Thursday, 27 October 2016

War and order

For all of Russia’s bellicosity, its actions in Syria are worth assessing outside the media’s common outline. Because they may have bitter lessons for Europe’s migrant crisis as well.

In early October, Russia finished building an Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) in western Syria. Neither the Islamic State (IS) nor Syrian rebels possess combat aircraft, which means the air defence can only be directed towards the US and perhaps Turkey. Moscow intends to use this IADS to force the cost of continued US coalition involvement in Syria past the threshold of acceptable risk. In other words, it doesn’t want US aircraft flying while it organises events on the ground.

The components of Moscow’s IADS include the S-200, S-300, S-400 (Russia’s most advanced anti-air) and the Buk missile systems. One S-300 is based from a guided missile cruiser in the Mediterranean. Recall that last month, Dutch prosecutors confirmed it was a Russian Buk missile which shot down flight MH17, and Iran recently took possession of multiple S-400 batteries. So we know the weapons work.

Also this week, French authorities began bulldozing the so-called “Calais Jungle” migrant camp. Thousands of migrants will be resettled elsewhere in the country. Many towns in France experience almost constant riots and violence against police by migrants as Paris attempts to avoid splits in the wider French community due to the European Union’s controversial border entry policies.

Looking at this spread out, there aren’t many dots between Syria’s civil war, a refugee camp on the French coast and the Brexit decision (not to mention the discontent in the rest of Europe). Whatever terrible things are happening in the world today, the consequences of each little flashpoint have never been more immediate.

What connects all this is disorder and power, which brings with it status. I define power as personal influence over important events – I don't know of any other definition. One of the key reasons intellectuals are fascinated by disorder is that disorder is an extreme case of complexity.

Syria is a story of a structure of authority made more complex, more informal and fragmented by a civil war. The conflict is eliminating hierarchical structures under which one individual decides and is responsible for the result, and is replacing them with highly disjointed, highly consensual, and highly process-oriented structure in which ten, twenty or a hundred thousand people can truthfully claim to have contributed to the outcome.

This will increase the amount of power, status and patronage produced but will decrease the size of those fragments of power. It also makes the government less efficient and effective, and working in it a lot less fun for everyone. Given its actions, all this anarchy is clearly desired by Washington, probably because it means Syria is losing it authoritarianism – and US officials hate authoritarianism.

But Russia sees the Syria problem differently. Moscow wants to achieve peace by the most direct route available. It thinks the single-minded obliteration of anything outside of social democracy isn’t a recipe for order, in fact it only leads to more anarchy. In this thinking, Moscow is connecting to the ideas of Romanian military strategist Edward Luttwak.

In his 1999 essay “Give War a Chance,” Mr Luttwak argues the unpleasantness of war doesn’t cancel its utility in resolving political conflicts and creating peace. He says rather than outside powers conducting “humanitarian” interventions or organising ceasefires, both of which simply freeze a conflict in place to be started up again when the sides are rearmed, war must be allowed to work until all sides become exhausted or one wins decisively.

“Since the establishment of the United Nations and the enshrinement of great-power politics, wars among lesser powers have rarely been allowed to run their natural course. Instead, they have typically been interrupted early on, before they could burn themselves out and establish the preconditions for a lasting settlement,” he says.

Most controversially, especially for US officials, Mr Luttwak says an intervention on the side of the strongest power in a conflict to destroy the others may actually be the more moral path by ending the conflict early and saving lives. The goal is to restore and maintain order, because unlike anarchy, order actually is peaceful.

Russian air defence ranges
If the UN had intervened in Europe’s wars, the continent would be filled with giant camps for millions of Vandals, Visigoths and defeated Burgundians. They would not have been encouraged to integrate into a new societal reality and Europe would be a mess. Russia’s IADS now keep the US at arm’s length while its support of Mr al Assad hopes to end the fighting decisively.

Thomas Hobbes understood the ethics of this approach. The problem with disorder and anarchy is they are disorderly and anarchic. They lead only to pain and death. Hobbes’ panacea is to increase the strength of the state. Yet in modern France and other Western countries, order and security are observed extremely suspiciously by the populace.

Citizens, not all of them die-hard liberals, react with horror to any proposal of allowing intelligence agencies to collect internet data or enforce legitimate border controls. They castigate any police attempt to restore order and will choose privacy over any proposal to increase security. A suspicion of government is laudable, but at what cost? Security and freedom are not in conflict, they are rights deserving of balance in a civilised nation.

Humanitarian dreams about mass migration can only succeed if the institutions and power of the state are coherent. Europe’s Schengen border policy is being dealt a harsh blow because Brussels is too weak to cope with migrants, and those migrants still feel marginalised because the host population assumes any effort to amalgamate them is a parochial and anti-liberal.

So Paris’ decision to bulldoze the Calais Jungle is a welcome imposition of order. But its constant refusal to crush violent dissent in its cities due to a misplaced progressive belief of plurality exposes the confliction and uncertainty of how the modern state considers its role. A competent state should know security must be prioritised in times of unrest. If mainstream parties cannot rise to the challenge, they leave the field open to the far right. Scared people do not make good democrats.

Freedom is not indivisible. Politics is the continuing choice among liberties of different faiths, cultures and traditions learning to co-exist. But a modern state and its multicultural ideals can work only so long as the state has the means and the will to enforce a common peace. Russia and the Europeans see the world very differently. Fragmenting power might feel righteous but if peace is desired, order and war are sometimes the best routes.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Sitrep - 26 October, 2016

Iraq Security Forces (ISF) are slowly moving to encapsulate the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to contest the Islamic State (IS) for control. After one week of combat operations, the fight is not yet for the city but rather the outlying towns. ISF elements are clashing with determined IS fighters, reportedly killing 300 of the militants while sustaining moderate damage themselves.

The militants are responding elsewhere by evacuating some fighters into Syria and organising spoiling attacks in Kirkuk, Rutba and Sinjar provinces to draw ISF troops away. The flashpoints underline the latent strength of the militant group. The question for Baghdad is how many more sleeper cells IS has placed in position across Iraq – or the world – to activate when it chooses.

Alongside this concern is the tense coalition relationships arrayed against Mosul. Turkey and Iraq continue to argue because Baghdad says it doesn’t want Turkey’s assistance. Turkey claims its artillery and armour is supporting Kurdish Peshmerga forces, but Arbil denies this. All participants are tied by a common enemy, but the coalition appears to be weakening before the main assault begins.

In the US, three massive separate Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks took Twitter, Amazon, Reddit, Netflix and others offline for hours at a time. The attack was committed by unknown perpetrators and is already being called one of the largest in history. It was certainly intrusive, inconvenient and dangerous and highlights the power of cyber-attacks to disrupt business.

DDoS attacks are reportedly up 75% in 2016 year-on-year and increasing. Health is not the only concern for businesses. Loss of service for websites can cripple a small business, and many large companies pin their reputation on constant website availability. This particular attack also utilised the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) as its army of infected computers.

The IoT vulnerability is not a new phenomenon, but it sheer scale is concerning. It includes every machine with a computer attached to the internet, which often means coffee machines, house front doors, cars and even ceilings. Once they become infected by a virus, they can all be used to attack. This reflects the inherently poor construction of the internet which simply wasn’t created to cope with the tasks and responsibilities now expected of it.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Islam's reformation and how the West can win this war - part 2

I

The most effective form of social collapse is suicide. Tired societies perish when they discard the responsibility of maintaining their institutions.

Perhaps the West's machinery worked so well for so long that its present operators threw away the manual. There are cogs resting in the corner, no one knows where they fit or how long ago they fell off. The oil-can looks like it hasn't been used in a few generations either. There are rasping noises and the flywheels are spinning disturbingly off-centre.

I remember walking around the Colosseum in Rome. I’d joined a tour led by a studying American PhD student because he needed the money, and he told excellent stories. He explained what happened after the barbarians sacked Rome. The invaders enjoyed tipping over infrastructure creating ruins for tourists to wander through.

Yet the Colosseum was spared, only losing a chunk of its outer layer after a major earthquake in 1349. I did notice suspicious equidistant holes in the façade and it turns out the holes aren’t a result of war. The barbarians were responsible, but not in an obvious way.

When they invaded the Roman Empire, many of the city’s artisans, engineers and metallurgists were slaughtered or driven out in great numbers. In their frenzy of conquering indignation, the barbarians also wiped out institutional knowledge by burning precious papers and plans. After a few decades, the barbarians watched as their captured civilisation’s institutions start to wobble and shatter. The pieces of their empire had been re-purposed and spread around. But slowly, it all started to break down and decay.

Everyone in the classical world knew the best quality weapons were built by Roman citizens. There are stories of German tribes stopping mid-battle to wrench their poorly made swords back into shape after striking Roman armour. The same is true for institutions.

II

My guide explained how the degradation eventually became so pronounced the new occupiers of Rome realised they didn’t even know how to manufacture bronze. Romans would have laughed that a simple alloy of copper and tin couldn’t be replicated by these idiots. But it was the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

The barbarians had no one to turn to because everybody knowledgeable was dead or exiled. They succeeded in crushing the mighty Roman Empire, taking control of its assets and freeing themselves from Rome’s terrible oppression. But they now stand about wondering how the machinery of this enormous empire might actually be retained.

