Friday, September 22, 2006

Crazy like foxes

  1. All warfare is based on deception.

  2. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

  3. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.

  4. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.

    If his forces are united, separate them.

  5. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
Sun Tzu - The Art of War

While self-righteous indignation seems to permeate much of the nation in the aftermath of recent UN speeches by Iranian President Ahmadenijad and Venezuelan President Chavez, I can't help but think of Sun Tzu's Art of War.

Another commentator I enjoy reading is also thinking along the same lines so I will express the view briefly and direct you to his site for further explanation. While I don't think Iran wants to be attacked at all, if an attack must come maybe now while domestic support for such an affair in the US is so low is best.

Perhaps Ahmedinejad and Chavez, seeing that Bush is of choleric temper, are seeking to irritate him. If Iran can withstand the first strike, then like Nasrallah in Lebanon, they win the war in world opinion.

On the topic of Nasrallah, one of his tactics (which is not to imply that it wasn't also his belief) was to keep arguing that Israel was going to attack and try to take territory. When they did, he looked quite smart, and was prepared. Chavez spoke of Imperialism...if the US attacks Iran he too will look smart.

Back to Nasrallah, I notice that suddenly the two state solution to Palestine is back on the agenda. So who won that war again?

Ah the dangers of giving in to the temptation to assume your enemies aren't as clever as you.

Somebody needs to tell these cowboys in Washington that there are other ways to win wars. As Sun Tzu wrote:

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

No fuel, no fire....share the wealth

The fire is in the minds of men, not in the roofs of houses. Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The phrase, fire in the minds of men, recently repopularized by President Bush, originated in Dostoyevsky's The Possessed and also served as the title of a book by James Billington which chronicled the rise of the revolutionary ideology in Western civilization from the French through the Russian revolutions. It seems to me no mere coincidence that the science of economics with an increasing socialist bent was formalized and adopted by the new governments during this period.

While I take Billington's point that the fomenters of revolution were less than savory characters who often had only their own gain in mind, e.g. Napoleon who was lauded as a savior when he deposed the nobility but ran into difficulty when he wished to then become Emperor, I imagine that there are always nefarious characters wishing to overthrow the powers that be and jump into their place. Despite the perpetual presence of those wishing to overturn the power structure, revolutions remain reasonably rare events in human history. I contend that one needs fuel, in the case of an extremely dissatisfied population to make the fire.

Additionally, while Napoleon himself wasn't such a fun guy the reforms he imposed, in many cases, have endured. Sometimes even bad guys have positive effects or in Biblical terminology, the Lord moves in mysterious ways.

Going back a few centuries, I wonder why the anti-Vatican rhetoric of Jan Hus was easily quashed while that of Martin Luther a century later was heeded? One key difference between the two periods was the increased flow of funds from northern Europe to the south in Luther's time.

That is, while both Luther and Hus spoke of the evil of indulgences, it wasn't until the sales of indulgences were dramatically increased, in part to finance the rebuilding of Rome in general and Vatican City, e.g. the Sistine Chapel and St. Peters, specifically, that such critiques found open ears. One could argue that the Protestant Revolution was a case similar to today when the developing world (at that time northern Europe) was financing the developed world, (at that time Southern Europe). Just as Osama bin Laden complains about the Middle East financing the US, the citizens of the northern Europe complained about their financing of southern Europe.

The egalitarian drive which was in part an impetus behind the international schism in Christendom in the 16th and 17th centuries, continued intra-nationally as documented by Billington. If it was OK to complain about the Netherlands, for instance, financing Rome, it eventually became OK for the peasantry to complain about their financing of the nobility, particularly as Europe industrialized, the peasantry become literate and the new nobility, the industrialists' concentration of wealth on the sweat of a peasantry relocated to cities and thus removed from their little plots of food providing land, became evident

I find the period of Europe's industrialization and subsequent labor turmoil in the 19th Century particularly instructive at the present in the sense that globalization can be seen as the same process but on an international rather than intra-national scale. That is, the disputes between Manchester, one of the industrial centers of England, and London, for instance, can be expected between China, the current swing industrial producer, and the West, or as noted, between the Middle East and the West.

Returning to my point about the more than merely coincidental adoption of the newly formalized science of economics with an increasing socialist attitude as time passed by the new governments during the egalitarian revolutions, I contend that such actions were taken, at least in part, because it became important to ensure that the newly literate citizenry were at least well off enough to not add fuel to the revolutionary fire.
Fat, drunk and happy citizens are far less likely to complain than thin starving ones. To cite a current example, if gas was still $1.00/gallon and the housing boom was continuing far fewer people would be complaining about the War in Iraq.

The term laissez faire was coined by French Physiocrats who wished the Monarchy would stop interfering with the economy and just let it be. That is, in its origins, the term aimed at greater egalitarianism. The liberal movement among the newly powerful merchants in Europe, and notably the American revolutionaries which adopted the phrase can then be seen as the first steps in what later continued as the rise of more socialist governments.

