Monday, September 28, 2009


Muammar Qaddafi is such a BAMF.

It's incontrovertible.

Here there be magical thinking

Through a bunch of web-hopping (I think from The American Scene to Postmodern Conservative to Front Porch Republic to De Rogno Christi), I've spent the last hour reading a bunch of very abstracted conservative thought with a lot of roots in critical theory as well as theology and probably a bunch of stuff I wouldn't recognize, coming as I do from a completely different direction. I wouldn't say I agree with all or probably even half of what I've read, but I definitely have found it an interesting hour. Anyway, I wanted to reproduce this from Caleb Stegall at De Rogno Christi:

Anglo-catholics like Lewis, Tolkein, Chesterton, Eliot, etc., all understood the Church as a crypt in which the essential and primary blood and soil paganism of Europe was embalmed and allowed to stare up at us out of the waters. Think Tolkien’s ghostly undead kings of the past coming back to help the heroes/true church at its time of need. I don’t know exactly what Tolkien meant by that, but they are a cursed and unfriendly lot. This isn’t really redemption but a lingering paganism that speaks to this not entirely appropriate collaboration and amalgamation between Christianity and paganism in the west, which Protestantism/enlightenment/modernity has tried to efface and now has completely forgotten. This forgetting has caused all kinds of problems which was the most basic point of Tolkein’s books. The foremost problem is that Christianity as a depaganized political religion is Liberalism, radicalized and out of whack with reality in which one must at times do evil and even commit mortal sins for temporal goods that are the charge of those with political power. And then seek absolution in the magical appeasement of the gods. The medieval church allows, or found a way to admit and cope with this. It is a deal with paganism. Take it away and you get a devolution from Protestantism into liberalism. You get the new American personal faith Christianity (evangelicalism) with the magical thinking of overbought homes on ARMS and credit cards and daycare and building democracy in Iraq and all the other delusional magical thinking of late-modernity in the capitalist-state. And you get a whole new class of materialist therapeutic witchdoctors rising up to give the newest incantations: ‘your best life now!’ ‘your purpose driven life!’ or whatever.

So now we see American Christianity “emerging” more and more into universalism. It is in the water. All roads lead to ruin as Eliot knew. And for those who see this, the desire for “tradition” or whatever you call that which is largely lost and haunting us is a partly sick desire to unearth the dead.

We are at a dangerous crossroads. Messing with the dead is dangerous stuff. But it must be done. But like Tolkein understood, it can only be done by the “true King,” by the church, and even this is not without debilitating and compromises. This is connected to what I have been arguing about being able, at least occasionally, to admit that the narratives of tradition and church history are to an extent myths that legitimize what I would call the “mojo” … or the magic … the authority of the church. The simple yet profound truth that at the very bottom, we have very little to go on other than “because the church says so.” So this is in part what I mean by repaganizing … that our churchmen need a hint of witchdoctor in them, or if you prefer, a touch of Gandalf or Merlin. They have “powers” as my kids would say. This is completely flattened out in a rationalistic modernizing deracinated disenchanted liberalizing protestant culture. And the inchoate need for magic and appeasement of the gods gets shifted in very unhealthy materialist directions which can be exploited by those who understand the psychology.

(I know that was long. But come on, it was interesting.) This is fascinating stuff for me for a few reasons. First let me say that I don't really agree with the idea that a depaganized or sanitized church is the same thing as liberalism, largely because I don't agree with what he seems to think about liberalism. Possibly this is because he is using the word in a different sense than any I can think of, and if I were to ask him what he meant maybe that section would become clearer to me in the form of something I with which could agree to disagree.

That said, I find it interesting because I think the general point that a sort of paganism or a magical thinking is endemic to being human is completely true. We all like fairy tales, we are all superstitious to some degree, we all have our rituals and our sense, however vestigial, of some kind of cosmic justice ("What did I do to deserve this?"). For me, as an atheist, this has always been completely decoupled from any sort of intermingling with religion; and as a rationalist with a lot of economic privilege I've had what is probably the luxury of avoiding magical thinking in the sense of lottery tickets, a purpose-driven life, et. al. But it's obvious to me that we have witch doctors in our society, whether they are televangelists, Alan Greenspan, therapists or dieticians. Last year I wrote this:

Current discussions of economics and the economy contain a bizarre contradiction: On the one hand, the Free Market Rulz OK because the economy is too complex, diverse, and fast-moving to be comprehended sufficiently by any planner or regulator. It is, to a certain degree, unknowable and all-powerful, if benevolent. This idea is roughly analogous to ABVC's description of a puppeteer with no will--"the laws of cause and effect. You have a will, but it is not free, it is the effect of lots of causes." [...]