After centuries of hating everything Roman, here they were faced with an opportunity to send it to oblivion, and they choked. Maybe the empire wasn’t so bad after all, they reasoned, especially now the oppressed are in control.

Yet they couldn’t forge bronze. So to keep the system working, the barbarians decided to rip out the reinforcing struts in Roman buildings. These were the pockmarks in the Colosseum.

That’s a perfect analogy for what’s happening in large parts of the Western world. The liberation movements certainly had a case. Bound under centuries of systemic oppression, minorities and women fought to be free. In their many battles against the status quo, their forces chipped at the foundations and changed what it meant to be powerful. Now, in 2016, there is amazing diversity in all layers of society.

I don’t want to be cynical, but boy oh boy is it hard not to observe that at the very moment in our history when we have the most minorities and women in business and government, Western society is perceived to be unproductive, distracted, bickering, easily manipulated, passive and powerless.

And I’ll risk the blowback to say those are all stereotypes of women and minorities. Before you go crazy, I’m not saying this is causal. I’m saying the reverse: when the men in a society start to think their society isn’t worth maintaining, the machinery of that society breaks down while they remove the actual power and hand over the trappings of power.

In an effort to make room for historically marginalised groups, power-seeking men voluntarily stepped away from traditional positions of power to flow…somewhere else. Here we must ask the question: when more women and minorities enter a field, it means less men did. And if power-seeking men aren't bothering about government, for instance, where did they go? I assume they aren’t at home with the kids.

III

Think again about the barbarians in Rome.

No, I’m not comparing minorities and women to barbarians, but the effects are identical. Even those liberation movements assumed the system they hated was created by white men. And in their righteous effort to alter that system for the better, I want to suggest the people who knew how to make bronze were exiled. In 2016, no one wants to listen to a “white man’s” opinion on government, academia and media anymore.

But I don’t think those men disappeared, and they certainly weren’t forcibly exiled. They appear to have sold the society they created and flowed towards new power bastions leaving the well-constructed machinery in the hands of new owners. Where are these new bastions? Consider how many white males are bankers, lobbyists or owners of the most powerful machine of power ever devised – the internet.

After a few decades, if these new owners find they want to maintain this “oppressive” system rather than destroy it, but no one remembers how to forge bronze, perhaps those metaphorical struts in the Colosseum will be plucked.

The machinery left behind by white men isn't working very well. We are all barbarians now. But we could pick up the oil-can and squeeze out a few drops. Actually, make that an entire vat of the brown, gooey stuff. If the new owners want to repair it, they simply need to understand how the machinery works. Thankfully, those white men were excellent at writing it all down.

Muslims entering Western society in droves is only a short-term dynamic of what started with the liberation movements all those years ago. It is a replacement of the white male-dominated/created societal system.

When asked whether mass migration leads to war - or whether war leads to mass migration, Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld said, "There is no difference. Mass migration is war." And the victorious now find themselves staring at a machinery they don’t remember how to maintain, or even its original purpose.

But if the new owners think the no-longer powerful machinery of the old system is worth maintaining, there’s still some tried-and-true steps they could take:

Make it a priority to expose immigrants to soap operas, give them books, teach them English, give them Facebook accounts, incorporate their ideas into Wikipedia, pay for their schooling at universities and ensure their children attend primary and secondary schools.

Give them minimum wage so they can buy consumer goods, send them credit cards, expose them to dreams of affluence on Playboy or Instagram, encourage their women to straighten their hair to appear "sexier," let L'oreal and Dove cover them with ideas about make-up, invite the young males to play soccer, buy iPhones, pour Western-style aspirational advertising into their minds, include them in political parties, etc, etc. The list goes on and on.

IV

There’s no need to worry about Muslim immigrants who choose to travel to the West. They are post-Christian in their worldview already. Show them how to discuss their jihadism in the dialectic of the default assumptions of the modern Western world. Begin conversations with the conclusion already decided.

In other words, keep talking about the Islamic "State." The more Muslims keep using that word, the more likely they are to desire a nation-state of their own. Remember the machinery. The nation-state is not an Islamic idea, it is a Western idea. The system will win. Keep forcing their terrorists to hate Western targets, because if they assume the West is tyrannical they are assuming it is in control. The system wins again. The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.

As for that tight group of isolated pure jihadists? Kill them where they stand. Every well-aimed Hellfire missile sends two signals: that the path of a true-believer is antithetical to the advertisements on Facebook, and that the West's long arm can strike anywhere on the planet.

Even better, in one explosion a zealot's ability to spread an alternative message by powerful word-of-mouth is drastically limited. As in, obliterated. The goal should be to force a message’s spread using the internet. If that happens, any truly alternative idea of jihadist government will be using the tools of the system to fight that system – a sure path to failure.

Digital is precisely where we want the jihadist message. Tucked in with a myriad of ideas, mixing and diluting. The internet enables “history editing” to cut and slice the message. Any moderately sophisticated cyber user can change messages over and over until no one remembers the original meaning.

The internet is the quintessential American invention. It is egalitarian, democratic, flat and global. It is a new world in which anything can be altered for any political purpose and no one will see you do it. And jihadists want to use it to spread their message! HA! The system wins.

V

Ironically, it may actually be good advice to keep talking about Islam’s need of reformation. The trick is to get Muslims to repeat this. That will be a powerful maintenance of the assumption that not only is the arc of Christianity the correct arc, it reinforce the quiet acceptance of the West holding the power to decide the framing of the conversation.

Do you want real democracy? Then stop deferring your only interaction to three-year election cycles. Engage with the system. Don't blame the elected officials for what you should be doing to help the community. If the machinery continues to rust, the problem isn’t spineless politicians, women or Islamic minorities – the problem is you.

Ask yourself, instead of whining about the collapsing Western society, what you have done lately to repair this wonderful model of government? Wouldn’t it be liberating and empowering to know that you can do something meaningful every day to maintain this concept? If you don’t want to, that’s fine.

But if you're reading it, it’s for you.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Islam's reformation and how the West can win this war

Intellectuals talk about the need for Islam's reformation as though there is one arc that will eventually be traced by all great monotheisms. This is far from certain.

The idea assumes the natural state of all humans is to be free. But the subtext is that every upright ape wants freedom for democracy. When we hear "democratic," we think it is the sweetest word. A democratic government, a democratic choice, even a democratic hippopotamus... if the adjective fits the noun at all, anything you paint with it comes out shiny and bright. Autocratic, bleh! Monarchic, gross!

But none of this is natural. Babies don't reach talking age and immediately discuss the foundations of a representation divided into mixed member proportional legislation. In the conversation about modernity, democracy is the assumed answer to "what is freedom?" But it’s not coded into DNA. Love of democracy is taught.

So the idea Muslims will eventually track along the same line walked by the Christians long ago is probably folly. It only displays the speaker's lack of historical creativity and paints the outlines of their cradle-to-grave training.

It is possible Islam might follow the reformation-and-democracy arc but veer sharply off in the 22nd century. Islam might take the obverse route, forming a weird circle when future historians compare the two routes. Islam might not follow an arc at all, moving somewhere completely different, somewhere blinded intellectuals are presently too uncreative to consider.

My point is, an assumption that Islam needs a reformation is actually an exposure of the implicit racism/sexism/bigotry/centrism/etc in how Westerners narrate the world. They fail to think outside the box. To them, the pinnacle of human existence is New York so it must be the same for everyone else as well.

Even as Westerners castigate themselves in cacophonies of post-Christian guilt complexes, an assumption of identical reformation in Islam betrays they think the West is responsible for every tragedy. Therefore only the West has agency while all other cultures are acted upon. I don’t think I need to point out how patronising this is. But I want you, dear reader, to consider the power of such a narrative.

I think it's time to consider that Islam has had its reformation, and jihadism is the conclusion. Maybe Muslims decided not to walk the democratic arc but instead to push and tear at that arc until the explicit core of their politico/religious belief opens enough space to fulfil their own end-goals. What Islamists can't help but have noticed, is that pushing at the edges of other cultures will eventually place the aggressive culture in control. They observed new tactics by watching Europeans in the 19th and 20th century. But before that, Islam pushing conquered the Middle East.

Islam is not a normal religion, it is a disguised political ideology. Islam has always been about control of the planet. Its goal is explicitly about creating a world in which there is only one type of human. In this, they are identical to the progressive/Christian world-eaters (which shouldn't be surprising given their shared lineage from the Mesopotamian desert).

Of course, the levers of the Western system against which jihadists now fight are largely invisible to most Muslims and I suspect the tentacles of that system’s creeping insidiousness will subsume the jihadist ideology into its own organism as a virus is subsumed into DNA as a retrovirus.

The final result, in other words, will probably simply be a slightly-evolved Western model now inclusive of useful aspects of a diluted Islamic doctrine. I say this with some surety because no matter how strong jihadism believes it is, I already spot signs the movement has accepted the Western form of the argument. "Moderate Muslims" are essentially Unitarians in what they believe about the world.