The drive for freedom President Bush speaks of had its roots in the desire to get the nobility off their backs, only in the current instance President Bush would have us believe that the current nobility or corporatocracy which isn't sharing the wealth of globalization adheres to its credos. This seems to me to be a misapprehension of the historical trend.

In a recent essay George Soros called for a new rhetorical frame to combat the problems of the world as the War on Terror frame was not useful. I agree and not simply because one cannot make war on a tactic.

The War on Terror frame focuses on the fire in the roofs of the houses, the acts of the complainants, rather than their motivations, that which drove them to set the fires. It seems to me worth noting that Dostoyevsky lived in one of, if not the most oppressive state in Europe, Tsarist Russia. The Romanov family's refusal to give an inch, after Alexander II, in the wake of Napoleon's triumphs, began a reformation but was dissuaded from going further by inter alios, Metternich, played a large part in setting the stage for the most sweeping revolution of Europe. One can only hold the lid on a pot of boiling water for so long.

While I don't think any single frame can capture all the elements of dissatisfaction, an economic frame at least casts the problem in a practical form. If, as seems to be the case, one wishes to forestall the rise of a Middle Eastern Napoleon deposing the many Sheikdoms and Western financing governments in the region, a dose of economic egalitarianism might be the best ticket. A widely shared prosperity in the Middle East and Asia would remove fuel from the revolutionary fires burning in the Middle East and in my view soon to come in Asia.

Had the US, after ousting the Taliban, built up Afghanistan as a model for the Islamic World, as was promised in Iraq, the tensions of the world would be lower. It seems to me that the best way to immunize the Islamic street from jihadi rhetoric is not to blow up towns and villages but to build them.

The success of Hezbollah is a case in point. It isn't only by virtue of their military arm that Hezbollah has gained popularity but also by virtue of its economic support. Given their recent success I suspect there will be more movements in the Middle East modeled on their platform of being a more agreeable government from an economic perspective than those currently in power.

Saddam's rise to power in Iraq was on the back of just such a wealth sharing vision. Admittedly, while he began well, he too fell into Napoleon's trap. I also suspect that one of the key problems currently fomenting civil war in Iraq is the allocation of oil export wealth, as noted, one of Osama bin Laden's concerns.

But, just as the European Monarchies resisted egalitarianism even after Napoleon's stunning successes, so too are Western governments, led primarily by the US, resisting egalitarianism today. Just as the likes of Metternich persuaded some of Europe's monarchs to roll back the clock on Napoleonic reforms, so too are the neo-liberals, such as the Neo-Cons trying to roll back the clock on the welfare state and suppress emerging economies. I suspect that the current attempt to roll back the clock will fail just as spectacularly.

Before anyone decides to send me nasty-grams let me state that I am not in favor of wealth transfer systems except in the event that the elite are failing to maintain civil societies. It was, I contend the failure to heed Herbert Hoover's calls for volunteerism, to my mind the ideal option, which allowed FDR to impose the New Deal.

A return to the Gilded Age of Industrialists lording over their workers will, I argue, only serve to reignite the labor movement and given the international scope of the issue, possibly inflame what Henry Kissinger, an admirer of Metternich, would have you see as a war of civilizations.

The problem as I see it, is not between competing civilizations but within them. Who knows, Marx' vision of a global revolution might have needed industrialization on a global scale in order to be fomented. Not that I pine for such an event. Reform seems to me always a better option as revolutions tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Unfortunately, concentrated power tends to resist reform.

On the bright side, there are some, such as Robert Rubin, and even Ben Bernanke who have warned about the need to ensure that the benefits of globalization flow to a larger portion of the population in order for the process to continue. This need will be one of the key topics discussed at the upcoming World Bank/IMF meetings in Singapore. Unfortunately I suspect that it will take more conflict before the War on Terror answer to the problems of the world is dropped and a more useful war on concentrations of power and wealth is adopted.

At some point people will begin to wonder why the jihadis haven't attacked Christian Latin and South America or Asia for that matter. Perhpas the flow of funds has something to do with jihadi attitudes.

Lest we forget, the American Revolution was sparked in part due to a flow of funds issue. "Why?," the American Revolutionaries asked, "should we pay taxes to England and have the English set the terms of trade." This same question is being pondered by others.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Iconography Wars: The meaning of 9/11

From the movie Wall St.

Bud Fox: So what do you see in this?

Darien Taylor: Purity. Innocence.

Bud Fox: A few thousand dollars down the tubes, if you ask me.

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. I'd go further and suggest that meaning is as well. It isn't the world itself, which is as it has always (at least relative to human experience) been, but the perception thereof that, inter alia, distinguishes a Sumatran tribesman from a Wall St. stockbroker.... or not as the case may be. The meaning of life or any symbol thereof is, at least as I view the world, in the individual mind.

Meaning, of course, can be taught. While teaching my son mathematics, I've had to teach him the meaning of the symbols "+", "-", "x" and "÷". By "teaching him the meaning" I mean that I've taught him what he should think when he sees these symbols.

But, having taught him this meaning, I should not assume that for the rest of his life these symbols will always evoke the thoughts I have taught him. Fortunately, positive and negative reinforcement, given the existing consensus on the meaning of these symbols, should work to ensure that he thinks "divide" when he sees "÷".

