[ by Charles Cameron — Peter Thiel, Rainer Maria Rilke, and the importance of unheard voices ]
Noting Peter Thiel‘s comment below, I was reminded of the opening of Rilke‘s Duino Elegies — Himalayas of the human spirit.
Stephen Mitchell‘s version of the Elegies is the one I like best, and lends itself well to the speaking voice. Mitchell’s opening lines read thus:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.
My own version, which I’ve placed in the lower panel of the DoubleQuote above, alludes to Rilke’s storm-driven physical environment at the time the beginning of the poem came to him at Schloss Buino. In the words of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis:
Rilke climbed down to the bastions which, jutting to the east and west, were connected to the foot of the castle by a narrow path along the cliffs. These cliffs fall steeply, for about two hundred feet, into the sea. Rilke paced back and forth, deep in thought, since the reply to the letter so concerned him. Then, all at once, in the midst of his brooding, he halted suddenly, for it seemed to him that in the raging of the storm a voice bad called to him: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?” (Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?)… He took out his notebook, which he always carried with him, and wrote down these words, together with a few lines that formed themselves without his intervention … Very calmly he climbed back up to his room, set his notebook aside, and replied to the difficult letter. By that evening the entire elegy had been written down.
In that instant, as I understand the matter, Rilke shouts into the wind, into the heedless world, into the angelic immensity..
Whether it’s a still small voice that goes unheard, a voice hurled into the tumultuous storm, heedless void, or transcomprehensible angelic choirs, or a voice crying from desert or wilderness, it is always the unattended, the unlistened voice which carries the note unnoticed — the truth we’d find in the blindspot if we took it for a mirror, the seed and germination of those so-often catastrophic unanticipated consequences that trend-based analysis and front-view vision so regularly miss.
[ by Charles Cameron — it’s precisely the unanticipated that blindsides us, no? ]
You know me, I’m very interested by the words “unanticipated” and “blindsided” — and I have the sort of mind that plays with words in the attempt to decode any “unanticipated” meanings they may hide. So for me, what follows is not an argument for or against Bill Kristol or Andrew Bacevich, nor a prescription for action or inaction against IS.
Here, then, is what strikes me as I read Kristol’s single sentence, as quoted by Bacevich, and it would strike me whoever’s sentence it was:
I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.
What Mr Kristol doesn’t think will occur, he doesn’t anticipate will occur n– that'[s what the words mean. And I so might translate his words thus:
I don’t anticipate there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.
But aren’t unanticipated side effects precisely the ones that aren’t anticipated?
I get ye olde dragon eating its tail feeling.
I mean, there must be more going on, right?
One person’s unanticipated consequence is another’s predictable outcome..
In any case..
William Blake‘s paintings are very far from accurate by photographic standards, but he seems to have anticipated the human consequences of the “dark satanic mills” of the industrial revolution way ahead of bis contemporaries. Prophecy, in my view, is more a matter of warning of trends that porediction of future states of the system. Success in foresight is a matter precisely of attending to what’s unantipiated by others — because it’s in one of their blindspots.
[ by Charles Cameron — Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at Chautauqua ]
From the outset, when cheers went up for Daveed’s birthplace, Ashland, Oregon, and Ambassador Haqqani’s, Karachi — and for the brilliant meeting of the minds that is Chautauqua — it was clear that we were in the presence of two gracious, witty and informed intelligences, and the seriousness of the conversation between them that followed did nothing to reduce our pleasure in the event. Daveed called it “easily the best experience I have ever had as a speaker.”
I’ll highlight some quotes from each speaker, with the occasional comment:
None of the countries except Egypt, Turkey and Iran, none of the countries of the Middle East are in borders that are historic, or that have evolved through a historic process. And that’s why you see the borders a straight lines. Straight lines are always drawn by cartographers or politicians, the real maps in history are always convoluted because of some historic factor or the other, or some river or some mountains.
And now that whole structure, the contrived structure, is coming apart.
Then most important part of it is, that this crisis of identity – who are we? are we Muslims trying to recreate the past under the principles of the caliphate .. or are we Arabs, trying to unify everybody based on one language, or are we these states that are contrived, or are we our ethnic group, or are we our tribe, or are we our sect? And this is not only in the region, it’s also overlapping into the Muslim communities in the diaspora..
