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Archive for November 21st, 2012

A Meditation In Time Of War: “precision”

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- comparing two species of precision and imprecision found in time of war, one which the camera can record, one which the heart must wait to learn -- let us pray the cease-fire holds ]
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The key phrases here are “the mosque remained undamaged by the precision strike” and “how many Palestinians were killed and who exactly they were a tough one to answer with precision” — both of which are addressing issues of precision in the course of war.

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What interests me here is the notion of two kinds of precision — each of them significant, but in different ways.

The IDF wants to publicize the precision with which it takes down its targets, and showing that

the mosque remained undamaged by the precision strike

is clearly preferable to admitting that

Among the Palestinians killed in Gaza this week are the 12 members of the Daloo and Manzar families, including four small children, who died when an Israel Air Force pilot bombed their home by mistake, according to the IDF.

War is not yet perfected.

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But what of the other type of precision?

After a certain point, numbers simply numb the mind. Eighty-seven died, or ninety-six? When I, several thousand miles distant, read a statistic of this kind, the lack of precision I can tolerate is somewhere in the region of “plus or minus twenty percent”. Thus fifty deaths would differ in my mind from a hundred, but not by much, not by as much as a human life — of which the Talmud, in Sanhedrin 37a, says: –

Whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, Scripture ascribes to him as if he had preserved a complete world

as is confirmed in Qur’an 5.32:

Therefore We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and whoso gives life to a soul, shall be as if he ha given life to mankind altogether. Our Messengers have already come to them with the clear signs; then many of them thereafter commit excesses in the earth.

Forty-seven killed, fifty-three killed — who notices the difference?

Six “complete worlds”, six times “mankind altogether” lies within the “margin of error” I find it hard to notice.

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That, in a nutshell, is why I’m a strong Qualit advocate against the pervasive Quantification of modern life.

The eye of the camera may record how precise a given strike was, or conversely show the collateral damage — but it is the eye of the heart which must wait in an agony of suspended grief to know who, what uncle or niece, perhaps at a Sbarro pizzeria two blocks away, may have died.

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The War and Peace koan, episode n+1

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- glimpsing the Necker Cube effect, when the weapons of war meet the prayers of peace ]
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Necker cube image credit -- youramazingbrain.org

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A while back I co-authored a book with a physician friend, Cleaves Bennett MD, on the control of high blood pressure, and since he wanted to include the idea that humor had a role to play in reducing stress, we included a joke with each week’s exercises — and one of the jokes I suggested, and which made it into the book, was this:

A Catholic priest, a Dominian, once walked into London’s Farm Swtreet Jesuit Church and found one of his Jesuit friends kneeling in prayer, smoking a cigarette.

“How do you get away with ut?” the Dominican muttered. “I asked my father confessor if I could smoke while I was praying and he absolutely forbade it.”

“No wonder,” said the Jesuit. “I inquired if I could pray while I was smoking, and my confessor said, ‘Of course, old boy, feel free. … I don’t believe you should ever stop praying.’”

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This post could well be included in my “form is insight”: series, with the form in question being “the reversal”.

Here’s a recent BBC picture with the tag-line “An Israeli soldier prays at dawn on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip”:

Some readers might look at that picture and recall Psalm 94, verses 3-5:

Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph? How long shall they utter and speak hard things? and all the workers of iniquity boast themselves? They break in pieces thy people, O Lord, and afflict thine heritage.

Some might reflect on Psalm 122, verses 6-7:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may they prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.

Some might recall the Qur’an 49, verse 13:

O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another.

Others might think of the Gharqad Tree hadith, quoted in the charter of Hamas:

The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.

And I myself have no idea what the prayers that Jewish soldier offered were all about — his own safety, that of his family and loved ones, that of his own people, that of all the world’s people — nor about the prayers of young Muslims on the other side of the wall…

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I look at that photo of the soldier boy praying beside the munitions of a brutal war, and my first instinct is to feel sadness — because the essence of prayer, surely, is shalom, peace, salaam.

And then I am reminded of the Dominican and the Jesuit in that story I told you.

Substituting “peace” for “prayer” and “war” for “munitions” to get at the essence here — should I be more sad that here, peace is depicted in the presence of war — or more glad that here, war is depicted in the presence of peace?

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Cross-grain thinking, 3: ASP’s Report on Climate Security

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- as Dylan sang, a change in the weather is known to be extreme ]
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People sit at a flooded table in Piazza San Marco, Venice -- photo: Luigi Costantini / AP

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Right at the top of Part I of the recent three-part Report on Climate Security from the American Security Project, we read this paragraph:

Climate change is real: we see its impacts every day, around the world. A melting Arctic, unprecedented droughts across the world, extreme examples of flooding, and uncontrollable wildfires are all examples of the changing climate.

That’s right, that’s right and important, that’s right, important and timely.

But you know, at heart I’m a poet. And although I’m concerned about the issues the report addresses, I can’t help thinking of climate and weather, atmosphere and wind, in a manner that crisscrosses the “interior” vs “exterior” divide.

If you lean to the scientific more than the poetic, you might want to consider what I’m talking about as an instatiation of the insight Gregory Bateson expressed in the title of his seminal book, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity.

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Let me lean to the poetry-side for a paragraph or so, then we’ll come back to security issues the report raises.

