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Bomb Syria?

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. “zen“]

There is much ado about a prospective Western (i.e. American) aerial campaign to bomb the Iranian allied Alawite-Baathist dictatorship Syria over use of chemical weapons against primarily al Qaida allied Sunni Islamist extremist rebels.

To what end or how that end will be brought about by a surgical use of American air power, aided by token French and British contributions, well, no one is quite sure.

The driving insider force behind this astrategic call to arms are Susan Rice, Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter, the three Furies of R2P.  Slaughter writes on military intervention in Syria with her usual combination of moral certainty and operational magical thinking here. Rice angrily pontificates here while an unusually muted UN Ambassador Samantha Power just tweeted about it while on vacation from the emergency UN Security Council meeting on, uh, Syria.

The strategic argument about Syria is not about the normative qualities of the Assad regime, which is anti-American, brutal, terrorist supporting and fascistic. Or that the regime is committing atrocities. It is. It is about what political objective, if any, the use of military force against Syria can accomplish at what cost and with what probable outcomes. At a grand strategic level, there are also questions about how military intervention in Syria will impact great power relations and the shaping of international law.

I suspect many R2P advocates like Slaughter, Rice and Power are attracted to the idea of bombing Syria partly to garner a precedent to support doing similar things in the future, whether or not it has any positive effect on the Syrian civil war. That however, if true, is an extremely poor reason for military intervention anywhere. If bombing had some hope of changing the behavior of the Syrian regime or replacing it with something better, I would warm to the prospect but where is the evidence that is a likely outcome? Consider:

The Syrian rebels include armed groups as violent, lawless and squalid as the Assad regime. You know, the Beheading community of the third jihad international, with fringe support from the occasional cannibal commandos. If these Islamist lunatics come to power in Damascus they will cheerfully engage in ghastly pogroms of mass murder and torture that will make Assad’s goons look like the British Raj at tea time.

The Assad regime and the Alawite minority from whence it originates have their backs to the wall in a conflict that determines if they continue to rule Syria or are exterminated. Having no margin for maneuver or concession, America bombing them is irrelevant to whether in their calculus they can stop fighting their local enemies. The whole point of combining the threat of force with diplomacy – allegedly the reason given for bombing Syria – is to be able to make Assad an offer that he can’t refuse and not a threat that the Alawites can’t accept. Then, while blustering loudly and ominously we undercut our own bellicose posturing and announce that regime change was off the table. WTF?  Really?

The President should fire this unholy crew of incompetents and intellectual poseurs and hire some real foreign policy advisers with at least an undergraduate level grasp of how diplomacy, strategy and war have worked for the past 2000 years.

Failing that, a few poker players who can bluff without showing the entire table their cards.

Religions in the speech of Malala Yousafzai

Saturday, July 13th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — a speech worth close attention ]


I bypassed several opportunities to hear or read Malala‘s speech today, until Shivam Vij tweeted that she had mentioned Badshah Khan. That caught my attention — Khan is not the most well-known of figures, but he’s one that I admire — and when I watched Malala’s speech, I found him in some pretty significant company:

I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion I have learned from Mohammed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of nonviolence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother. This is what my soul is telling me: be peaceful and love everyone.

That’s really quite a paragraph. And if the lives and thoughts of Gandhi or Mother Theresa, Mandela or Martin Luther King, Buddha, Christ or Muhammad seem important to you, and you are unaware of Bacha or Badshah Khan, I can recommend to you Eknath Easwaran‘s Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan: A Man to Match His Mountains.

In these times of religious conflict too, it is worth noting that this young Muslim woman speaks, on her sixteenth birthday and before the UN General Assembly, of the inspiration she has received not only from fellow Muslims — from the Prophet of her own faith, Muhammad, from the Father of her Nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and from Benazir Bhutto, whom she terms shahid or martyr — but also from Buddha, Christ, and Gandhi, a Hindu.


As my regular readers know, I make a habit of noting patterns where I can find them, so I was struck by one rhetorical trope in particular within Malala’s speech:

Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.

The relationship is a subtle one: darkness is juxtaposed to light not as silence is to voice but as being silenced is — while in the third clause, pens and books is to guns as darkness is to light, a powerful and thought-provoking juxtaposition.


Malala’s speech, full text:

Our books and our pens are the most powerful weapons

Malala’s speech in video:

Introducing the Person / Position Paradox

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — ye olde war of science vs religion embodied in Rep. Paul Broun, with sundry comparisons to human rights, UN, dominionism, JFK, creeping shariah etc ]


Lest we forget, Muammar Gaddafi‘s Libya, in the person of Ms. Najat Al-Hajjaji (above, left), was elected to preside over the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 2003:

The Commission on Human Rights — meeting this morning under a new procedure two months in advance of its annual six-week session — elected Najat Al-Hajjaji of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya as Chairperson for 2003, along with three Vice-Chairpersons and a Rapporteur.

And as recently as May 2010, still under Col. Gaddafi’s rule, Libya was elected a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and only suspended in February 2011.