If Amb. Haqqani emphasized the multiple identities in play in the Arabic, Islamic, Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and tribal worlds in his opening, Daveed’s emphasis was on the failure of the post-Westphalian concept of the nation state.
In the economic sphere there’s this thing that is often called “legacy industries” – industries that fit for another time, but are kind of out of place today. Think of Blockbuster Video, once a massive, massive corporation.. that’s a legacy industry. So when Ambassador Haqqani talks about how it’s not just in the Middle East that we have this crisis of identity, I think the broader trend is that the Westphalian state that he spoke about, the kind of state that was encoded after the Peace of Westphalia, looks to a lot of people who are in this generation of the internet where ideas flow freely, it looks like a legacy industry.
Why do you need this as a form of political organizing? And what ISIS has shown is that a violent non-state actor, even a jihadist group that is genocidal and implements as brutal a form of Islamic law as you could possibly see, it can hold territory the size of Great Britain, and it can withstand the advance of a coalition that includes the world’s most powerful countries including the United States. And what that suggests is that alternative forms of political organization can now compete with the nation state.
The Ambassador then turned to the lessons we should take from 1919’s US King–Crane Commission, reporting on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire — they concluded that it gave us
a great opportunity — not likely to return — to build .. a Near East State on the modern basis of full religious liberty, deliberately including various religious faiths, and especially guarding the rights of minorities
— down to our own times.
What we can be sure of is that the current situation is something that will not be dealt with without understanding the texture of these societies. So for example, when the United States went into Iraq without full understanding of its sectarian and tribal composition, and assumed that, all we are doing is deposing a dictator, Saddam Hussein, and then we will hold elections and now a nice new guy will get elected, and things will be all right -– that that is certainly not the recipe. So what we can say with certainty in 2015 is .. over the last century what we have learnt is: outsiders, based on their interests, determining borders is not a good idea, and should certainly not be repeated. Assuming that others are anxious to embrace your culture in totality is also an unrealistic idea.
The sentence that follows was a stunner from the Ambassador, gently delivered — a single sentence that could just as easily have been the title for this post as the remark by Daveed with which I have in fact titled it:
Let me just say that, look, he ideological battle, in the Muslim world, will have to be fought by the likes of me.
Spot on — and we are fortunate the Ambassador and his like are among us.
Daveed then turned to another topic I have freqently emphasized myself.
The power of ideas – we as Americans tend not to recognize this when it falls outside of ideas that are familiar to us. So one thing that the US has been slow to acknowledge is the role of the ideology that our friend and ally Saudi Arabia has been promulgating globally, in fomenting jihadist organizations.
And one of the reasons we have been slow to recognize that. I mean one reason is obvious, which is oil. .. But another reason has been – we tend to think of ideas that are rooted in religion – as a very post-Christian country – we tend to think of them as not being real – as ideas which express an ideology which is alien to us –as basically being a pretext, with some underlying motivation which is more familiar to us. That it must be economics, or it must be political anger. I’m not saying those are irrelevant, they’re not – but when Al-Qaida or ISIS explains themselves, taking their explanation seriously and understanding where they’re coming from – not as representatives of Islam as a whole, but as representatives of the particular ideology that they claim to stand for – we need to take that seriously. Because they certainly do.
The world is not a problem for Americans to solve, it’s a situation for them to understand.
Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.
Toward the end of the discussion, Daveed touched on some ideas of recurrent interest to Zenpundit readers..
Looking at the US Government, questions that I ask a lot are: Why are we so bad at strategy? Why are we so bad at analysis? Why do we take such a short term view and negate the long term?
He then freturned to the issue of legacy industries and nation-states:
Blockbuster is a legacy industry. And the reason why legacy industries have so much trouble competing against start-up firms, is because start-ups are smaller, it’s more easy for them to change course, to implement innovative policies, to make resolute decisions – they can out-manoeuver larger companies. And so larger companies that do well adapt themselves to this new environment where they have start-up competitors. Nation-state governments are legacy industries. Violent non-state actors are start-up compoetitors.
— and had the final, pointed word:
We’re a legacy industry ina world of start-up competitors.
Having offered you these tastes, at this point I can only encourage you to watch the whole hour and a quarter, filled to the brim with incisive and articulately-stated insights:
This Crowtherism appeals to me. A central pillar of my crackpottery is a personal rule of thumb I’ve flogged nearly umpteen times: politics is the division of power. You know you’re nigh unto umpteen when the POLITICS IS THE DIVISION OF POWER t-shirt goes on sale. We’re not there yet. Once more unto the umpteenth, dear friends, once more.
