Beauty of Gray

Friday, September 19, 2003

Administrative and hurricane notes

During my long hiatus, my blog reading habits changed, and so did some URL's of my regular reads. I have now, hopefully taken account of these dual changes and cleaned up my blogroll to the right.

Isabel has now completely moved through my area north of Baltimore, leaving me immediately unharmed and unaffected, secondarilly tremendously affected, and overall a bit confused. The first part is easy--we have our power, we have running water, and the storm itself was little more than a strong and breezy thunderstorm. Gusts were higher than usual but, absent my knowledge that the strom was a hurrican, would not have seemed to me out of the ordinary. THe mian bulk of the storm passed south and west of Baltimore, and not really directly hitting the city with much in the way of winds or rain.

However, leading to my puzzlement, about half of all homes serviced by the local power monopoly, BGE, seem to be without power throughout the region, which doesn't really make sense to me. Storms that seemed every bit as powerful or more so, at least to me, come through here fairly regularly, without knocking out power to anything like this number of people. I understand the problems in Virginia and NC, which bore the brunt of the storm, but why is the power network in the Baltimore area, which only saw the edge, so devastated?

And as a result of this, my move into our new home is likely delayed. Our settlement was supposed to be on the 30th, but was contingent on BGE moving a transformer box, a move schduled for next monday the 22nd. But with the power outages, who knows when they'll have time to get around to our problem. In the meanwhile, I'll be living in a box (our lease expires on the 30th, and good luck finding anyplace else that will take 2 dogs and 2 cats) and trying to reschedule the 376 different things we had set up based on the anticipated date of the 30th. I suppose I should be thankful a tree didn't fall on the house or something, but given all the other delays we've been waiting through in our dump of a short-term apartment, it's hard to be very graceful about this 11th hour one.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:13 PM

Struggles to transition to modernity

In an earlier post I alluded to what I see as two weaknesses to Paul Berman’s rather abstract, intellectual treatment of the modern crisis in Arab culture which has led to the rise of terrorist ideologies there. The first, simpler weakness is his concentration on only the intellectual plane, and corresponding lack of historical context. While he does a good job tracing out the ideological roots of extremist Islamism, this still doesn’t explain why it has flourished so well in the Middle East.

I would posit that, while the ideas are necessary, they are not in themselves sufficient to explain their popularity. While many thinkers simply point to the economic and cultural failures of the Middle East and make and argument based on pride and culture, I don’t find that completely convincing either. I think the key missing element is a recognition that the Middle East is going through the same difficult transition from a traditional, agricultural society to a modern urban, industrial one that most of the world has already undergone. And almost nowhere has this transition been carried out without strife, bloodshed, and revolution. While there are certainly various unique aspects associated with each, it is easy to look at the civil wars of the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia as variations on this theme of conflict between an old rural society and an emerging urban, industrial capitalistic one. Japan struggled through the same issues and ended up with the warped modernity that led to their invasion of China and entrance into WWII.

In most of these cases, the new society tears down the old forms and the old ways. The traditional way of life that had been followed for generations is displaced by a new one. The family is broken up by migration to the city, leaving the urban proletariat rootless. Before a middle class can arise there are huge wealth disparities, further alienating the masses. And in each case, there have been reactions against what is seen as an evil and destructive force tearing down society, in the generations before a new world has been created to take its place.

The difference is that the new technology of the 20th century allows the radicalized and discontented Arabs to strike back not just at the local gentry and capitalists seen as their tormenters, but across the globe at the heart of the movement that has thrown their society into turmoil. I believe that this economic nostalgia is an undercurrent in all the appeals of Qutb and other Islamist scholars for a return to the Caliphate. It is not so much the explicit religious appeals to the past that drive their popularity, but their implicit economic ones.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:49 PM

Monday, September 15, 2003
Who cares about Vice-Presidents?

