Thursday, 13 October 2011

5 Myths About Exceptionalism

Myth 1
There Is Something Exceptional About Exceptionalism - well, maybe not yours, but definitely mine.

Myth 2 
I Am Better Than Others Are - look, I can see all your blind spots, and I can also see I don't have any.
Myth 3
My Success Is Due to My Special Genius - from all the adversity I've suffered you'd wonder why I wasn't dead and buried long ago, so you can't blame my luck.
Myth 4
My Contribution Is Indispensible To The General Good Of The Outcome - without me it wouldn't be the same, and it certainly wouldn't have been as good.

Myth 5
God Is On My Side - just as I am on the side of angels.



Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Afghan Question

Yesterday marked 10 years since Nato went into Afghanistan.

In this time British troops have officially suffered 382 deaths, and the direct cost of British involvement is estimated to be rising close to £10bn.

Has anything changed in this time?

The involvement was initiated because of links between the Al Qaeda's global terror threat and the Taliban. Afghanistan was under control of Islamic extremists, providing shelter, training and a focus for jihadi terrorists. The international community was outraged by human rights breaches and widespread persecution of minorities, women and almost any outside influence.

Then came the intervention. Nato teamed up with the Northern Alliance of pro-western tribal leaders and Mujahadeen, but wasted the opportunity to militarily destroy Bin Laden and co in battle when they were cornered in the Tora Bora region. Nevertheless we successfully installed Hamid Karzai, and democratic elections confirmed his status.

Conditions have largely improved for the people of the country, particularly with regard to health, education and cultural freedom. Electricity and clean water supply is no longer the exception in the towns. Poppy production has been removed from headlines as wheat prices have risen and productive trade has returned where order reigns under standardised market conditions. International relations are broadening, with the improving standards of the Afghani national cricket team a beacon for all.

However, ongoing lack of security and growing corruption are the cause of much concern among the population and foreign commentators alike.

Perhaps this is a sign of rising expectations resulting from the rebirth of civic institutions, but equally it represents the ever-present threat that a drawdown of forces would mean to Afghan society as the west struggles with mounting death-tolls and military costs associated with occupation while the global economy experiences a down-turn and the manoeuvering of internal factions in preparation for total withdrawl.

And this is the major problem of the ideological battle being fought out between the two sides.

Afghanistan exists at the furthermost reaches of civilisation and Afghani cultural history identifies with this border mentality. The land is at the crossroads of the routes which lead from the sub-continent, to the steppe, and from the orient to the occident. The people have seen everyone come and everyone go.

From Alexander the Great to Ashoka the Great, from Buddhist reconquest to Islamic reconquest, from Mongols to Mughals, to the British Empire and the Soviet Empire and pretty much everyone in between: Afghans have seen them all. The one thing which they know is that everyone leaves eventually.

This singular fact cannot be emphasised with sufficient strength.

It's not for nothing that the country is known as the graveyard of ambitions: it is strategically impossible to hold militarily for any protracted period without a supporting global political solution, simply due to its location and geography. Their land has been ruled by everyone, but it is still their land. They know all alliances are temporary, as a man's word is nothing without a knife at his throat - you simply cannot trust someone you cannot look in the eye. The only people you can really trust are those who stay by your side - whether they are your brothers, your cousins, or your guests.

Because it is a land at the limits of human survival and everything is subordinated to the ability to endure.

It doesn't matter whether that means taking the sides of people you disagree with for temporary advantage and doing their bidding today only to turn tomorrow, or practising utmost flexibility while promoting absolutism: Afghan society is the realisation of the influence of power politics, just as Afghanistan is the realisation of the influence of surrounding powers.

Ultimately Afghans must take charge of themselves and Nato efforts to build an Afghan National Army are the first vital step to achieving this. But the corollary is that Afghanistan must also be integrated into the international order for the same old independent and rebellious nature not to resurface and turn either inwards and devolve into another civil war or become infested with a deeper sickness and become entangled in a new 'Great Game' by seeking alliance with those of more sinister motives such as represented by Iranian nuclear ambitions.

The west would be wrong to indicate in any manner that 'we' are ever set to abandon them. We must convince them that they cannot settle for what they have, and we will not leave them to fight over what they've built until it is completely destroyed; we must convince them to join us on humanity's shared journey because we won't reach the destination without them. We must convince them and ourselves that our fates are intertwined.

But that doesn't mean that Afghanis should fear the prospect of a permanent occupation, on the contrary, it should allow them to reach a point of understanding in which various military installations can become a strategic bargaining chip in much the same way as former Kyrgyz President Bakiyev has used the Manas Air Base north of his capital Bishkek (a vital supply route into Afghanistan) to extract concessions from the international community, ensuring a basic level of political stability - and in return acknowledge that there are universal standards which are to their advantage to move towards.