Patronage is always a significant share of any activity involved in dividing power, which is to say a significant share of all activity involving mankind. Like politics, death, or taxes, patronage is an inescapable marker of mortality. An almost as ineradicable characteristic of mortal man is a belief that patronage in its many guises can be dispensed with altogether, usually by tilting the division of power in favor of the right sort of bloke. A bloke, of course, whose primary qualification is that he agrees with us. And will (sotto voce) give we who uphold his right sortedness a greater division of power than the wrong sorted. Anyone who claims they can create a society made up of mortal men free of patronage or of its common subspecies like cronyism, redistribution, logrolling, &tc. is either a fool, a knave, or, worse, both. You don’t choose not have patronage: in making such an attempt, you merely choose another diversion for patronage.
Significant patronage is always diverted into the hands of barons. All flavors of power, however gradually, fall to those hands which most convincingly turn it into violent power. Baronial hands tend to be hands practiced (or regularly embraced by hands practiced) in the art of converting other forms of power into specifically violent power. Power is fungible: it can, with varying ease, be shifted from one form of power to another. “Purely” economic power, for example, is violent power in embryo. Inevitability will convert it into violent power, either sooner by incumbent baronial hands or, later, at the hands of barons who expropriate it from them.
Some deserved sequels. Some make you wonder why they bothered making the original.
Frustrated barons usually expressed their frustration by doing what they did best: being violent. There was actually a legal process of withdrawing fealty, a sort of right bestowed by custom to rebel against the boss if you thought the boss was a jerk. But, as in any exercise of agency, the right to make a choice is only loosely connected with the right to choose its consequences. The right to rebel is not necessarily the same as the right to rebel successfully. You could be a baron as frustrated by Henri II as you’d be by his son Jean. However, as Jean only experienced fleeting moments of relief from his chronic buffoonery, you’d have a greater chance of rebelling successfully against Jean than you would against stone-cold Henri.
Many frustrated barons rebelled even against the most dread king. If they faced a strong baronial manager, they’d usually be crushed or, depending upon circumstances, bought off until they could be crushed. If they faced a weak baronial manager, there’s a chance they might not only grow their division of power, they might even get a turn at directing which troughs it’s poured into. It was very much a business decision, only with a distinct possibility of exit with extreme prejudice at the hands of the king if their enterprise failed.
Patronage was, and remains, inescapable. But its flow can be managed and its effects mitigated. Though baronial violence is the historical default for resolving disaffection over patronage, it’s not the only way to manage patronage and specifically baronial patronage profitably.
Let’s go back to June 5, 1989, to Peking, to this very spot. On arrival, recovering from a bad case of time lag, we notice Clausewitz’s disembodied floating head circling the scene. No one else see’s the Clausewitz head. A sensible disembodied floating head, the Clausewitz head has selectively cloaked itself in invisibility so it doesn’t draw the fire of the People’s Liberation Army, who were, understandably, jittery that day. Seeing the disembodied floating head of a long dead and much reviled Prussian military theorist is the sort of thing that would make a jumpy PLA peasant conscript fire indiscriminately into the middle of a major city. His superiors wouldn’t be amused. People’s Liberation Ammunition is supposed to be expended on unarmed civilians, not gwailo disembodied floating heads. The debriefing of this particular tank crew would be tense. Their final defense may come down to Marx, Lenin, and Mao’s favorable citations of the original bearer of this particular disembodied floating head.
Hail to the chief
Whether Tank Man would flee if he too could see the Clausewitz head is unknowable. Our only clue is Tank Man’s demonstrated courage in choosing to stand in front of a column of Type 59 tanks without the immediate assistance of his very own M-1A2 Abrams tank. If he could see the Clausewitz head, he might realize that, since he is neither a simpering Basil Liddell Hart, a sinister kitten-hating Martin Van Creveld, or some other purveyor of snake oil, he has nothing to fear from the Clausewitz head. In any event, none of the other participants in this historical vignette can see the Clausewitz head.
Zenpundit is a blog dedicated to exploring the intersections of foreign policy, history, military theory, national security,strategic thinking, futurism, cognition and a number of other esoteric pursuits.