A tight core of Muslims who aren't yet entirely brainwashed by this Western system of post-Christianity will continue to be a thorn for the Western system. There's no doubt about that. But the real question is: if the Islamic reformation is jihadism, then are its actions really just a release of energy? The West allows elections or street demonstrations to release tensions in a democratic society. And I can’t help but feel Islamic energy is now being dissipated in the required direction – towards eventual democracy.

Then again, perhaps this jihadism is operating from a spell-breaking realisation of how the Western system works and is starting to carve off its population from the West's soft-power tools of the internet, media, academia and NGOs? If the movement has discovered how to truly fight back without falling into the trap of replacing the system, perhaps jihadism will be an existential threat after all.

I suspect the former is happening. There are simply too many similarities among the al qaeda/Islamic State movement and the 1960s, Cold War-era Marxist groups to be a coincidence. Those leftist groups weren't fighting to change the system (they accepted the form of the argument – that democracy was the goal, the question was only which type). Those groups fought for control of the system.

Leftist revolutions were all about power, not liberty – and certainly not change. The majority of jihadists I watch every day all speak in the same impossible language of cultural Marxists. So I don’t consider those jihadists too much of a concern because that’s not how you fight the power. They are using the tools and ideas of the very system they hate to fight that same system. Sorry guys, you lose. The system wins.

Don't get me wrong, crazy terrorists should be rounded up and isolated from society (prison, exile, death). Yet, by acting as leftist revolutionaries, they cannot represent an existential threat to the Western model of society, because leftism is a Western idea.

If – and that's a big "if" – there is a tight core of true believers who have avoided being wooed by Marxist ideology, and who have been steeped in Islamic rhetoric and jurisprudence from birth and also have the cache and wherewithal to spread a pure Islamic message to sufficient numbers of other Muslims, then a truly alternative model of society emerges to challenge the US. If that is what’s happening, then maybe this reformation is worth worrying about.

Osama bin Laden wanted to be part of that tight core but he was far too brainwashed by Marxist revolutionary thought for his idea to be existentially dangerous. And so his movement is failing by being subsumed into the Western set of default assumptions.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The warning behind veteran suicides

When progressives cry crocodile tears complaining about the shocking lack of US government assistance for its veterans, they should look in the mirror. Almost every single one of those suicides is their responsibility.

The reason those warfighters survive all the way through combat - sometimes fighting for years in multiple tours - only to return home and kill themselves is a direct result of the message those terrible progressives spout every day. Soldiers are supposed to protect a society. They are tools of a particular in-group of people calling themselves American or Kiwi or Pakistani hoping to stay alive in a world cold and unforgiving, to defend themselves in a universe full of other groups of people hoping not only to take their resources but hopefully their lives.

So when a soldier returns to their precious group only to be told everything they love is horrific and should never have existed in the first place, what other conclusion should the soldier draw? Clearly, the people for whom they trudged through mud and bodies do not want them to live any more. Their own tribe hasn't the remotest shred of respect for the job they undertook. This is not speculation on their behalf, it is the words their culture writes and yells all day, every day.

Seeing half your friend's face blown off by shrapnel or picking up an officer's scorched finger after a particularly brutal IED attack vaporised the rest of what was once his body damages a soldier's mind beyond recognition. Sometimes it would have been better for that soldier to have entered oblivion as well next to the discarded sergeant than be tortured by the sights and memories for the rest of his miserable life. But it doesn't have to be this way, he thinks. At least society back home, the one which sent him on this mission in the first place, is willing to embrace. Some solace and psychic reconciliation are waiting, tools to fight off his dripping demons, genuine smiles from passersby could all remind the soldier their every step while deployed was for the greater good. That it meant something. That he was connected to an entity larger than himself.

In my darker moments, I suspect the suicide of soldiers in numbers dwarfing even the combat deaths of the past decade is precisely the desired outcome of the people tearing down the society they so hypocritically claim to "love." Those soldiers were raised on the idea, rightly or wrongly, of an ethically superior and morally good in-group of people, their kin. They made a critical decision to join the military because they thought it would help protect that wonderful patch of the world.

And now every person sitting comfortably in positions of influence, and all the pieces of their friends and family, tell them the moment they return how soldiers are scum for being part of "illegal" wars or take any opportunity to rip their world apart in a gleeful frenzy of self-righteous religious fervour, parading their suicidal death-cult idea of progressive multiculturalist nonsense as a snark centimeters from the soldier's perplexed face. The people, lucky and spoiled by never having to hear the crack of a growling bullet or smell the evil mix of faeces and dark arterial blood, mock that soldier with the self-flagellation of some narcissistic post-Christian guilt complex.

Falling back into this universe, soldiers are expected to hold onto their miserable lives while the revolting society to which they return spits insult on the very idea of them.

And their suicides are somehow confusing?

It is 70 years since the US accidentally inherited a bipolar superpower world. It is 25 years since the US found itself surprisingly alone with a global empire it did not ask for. It is 10 years since Mark Steyn wrote America Alone warning of the Western desire for self-immolation. If the US expects schoolchildren in 300 years to agree that, as far as empires go, the US wasn't too bad, then it needs to comprehend that staying alive requires a willingness to actually stay alive.

In the cutthroat world of geopolitics, responsibility is synonymous with power. You cannot have responsibility over something without the power to effect its very existence. If the US is going to run this empire in a responsible manner, it cannot continue with this post-Christian, guilt-ridden, excuse of an ideology. The navel-gazing of believing all humans are equal and will eventually "come around" to your way of thinking if only you speak softly and discard the big stick leads down a path towards a cliff. Soldiers are already walking off that cliff in their thousands because they are rejected by the society they love. An empire cannot be defended without soldiers.

I'm sure there's a philosopher I can quote here, but in this instance, I'll choose Maynard:

Help me understand why
You've given in to all these
Reckless dark desires you're
Lying to yourself again
Suicidal imbecile
You're pounding on a fault line
What'll it take to get through to you precious
Over this, why do you
Wanna throw it away like this
Such a mess, well I don't wanna watch you

Disconnect and self-destruct one
Bullet at a time
What's your rush now? Everyone will have his day to die

Medicated, drama queen
Picture perfect, numb belligerence
Narcissistic, drama queen, craving fame and all its decadence

They were right about you

Deference and mercy are the hallmarks of only strong powers. Weak powers see their mercy as virtuous when their opponents see only subjugation. The Arabs say "a falling camel attracts many knives." So do not think for a moment the rest of the planet thinks self-censorship, increased liberalism and pathetic apologies will stop them from wrenching from the West's feeble fingers the society we built over millennia. As I've pointed out many times, complex societal systems can only be destroyed in two ways: either by direct force of arms or if that society itself forgets how to maintain the machinery of its institutions.

Speaking of soldiers, in the ancient world during battle, the real killing only began in earnest once one side broke and ran. The author Lt. Col. Dave Grossman wrote in his masterpiece On Killing that there's nothing quite like seeing the backs of an enemy's head to stir the bloodlust. No human looks kindly on a kneeling opponent. Regardless of the ethics of the message recited by the prostrated, humans know that actual power can only ever be taken. Any power given is no power at all.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Sitrep - 19 October, 2016

The delayed assault on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul appears to be underway. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told reporters “the hour has come and the moment of great victory is near.” The militant group Islamic State (IS) took control of the city on the Tigris River in 2014. Iraq Security Forces (ISF) are now conducting shaping operations ahead of a main attack.

More than 50,000 ISF troops have converged on Mosul expecting to battle between 2000 and 5000 IS fighters. The group has had plenty of time to prepare booby traps and a maze of improvised explosive devices. Mosul is a large city, at one point housing two million people, so any fighting will be slow and tough as the ISF move from house to house in clearing operations.

It is unclear how long Baghdad expects its phases of combat to last. The initial steps could be completed in days or take weeks. Follow-on operations inside the city may last the rest of the year or run into 2017. And success depends on the cohesion of the many argumentative groups conducting Baghdad’s campaign. Washington hopes the assault won’t break up prematurely.

Further south off the western coast of Yemen, US Navy warships were targeted three times in a week by unidentified groups on the mainland. Described as a Chinese-designed cruise missile, the munitions launched at the USS Mason and USS Ponce either fell short or were intercepted by on-board countermeasures. Neither vessel was harmed.

In response, multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles from nearby warships responded by striking radar installations and other undisclosed sites in Yemen. The Pentagon suspects the rebel Houthis, although the group denies it was responsible. A Saudi airstrike in early October killed 140 people attending a funeral, including a dozen Houthi senior officers. The missile attacks could therefore be revenge considering the US supports the Saudi intervention with logistics and intelligence material.

However, the US isn’t likely to escalate its involvement in the country. The civil war is low on Washington’s priority list and coverage in US media is nearly non-existent. Yet if the Houthis or their Iranian supporters are attempting to close the strait of Bab el-Mandeb to international shipping, the US considers that a high enough threat to place US Navy assets in the waters. Ensuring sea lanes remain open is the bedrock US grand strategy.

