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Archive for February, 2013

Zenpundit Decennium

Monday, February 25th, 2013

We have reached the tenth year here at zenpundit.com.

This is an uncommon duration in the blogosphere. When I started, blogging was a marginal activity, a “fad”, that I was warned against by a well-meaning academic who thought I would be wasting my time. Today institutions of great importance, politicians, celebrities and, strangely, major media outlets, believe that a blog is a “must have” platform, even when the cutting edge of debate has shifted to social media services like twitter and facebook – everyone’s blog “anchors” their presence and provides a place for arguments more complex than what can be conveyed in 140 characters.

It is appropriate at this time that I make a few brief remarks in honor of the occasion.

First, would be to say thank you to the readership and commenters, past and present. It is you who have made zenpundit.com worth doing by returning time and again, by making contributions of your own here, by email and by circulating posts with which you agree (or dispute) in your own networks. You have given us the ability to punch well above our weight and for that I am grateful.

Secondly, to our “bigger fish” supporters and affiliated sites who have given the bloggers here other forums or added attention. There are many, but especial thanks needs to be given to Dave Dilegge and the crew at Small Wars Journal, to Thomas P.M. Barnett,  to John Robb, to Bruce Kesler, to Dave Schuler and The Watcher’s Council, to Howard Rheingold’s Brainstorms community, to Pragati Magazine, to DoctrineMan!!, to Wikistrat and the gang at Chicago Boyz. Your help has not always been noted but it has always been appreciated.

Lastly, to my co-bloggers Charles Cameron and J. Scott Shipman, whose intellectual range, wise advice and excellent writing have vastly enriched zenpundit.com far beyond what I could have ever accomplished on my own. I am honored that you have chosen to be here.

May the next decade surpass the first!

The Oscars, the Conclave and the Chinese

Monday, February 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — more on the upcoming papal election from a “comparative” perspective ]

As you know, I noodle around with parallelisms and oppositions quite a bit. Here are two recent pairings that caught my attenion — one of them just in time for the Oscars:

The other concerns political influence on spiritual appointments…

I had the good fortune to meet and befriend a “tulku” while I was at Oxford, so the whole business of the identification and recognition of reincarnated Tibetan lamas has long been an interest of mine.

Triangulating the Vatican

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — three ways to get a fix on the present status and future needs of the Catholic Church ]

Perugino, The Entrusting of the Keys to Peter, Sistine Chapel


I want to make this brief. It seems to me that the most powerful statement of the present situation of the Church was that delivered by John Colet at Convocation in 1512:

You are come together today, fathers and right wise men, to hold a council. In which what you will do and what matters you will handle, I do not yet know, but I wish that, at length, mindful of your name and profession, you would consider of the reformation of ecclesiastical affairs; for never was there more necessity and never did the state of the Church more need endeavors. For the Church – the spouse of Christ – which He wished to be without spot or wrinkle, is become foul and deformed. As saith Isaias, “The faithful city is become a harlot”; and as Jeremias speaks, “She hath committed fornication with many lover,” whereby she has conceived many seeds of iniquity and daily bringeth forth the foulest offspring. Wherefore I have come here today, fathers, to admonish you with all your minds to deliberate, in this your Council, concerning the reformation of the Church.

The full text can be found here, where it is drawn from John C. Olin, The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to St. Ignatius Loyola (Fordham U.Pr., 1992). I was pointed in this direction by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, who quoted from it in his piece The church after Pope Benedict today.


By way of comparison, here’s a snippet from this week’s Time report, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us, on the status of another large entity whose purported focus is the common good:

By the time Steven D. died at his home in Northern California the following November, he had lived for an additional 11 months. And Alice had collected bills totaling $902,452. The family’s first bill — for $348,000 — which arrived when Steven got home from the Seton Medical Center in Daly City, Calif., was full of all the usual chargemaster profit grabs: $18 each for 88 diabetes-test strips that Amazon sells in boxes of 50 for $27.85; $24 each for 19 niacin pills that are sold in drugstores for about a nickel apiece. There were also four boxes of sterile gauze pads for $77 each. None of that was considered part of what was provided in return for Seton’s facility charge for the intensive-care unit for two days at $13,225 a day, 12 days in the critical unit at $7,315 a day and one day in a standard room (all of which totaled $120,116 over 15 days). There was also $20,886 for CT scans and $24,251 for lab work.


And for a third angle on the upcoming conclave, I would like to offer a brief cull from Anthony Judge‘s tabular listing of cardinals aged 80 and below, in which he identifies those who have some indication of competence in the “social” and “natural” sciences in their Wikipedia biographies.