On the other hand, we flatter ourselves that with enough math, studies, models, and theorizations we can understand how these things work.... This effort is roughly analogous to the notion of "seeing the strings", or trying to.

We understand the economy as both a reflection and the driver of our entire world.... This is a bizarre combination of The Economy's being by and of us while simultaneously being completely alien to us. We do things to it, we figure it out and profit off it, we game it, we live in it, but occasionally it completely swamps us. It's a force of nature--it is to us as the sea is to fishermen, or the Euphrates was to Mesopotamian farmers (floods are a central mythic trope in ancient Mesopotamian religion).

Furthermore, even when I come out of my academic funk enough to take the crisis at face value, the degree to which nobody has any idea what is going on or what is to be done about it, and the degree to which any one opinion can be convincingly argued against, certainly suggests that while the phenomena at hand are real, our understanding of them is merely a comforting fiction.

[...] But we persist in believing, very firmly, that policymaking and many other arguably more quantitative fields are rational processes of improvement, whose wildly unpredictable results are owed more to the complexity and difficulty of the problems or questions these disciplines engage than they are to the complete disconnect between what we think we are doing and what is actually going on.

This, of course, is the joke. We think we see the strings, but they are far too long for us to comprehend them as such.... The punchline is that we don't actually understand the economic forces around us, nor do we understand our interactions with them. It's all fooled by randomness with a healthy dose of storytelling and myth. A form of paganism, if you like--believing that human actions affect natural phenomena. (Thank god we burned a Yule log this year, or the sun might not have come up in January either.)

I stand by that. And in my own rationalist, atheistic life, I have still harbored a fascination with the pagan or the mythic. For as long as I can remember I was fascinated by mythological traditions--Norse, Irish, and Anglo particularly--and I've read a few theoretical unpackings of fairy stories (notably Diane Purkiss's At The Bottom of the Garden) that have left me convinced that fairies are the things we fill in in liminal spaces: life changes (from childhood to adulthood, maidenhood to motherhood, prince to king, maturity to old age) and events (birth, death, loss of virginity, quest fulfillment); literally liminal spaces and moments like threshholds, twilights, and borders; unknown areas like forests, the bottoms of ponds, mountain fastnesses.

We still have fascinations with these liminalities, and we still have ceremonies surrounding them. Boomer fascinations with pre-birth rituals like reading baby books and carrying eggs around and such are basically magical rituals intended to make birth and becoming parents easier, to ensure it goes well. We still have sweet sixteens and graduation parties and the insane coming of age ritual known as applying to college (which is a process chock-full of magical thinking). The old magical rituals are basically the same as our current endeavors because they both represent attempts to colonize and control these spaces. Leaving offerings for fairies before, during, or after birth is not that different from, say, insisting that your boyfriend light candles and strew the bed with rose petals when you plan to lose your virginity. Neither will have much effect on how this completely scary and unknowable (till it happens) event goes off, but hey, at least we tried, right? There may not be fairies in the forest these days, but we still make movies about giant octopi preserved in glaciers since the Cretaceous (or whenever) at the bottom of the ocean. Even the notion of extraterrestrial beings who sweep you up in their ships and do weird things to you maps almost perfectly onto the fairy kingdom under the hill.

And of course this kind of pagan ritualism has its analogues in religion. What else is a Confirmation or a Bat Mitzvah? Christmas is famously full of old English pagan rituals.

My point is that even without a personal connection to what one might call a paganized church, and even without what I would call a spiritual identity, I get what he's saying (for the most part) and I find the discussion interesting from the point of view of my own interest in paganism, mythology, and their persistence in a supposedly rationalist contemporary world.