The danger under the Mosul assault

Reports are breathlessly arriving about an impending assault on the Islamic State (IS) occupied northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Baghdad’s decision to attack smells of urgency. It is concerned Turkey will take the initiative and drive its armour south towards the city instead.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave the order to launch the offensive early October 17. Over the months, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have pre-positioned troops and heavy weaponry and begun shaping operations. A number of outlying villages will now need to be occupied before the main assault begins, so the ISF will be conducting those operations.

The long-awaited Mosul operation will not be easy. Baghdad has requested US military support for the combat phases. But the heavy-lifting will need to be conducted by the ISF and its partners. And those partners aren’t exactly cooperative bunch either – made up of Kurds, Sunnis, Shia, Iranians and everything in between.

IS has also occupied the city since 2014 with plenty of time to construct a maze of improvised explosive devices. The city is also part of the group’s critical territory, so it can be expected to stand and fight rather than strategically retreat as it did in Fallujah earlier in the year. That will make a tough fight into a long tough fight.

The Islamic State is different from al qaeda (AQ) in deciding to move past being only an idea. AQ remains a fragmented series of groups sharing an ideology but choosing to maintain compartmentalisation rather than present a target. IS thinks the AQ strategy of causing governments to collapse in Muslim countries isn’t a good use of its resources, so it became a solid fighting force instead. In doing so, it made itself vulnerable to the trap of time and space.

AQ will likely persists for generations because of its fragmentation. However, IS presents visible targets for US pilots and measurable battle damage. As the group loses territory, Washington’s propaganda about the group’s failure gains traction among Muslims.

Just this week, a Turkish assault in northern Syria overran the IS-held city of Dabiq. That’s an important information war victory because the apocalyptic IS points to a passage in the Muslim holy book about the final battle for the earth taking place near the town. Losing Dabiq, while being pushed back across its territory, undermines its claims to have God’s blessing. Intelligence reports are also showing IS recruits have dried to a trickle, largely as a result of this broken messaging.

But a crushed IS reopens another wound. Losing Mosul will not end the group’s jihadism. Both AQ and IS are the visible and angry force in the Islamic world boiling about how the religion – which is certainly not a monolithic entity – should deal with modernity.

Many Muslims appear fairly comfortable to amalgamate into the Western model of international relations and what it means to live in the 21st century. They have partially reconciled their religious tenets with the Western status quo expectations. Whatever hard-to-remove parts of their religious belief remain may be discarded by future generations. Western normality may evolve to accommodate anyway, as it has many times in the past.

Yet IS represents a faction of Islam refusing to succumb to the world-eating march of Western democracy but able to develop a true Islamic alternative. The group is not sophisticated enough to know how to fight successfully against the system arrayed against it.

The deepest question of Iraq pivots on what to call the Islamic State. Should it be named an insurgency or a civil war? Both have markedly different policy consequences. Getting this right is fundamental. Experts advising Washington are well aware of the problems of nomenclature.

If the US assessment is the fighting is an insurgency, then arming Iraqi police must be done to control the fighting. But if the assessment is this is a civil war, then supplying weapons to police would be arming perhaps one side of an internecine war. Civil wars can spill into genocide surprisingly quickly when automatic weapons are involved.

Here the utility of IS is revealed. The group offers plausible circumstance for the international community to act in a meaningful way in Mesopotamia to control what it considers both a terrible humanitarian collapse and a serious rift emerging against the concept of the nation-state. By putting the blame of Iraq’s unrest on IS, and emphasising its internationalism, Washington and its partners can call the fighting an insurgency.

But this is deceptive. The only military fighting for “Iraq” is 6000 US troops. Every other group is in the bloody process of organising a post-Iraq reality. Underneath is the fundamental question of how Islam plans to deal with modernity. And more importantly, which branch of that great monotheism will represent its future.

And when the US arms Baghdad, it looks exactly to Sunnis in Mosul like Washington is handing weapons to the Shiites. IS itself is a Sunni force. There may also be a geopolitical dynamic due Iran being Baghdad’s puppet master. But the civil war in Iraq – and that’s really what this is – is the struggle between and among two major interpretations of Islam.

So the assault on Mosul gathers pace. The international community, including New Zealand, prides itself on the ethics of excising IS from Iraq’s second largest city. But once again, the all-important Western goal of forcing democracy and self-governance across the world has found its participants crushing one side of an internal conflict in which it has no business intervening.

Hating the Islamic State is easy, but ensuring peace the day after Mosul falls is far more difficult. That should not be not a Western task, no matter the ultimate “ethical” goal.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Just because you don't see it, doesn't mean it's gone

I

Islam’s strength doesn’t come from its emphasis on the communal. Islam gains its strength from a clear and understandable god idea. At this point, I think science shows people already believe in god even when very young, most likely at birth, although that's difficult to prove. People at minimum believe in something larger than themselves. They don’t immediately believe in a particular religion’s view of god, that comes through training.

In reality, the god in which everyone believes is their own existence, their own self. When another person questions god, the accused gets angry and interprets the question as an attack on themselves - which it is. I learned a long time ago there’s no point in debating religious people. It’s impossible to reason someone out of a belief they didn’t reason themselves into.

To them, there is no universe without god, because it would require a universe to be perceived without the person there to perceive it and that’s logically impossible. No one loses their religion, they simply replace it. But I’ll get to that. And from where I’m sitting most people have some version of a replacement god, so debating anyone on this is fairly pointless. But I’ll get to that too.

The human brain is a pattern recognition machine. Islam operates from a default assumption that humans have a functional, natural (but very wrong) tendency to think the universe has meaning. A natural and specific observance of patterns not actually there. Just because something is functional and natural doesn’t make it true. Islam understands human creatures wish to see those patterns in noise. It’s what keeps us alive. But Muslims aren’t especially prone to phantom pattern-recognition, Christians and secularists see the same false patterns. To think otherwise is simply to expose a poor understanding of the mind.

Consider how a human living in the savannah might see rustling grass and suspect only the wind. If the rustling is actually a lion, the person is lunch and the failed pattern-seeking brain is removed from the gene pool. If another sees the same rustling grass but immediately assumes a lion and chooses to run away and there actually is a lion that person will stay in the gene pool, passing on good pattern-seeking genes centuries later to city-dwellers and blog-writers (ha ha).

But those are the obvious examples. What explains god is the person who sees rustling grass and immediately runs even if there is no lion. That person’s brain is a wide-open pattern filter, as Michael Shermer says. He/she looks for and finds all sorts of patterns in the noise of nature. They can’t help it. Some have an acute ability for this, while others learn to differentiate real patterns from the imaginary (the lion from the non-lion).

Islam is excellent at taking this pattern-seeking and funnelling it into a clear, understandable and - crucially - transmissible form known as religion. Religion was the first attempt (therefore the worst) to explain some of the crudest patterns people thought they were seeing. Many religions give followers a set of tools to control their pattern-seeking brains and by so doing stumble accidentally on real patterns.

II

Christianity picked up reason and logic on its way into Rome, married the two strands and became a petri dish for developing pattern-seeking tools. After two millennia, the Christian West has pretty much dropped the superstitious aspects but retained the parts helping adherents find real patterns (reason, logic, clergy, emperor, church, charity, proselytising, critical texts, etc). What’s left over is a milieu of institutions and structures formed by the Christian empire. Religion enables people both to defer fear of death while supplying a plug-and-play guide for living. Rationalism helps develop better filters for finding actual patterns. Together, the West was created and evolved.

III

Here I agree with Jürgen Habermas that secularisation of the rhetoric of political discourse results in religious fictionalisation of the body politic, in which religious groups Balkanise and organise around efforts to “religionise” (Christianise) the rhetoric. But I disagree with both Habermas and the recent Pope Ratzinger that the there is any effect of secularisation on the substance of the dialogue. They say secularisation led to a loss in Western culture evidenced by violent 20th-century wars, increasing moral decadence and the rising threat of bioengineering.

First, the rhetoric on those wars, as in every war, was overtly religious. In addition, every war before the 20th-century was fought to the furthest extent technologically possible. The apparent brutality is simply a function of technology. Second, when people use the phrase "moral decadence" they need to articulate its meaning. It could mean either sexual openness or crime.

Third, religion (not Christian spirituality, but religion) needs to come to terms with the role of sex in life. Sex is the subtext of every political issue. Until religion can move beyond its paternalist, Dark-Age roots, it cannot intelligently inform the discussion of these issues. Lastly, the political order has always been secular, even when the political order was controlled by the papacy in Rome. The rhetoric was religious, but in the end, politics is a function of economics and power distribution, which, depending on your viewpoint, has everything or nothing to do with religion.

Secularisation refers to those aspects of life which substantially lack a spiritual dimension in fact. With respect to the Gregorian reforms, while there is/was doctrinal logic to support the consolidation of authority in the apparatuses of the Church, there was no doctrinal logic to do so to the exclusion of secular matters. There was, however, enormous secular logic to motivate such activity, including consolidation of power as it was distributed across the vastness of continental Europe.

