Posts Tagged ‘Revolution’

Homo Blogicus, Pup, Pakistan, Torture, Marijuana, and the Revenge of Geography

Friday, May 1st, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]I’m going to start creating a list of best reads for the week every Friday – picking between 5 and 10 articles or blog posts that are well worth reading in their entirety.

  1. Christopher Buckley writes a very personal essay for the New York Times, adapted from his soon to be published memoir, about growing up as the son of the famous Mr. and Mrs. William F. Buckley (“Pup” and “Mum”). Truly moving, surprising, honest and earnest. An excerpt:

    I’d brought with me a pocket copy of the book of Ecclesiastes. A line in “Moby-Dick” lodged in my mind long ago: “The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.” I grabbed it off my bookshelf on the way here, figuring that a little fine-hammered steel would probably be a good thing to have on this trip. I’m no longer a believer, but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” at deathbeds of loved ones.

    Soon after, a doctor came in to remove the respirator. It was quiet and peaceful in the room, just pings and blips from the monitor. I stroked her hair and said, the words coming out of nowhere, surprising me, “I forgive you.”

    It sounded, even at the time, like a terribly presumptuous statement. But it needed to be said. She would never have asked for forgiveness herself, even in extremis. She was far too proud. Only once or twice, when she had been truly awful, did she apologize. Generally, she was defiant — almost magnificently so — when her demons slipped their leash. My wise wife, Lucy, has a rule: don’t go to bed angry. Now, watching Mum go to bed for the last time, I didn’t want any anger left between us, so out came the unrehearsed words.

  2. Stephen Walt, blogging for FP, asks Three Questions About Pakistan. He quotes David Kilcullen explaining:

    We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we’re calling the war on terror now.

    He cites a Timur Kuran and Suisanne Lohmann for providing a construct for understanding why such collapses as Pakistan’s possible one are hard to predict:

    [R]evolutionary upheavals (and state collapse) are hard to predict because individual political preferences are a form of private information and the citizenry’s willingness to abandon the government and/or join the rebels depends a lot on their subjective estimate of the costs and risks of each choice. If enough people become convinced the rebels will win, they will stop supporting the government and may even switch sides, thereby create a self-reinforcing snowball of revolutionary momentum. Similar dynamics may determine whether the armed forces hang together or gradually disintegrate. As we saw in Iran in 1979 or in Eastern Europe in 1989, seemingly impregnable authoritarian governments sometimes come unglued quite quickly. At other times, however, apparently fragile regimes manage to stagger on for decades, because key institutions hold and the revolutionary bandwagon never gains sufficient momentum.

  3. Evgeny Morozov, also blogging for FP, suggests that “promoting democracy via the internet is often not a good idea.”

    I simply refuse to believe in the universality of this new human type of Homo Blogicus – the cosmopolitan and forward-looking blogger that regularly looks at us from the cover pages of the New York Times or the Guardian. The proliferation of online nationalism, the growing use of cyber-attacks to silence down opponents, the overall polarization of internet discussions predicted by Cass Sunstein et al, make me extremely suspicious of any talk about the emergence of some new archetype of an inherently democratic and cosmopolitan internet user.

    As much as I’d like to believe that internet decreases homophily and pushes us to discover and respect new and different viewpoints, I am yet to see any tangible evidence that this is actually happening – and particularly in the context of authoritarian states, where media and public spheres are set up in ways that are fundamentally different from those of democracies.

  4. Julian Sanchez blogs reflectively about “our special horror over torture” – especially as related to aerial bombing. He concludes:

    Civilian life affords us the luxury of a good deal of deontology—better to let ten guilty men go free, and so on. In wartime, there’s almost overwhelming pressure to shift to consequentialist thinking… and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have leaders who remember to factor the other side’s population into the calculus. And so we might think of the horror at torture as serving a kind of second-order function, quite apart from its intrinsic badness relative to other acts of war. It’s the marker we drop to say that even now, when the end is self-preservation, not all means are permitted. It’s the boundary we treat as uncrossable not because we’re certain it traces the faultline between right and wrong, but because it’s our own defining border; because if we survived by erasing it, whatever survived would be a stranger in the mirror. Which, in his own way, is what Shep Smith was getting at. Probably Khalid Sheik Mohammed deserves to be waterboarded and worse. We do not deserve to become the country that does it to him.

  5. Jim Manzi is equally reflective in his piece written “Against Waterboarding” for the American Scene and published at the National Review’s Corner as well:

    What should a U.S. citizen, military or civilian, do if faced with a situation in which he or she is confident that a disaster will occur that can only be avoided by waterboarding a captured combatant? Do it, and then surrender to the authorities and plead guilty to the offense. It is then the duty of the society to punish the offender in accordance with the law. We would rightly respect the perpetrator while we punish him. Does this seem like an inhuman standard? Maybe, but then again, I don’t want anybody unprepared for enormous personal sacrifice waterboarding people in my name.