Not the voters. In line with the expansion of the presidential campaign earlier and earlier, we’ve already seen the beginning of the political pndut’s favorite game, analyzing the vice presidential choices. But, while there will be much more of this in the months to come, especially in the weeks leading up to the Democratic convention, let me be the first to say that it doesn’t really matter. Or at least, it doesn’t matter the way the pundits want it to.

While a Vice President can play an important role in the policy of an administration (as both Cheney and Gore have), their political contribution is so close to nil as to be almost indistinguishable. VP choices don’t balance the ticket, either geographically or ideologically. People vote the top of the ticket, not for some weighted average of the two. If, to take an example, people think Dean is soft on foreign policy, no running mate will make that up. And he will lose because of it. The same goes for other candidates.

Pundits love the VP nomination because it brings in a second moving part and allows them to analyze all the option, weighing and balancing factors, looking at it like a chess game. But don’t let them fool you, come election day, none of that really matters. The VP won’t even carry his own state, much less any others.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 6:18 PM

Terror and Liberalism

Rounding out my readings (for now) on the Middle East and Central Asia the book of that name (Terror and Liberalism) by Paul Berman, a first rate book which I strongly recommend to anyone who wished to understand and make sense of how we got to where we are in the war on terror and what the nature of the opponent is.

The book is broadly divided into three main parts. The first convincingly argues that, for all their superficial differences, the Islamicist ideology that the terrorists (or at least al Qaeda) subscribe to is simply another flowering of the same totalitarian tree that brought us fascism and communism in the 20th century. Berman specifically identifies it with fascism, which is distinct from communism in its elevation of local, nationalistic factors to a central, psuedo-religious place. While communism is the same ideology everywhere, fascism hides the totalitarian idea under local costume, assuming the mantle of each specific time and place where it takes root. This gives each version of fascism superficial differences, but the underlying idea is the same, and Berman argues that Islamism shows many recognizable family traits. And, as with Nazism, utopian ideology gained influence and then, somewhere along the line, took a turn towards a murderous cult of death.

In the second part, Bremer examines the ideas underlying the Islamist view of life, specifically discussing the influential work of Qutb, the thinker who is seen by many as the father of the current Islamist movement. He was certainly influential to Osama bin Laden. Bremer’s treatment of Qutb is excellent, and is a very good short primer on the mindset and aspirations of the terrorists. Bremer argues that, while there may be specific proximate causes to their violence (such as the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia), ultimately the Islamist movement is at war with modernity, and with the US as its most prominent representative. But he takes Europe to task for thinking that, by avoiding confrontation, they can remain safe on the sidelines. (Throughout the book, European foreign policy comes in for some pretty harsh critiques.)

The final, shortest section covers the war on terror from 9-11 up to the invasion of Iraq (which was imminent at the time of writing.) This section is a must-read for any liberal, and I hope all of the Democratic presidential hopefuls will read it. Berman is a liberal hawk, who understands the importance of a vigorous foreign policy in the fight against terrorism, but he nevertheless makes numerous damning criticisms of the way the Bush administration has handled things. It won’t be anything really unfamiliar to readers of the blogosphere (or at least the left wing blogosphere), but it’s still important as it states the issues well and lays out a strong case for a firm, forward looking, liberal foreign policy.

There are only two real weaknesses to the book, in my opinion, which I will be covering over the next week or so. The first is the relative lack of an historical context. Berman self-consciously modeled the book on the Rebel by Camus, as a history of ideas, an intellectual answer to the question “What went wrong?” As such, the background conditions in the Middle East, which I think are a very important contributing element, go largely unremarked. Second, Berman like Camus never directly confronts the kernel of evil at the heart of the totalitarian ideology—that lurch from utopianism to murder. Berman simply dismisses this as insanity, but I think his glossing over misses a second important element. It’s understandable, since as far as I know only one thinker has really investigated this phenomenon in detail, and few people ever read Elias Canetti, and fewer still today.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 6:08 PM

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