Pause for a moment, and think about that notion- the ability to instruct a mind to think this or that when they recognize a symbol, be it a Coat of Arms, the Presidential Seal or a Stop sign. To control others' thoughts is about the highest form of power I know of. Fortunately, or so I believe, while it is not too difficult to impose a meaning on an image or symbol, the mind of man, over the long run is free to think of things as it will. Symbols and Icons that held the mind in thrall eventually come to have different meanings.

More complex symbols, like paintings or photographic images, can evoke more diverse meanings. Moreover, while the surface meaning of say, a picture of a young woman crying over a person lying on the ground, might be similar in many people, fewer likely recognize that the photo is of the Kent State shootings and fewer still likely recall how such a tragedy came to pass. I know I could sing (in a manner of speaking) the lyrics of "Ohio" long before the song evoked the image and the history of the event. It took a desire to understand the image and song to uncover its meaning and context.

Look at the image below and consider the words of Bud Fox: What do you see in this?

click for larger view

The artist, Pablo Picasso, painted the mural "Guernica" in reaction to the Nazi bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica.

A tapestry copy of the mural hangs outside the entrance to the United Nations Security Council. Oddly enough, when Colin Powell argued for military action against Iraq in the spring of 2003, a blue curtain was hung over the tapestry. Now there's some symbolism.

The image below is likely quite familiar.

As with a work of art, the meaning of the image varies from person to person and even within individual people, over time. Right after the event, many saw in it a call to do battle with those who would perpetrate such a deed. Over the next few days many will try to impose a meaning on the image. It will be interesting to see what meanings the image evokes as time passes.

A few millennia ago, the Roman Empire used an image, in real life, to evoke fear of the wrath of the Empire. In the aftermath of a slave revolt, Marcus Lucinius Crassus ordered that the main road into Rome, the Appian Way, should be decorated with the crucified corpses of the thousands of captured slaves.

Today, many people see something quite different in the image of a crucifixion.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Does the Shoe fit?

I'm sure there are people who thought it was a mistake to fight the Civil War to its end and to insist that the emancipation of slaves would hold. I know there were people who said, 'Why don't we get out of this now, take a peace with the South, but leave the South with slaves?' Condoleezza Rice US Secretary of State

The old adage, if the shoe fits, wear it, comes to mind when contemplating recent Bush administration attempts to find the fitting historic metaphor to describe the War in Iraq and those who argue against its continuation. The opening quote from Ms. Rice which equates the War in Iraq with the US Civil War is one attempt and Secretary Rumsfeld's recent attempt to paint war critics as Neville Chamberlain-esque "appeasers" is another. Let's contemplate for a moment, if such metaphoric shoes might fit.

In one sense I agree with Ms. Rice. The War in Iraq and the US Civil War are both examples of wars where the cause célèbre wasn't really causal. Lincoln, according to this view, was far less interested in abolishing slavery (the Emancipation Proclamation was issued almost 3 years into the War) than in assuring the Northern Industrialists retained economic dominance. President Bush, as recent debates arguing in favor of another dictatorship in Iraq indicate to me, seems far less interested in leading the Iraqis to a "free democracy" than in assuring that the US retain dominance over global petroleum flows.

Mr. Rumsfeld's attempt to paint Saddam with the Hitler brush only serves to remind me of Godwin's Law: as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. Oddly enough, as I discovered reading this article from Harper's the Neo-Cons should be aware of what their intellectual godfather, Leo Strauss, called, Reductio ad Hitlerum- the absurd smearing of any opposing line of thought as Hitleresque. ....nuff said.

In my view, one of the more fitting historical metaphors describing the War on Terror is the Spanish Hapburg's War on Protestantism, which began (in one frame of mind) with the Thirty Years War, and ended with the sinking of the "Invincible Armada" in the attempt to break Elizabeth's England and the eventual bankrupting of Spain.

Spain, like the US, in my view, overestimated both the efficacy of its clearly superior war machine in changing hearts and minds- despite winning many battles Protestantism kept winning the war, and the economic advantage of monetary inflation.

Religious dogmatism, another Carlinesque word combo- religion seems to me about enlightening minds, not closing them behind repeated dogmatic mantras, fueled both leaders, Philip II and George Bush.

The economic aspect seems to me quite apt. Just as Spain found that the huge inflow of Gold from the Americas allowed them to, for a while, buy without working, so to may America find that issuing the world's reserve currency allows them to, for a while, buy without working. Ultimately, however, such actions only serve to weaken the underlying economy, in a way which is hidden from view, until it is too late.

The ideological rigidity of the Spanish Hapsburgs led them to sideline and then purge the nation of dissenting groups, like the Moors and the Jews, who just happened to be the a large portion of the entrepreneurs of the nation. I hope similar purging of dissenting groups doesn't occur here, but the signs at the moment are not promising.

Of course, one key element that distinguishes life in the present moment from history is the lack of completion. We'll have to wait and see which metaphoric shoes history deems fitting to describe the current adventures.