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Gladwell on Waco and worldviews

Monday, April 21st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- in hope that improved mutual understanding across a range of conflict situations will provide some viable alternatives to needlessly violent solutions ]
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Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article published in the New Yorker at the end of last month titled How not to negotiate with believers.

It’s on a topic I’ve been interested in for years, and it quotes several scholars whose work on the topic I know, whose books I read, in whose digital company I sometimes find myself as a researcher of new religious movements, apocalypticism and so on — and I’m happy to say that IMO Gladwell frames and summarizes the key issues very nicely.

You can read the whole piece on the New Yorker site, and I encourage you to do so. What I aim to do here is to extract the essence, and to suggest that similar considerations apply in greater or lesser measure to interactions with jihadists, members of the 969 movement in Myanmar, and others in one orm or another of religious conflict.

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Here’s the key graf:

Not long after the Waco siege began, James Tabor, the Biblical scholar, heard David Koresh on CNN talking about the Seven Seals. Tabor is an expert on Biblical apocalypticism and recognized the Branch Davidians for what they were—a community immersed in the world of the Old Testament prophets. He contacted a fellow religious scholar, Phillip Arnold, and together they went to the F.B.I. “It became clear to me that neither the officials in charge nor the media who were sensationally reporting the sexual escapades of David Koresh had a clue about the biblical world which this group inhabited,” Tabor writes, in an essay about his role in the Mount Carmel conflict. “I realized that in order to deal with David Koresh, and to have any chance for a peaceful resolution of the Waco situation, one would have to understand and make use of these biblical texts.”

Know your enemy, yes?

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There’s a particular exchange that Gladwell notes, between Koresh and law enforcement, which addresses the issue in terms of competing realities:

Even at the beginning of the siege, in the first call that Koresh made after the A.T.F. attack, the fundamental misunderstanding between those inside and those outside Mount Carmel was plain. Koresh telephoned Larry Lynch, in the local sheriff’s office, and — while the battle outside raged — insisted on talking about the Seven Seals:

KORESH: In the prophecies -—
LYNCH: All right.
KORESH: it says -—
LYNCH: Let me, can I interrupt you for a minute?
KORESH: Sure.
LYNCH: All right, we can talk theology. But right now -—

What Lynch means is that right now there are dead and wounded bodies scattered across the Mount Carmel property and a gunfight is going on between federal agents and Koresh’s followers. For those who don’t take the Bible seriously, talking about Scripture when there is a battle going on seems like an evasion. For those who do, however, it makes perfect sense:

KORESH: No, this is life. This is life and death!
LYNCH: Okay.
KORESH: Theology -—
LYNCH: That’s what I’m talking about.
KORESH: is life and death.

Let me repeat that Gladwell comment:

For those who don’t take the Bible seriously, talking about Scripture when there is a battle going on seems like an evasion. For those who do, however, it makes perfect sense.

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To Koresh and those he spoke for, his emphasis, his sense of where the “real” reality lay made perfect sense — while the FBI dismissed his words as “Bible babble” since they held a substantially diferent view of reality.

If religion continues to be a major element in terrorism and perhaps other forms of conflict in what remains of this century, we would do well to learn the importance of listening to and addressing the worldview of our interlocutors.

And that goes for the Koreshes and other dissenters of the world, as well as to those who hold “the usual suspects assumptions”.

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Further reading:

  • James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher, Why Waco?
  • Jayne Seminaire Docherty, Learning lessons from Waco

  • For an Al-Qaida equivalent, see my post Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style.

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    Marx repeats itself

    Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- an irresistible application of the DoubleQuotes method to a well-worn aphorism ]
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    History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farceKarl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire.

    Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remediesGroucho

    With appreciation of the wit and skill of artist David Levine and the New York Review of Books

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    The religions: which is it to be – sibling rivalry or family feeling?

    Monday, April 7th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- two images from recent Religion Dispatches posts neatly pose the question ]
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    Sources:

  • Jeremy Stolow, Will Quebec Ban Religious Symbols in Public?
  • M Sophia Newman, Are Attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh Religiously Motivated?
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    Québec officially doesn’t seem to like what it terms “conspicuous religious symbols” — including the pictured “large” crucifix, hijab, and dastar (upper panel above, top row, left to right) and niqab and kippa (bottom row, left to right).

    I suppose that’s one way to achieve uniformity — maybe peacocks should be asked to tone down their feathers until they’re more in line with pigeons, too — but it’s instructive to note that most of the folk in the Bangladeshi march for religious harmony (lower panel, above) would be banned from wearing their identifying symbols if they tried to hold a similar parade in Montréal, Québec.

    Lac Zut, alors!

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    In the tiny middle panel of my DoubleQuotes graphic, where you’ll usually find a pair of spectacles or binoculars, the Swayambunath Buddha, just outside Kathmandu, Nepal, looks on, bemused — having seen so much, so very much, of human nature.

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    On sovereignty by motorbike

    Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- so if they ride through Zürich, do they get to keep all the banks? ]
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    Matthew Burton asked an intriguing question on Twitter today [upper panel, below] — while 5,000 Russians pose a similar question [lower panel]:

    When was the last time sovereignty depended on bike club membership?

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    Addendum:

    Matthew Burton kindly pointed me to this WaPo piece, Obama speaks with Putin by phone, calls on Russia to pull forces back to Crimea bases, which includes the following wording:

    “In the case of any further spread of violence to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea,” a statement issued by Putin’s office said, “Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas.”

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    Frontline on the Papacy, and the questionable reliability of media

    Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- noting once again that spin is slant and slant is spin ]
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    Last night, Frontline hosted a documentary on Popes Francis and Benedict, and the troubled Church the former inherited from the latter. Not unexpectedly, the child abuse scandal featured prominently in the discussion:

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    I happen to be of the opinion that Benedict XVI’s reign was largely devoted to restoring beauty to the liturgy, and thus strength to the inner, contemplative aspect of Catholic life, while that of Francis seems largely devoted to restoring generosity to the world, and thus strength to the church’s outer, active side. In my view these two pontificates are therefore complementary, with contemplation rightly preceding action.

    This, however, is not the view the mainstream press likes to take — for it is all a bit even-handed and non-partisan, which doesn’t grab as much attention as a lurid headline…

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    I cannot possibly comment on everything that was said in the documentary, much of which deals with known facts — abuses and coverups — but I did wonder, as I began to watch it, just how accurate it might be — and when I reached the point at 35′ 24″ where psychiatrist Martin Kafka MD of Harvard Medical School speaks [upper panel], I was surprised and a little dismayed:

    You see, I was already acquainted with the views of Billy Graham‘s grandson, Boz Tchividjian [lower panel, above] on this precise question.

    I am not in a position to evaluate the two claims: all that I can say is that Dr Kafka’s certainty seems to be in question, as does that of Boz Tchividjian, executive director of the Protestant investigative and reparative body, Godly Response to Abuse.

    Why didn’t Frontline mention this no-less-expert and widely reported contrary opinion?

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    As I say, I am becoming increasingly leery of believing my own eyes — when what they are viewing is opinionated reporting of any stripe.

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