I probably caught this particular “weather and weather” disease from Dylan Thomas’ great and celebrated poem, A Process in the Weather of the Heart:

A process in the weather of the heart
Turns damp to dry; the golden shot
Storms in the freezing tomb.
A weather in the quarter of the veins
Turns night to day; blood in their suns
Lights up the living worm.

Writing about this poem in his Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas, William York Tindall notes “Thomas’ obsessive concern with the natural process that, linking man and world, inner and outer, turns upon the axis of life and death” and specifies that “applying ‘weather,’ a word for outer climate, to inner climate joins two worlds.”

Thomas is concerned in that extraordinary poem to join, likewise, life with death, night with day, womb with tomb, seeing eye with blind bone and more – or not so much to join them as to see them as inseparable, as parts of the single unfolding that is the world.

There is much more to the poem than the central obsessive theme of the “process in the weather of the heart” with which the poem opens and the “process in the weather of the world” with which it closes. It is their conjunction, their inseparability which interests me here – the poet’s perception that there is no inner without the outer, no outer without the inner – that in each there is weather, which Tyndall also calls climate, that weather is in both…

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Back to meteorology and national security..

Look, I’m not exactly an enemy of thinking about climate change and national — or global — security. I admire ASP for today’s piece by Catherine Foley, Climate Change: The Missing Link in Tackling the Mali Crisis. We need more considerations of that kind, they’re rare and extremely valuable.

Mecca is one of the hottest cities in the world, and the Kaaba the central pivot around which all Islam revolves — potentially a double hot-spot. What are the implications of climate change for the Saudis, for Mecca, for Islam?

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When I think about weather, I think about storms in the world, storms in the heart and mind, almost in the same breath. Specifically, when I think of global warming, I can’t help but see the problem as being one of double-awareness – rising temperatures and rising tempers, rising sea-levels and rising levels of anxiety and / or denial, the climate of meteorology and the climate of opinion…

Seen from my bifocal perspective, the report is notably focused on externals. Take another sentence from the brief bullet points on the first page;

The climate influences people’s everyday lives, from what they eat to where they live.

We eat food, food that can be weighed and measured, and analyzed for its nutrient elements and health properties. We live in cities, towns and villages, in houses, or developments, which can located on maps…

With my bifocals on, it would be more accurate, more encompassing to say:

The climate influences people’s everyday lives, from what they eat to how they feel, and from where they live to what they think and how they behave.

Because in my view, the situation is as much about “mind change” as it is “climate change” — in my view, the “fulcrum that can move the world” is to be found in the geography of mind and heart.

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Okay, let’s back up a bit.

The “first page” I quoted is the first page of the First Part of the Report, but there’s also an Introduction, and I want to pick up the thread there now, because the Introduction is written with human thought — specifically “honest dialogue” — in mind, and opens with what seems at first glance like one of those obvious truths that serve as the jumping off points for more detailed considerations:

The American Security Project is organized around the belief that honest, public discussion of national security requires open, non-biased, non-partisan discourse about the dangers and opportunities of the 21st Century.

There’s just one problem here, though — a single paragraph later, we read:

Climate change poses a clear and present danger to the United States

I’d give my assent happily enough to either of these two propositions, if they weren’t both talking about the same situation. Because when someone sees a “clear and present” hungry tiger coming at them and doesn’t take rapid action to avoid being eaten, it’s not “open” and “unbiased” — it’s “in denial”.

Which in turn means there’s a swathe of the population that may not be willing to hear “open, non-biased, non-partisan discourse” nor able to contribute to it. “I don’t believe my eyes, they’re deceiving me with all this hogwash about tigers”…

And those people have loved ones, bring foods to community pot-lucks, and teach class, and vote…

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Some time ago, I was working on a transposition of the Gospel narratives of Luke and John into the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with Britain playing the part of Rome and so forth, and adding some commentary along the way. Here’s a slightly revised version of my comment on John 3.8:

There is one particular word that John uses which has what we today might call a triple (rather than a double) meaning. When Christ in this verse says, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of Spirit,” it is the Greek word pneuma that can be translated both as wind and spirit. It also means breath.

Christ is saying here that those who are born of spirit are like the wind, like breath, and like inspiration: each of which can be noticed but not predicted, because each moves of its own accord — yet in the Greek these are not three separate concepts as they are for us today. As CS Lewis says in another context, we must always remember “that the various senses we take out of an ancient word by analysis existed in it as a unity.”

In telling us this, St John is saying at one and the same time that nobody knows where the first breath comes from or when the last breath will leave us, nobody knows how to forecast exactly which path a hurricane will take, and nobody knows how to make an assembly line for inspiration – if we did, Beethoven could have written another three symphonies as great as his Ninth to order, stat!

One of the reasons we don’t know how the heart and mind work is that we’ve separated “meteorological” weather from “the weather of the heart” — and there’s a storm brewing, inextricably, on both fronts.

If the ASP report is anything to judge by, we’re only looking at one of them.

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Oh, and here by way of confirmation is an old friend from my Oxford days, the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, quoted in a piece for the November issue of Shambhala Sun:

No matter where we are in the world, there is a need for enlightened society, wherever natural disasters hit. In this case, “natural disaster” refers to aggression, passion, and ignorance. These kinds of natural disasters occur in the minds of people.

Trungpa’s sense of “natural disaster”, I humbly submit to the folks at the American Security Project, either needs to run like a woof through the warp of their report on climate change — which it doesn’t — or it deserves a fourth section of its own.

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