I have omitted those who had no listing in the natural sciences — mathematics included — and those aged 80, since I understand they will be too old to vote. Of the 116 cardinals that remain, these seven apparently have some acquaintance with what Judge terms the natural sciences, as detailed in the final column:

Of these, Cardinal O’Brien, who appears to have the widest range of scientific disciplines in his background, has recently been the target of accusations of impropriety.

As those who read me regularly are aware, I “come from” the arts rather than the sciences myself. But I cannot help but agree with Anthony Judge’s comment, particularly insofar as it relates to mathematics and the sciences:

It is striking how few disciplines are represented in what amounts to a table of cognitive competence of those from whom guidance in world governance is expected.


I’m tossing you these three quotes not so much for themselves as for the ripples of thought, the further questions they may raise. Colet’s sermon, for instance, was delivered only five years before Martin Luther “nailed his theses to the door” — or at least sent them to his bishop — thus starting the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

The aptness of Colet’s sermon to today should give us considerable pause.

Miscik 2004, Gerecht 2013

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — on the exclusion of worldviews not consonant with grey suits and security clearances ]

These two persons are likely being polite.


I’m wondering how any people at State or in the Agency or wherever know what it feels like to be one of the flagellants in Iran during Muharram, in Qom or Masshad perhaps… or at the Jamkaran mosque, and to believe the Mahdi is waiting close by in the wings… or to be in Afghanistan, Sunni, and expecting his army with black banners will sweep down on Jerusalem from Khorasan in accordance with hadith… or in Palestine, reliant on the hadith of the rocks and the trees, certain that Israel will soon fall… in Pakistan, listening to Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid and mentally preparing for the Ghazwa-e-Hind?


I suppose I’ve been struggling to say this for years:

The sanction for extremist violence, even to the point of death, is that the cause is just and right. The sanction for messianic violence is that the cause is not only humanly just and right but divinely so — and final, for the entirety of the cosmos, for all Creation.



Jami Miscik, tesimony, House Intelligence Cttee
Reuel Marc Gerecht, Spooky Sex

h/t Nada Bakos

Further readings on messianisms:

Mahdi in the wings, Iran
Khorasan, army with black banners, Afghanistan
Hadith of the rocks and the trees, Palestine
Ghazwa-e-Hind, Pakistan

David Cook, Contemporary Islamic Apocalyptic Literature
David Cook, Studies in Islamic Apocalyptic
Timothy Furnish, Holiest Wars
Gershom Gorenberg, The End of Days
Anne-Marie Oliver & Paul Steinberg, The Road to Martyr’s Square
Jean-Pierre Filiu, Apocalypse in Islam
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban
Ali Soufan, The Black Banners
Richard Landes, Heaven on Earth

The great scientific art-grab

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — a poet’s rant against the hubris of scientists and the poverty of so much of what passes for art ]

Gorgeous. And fascinating.


I’d like to begin by saying beauty is not the same as prettiness any more than joy is the same as fun or truth than popular opinion. In fact I have an aphorism:

if you shoot for beauty, you’re liable to hit prettiness; if you want to achieve beauty, shoot for truth.

Okay? The beautiful can be grotesque, utterly normal, joyously peaceful, extremely violent, or simply gorgeous — and be beautiful in each case.

Having said that, I’d also like to say that the world, the universe in all it immense scope and scale and variety and possibility, isn’t “science” or “art” — we find science in exploring it one way, find art in exploring it another.

And when scientists want to impress, they often do it by choosing elements of beauty in what science has recorded of a universe that is neither science nor art but seamlessly filled to the brim with both — by appealing to our aesthetic taste, to the “art” side of our being, while claiming the result is science.


Case in point:

The graphic above, from the I fucking love science photo timeline on FaceBook, which comes with the caption:

Caddisfly larvae build protective cases using materials found in their environment. Artist Hubert Duprat supplied them with gold leaf and precious stones. This is what they created.

Did you get that? It’s from a site that bills itself I fucking love science that specializes in presenting, how can I make this simple, nature’s art. It’s the recognition of beauty that makes this site so wonderful — and in this particular case, the work of Artist Hubert Duprat.


I’ve been working with jewelry recently, and as you can see from this image of a Hematite “Tricubi” necklace by Bernd Wolf, the influence goes both ways.


What is beauty? And why does science as an institution so often want to claim what properly belongs in the realm of art? Or is science, perhaps, an art or cluster of arts? I’m tired of these ceaseless wranglings between two supposedly opposing cultures.

Paul Dirac:

I think that there is a moral to this story, namely that it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations that to have them fit experiment.

As art, the jewel-like protective cases those caddisfly larvae make are simply beautiful. The fact that they make them is fascinating.

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