And it's become clear to me that I really need to read more T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hamas does not understand PR

Or at least, not outside of Gaza. MotherJones has a photo essay about a summer camp for Palestinian youth that Hamas has been running. The blurb reads:

A kinder, more moderate Hamas? That's the image Gaza's ruling militant group is hoping to sell, in any case. Having scaled back the rocket attacks on Southern Israel that prompted Israel to strike back last December and invade Gaza in a conflict that lasted three weeks, Hamas has refocused on public relations. "Armed resistance is still important and legitimate," Hamas leader Ayman Taha told the New York Times in July. "But we have a new emphasis on cultural resistance."

The new emphasis includes state support for films, television, art shows, and poetic works that portray Gaza residents struggling under Israeli policies. It also includes countless government-run summer camps....

Cool, right? But.

But what, you ask? Well, these pictures show lots of young, skinny, Palestinian boys lying in the dirt pretending to shoot wooden guns, doing sit-ups and other training-looking exercises, and perhaps worst of all, doing the iconic terrorist monkey bars:

Let's revisit that blurb now, shall we?

The new emphasis includes state support for films, television, art shows, and poetic works that portray Gaza residents struggling under Israeli policies. It also includes countless government-run summer camps, which Israel has criticized as ideological training grounds where kids learn how to use weapons.

Now, Israel would say that even if they were fingerpainting and planting trees all day, but that doesn't change the fact that when you look at these pictures you have to concede that Israel might have a point here.

Look, I'm not about to start going all Chicken Little about these camps. I don't think they are likely to do much one way or the other in terms of turning the next generation of Palestinian men into potential terrorists when you consider the larger context of being from Gaza and having had Israel and the U.S. & Co. basically directly ruin your entire life--and on top of that having nothing to do and no outlets. Whether or not a given young man in this situation went to a kind of iffy summer camp run by Hamas when he was twelve doesn't seem likely to be that big a deal when you consider that.

But if Hamas is trying to moderate its image (which impression, to be fair, I got from the MoJo blurb and not from anywhere else), this is probably not the best way to do it. At least not on the Internet.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


I'm just lifting this post from David Kurtz at TPM in its entirety:

Culture of Dependency

Tea partiers complain that the DC subway system wasn't prepared for last weekend's rally and that some protesters were forced to rely on free market solutions (i.e., taxis) to get to the demonstration.

About What You Would Expect Update: The congressman complaining about the DC Metro voted against the stimulus package that boosted funding for the subway.

This is what drives me so nuts about small government starve the beast bullshit.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Quote of the day

"Interesting that we have jurisdiction over a teenage Somali pirate but not an American contractor working for the CIA."

--Jeralyn at TalkLeft on investigation of detainee abuse.

Nationalizing an army

Andrew Sullivan highlighted this excerpt from Tom Ricks a few days ago:

Stories like this from the Associated Press drive me nuts. The Afghan army is "hard to train." Why? Because the soldiers are illiterate. Pop quiz: How many of the Spartans at Thermopalye were literate? [...] The average private soldier in Afghanistan does not need to be literate. Nor does he need diversity training, by the way. (FWIW, he probably has a lot more liberated attitude toward gays than does the average Marine recruit.) He only needs the sort of literacy classes described in the AP article if his American trainers lack the imagination and historical knowledge to train him to be an Afghan, instead of an imitation American, soldier. If we are going to make any progress in dealing with failed states, we are going to have to learn to train across cultures.

Thereafter, he received the following reader email:

I'm not sure what the point of your post quoting Tom Ricks was. His arguments that literacy is not a necessary skill for soldiers are ludicrous. He says "the average soldier in Afghanistan does not need to be literate" citing as authority Spartan soldiers at Thermopalye, who were apparently illiterate. However, I doubt that the Spartan soldiers had to operate and repair trucks, tanks, canons [sic] and other mechanized equipment, or do any of the myriad tasks a modern functioning army is supposed to do.

I suppose Ricks believes the Afghan army could do away with intelligence reports, uniform written protocol and procedures, or anything else of the sort. Hell, get rid of maps, since the soldiers don't need to be able read them. It's just ridiculous. I can't tell what basis he has for disputing the Maj. Gen.'s assessment that the literacy rate is an impediment to training the Afghan army other than some romanticized notion of the Spartan soldier, who needed nothing more than a stout heart and a sharp sword to defeat his enemy.

