This one’s stuck with me over the last few months:
‘They are, in fact, idealists: and idealism is a cast of mind that Conrad questions even more than he questions radicalism. The logical end of radicalism, in his view, is terrorism; but idealism is the mental aberration that allows terrorism to be brought about. Conrad’s originality was to see that a new tyranny could be generated by people who thought that their rebellion against the old tyranny was rational. Thus his writings seem prescient about what was to happen in the Soviet Union. He didn’t predict the Nazi tyranny because he had underestimated the power of the irrational to organise itself into a state. But then, nobody predicted that except its perpetrators; and anyway, mere prediction was not his business. His business was the psychological analysis made possible by an acute historical awareness. Under Western Eyes is valuable not because it came true but because it rang true even at the time, only now we can better hear the deep, sad note.’
If you live in a society which hasn’t developed a profound and enduring concept of the individual in relation to the group, moral philosophies dedicated to the defense of individual liberty, laws emerging from the free association of individuals entering and leaving contracts with authority and with each other, well…,you might be living under a post-ish Communist centralized party apparatus laid atop a few-thousand year-old hierarchy laid atop a rapidly changing chaotic civilization.
‘I want to make perfectly clear that any complaints I wrote about in any forum are reflective only of my concerns about the illiberal, authoritarian communist government of China and not the Chinese people. Most professor colleagues, even those I would consider pro-Party, were good colleagues whom I enjoyed talking, debating(yes, it happens behind closed doors and I learned a lot from them)…’
From a George F Kennan article written in 1948 on China.
My how times have changed!:
‘From the analysis in this paper of demographic and economic factors it is concluded that for years to come China will probably be plagued by (1) an implacable population pressure, which is likely to result in (2) a general standard of living around and below the subsistence level, which in turn will tend to cause (3) popular unrest (4) economic backwardness, (5) cultural lag, and (6) an uncontrolled crude birth rate.
The political alternatives which this vicious cycle will permit for China’s future are chaos or authoritarianism. Democracy cannot take root in so harsh an environment.
Authoritarianism may be able to break the cycle by drastic means, such as forcible “socialization”. At best, such measures could be put into effect only at heavy and long protracted cost to the whole social structure; at worst they could provoke such rebellion as to recreate a state of chaos.’
Our author reviews Evan Osnos’ book about his 8 years spent living on the ground in China:
‘For its part, the government seems to be making efforts to get a grasp on public opinion, though they stem more from its need to buttress its own chances of survival than from any democratic instinct. Attempts at opinion polling have not gone well, mainly because most Chinese are wary about voicing criticism of the government to a stranger on the phone. Nevertheless, there is the sense that the leaders are aware that the ground is shifting. They just don’t know where it is shifting to—and no one else does, either. There is an obsession with establishing the “central melody” of the current culture, but the tune keeps slipping away.’
What’s life like in Beijing for an American editing an English-language Business Magazine?
Interesting quote on author Eveline Chao’s censor:
‘I understood then the mundane nature of all that kept her in place. A job she didn’t like, but worked hard to keep. A system that would never reward her for good work, only punish her for mistakes. And in exchange: Tutors. Traffic. Expensive drumming lessons. They were the same things that kept anyone, anywhere, in place — and it was the very ordinariness of these things that made them intractable.’
It was a mess when Ambassador Stevens was there, and was killed, but is it getting worse?:
‘As Westerners evacuate Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, Islamist militias—whose fighters apparently number in the thousands—are moving in.’
The destabilization of Libya post-Gadhafi has also added to the destabilization of Algeria, and Mali as well. Our policies and the assumptions behind them are not lining up well with conditions on the ground. This can help create the vacuum that invites the real radicals in.
What difference does it make? Well, quite a bit actually, for troop morale, for protecting our interests, pursuing our interests, and making and executing good policy with enough realism to not put ourselves in worse positions.
***Comments are very much worth a read.
Want to understand Islamism better and the forces in the region which will require much better policy out of us? Totten mentions checking out Sayyid Qutb. A must read.
“What he calls “the central moral questions” about liberating slaves are the author’s main concern, and he affirms that freedom comes first. But according to Appiah “freedom is not enough”. After the act of liberation we also have a duty to guarantee every freed slave respect, dignity, and both social- and self-esteem.”
In the ‘best of all possible worlds’, perhaps we do, as far as self-esteem is concerned. Sandall finds Western liberal establishment thinking a target when it comes to the depths of moral arguments necessary to address such an issue:
‘According to the title of a recent book by the amiable Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal we live in The Age of Empathy, something he attributes to our warmly social hominid instincts. Also recently published is a book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, arguing that the modern era has been one of moral progress accompanied by a steady decline in violence. It seems that what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process” is nowadays on many minds, and Kwame A. Appiah’s 2010 book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, might be seen as broadly in the same vein. Taking an idiosyncratic view of moral and social progress, he sees national and social honour playing a key role in the outlawing of the duel, in the abandonment of Chinese foot-binding, in the abolition of slavery, and in the ongoing struggle by enlightened men and women in Islamic lands against the horror of “honour killings”. All these changes are what he calls “moral revolutions.”
Of course, one moral injunction might run: “One should not enslave another” which sounds straight-forward enough, but as we see in Africa and increasingly in Britain via Africa, some people are still engaging in the practice. In fact, for much of American history, and in various other parts of the world in the past, now, and presumably in the future, many people can be said to violate such an injunction. Human cruelty and indifference, the spoils of war, economic and competitive advantage, and the complex relationship between master and slave just to name a few, are reasons that one person will enslave another, and allow many other people to look away.
‘As a result, what amounts to an uncivilizing processis now flourishing on Europe’s fringes. For that is what the modern slave trade represents — the trade that trapped a 12-year-old girl in the Sudan and has doomed hundreds more African youngsters from elsewhere. This also relates to Appiah’s respectful anthropological account of the several grades of domestic servitude and patriarchal subordination in traditional West African society, grades blandly euphemised by apologists as “our regional family culture,” and that all too easily collapse into subjection and brutality’
Some truth and courage in the face of barbarism, but also a lot of sentiment, and dramatic romanticization of Africa: Kony 2012.