Might we call this an instance of a Person / Position Paradox?


You know I like what I term “forms” as analytic tools — this would be another one to keep an eye out for, a particularly intriguing sub-type of the self-referential paradoxes I discussed in an earlier post.

It isn’t, of course, an analytical breakthrough for me to recognize the paradox inherent in a brutal dictatorship gaining the chair of the international Human Rights Commission at this late date: the United States protested Libya’s nomination at the time, which is why there had to be a secret ballot in the first place.

Let’s look at some of the accompanying language. Here’s Ms. Al-Hajjaji herself:

In an address following the ballot, Ms. Al-Hajjaji said among other things that the Commission must send a message that it would deal with human rights in all countries, and not just some of them; that it would take into account in its activities the world’s many different religious, cultural and historical backgrounds; and that among its tasks was to affirm the universality, indivisibility, and complementarity of human rights

Who could complain about that? And here’s the UN High Commissioner, praising the system that got her elected for its wisdom:

High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello, also speaking briefly, reviewed his recent mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to Angola, lauded the Commission’s new procedure for early election of a Bureau, and said it was important for the Commission to demonstrate that it could manage with wisdom, speed and restraint its procedural business so as to create the best possible spirit and conditions for addressing and resolving the many substantive issues on its agenda.

The lesson I learn here?

Paradoxes of this kind lead to a divergence of words from truths — in line with de la Rochefoucauld‘s maxim:

Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.


Now comes the potentially contentious part.

Rep. Paul Broun MD (R-GA) (top, right), member of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and chairman of the US House Science Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, told the Liberty Baptist Church of Hartwell, Georgia’s Sportsman’s Banquet last month:

God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.

As a student of religions, I don’t find that statement particularly surprising: while the original 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible doesn’t include Archbishop Ussher‘s dating of the creation to 4004 BC, many versions of the KJV since 1701 have done so, the wildly popular “dispensationalist” Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909, does so… and Broun is being somewhat generous in allowing for the passage of 9,000 years since creation, where others might see the earth as entering the seventh (Sabbath) day (or millennium) about now…

As a religious belief, then, this is one of many attempts to fit chronology to scripture. I recall from my days studying the religious impact of millennial rollover (“Y2K”) concerns that one Rabbi Pinchas Winston claimed the year 2,000 (5760 in the Jewish calendar) would be a year of purification:

The secret regarding this is that, at the end of the year 5760 from creation, the verse, ‘I [God] will remove the impure spirit from the land’ (Zechariah 13.2) will be fulfilled.

For my source and further millennial date issues in Islam, Hinduism etc, see my chapter, Y2KO to Y2OK in Cathy Gutierrez and Hillel Schwartz, eds., The End that Does: Art, Science and Millennial Accomplishment, Equinox, 2006.

Politics, though — and the politics of science and science funding at that? Here’s more of Rep. Broun’s talk, explaining how Broun’s theology affects his politics:

And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason as your congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.


I’m afraid this reminds me all too clearly of RJ Rushdoony‘s Institutes of Biblical Law, which opens with the following words:

When Wyclif wrote of his English Bible that “This Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” his statement attracted no attention insofar as his emphasis on the centrality of Biblical law was concerned. That law should be God’s law was held by all…

Those are the opening words of Rushdoony’s Introduction to his magnum opus. And I know, I know, I’m cherry-picking from its 850-page first volume, but on p. 251 he writes:

The law here is humane and also unsentimental. It recognizes that some people are by nature slaves and will always be so. It both requires that they be dealt with in a godly manner and also that the slave recognize his position and accept it with grace.

Is this all just another version of “creeping” theocracy?

Compare John Hubbard, Arkansas State Rep, whose book Letters to the Editor: Confessions of a Frustrated Conservative (not on Amazon) apparently includes this choice morsel:

… the institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise …


Some possible parallels that may be worth pondering, coming at similar issues from a diversity of angles — hopefully with enough different implications to generate some questioning of easy assumptions:

Can a Catholic be POTUS (JFK, eg) without serving the every whim of a foreign Head of State? Can a Mormon be POTUS without serving the wishes of a living prophet, seer and revelator? Can a person who aspires to the highest post in a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” be relied upon if he says things like this?

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. … And so my job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

And what if he then admits he was in error?

In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong.

Is that hypocrisy (see above) — or humility? And come to that: in politics, is honesty a vice?


But I’m sliding from religion into politics here, unless you take the Gettysburg Address as one of the central documents — akin to a scripture — of American civil religion. Or remember it was the Bible translator John Wyclif who said those words about government of, by, and for the people first…

Religion, not politics, is my concern and my “beat” — but right now, the “Warfare of Science With Theology” (to quote the apt title of Andrew Dickson White’s celebrated 1895 book) is once again in full swing, so the question of whether Rep. Broun’s positions as a a member of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and chairman of the US House Science Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, given his views on voting according to his reading of the Bible, is also an instance of the Person / Position Paradox?


It seems to me that questions such as these are of vital to many of us. The question is: are they vital to our democratic principles — or to our salvation?

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