Westerners, in general, have begun to make policy with no compass other than science. We need some philosophy better than "good" and "bad" that’s internally consistent in a way the Church hasn't been, ever. Science is rapidly enabling everything imaginable, including the horrible. But what is guiding the progress? What sets the direction of advancement? Now, the guide is profits and calculation. That's clearly not going to work. But the Bible isn't either, nor are proclamations from religious elders.

It's wonderful that Habermas is only asking we go back to our roots and attempt to translate our private senses of the good back into public discourse, but doesn't that only work for Westerners at least conversant with Western civilisation’s dominant religious tradition? Does it work for the sociopath, whose lack of a moral compass finds him better suited to navigate a corporate/consumer society without the guilt or hesitation the rest of us feel?

IV

You can’t understand the Western world until you understand Christianity. You especially can’t understand Western secular philosophy unless you understand Christianity. Christianity is a religion, true, but it also spawned idealism, which is the actual bringer of destruction in the modern world.

Idealism is a philosophical school. Or rather a number of philosophical schools. I find the term most useful as it pertains to the line from Plato to Hegel to Emerson to Dewey. An Idealist is a person who believes that universals exist independently. Specifically, in the modern sense, an idealist believes in concepts such as Democracy, the Environment, Peace, Freedom, Human Rights, Equality, Justice, etc, etc.

What do these concepts have in common? One, they have universally positive associations. In fact, they have no meaning without these associations. A statement such as "the Environment is evil" or "we must work together against the Environment" is simply not well-formed. It is the equivalent of Noam Chomsky's "colourful green ideas sleep furiously."

Two, they are impossible to define precisely. It's fairly clear they have no meaning at all. Three, if you live in or have been exposed significantly to the Western world, those concepts refer to Christian interpretations of the words only. The idea that Justice could also exist in a different form in Xhosa tribal lore isn’t even part of the conversation when discussing Justice. And once the superstitious aspects of Christianity’s coupling with Greek rationalism were excised, the institutions and ideas remained. Out of this surgery has emerged a strange sort of post-Christianity.

After all, what is socialism but the Christian idea of god’s flock believing in a (not obvious, and unscientific) common humanity? What is the idea of gays/poor/black people being championed over straight/rich/white people but the Christian idea of the “last will be first”? What is modern democracy but the Protestant notion that god speaks to individuals directly, not through the clergy (vox populi, vox Dei)? What is the idea that every country should become democratic but the Christian goal of “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”?

V

This is why conspiracy theories are so prevalent in the West. Everyone is told meaning is illusory, but their eyes (and brains) say otherwise. Of course, their eyes are wrong, but they can’t shake the feeling this entire universe has patterns, real patterns. Any world without religion is impossible in thier minds. Broadly interpreted, UFOs, ghosts and all manner of psychic phenomena are religions. It is the belief that there is more “out there” coupled with the notion that one can have a personal experience with that other.

When someone cackles on about the Bilderbergs, Masons, Washington or the Jews being responsible for some event, they are being human. People cannot accept the randomness of the world and that bad things often happen for no reason. To them, the CIA causing 9/11 is preferable to believe because otherwise the "omnipotent other" wasn’t and therefore isn’t in control. Without a neat conspiracy, the void stares back.

If there isn't a religion available, people will make one up. They do this even in the face of SCIENCE, because SCIENCE says absolutely nothing about hope in the face of despair, love and death. If one is faced with insurmountable problems, the human mind has to make an appeal to something somewhere, otherwise it turns to madness.

If you discount all the supernatural aspects of the New Testament, what you are left with is the story of a philosopher who told everyone to love one another, especially the people you instinctively don't want to love. It’s a story of a guy who was killed for saying those words and willingly went to his death because he loved his executioners.

Even if Jesus is just a guy, another Socrates whose teachings ran afoul of power, the story is still remarkable. It gives people hope that maybe there is somebody out there who loves them even when everything indicates the contrary. When people pray, they are calling out to everyone else alive on earth for help, hoping that their fellow man will hear.

But we live in this post-Christian society in which superstition is discarded but the machinery of religion remains. God hides round the corner, just out of sight. We no longer we call it  “god,” but rather by new names – Democracy, Government, Environment, etc. These are the same thing: unreal metaphysical concepts reified by pattern-seeking brains. Friedrich Nietzsche spoke about society killing god but knew it was futile if the old god would simply be replaced by a new god, far more powerful than the last because it is disavowed.

VI

Postmodernism is dangerous for this reason. It rightly exposes and mocks the human transplantation of god onto the idea of the State. It lays bare people’s desperation to feel secure, to feel not alone. Many are happy with postmodernism’s warning, thinking how good it is to catch oneself believing in nonsense, and shift thier path towards the presumed light of correct thinking.

But postmodernism offers no option to expiate the god belief. It just says Christianity is fake, but so is nationalism, progressivism, science and “reason.” It doesn’t supply something to hold onto and people find themselves staring back into the void. No one wants to face a capricious and uncaring universe. To do so would be to comprehend non-existence. The postmodernist forgets how avoiding this very thought was what religion was built to assuage in the first place. This most fundamental tool is repealed without anything offered in replacement. Instead of facing existence without the crutch of religion, people revolt, holding onto a gene-deep certainty they exist. And they look for whoever will give them solace.

The only thing people know about their lives – truly know – is that they are thinking, that they are here right now. They have no proof how they got here, or if anything they see and touch is real. Or even what “real” would look like. All they know is that “they” can think and then they extrapolate this as proof for god. They desire this other entity. This "omnipotent other" could be the State or Jehovah, it doesn’t matter. The entity performs the required function.

VII

A confused post-Christian society with nowhere to turn, desperately searching for meaning and teleology might find Islam the perfect balm. It doesn’t have the scepticism of Christianity’s marriage with Greece or the detachment of Eastern religions. Islam just says you are absolutely right to believe in god, there is meaning in the universe and offers a new plug-and-play for living the “good life.” Islam still offers a safe avoidance of tackling the terror of oblivion. People can return to being sentients cycling through their lives as though pausing in a doctor's waiting room for the appointment at the end of existence. That they miss out of life is not the tragedy, it is the goal for religious people.

If you’re lazy or scared or lost, Islam offers a community of fellow believers. And for this society/culture where everything is questioned, in which nothing should be strongly believed and where no one can say what is real, Islam’s certainty is deeply attractive. People abandon “clear” postmodern thought because their unnanswered fear of death gives them no other option. As science progresses and rational atheism pervades more of Western life, expect its confused citizens to head back to both mosques and old churches.

Postmodernism at once both uplifting and destructive. It exposes the religious mindset and the machinery of power. Deconstruction helps peel back the layers covering human thought. But it didn’t ask Nietzsche’s question. It assumed the stories we tell ourselves - the all-important myths - serve no real purpose for frightened human animals if they aren't true so there's no harm in discarding them without offering a replacement.

They assume the surgery was a loving service for all humans, freeing them of the torture of seeing patterns in noise. But they underestimate how desperately humans wish to divert from the void. Postmodernism took away the god structures offering nothing in return. They proclaimed, “god is dead,” but never thought to ask “what will we replace him with?”

Monday, 17 October 2016

Pushing Sisyphus' boulder

I

I’m reading Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus again. Camus was something of a precursor to the existentialists, he predates postmodern thought.

In Sisyphus, Camus grapples with the absurdity of life - how can anything we do have meaning when in the end we all die? At one point, he says something like “if the world were clear, there would be no art." Art is a creative act, an act of engaging the world and the human condition. If all would be saved by bringing clarity to the world, then we would only be saved by destroying that which is fundamental to the human condition.

So the quote is something of a philosophical cry of rebellion against life - curse these 'walls', curse my humanity, just give me understanding of one thing. But of course understanding can never come - there is no hope we will ever be more than we are. Yet we still want both clarity and our humanity. Camus says (a) you can't have both, (b) you definitely can't have clarity, because everything we know is a product of our perceptions, and (c) stop asking for this duality to be resolved (he knows we won't because the revolt against the absurdity is part of the human condition).

At the turn of the century, philosophy was colliding headlong with psychology, psychoanalysis and theology, or I should say they started to overlap. The fundamental problem in all of these disciplines was death. What is death? What does it mean? How does death re-frame the context of life?

For psychoanalysis, the inevitable nothingness is a source of neuroses - attempts to escape the inevitable. People who build their worlds don’t seem to appreciate the importance of Freud, but his conclusions viewed metaphorically are a staggering insight - neuroses are the attempt to refocus the mind on the present and away from the void every person will eventually reach no matter what they do or believe. Religion at this time was also struggling. The growing middle class and the advancing modern world focused everyone on the present and not on the afterlife, or the mystery of God, which is where religion draws its strength.

Into this environment, Camus arrives to point out people are so imperfect it renders life absurd, and there's no escaping this, so we should engage the absurdity head on even though you know it will get you nowhere. But Camus is focusing on death because he's engaging the insurmountable inevitability - recall that Sisyphus is condemned to his fate in the afterlife for all eternity - but you aren't. You are only condemned to life until you die.

