top of the machine: a can of beer for him, a bottle of soda pop for her. In the background, other young people are heading for the lockers. The photograph was shot in Coney Island, one of a series on a Brooklyn gang called the Jokers, whom Davidson followed for almost a year in 1959. But any facts about the Jokers are extraneous to one’s appreciation of this photograph, which is all about the narcissistic eroticism of youth. The graceful crook of the feminine elbow in counterpoint to the taut extension of the boy’s arm, the tarnished reflective surface that reveals the girl’s fleeting beauty, the self-involvement and the sexual heat—these are specific to this scene, and general enough for a viewer to understand. It is documentary style.

Further, he writes:

If a photograph can be reduced to a sentence, its interest is fleeting. When the point is sharp and clear, the afterlife is short. .. It’s a didactic style in which the aphorism needn’t be spelled out in words. On East 100th Street, Davidson photographed a child behind a meshed window, alongside a caged bird, and a boy on a filthy mattress in an alley, almost indistinguishable from piles of strewn garbage. These are valuable as documents. But when he portrays a tiny infant with two figurines, all resting on a couch, or a young man with close-set eyes, holding a pet pigeon, he leaves enough mental space around the image for you to wonder. Like any work of art, a great photograph is suggestive but not dispositive. Its power resides in its ambiguity.

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We’re seemingly a long way from Gaza here, but photographs of Gaza too can be “documents” or “documentary-style” art photos. So alongside Bryan’s hypothesis:

all intense politics ultimately tend to the Gothic

I’ll place my own:

all intense politics ultimately tend to art.

My point here is not to deny Bryan’s, but to point up the many tendencies and end points to which “intense politics” may lead simultaneously – carnage, death and grief prominent among them, and a just peace seldom indeed.

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There’s a quote from the same Lubow piece about photographic juxtapositions that has application to my overall DoubleQuotes project. Describing a photo of “an African-American Freedom Rider .. surrounded by .. jeering white youths” Lubow comments:

The black protestor and several of his tormentors are wearing the same collegiate uniform— — a button-down, light-colored Oxford shirt and dark trousers.

The similarity of clothing worn by the warriors on both sides of the racial divide raises provocative questions. The best photographs do. Whereas (to pick up Evans’s distinction) a documentary photograph can be introduced as evidence, a good documentary-style photograph will raise more doubts than it resolves.

Juxtapositions can point to conclusions, but they are most interesting when they “raise provocative questions” rather than scoring “conclusive” points — my DoubleQuotes included.

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Chet’s Boydian Post-Script to American Spartan

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

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

Dr. Chet Richards had some kind words to say about my review of American Spartan the other day and added some Boydian strategic analysis to the saga of Major Jim Gant to boot:

Zen Pundit on American Spartan 

….As Mark notes, the strategy of supporting local insurgents goes way back, and it can be highly successful — the United States wouldn’t be here if the French hadn’t taken this approach. But it’s also true, as he notes, that if you create a monster to fight a monster, you have, in fact, created a monster. You’d think we might have learned this from our first Afghan adventure. So I certainly agree with Mark when he says that “It should only be done with eyes wide open as to the potential drawbacks (numerous) and it won’t always work but the militia option works often enough historically that it should be carefully considered,” but “eyes wide open” is easier after the fact. Even a mechanical system of three or more parts can become complex and therefore unpredictable. So we have, at the very least, the US forces, the various tribes and militias, and the government. You see where I’m going with this, and that’s before we consider that the players are hardly mechanical parts whose behavior can be predicted over any length of time.

Still, Mark’s point is spot on — why do we always have to be the redcoats and let the other guys hide behind rocks and trees? Why do we keep doing dumb things? We don’t always, and we haven’t always, but somehow, we’ve developed a knack for discarding winning tactics.

…..One cause of this might be the mentality, attributed to Lord Palmerston several years back, that states have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Glib statements like this are dangerous because they substitute for understanding and help lock orientation. Furthermore, they lead to the sorts of moral failings that Mark has identified. If you stop and think about it, the exact opposite would be a better way to run a foreign policy.

No organism, including a state, has long-term interests outside of survival on its own terms and increasing its capacity for independent action. As Boyd pointed out, these are easier to achieve if you have others who are sympathetic to your aims. In particular we should conduct our grand strategy (for that’s what Mark is talking about) so that we:

  • Support national goal;
  • Pump up our resolve, drain away adversary resolve, and attract the uncommitted;
  • End conflict on favorable terms;
  • Ensure that conflict and peace terms do not provide seeds for (unfavorable) future conflict. Patterns139

Or, put another way:

Morally we interact with others by avoiding mismatches between what we say we are, what we are, and the world we have to deal with, as well as by abiding by those other cultural codes or standards that we are expected to uphold.  Strategic Game 49

It’s not that hard. Our long-term friends are those who, like us, support our ideals, which we have made explicit….

Read the rest here.

I have to agree with Dr. Chet that we, or rather the USG, continues to do dumb things. It is virtually our default position now. The era of President Abraham Lincoln sending a case of whatever Ulysses S. Grant was drinking to his other generals is long over. Why?

I suspect by needlessly ramping up our organizational complexity we generate endless amounts of unnecessary friction against our ostensible purpose without adding any value. Aside from automatically increasing the number of folks involved who are neither motivated nor competent, making orgs more complex means too many voices and too many lawyers on every decision, of whom too few have a vested interest in the overall success of the policy to keep our strategic ( or at times, tactical) Ends uppermost in mind.

Policy, hell – maybe the first order of business should be to start using more bluntly honest terms like “victory” and “defeat” again in assessing results of military campaigns. They clarify the mind.

Maybe this is why the OSS, enterprising CIA officers like Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. , Edward Lansdale , Duane Clarridge or counterinsurgents like David Hackworth and Jim Gant could accrue large results while operating on a relative shoestring while enormous, powerful, quasi-institutional bureaucratic commands that spanned many years like MACV and ISAF have failed. The former led small teams that were simple, highly motivated and focused on adapting to win.

I fear things will have to get worse – much worse – before they get better.

 

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