I'm also not sure what Ricks is suggesting with respect to the "diversity training," but if that is his euphamism for training that is supposed to instil a respect for the rights of other ethnic groups and tribes, I don't think it should be dismissed as casually as Ricks does.

I think both sides are overstating the case somewhat when it comes to the necessity or non-necessity of literacy, but that's not actually what interests me here. What interests me is nation-building, which is supposedly what we're doing in Afghanistan (let's ignore the obvious flaws inherent in that strategy for now).

One of the few points of agreement, to my knowledge, in the theory of the rise of nation-states is the importance of national, citizen armies. (Knowing this highly contested literature, it's entirely possible that there's a school of thought that dismisses this factor, but I have never encountered it.) The idea is that the technical and bureaucratic requirements of creating, maintaining, updating, and deploying such a force contribute mightily to the state's growth in terms of capacity, revenue, and control over its territory; and, more important for my purposes here, that the common experiences, training, and contact among citizens from disparate parts of the territory serves an important role in homogenizing them and helping them to identify with the whole nation, rather than a region or ethnic group. In this sense the military's role is comparable to that of nationally standardized education and national newspapers.

So if what we're trying to do is build an Afghani nation to go along with the state bureaucracy we've instituted, then literacy training, diversity training, really just about ANY training that is universal across diverse forces drawn from diverse locations, is in fact vital. Literacy and diversity training are positive things in their own right, in general, but from a particular academic perspective they're not necessarily the point (though there's a strong academic case to be made for literacy as well).

I do wonder--diversity training, while teaching us that we're all equal and so on, can have the effect of reifying and institutionalizing the categories across which we're equal. If we're trying to build a pan-Afghan identity, it might be more effective to have a policy of equal treatment and let experience of enforcement and example from senior officers do the work: after all, I don't think the British army of old spent a lot of time talking about how people from Kent are just as good as people from Liverpool, or whatever, but rather treated them the same--as soldiers. However, this a) is based on my own speculation and b) requires a functioning, standardized, and authoritative military bureaucracy, which Afghanistan decidedly lacks at the moment.

Another important difference here is that, in my understanding, the French and British citizen armies that came into existence at the dawn of those nation-states fought primarily outside the state's existing territory of dominion. This serves two purposes: it provides an operational imperative for soldiers to get along and function the same, no matter their local, ethnic, or sectarian origins, without complicating these questions with interactions with those origins (for example, deployment to those localities, interactions with those ethnicities, etc); and it allows the military to function as a fairly closed system with a homogeneous culture. Afghanistan, while it does have an operational imperative for functioning, uniform soldiers, faces conflicts largely within its borders. This complicates the building of homogeneous loyalties and experiences, and it makes the building of a distinct military culture and experience that can trump or at least influence preceding experience and loyalties much more difficult.

The thing is, as long as we continue to try to instill these principles from outside the organization, it won't work. These things happened in the European nation-states because they were politically and militarily beneficial. Arguably, the reason no comprehensive nation-state system has emerged in Afghanistan so far is that there's no political imperative for it. The processes and incentives just don't seem to be there. Given that, it's hard (for me) to see how this project can ever be successful--but I said I wouldn't get into that.

Regardless, the significance of these kinds of training is based solely neither in the cost to the American taxpayer nor in the operational relevance or irrelevance of their content. Spartan soldiers, after all, were not just trained how to use a sword and that's it; they were trained how to fight in formations, how to fight alongside their fellow soldiers, and they were trained to care what happened to their fellow soldiers and to the fortunes of their city-state. Similarly, while literacy is useful in learning how to operate equipment, it's arguably easier to learn such things through being taught hands-on by someone who already knows. Almost more important, from a nation-building perspective, than the content or use of what one learns in the army is what happens when one leaves the army: one carries a common experience, body of knowledge, and bond home with one, and an army of ones disperses these commonalities throughout the territory. Over time, the effects of this phenomenon contribute a great deal to the formation of a common identity.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I had to

This site is brilliantly inevitable.