Then Paul Tillich in the 1960's writes a book called “The Eternal Now” in which he recasts god as beyond existence, and calls on the "faithful" to abandon religion, psychoanalysis and philosophy to engage the ultimate mystery directly - What is Death? You cannot know god/death but you must struggle to know him because the struggle is what makes you human (but not what brings you closer to god, because you can't get closer, again there's no hope, like Camus says over and over. Hope is an opiate, respite from the struggle).

II

The point of religion is to reconcile the fact of death with the fact of life. The mind seeks an answer, just like it sought an answer to why things fall to the ground and why the sun rises and sets. The building block of the brain is pattern recognition. It is precisely because science and philosophy continue to be completely incapable of addressing death, and because the condition of death is totally unknowable, that people seek to ascribe some meaning to death by way of ascribing some greater meaning to life. The fundamental question of human existence is: if one can cease to be, what does it mean to have been?

Atheism, at least the revolting and stunningly childish variant practised on the internet and in non-serious media, is totally silent on this issue. The reason is because dumb people confuse religion with rituals and rules, and confuse the roles of science and philosophy in framing the human condition. Atheism does not provide its own answer to the question of death. Saying "there is no afterlife" not only fails to answer the question, it reveals that you didn't even understand the question, and there’s a good chance you lack the ability to ever understand it.

There is no great tension between religion and science when religion is understood to be entirely for the purpose of addressing the death question, and science is not. There is no way to collect evidence about death. Religion is not creationism or biblical fundamentalism. Small minded atheism needs creationism because it is only in opposition to this worldview that atheism can define itself. No serious theologian takes the creation or Bible stories literally.

Here’s a thought exercise. Our perception of time is fluid and affected by our mental state. It is possible that much like an object falling into a black hole appears to a distant observer to spend eternity at the event horizon, our perception of time at the moment of death is frozen such that it feels to the dying mind that time has ceased and is taking forever to die. That's just speculation of course, but we have no idea what the death experience is first hand, and once you do, there is no communicating it to anyone else.

In other words, everything we know about the world we know from our ability to perceive the world. There is no capacity for perceiving death. We literally can't collect any evidence about it in a way that distinguishes the death of a human mind from the death of a chicken's mind (if they have one) in the same way we distinguish a living human mind from a chicken's.

III

I'm not arguing against the statement that there is no afterlife. I'm arguing against the silly notion that because there is no god (if you believe that), then there is no point to religion and it is a silly thing to turn to for answers. My argument also has nothing at all to do with grieving, or whether people believe in god. It is simply to make the point that not believing in god does not help a person deal with the existential questions that religion deals with quite well.

I don't ask about the purpose of life. I ask what it means to be. We are all going to die. Think about that. Think about what it feels like to be living, and then try to imagine transitioning to the antithesis of that. You exist. You die. Your body still exists. But you?

Every single philosophy that has ever existed has tried to address the meaning, in a philosophical sense, of death. I don't have the answer. Neither did all the world's great minds. But they grappled with it. That's the point. To acknowledge the mystery and contemplate it, and in the process come to some better understanding of what you are.

I appreciate there are people who are both not stupid and do believe in god, or the divine, or the whatever, because they are faced with fundamental questions neither science nor philosophers have addressed to anyone's satisfaction. Here's the thing: nobody's died and later said: "Hey, this is how it is." Nobody has any information about the afterlife. Anybody who says "Hey, the afterlife is like this", or even "Hey, there is some kind of survival after death" is just wrong, but they aren’t lying. They are a normal person who thinks the idea of nothingness is so abhorrent compared with being alive that they hope and believe there is something else. No-one lies about this with malicious intent.

The atheist perspective is always the same. Because everyone agrees (or dissent is stifled), the central argument or thought never gets refined or improved, even when it has obvious holes. The theism debate becomes an echo chamber.

An atheist’s comments are generally anger with religion, believers, church, etc. Not annoyance, or irritation, or frustration. Anger. They argue believing in Heaven is "not harmless". They ascribe malevolence to religious belief. They keep talking about believers lying in a totally nonsensical context given the dictionary definition of 'lie.' This is not my opinion, this is what they write. Anger is usually a reaction to some personal involvement with the thing. Anger is a defence. The anger is directed almost exclusively at Christianity, not at Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or any other religion which also have a lot to say about death.

I think these people are actually obsessed with the existential crisis of death and have given up asking. It fascinates them, but they sublimate it into other things (fantasy, gaming, politics, etc) instead of dealing with it head on. Facebook is flooded with almost as many zombie posts as atheism posts. The most popular books and films for kids and teenagers are about magic and immortal beings (vampires, wizards, elves). Not only is there nothing wrong with this, it is to be expected. The existential crisis is a real thing. The difference between fantasy and religion is that fantasy implicitly denies the crisis by depicting a world where there is no death (immortals, zombies, ghosts, resurrection). But religion tackles it by explaining how people will never understand the mystery until they die.

IV

What is amazing to me is that atheists don't realise their denial/sublimation. It's positively Freudian. Denial is one of the many ways people deal with death and therapy is an imperfect answer to the question: "Help me navigate my crisis of meaning." But therapy is an excellent answer to: "Help me overcome my fear of fearful things." Therapy is for problems, or for when you're stuck in a phase a person should move beyond but can't. It's for when thoughts or feelings are holding a person back as in the second question.

The first question is one all normal people should ask themselves at some point in their life. To come to terms on an initial level with the finiteness of life. It's going to end, you are promised an end, and the ending begs the question of what it all meant. Everyone should be reaching this stage. I don’t think it’s a problem to be fixed or something to get over.

These questions are better suited for old priests with considerable experience advising people on questions about life outside and inside religion. Because of their age and experience, they are wise and jaded enough not to give glib answers about "finding god." Also, priests have been by the side of more than their share of deathbeds, and are likely to have a great deal of firsthand knowledge of things people say they regret in the final moments. That is a kind of insight most therapists do not, and probably won’t ever, have.

Dealing with death is tough, but consider that we perceive the existence of others, even those who are still living, through our memory. You do not interact with everyone you know, every second. What makes death sad is the understanding no new memories will be formed of the departed. But you still have the current memories and can interact with memory in a way that isn’t like a photograph or a movie. You also have a strange combination of imagination and memory allowing the voices of others to be heard as if they’re still here.

These are all capacities of the mind. But it’s possible the mind is processing and reprocessing experiences, thoughts and feelings in a way the conscious self is not overtly aware. You should let it happen. Let the questions come and relish them. Wonder about the death experience and contemplate your own. The questions will, at times, comfort but at other times torment, and that is how it should be. It's okay not to know the answer. It is not okay to stop thinking about the question.

Ultimately, no one has the answer to existential questions. What does it mean to be remembered, even when it is not possible to make new memories?

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Russia – weak, scared and nuclear

Russia and the US continue to argue about Syria, lifting tensions ever higher. Russia recently announced plans to implement a no-fly zone across the country, a direct challenge to the US. Moscow also issued a warning it will shoot down US aircraft if they attack Syrian regime forces, much to Washington’s chagrin.

Other pieces on the chessboard are moving. Moscow is moving nuclear-capable (perhaps nuclear-tipped) Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles to its exclave Kaliningrad bordering Poland and Lithuania. The Norwegian air force chased away an armed Russian fighter jet while British interceptors shadowed two long-range Russian bombers flying deep into the Atlantic, much deeper than the usual patrolling distance.

These all occur in the last few months of US President Barack Obama’s final term. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s logic of intervening in Syria to draw Russian and world attention away from his fiasco in Ukraine still colours these actions. Everything he does is about Ukraine. No one in Washington or Brussels is fooled by claims of humanitarian reasoning.

Yet his increasingly rambunctious and belligerent actions in Eastern Europe – especially threats to withdraw from various nuclear fuel treaties with the US and the intermediate-range ballistic missile treaty – are raising eyebrows across NATO. And with its constant, overlapping military exercises in south and western Russia, the possibility of war is now being considered openly.

It was a nasty thing Mr Putin did in Crimea, even worse what he’s doing in Ukraine as he changed the post-Cold War security structure in Europe. The Baltic countries are definitely watching him closely. Even a casual glance at European history shows moving borders is a bad idea. But underneath all his belligerency is a slow-moving shockwave of which Mr Putin is taking full advantage: the breakdown of the nation-state concept.

After the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the agreed definition of citizenship was that if a person resides in X, they are an Xer. Mr Putin has added a codicil: a person’s nationality, in addition to their residency, is also determined by the language their parents spoke in the kitchen while they grew up. He feels responsible for defending Russian speakers wherever they live. That’s as corrosive of the Westphalian compromise as anything happening in Raqqa with the Islamic State.

Russia is also trending nuclear. I thought we were done with this. The last half of the 20th century was spent trying to balance Russia’s nuclear forces. Back then, as crazy as it sounds, a multiple independently targetable missile was considered more stabilising than a single warhead. The calculus of organising what constituted deterrence through this period was like theology. We all thought that was history.