    But consider, not a theoretical scenario of repeated nuclear strikes on the United States, or a tactical “ticking time bomb” scenario, but the real situation we face as a nation. We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11 through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage — not foolhardy and unsustainable “principle at all costs,” but reasoned courage — from its citizens. The American response should be to find some other solution to this problem if the casualty rate is unacceptable. To demand that the government “keep us safe” by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.

  6. Robert Kaplan writes about the “Revenge of Geography” for Foreign Policy. The summary of the article:

    People and ideas influence events, but geography largely determines them, now more than ever. To understand the coming struggles, it’s time to dust off the Victorian thinkers who knew the physical world best. A journalist who has covered the ends of the Earth offers a guide to the relief map—and a primer on the next phase of conflict.

  7. Time magazine has a piece written by Maia Szalavitz on drug decriminalization in Portugal which is also worth checking out. Excerpt:

    “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

    Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

Process Revolutions

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Lawrence Lessig
[Photo by Robert Scobel.]

[digg-reddit-me]Lawrence Lessig described an interesting concept in his “Change Congress” presentation. He briefly mentioned an idea that I do not recall hearing before; yet this idea neatly provides a missing explanation in my understanding of change and revolution.

Throughout history, revolutions, though beginning with glorious idealism, have almost never ended well. The French Revolution was a bloody affair that devolved into totalitarianism; the revolution of Communism was likewise bloody and totalitarian; the same can be said of many of the smaller and less ideological revolutions against colonial powers and monarchies. As often as not, the main change these revolutions accomplished was to replace one evil with another.

A period of change is always a period of danger – and when the leaders of a revolution are focused on achieving hubristic goals, especially goals based on abstractions and ideology, they must resort to totalitarian means. As Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon wrote about a fictional Communist revolution:

The sole object of revolution was the abolition of senseless suffering. But it had turned out that the removal of this second kind of suffering was only possible at the price of a temporary enormous increase in the sum total of the first.

The great anti-totalitarian novels of the second half of the twentieth century, Brave New World, 1984, Darkness at Noon, and Animal Farm, all drove home this single insight: that ideological, goal-oriented revolution inevitably led to totalitarianism; that when revolution prioritized the ends over the means, enormous suffering was the immediate result.

The rare alternative to these goal-oriented or ideological revolutions are process revolutions. While American history has had a number of ends-focused revolutions – the original American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement – these movements all had more or less discrete goals which could be achieved (seceding from Britain; preventing the secession of the South; and ending the legal discrimination against African Americans). These were revolutions whose purpose was not to tear down the existing social and governmental structures, but to amend them in discrete ways.  The concrete nature of the goals of these revolutions in addition to extraordinary leadership1 of these movements mitigated the dangers inherent in revolution and rapid change through American history.

What Lessig points to is that there have been other less dramatic, and equally as important, revolutions in American history. Lessig cites some examples: the Second Constitutional Convention; the Progressive movement; and the Watergate reforms. These revolutions focused on creating and changing processes rather than on specific ends; their results have profoundly affected our society and have been generally beneficial, standing in stark contrast to the more extreme and more painful ideological revolutions.

Lessig suggests that today our society may be primed for another process revolution, that a political movement may be able to reform our politics in order to allow us to tackle the many festering long-term problems we face: global climate change; terrorism; growing domestic and international inequality; a broken health care system; an imbalance of power in Washington; institutional corruption; a declining manufacturing sector.  Senator John McCain in his 2000 campaign and Senator Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign2 did and have based their candidacies on reforming our politics to allow us to tackle the more fundamental problems we must face.

Obama has taken the further step of advocating process-based change.  He does not just want universal health care; he wants to televise the task force and committee meetings, and make as many of the discussions of how to implement this idea public and available via television and the internet.  While Hillary Clinton, as First Lady, tried to push through health care reform by meeting secretly with lobbyists, cramming her bill with special deals for all sorts of special interests, and threatening members of her own party who proposed alternate plans, Obama believes that how we achieve health care reform is as important as achieving it.  With this, and many other policies, and given many of Obama’s top advisers, it is clear that an Obama presidency would attempt a process revolution to set the country back on the right track.

As you might guess – based on his focus on long-term issues and on the corruption of the political process – Lawrence Lessig was an early endorser of Barack Obama. (Lessig’s lecture referenced here, is below the fold.)

(more…)

  1. George Washington; Abraham Lincoln; Martin Luther King, Jr.: all canny politicians who married idealism to pragmatism, who exercised great restraint, who called on our “better angels”, and who did not seek personal power. []
  2. Though John McCain has paid lip service to reform in his 2008 campaign, he now endorses most of the fruit of the tree he called corrupt. []
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