Monday, September 14, 2009



I don't racialize those moments to take away anything, but to say this--I am fucking sick of hearing about black people in the 60s. At least I am sick of hearing about in the way we discuss, like only Abraham Lincoln happened before Martin Luther King, like everyone marched on Washington, or grew an Afro. I am just tired.

I want to hear about white people, now. Not their mythologizing and blind glamor, and not their cynical, infantile backlashing against that blind glamor (No more whining about how much the suburbs suck, please.) I want to hear something humble about a world I can't even envision, because here is the thing: If you tell me about that world, if you tell me something I don't know, and tell me about it in all its lush beauty, and rank hypocrisy, I will see myself in you. You don't have to show me my pedigree. Just show me yours. Don't try to be "inclusive." Just try to be human. Just tell me a story.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Culture shock is always fun.

So I culture shocked real hard when I left Syria. This was to be expected and I sort of went through it in stages; one phase when I got to Beirut and they had (gasp) more than two kinds of restaurant and (gasp) tall buildings and (gasp) women wearing tank tops and (gasp) fashion and (gasp) Dunkin Donuts.

But I got over that pretty fast; it was still an Arab country and people still spoke Arabic and I could more or less make my way around as not-quite-a-tourist.

Then I got to Istanbul and the world sort of exploded around me. I did not speak the language, I could not find my way around, and I was definitely 100% a tourist. On top of this I was on my own; I left my travel companion in Beirut. I can't remember the last time I've been that disoriented.

It wasn't just the disorientation of being in a new place; it was the disorientation of a complete change of role. I had been very definitely Not A Tourist in Damascus and invested a fair amount of energy in making that clear: when you're Not A Tourist people don't rip you off as much, they treat you better, and it's much easier to fend off inquiring men. In Istanbul I had none of the necessary tools for Not A Tourist vibes and as a result became fair prey for everyone. To be frank, it was horrible. I clung to Arabic like a safety raft, constantly searching for Turkish cognates and on occasion replying to people who addressed me in Turkish (apparently I look potentially Turkish enough that people got confused a lot) in Arabic because I felt better about that than English. Somehow admitting to being an English speaker without language skills made me feel less safe, possibly because the first thing to do in an Arab country to get someone on your side is to show that you speak Arabic.

I did notice, in my defense, that I did have a much easier time if I spoke only Arabic and pretended not to speak or understand English, if only because many Turks speak English but none that I encountered spoke Arabic. This made it much easier to fend off shopkeepers, tourguides, and enquiring men (though some of their persistence in the face of apparent total noncomprehension was rather impressive).

Finally I got back to the States, where I continued to suffer from culture shock somewhat but got over it fairly fast--at least this place is familiar to me, just less recently.

But what I find interesting is that the longest-lingering aspect of culture shock so far has been my perception of my own appearance. In Damascus, there weren't a lot of mirrors around, diet culture is more or less nonexistent if you're me and hanging out with boys all the time, and we were all more or less equally scruffy and resigned to looking, well, like students abroad. I got back and all of a sudden realized how much weight I had gained, how completely not used to thinking about, oh, outfits and accessories and such I am, and how (seemingly) effortlessly everyone around me is in a completely different sartorial mentality--that is to say that they have one.

In reaction I basically feel like a sort of poor FOB and eternally, inescapably scruffy. This too, shall pass, of course, but of all things I did not expect beauty culture to be the last and in some ways most difficult hurdle.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


So I'm back.

I didn't update here nearly as much as I expected I would. There were some practical reasons: I didn't and couldn't go to the internet caf├ęs as often as would have been required to keep the posts coming at regular speed, and when I did go I had to catch up with email; anything with the word "blog" in it is liable to be blocked in Syria, so I couldn't always access the blog even if I wanted to.

But more than that, as it was happening I just sort of decided to let it happen to me and not make such a project of every little thing. I disconnected from the Internet completely for a few weeks at one point before eventually coming back, but then only for the minimum, really. I feel okay about that.

It was a fantastic summer, the best in years. Whether or not I wrote, I definitely learned a lot.

I do have some thoughts worth posting (by my standards anyway), and I'm sure more will come to light as time goes on and I get some perspective. But for right now, I'm going to let them all wait.

It is good to be back. I think.