Now Russia is turning back the clocks. Unlike the Cold War, Russia is far weaker conventionally than the US. To compensate, Russian exercises are blending in nuclear first-use to freeze a conflict early. Its military doctrine calls nuclear first-use at the tactical level a “de-escalatory step,” as in, if it lets its nukes fly, Russia won’t lose. And at a time when US nuclear doctrine remains purposefully confusing and hesitating, Russia’s comfortability with nuclear coupled with its actions is incredibly concerning.

Earlier in the year at a Russian national security meeting Russian state media RT “accidentally” shot video of something they “shouldn’t” have seen. The slide in question showed a nuclear torpedo of 6000 kilometres range with megatonnage warhead capacity – a literal doomsday machine. There is no indication of an actual, operational weapon behind that slide. But the mere fact they wanted the US to see it suggests that what most people thought was history is actually the present, and will certainly be in the future.
Russia's 'secret' nuclear torpedo shown on RT

Yet Russia is not a resurgent power, it is a revanchist power. President Putin is staring down Europe and the US with nothing more than a pair of sevens in his hand.

This is a country of declining everything: resources, entrepreneurship, democracy, population, funds and almost all else. It is lashing out about Ukraine because its weakness has led to even its geography declining. It can’t do anything to reverse these trends, even as it tries desperately.

Russia has entered its second economic crisis in less than 10 years. Oil prices remain low yet Russia still hasn’t diversified its federal budget away from fossil fuel income. More than 50% of its budget comes from oil exports. What little money it stored in rainy-day funds is dwindling as Moscow rushes to feed thirsty state and commercial needs. Some of those funds could be dry by next year.

So when assessing Russia, one shouldn’t worry about how the Russo-American relationship will be in 25 years in the same way they worry about the Sino-American relationship in 25 years. The Russia problem is a more immediate. Given his constraints, Mr Putin may go crazy in the next zero to three years. But after five, ten or fifteen years, the Russian problem is far less dangerous as its serious decline overtakes its ambitions.

Mr Putin’s overconfidence in the near term is legitimately dangerous as he recognises his weak hand and knows he must play them quickly to win. Many have been pleading with the current US administration for years for a more robust American push-back. Getting that sorted out could be critical to keep the near-term threat of Mr Putin’s adventurism under control.

Sitrep - 12 October, 2016

Significant unrest continues across Ethiopia this week prompting the government to declare a state of emergency to help cool tensions. Protests and demonstrations have swelled over the past three months, culminating in 52 or 300 deaths at a festival in early October. The festival evolved into a large anti-government protest and a heavy-handed security approach, which caused a panic.

Over the weekend, the government then fired rubber bullets into protests near the capital Addis Ababa, exacerbating the tension further. However, the protests haven’t cohered into a single mass, orbiting instead around three ethnic group’s particular grievances. The Amhara (27% of total population), Oromo (34%) and Somali (6%) each have historical frustrations with the ruling Tigray (6%).

Media censorship is making it difficult to understand the unrest, but it is clear the country’s leaders have their work cut out. Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian, 100 million population country in the middle of a dozen Islamic countries, making it unique in the region. It is also an important ally of the US and a strong East African country, so Addis Ababa is attempting to quell the protests quickly.

In Asia Pacific, raucous Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte threatened to kick US forces from his country and ordered a halt to future military exercises. Mr Duterte says the US treats the Philippines as “a doormat” and is frustrated Washington doesn’t give it the “weapons it needs.” Mr Duterte also says the US president is a “son of a bitch” and should “go to hell.”

The US has consistently criticised the new president’s crackdown on drug crime, which has reportedly resulted in 3600 deaths in just three months. But his call for expulsion of US forces is a marked escalation. The Philippines was once a US colony and the two have a convoluted history, but the Philippines exports more to the US than China, and relies on US military power for its foreign policy flexibility.

Mr Duterte’s rhetoric should be seen as neither anti-US nor pro-China, but rather pro-Philippines. The new president boasts a 91% approval rating and is seen as someone to clean up the country. This approval is critical because he hasn’t yet consolidated power among traditional political bases. Appearing tough on the US, but stopping short of actually implementing threats, is a safe way to maintain power at home.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Those fake boobs look incredible! "Thanks," she says demurely

I

Misogyny and sexism intersect with the labels "slut" or "dirty girl." A dirty girl is a woman who likes sex. You know what a synonym for that is? Normal. Yet any girl with a healthy interest in sex - and who admits it - immediately becomes dirty or a slut. When guys throw these labels around, a few things are happening in their heads:

1. They resent how the dirty girl won't have sex with them. This isn't a joke. She's a "slut" for denying them something she appears to give away freely, which makes them feel inadequate with respect to other men.

2. Sex is purely an aspect of power. It is a medium of exchange in the power dynamic between men and women. The more sex a woman gives away, the more power she gets.

3. An expression of a latent fear that if all women could have sex whenever they want, men would lose all power and control over women and they would have power. Men harbouring this fear feel they will lose their power without receiving sex in exchange, hence women are "robbing" them of their power.

4. When attaching a pejorative label to women it reinforces their delusion they actually have power in society (because they're the ones doing the labelling).

The fascinating thing about misogyny is how well it dovetails with homophobia. Men who have sex with other men aren't simply homosexuals, they are "fags," "fairies" or "sissies." In other words, they are like women. And when men hate gay men for being like women it's easy to see how they might also hate women for being women.

II

Here's a joke for you:

So these mothers in Africa are ironing their daughters' breasts to keep them flat. Isn't that crazy? It won't leave any room for breast implants when they turn 16.

And, scene...

Consider where the humour is here. It's somehow unacceptable to make jokes about mothers disfiguring their daughter's breasts to make them flatter and less sexually appealing, but it's perfectly acceptable to joke about women disfiguring their own breasts to make them larger and ostensibly more sexually attractive and establishing a standard of beauty for every other girl to follow.

The reason is obvious - as long as we joke about how women objectify themselves within our own culture, it's okay, because the women are still objectifying themselves. But we can't joke about how women prevent themselves from being objectified because the unobjectified woman is not really a woman. Or, if you prefer, the girls are less-than-complete women because their breasts are too small, but the women with implants are "more woman" than ordinary women if their breasts are extra large.

How about this instead: women are whole women no matter the size of their breasts, and men's attitudes about sex need to be set properly by their mothers at a young age so they don't become misogynistic assholes.

Underlying both cases of breast mutilation is the acknowledgement by women in both societies that men set the standard for beauty. That a man's attitude is fixed and immutable and those attitudes should dictate what women do with their bodies. We're only outraged by mutilation to reduce breasts because it's the opposite of what our own culture endorses: breast mutilation in the service of enlargement. Apparently, our culture wants women to cut open their breasts and insert plastic implants until their breasts become striated, hard and absurd in order to be more certain of finding a mate. Madness.

Granted there is an element of consent, but the same could be said of mothers who pay other adults to fire hot metal through their daughter's ears at a young age, or who set examples for their daughter by getting cosmetic surgery and neurotoxin injections to (temporarily) look more attractive. The outrage isn't over the lack of a daughter's consent to breast ironing, the outrage is because they feel required to do this in the first place to protect themselves from men.

In Africa, and other places still living in the 15th century, mothers try to protect girls from being preyed upon by men, so at least there is a noble intent of protection from real and life-threatening harm.

In New Zealand, there is no risk of harm. A vanishingly small possibility of sexual harm by random men. The only risk is of not looking as synthetically beautiful as possible is a failure to attract the "right kind" of sexual mate. The pursuit of youth and beauty through surgery is the same mindset motivating mothers to admonish their late-twentysomething daughters to find a husband soon because "they aren't getting any younger."

So yes, breast mutilation is horrible , but joking about it in any context is perfectly acceptable if it illustrates the complete irrationality of the underlying psychology. The more we expose the insanity of the culture (theirs or ours, preferably both) the sooner we can put an end to the nonsense.

III

I find it infuriating that even with so much emphasis on rape over the last 20 years there are still many examples of women smiling demurely, always waiting until the man had gone before throwing their phone number away.

Why would young girls smile demurely if a guy creeps them out unless they were taught to do so? This is my frustration. Not that women aren't being educated to watch out for rapists, but that somehow and from somewhere, they are also being taught to be powerless - to not to stir up trouble, not to enforce their wider boundaries and personal space, etc.

When men pass girls in the shopping mall their cards, they know in advance they will suffer no negative consequences for doing so. How can this be, unless there is a widespread cultural norm that women continue to maintain - and that parents continue to teach - that girls are to accept any sexual advance politely provided she isn't physically threatened? This has to come from mothers because fathers have no idea what it's like to be a woman.

"Isn't that blaming the victim?" HA, no. My whisky makes me impervious to your criticism. Believe me, I can see what's happening from a female's perspective too. I've sat in way too many bars at 2am watching the fireworks to miss the obvious. The same drama plays out every week, thousands of times, across every city:

He finally decides to approach after starting insanely in her direction for 14 minutes. It takes everything he has just to start walking. She saw him the moment her friend dropped her shoulder to laugh an hour ago. He thinks he's about to make a first impression.

If he was confident, he wouldn't have waited 14 minutes. But he makes it over to her anyway. She wasn't attracted to him an hour ago and he's even creepier 20cm away. So she declines his drunk offer and guess what happens? The man gets violent. If he feels in control or in "his" environment, he might hit her. But he's weak so he calls her a slut instead and that "she isn't very pretty anyway." He stumbles back to his stool and the girl turns to her friends as his words slip into her long-term memory.

Years ago the girl noticed her friend's dads looking differently at her at far too early an age but back then she didn't have the wherewithal or psychological maturity to understand what was going on, only that it felt strange. She learned a lesson then, but couldn't put it into words.

It's the same lesson again at the bar. She knows it's better for her health if she just smiles demurely and "strings the guy along" until he loses interest. Her subconscious can only deal with so much violence before it puts the pieces together.

Many women object forcefully only to find the man targeting them escalate the harassment and intimidation. These micro- and macro-aggressions happen so often it must be exhausting to object forcefully every time. This doesn't include the complexities of deciding whether it's dangerous to say something diverting or say something more forceful.

Their demure reaction isn't natural, it's learned. Her mother should have taught her ways to defend herself, but that mother was broken at far too early an age as well and likely never dealt with the same destructive lessons. So the carousel spins another revolution and nothing changes.

IV

My complaint with how women seem to react to assault is not that they fail to act rationally, it's that they try to act rationally instead of acting irrationally. It's common to hear some version of the phrase, "I remember wanting to take a shower, but instead sat on the couch trying to process what had happened and what I could do next."

What the hell does "process" mean? It means making sure she doesn't do anything stupid like cause trouble. "Process" means giving all the behavioural norms about internalising an assault time to work. But the normal response to sexual assault is to act irrationally. To scream, scratch, punch, kick. The normal response to a teenage girl getting hit on by a creepy 30-year-old guy is to say "Ew, gross."

The common responses are learned behaviours. They are the result of some other education circumventing and countering the overt rape-awareness education saturating this culture.

That's why men continue to assault and rape. They know how to pick victims who will behave. You can't train men not to rape because most men already know this. Rape is not a failure of men's impulse control. Most men don't want to conflate sex and violence. The male who does is defective already and in a way no education about harassment will fix. Many rapists who go to prison become rapists of men. It isn't about sex, which means it isn't about women. It's about finding a victim. In other words, it's about finding someone who already is a victim before the attack starts.

How did we get here?

There will always be thieves, murderers and rapists. No matter how many tablets we bring down from the mountain or how much training people receive. What you can do is teach people that regardless of their age they have power and how to use it to protect themselves. Of course, this puts some responsibility for the status quo on women, but that's perfectly fair. Do women want actual power, or the trappings of power? Someone's going to have it.

Is the justice system biased towards women?

Men are frustrated by how unfairly the justice system defers to women. My peer group isn't quite at the stage where divorce is a common reality, but even now some are worried any future custody battle will favour wives and they'll lose their kids. The courts, they say, are biased. I think they're correct, but their frustration is usually fired at feminists or a magical all-powerful group of women conspiring to undermine the male status quo. But I have to ask: really? A girl did this to you?

Custody and family legal matters appear unfair because males set it up like this. The concept revolves around women being seen as more nurturing, default mothers who should be protected with extraordinary care. This is now baked into the legal system from top to bottom. Of course, this is unfair, but it doesn't fit neatly into right or wrong either. That's just how the legal system was structured. So when men complain, they have to remember god/aliens didn't create the justice system. It was them.

I don't think anyone disagrees about the once clear and particular societal roles for both men and women, which stayed pretty much intact for centuries. None of that was controversial until the suffragette/feminist movement told us it was time for a change. Everyone - including women - assumed women were weaker and needed extra protection from the state. It was assumed men were stronger and didn't need as much protection. It was assumed women would always become mothers. It was assumed men wouldn't prioritise child-rearing over working at a job because it wasn't their role.

The justice system was built for this. Again, it's not a bad or a good thing, it's simply the way things used to be. Now it's changing as men desire more child custody or more familial protection in court. They're complaining as they discover at the sharp end of a gavel that the system it was set up precisely for the opposite world they now desire. I think this is what feminists mean when they speak so impossibly of the patriarchy.

But this isn't feminism's fault - women didn't create the justice system. If men now want changes, they should reassess the default assumptions baked into some of our most stalwart institutions and figure out what might need to change as we evolve into a more equal world. However, none of that will be possible if we fail to understand how and for what purpose those institutions were constructed in the first place.

Although, forgetting an institution's purpose and remembering how to maintain it is the connecting thread explaining most of today's societal ills. So I don't have a lot of faith.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Don't pardon Snowden

As expected, a nasty nails-on-chalkboard chorus of Edward Snowden supporters are building hoping US President Barack Obama will pardon the man during the last few months of his final term.

Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks from the National Security Agency (NSA), the equivalent signals intelligence to New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), were the greatest haemorrhaging of legitimate American secrets in the history of the republic.

Mr Snowden’s job, as a contractor at NSA Hawaii, was as a sharepoint manager – a traffic cop for the sharing of information. His having access to something on the order of 500,000 documents was about as suspicious as a librarian being seen with books. Still, the question immediately after his leak was how did it happen again?

When Bradley Manning, a US Army private sitting in a tent in Kuwait, downloaded 250,000 State Department cables in 2010, we now know the US intelligence community began a programme to enact real-time monitoring of its secured internet.

NSA was systematically putting this system into place across its global enterprise. And the last place to be updated was NSA Hawaii. And Snowden knew that. This is why he fought for the Booz Allen contractor job, leaving a good role with Dell. He had the malice of forethought and a goal to steal as much as possible.

Yet whatever he did to accelerate a national debate about privacy, 98% of the material he shoved out the door told the world how the US collects intelligence to keep the country and its allies safe. The community probably should have been more open earlier and it must be transparent to gain sanction from the American people. But as necessary as this is, transparency comes at a cost. It shaves points off the effectiveness of intelligence gathering, but it has to be done otherwise the American people won’t let the community do its task anyway.

What did Mr Snowden actually achieve on this front? Well, the only documented change in US intelligence judicially or legislatively – other than some voluntary restraints – is that the metadata programme he revealed, rather than being kept at NSA, is now kept by US telecommunications providers. After three years, that’s it.

Under President Bush, NSA had access to American metadata. Under President Obama, NSA had access to American metadata. Today, NSA has access to American metadata. There have been some changes between the presidents and pre and post-Snowden, but fundamentally the American political system agrees NSA needs access to US metadata.

His supporters say he acted in the public interest as a whistleblower. But whistleblowing requires the person to outline a violation of law. None of what NSA did was illegal. It was signed off by all three branches of government, multiple times, and by two presidents who couldn’t be more different politically.

The best that could be said about Mr Snowden is that he committed an act of civil disobedience. The American classic for civil disobedience was written by Henry David Thoreau. The author says civil disobedience gets its moral authority by the willingness for the person to stand trial and accept accountability for the consequences of their action. Mr Snowden failed to do this.

And yet his leaks hit a responsive chord. Many Americans, and not just those wearing tinfoil, think government power should be carefully watched. There are only two things an intelligence community needs to be successful: power and secrecy. But inside American political culture the dynamics most distrusted are power and secrecy. That’s a tension the US system will always have to deal with.

The NSA and its allies are slowly getting past the breach, but there’s still an awful lot to be done. Firstly, many foreign intelligence relationships must be repaired. How the agency may or may not have spied is peripheral. The real worry is whether the US can keep anything secret. That’s terribly corrosive to intelligence relationships.

Secondly, the leaks had a major impact on US business which was unfairly singled out. US technology companies don’t do anything less for NSA than Deutschebank does for BND. And French telecommunications companies do a lot more for DGSE with far less oversight. US companies lost business based on the incomplete and false accusations made against them.


Thirdly, NSA's raw operational capacity was deeply hurt. Don’t believe the stories about zero concrete examples of US assets being harmed by the leaks. The heads of both intelligence committees, the directors of NSA, the DNI, the DIA and the president have all said concrete shortfalls in collection based upon Mr Snowden’s exposure of sources and methods are a palpable reality.

Mr Snowden’s secrets didn’t expose some US covert action in Iran. That would have been a leak, filling perhaps a barrel or a cup. His secrets exposed the plumbing. He revealed how NSA collects its intelligence, and, as a result, the US didn’t simply lose data, it lost the capacity to gain data.

Finally, employees at NSA and Five Eyes countries have been slapped around for three years. They read daily indictments about how terrible and disgusting they are for doing a necessary job. That will have a long-term negative effect on morale.

If the president is to issue a pardon, their morale will further decline. It will signal to the community that regardless of legal protection and oversight, of which the NSA and its partners are subject to the most rigorous in the world, the whims and feelings of a lone troubled young man can overrule everything if he uses the amorphous excuse of public interest.

There are stories of married intelligence workers each taking their job so seriously they only discover the other works in the same building when the agency holds an unexpected family open-day. So advisors to Mr Obama should ask him: does he like getting intelligence? Because pardoning Mr Snowden will remove it – entirely. No intelligence professional would ever again risk their life if political consumers are not willing to defend them.