Because the Afghan question is not so much 'what does the West do about Afghanistan?', it is more a matter of 'how do we find the means to explain to ordinary people in every corner of the world that our similarities are greater than our differences?'

It is a question of resolve. It is a question of political will. It is a question of humanity.

With Karzai promising to stand down in 2014, coinciding with Obama's promised withdrawl date, this question is being posed again. And Afghanistan once again stands at the crossroads.


There is an interesting comparison to be drawn between British and American attitudes towards policy which leads to protracted intervention.

Every week at PMQs the Prime Minister and party leaders metronomically recite the names of military dead. Initially it was as if by rote, seemingly ordered by the military command to issue a budgetary reminder, but later as the list grew and the memory began to persist so the human investment began to dwarf any pecuniary measure. Meanwhile in the US, Congress and the President are silent, GOP candidates are silent and the debate revolves around bringing 'our troops' back and 'nation-building' at home.

But there is a problem with using Libya as a model for regime-change: it legitimises civil war as a tool of foreign policy, creating a global ballpark dynamic where smaller powers become fielders for a new 'great game' of international diplomacy, and thereby encourages destabilisation of weaker nations - the exact same thing Nato went into Afghanistan to put an end to in the first place. Flip-flopping from one extreme to the other does nothing but create a circular and self-fulfilling argument of greater destruction and greater polarisation.

Ultimately this is debate which can be reduced to the academic simplisms of liberty, authority and security - it is about finding the correct prescription for the correct diagnosis, not about emphasising one to the exclusion or neglect of another, but equally and more importantly it is also finding the means for the international alliance to agree and work in concert to the same ends.

Because if the world order cracks on the back of domestic politics then those ancient Afghan sages who are prepared to simply outwait outsiders will be proved right again; Nato will fracture into dissent, turn inwards and spend its time fighting against itself. And the futile adventure will resemble evermore closely the vanity project of its' critics descriptions.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Can't see the forest for the trees? Make kindling

I love this sort of internet communication. It just brightens up my day.

Published by the overtly political 'news' organisation Newsmax the transcript of an interview promoting the 'Aftershock Survival Summit' is typical of a swathe of internet-based information sources. And it's precisely the kind of thing which gives the medium a bad name.

Forgetting completely that the company structure is specifically designed to promote a particular worldview it would be easy to get drawn in by all the button-pressing triggers it uses in its' attempt to convince the reader. But it's so professionally crude that a reader could almost be forgiven for not making the effort to resist rising to the bait.

The whole thing is beyond parody (though not satire, though I'll save that for another occasion, though I've already started thinking about it, though I can't really be bothered, though it'd really be quite easy, though my life is filled with enough useless crap as it is, though this could be the most important thing ever, EVER!).

Starting at the beginning, the edifice of respectability begins to be built up as soon as you reach the gateway - which should be the point at which your alarm bells start ringing, if you're not aware of the angle of entry before you reach the threshold then you really should be questioning what it is trying to reflect.

To the external air of respectability a measure of gravity is added with various sympathetic noises.

This stylistic technique breaks down the appearance of authoritarian barriers and is used to create a sense the report-producers and participant are on your side, and all of you together are fighting bravely against an undefined persecutor, who they can handily identify for you, although not really in so many words and at most indirectly. It sets a consumer up for instinctive responses which play to natural role formulations and thereby it lulls you into a state of passive complicity which is difficult to escape. Typically, feedback mechanisms such as discussion or commentary are separated from the source to devolve any question of reliability and remove the possibility of criticism (fair or otherwise), while simultaneously still benefitting from the measurable tornado of links that can be relied upon through the human tendency to gossip collegiately about half-understood ideas. So, even in the simple act of stimulating your solidarity, the method games you by deliberately setting you up so that they hold the keys and have all the means to keep you out. It's cynical propaganda at it's unobtrusive best - like a spider luring you closer into the centre of the web. It's trickle-up power accumulation. And you're left only wanting more.

The reader is swamped with information and baffled by allusions to 'facts' taken out of context.

'Crystal clear' distinctions are made and basic explanations emphasise a 'common sense' perspective - but common sense is not the same thing as good sense. Singular poll results are treated as objective gospel particularly if presented by ideological opponents (CNN says '48% Americans see a second Great Depression' - notwithstanding the 'Great' depression was less severe than the 'Long' depression), the basic maths allows distortions to grow beyond any sense (National debt measured in Trillions between 1900 and 2011 - not measured in adjusted per capita terms or as a proportion of GDP), while selected periods are provided without explanation specifically to justify the conclusion (Dow stock prices rose 300% from 1928-1982, and 1400% from 1982-2006 - which results in a comparison between peak-->trough and trough-->peak). It's pure populism preying on the petty-minded sensibility of the insecure masses.

It's commerce packaged as public interest news, wrapped up in free gifts.

While presenter and guest collude together in their own little world to discuss private obsessions (here market data and economics) the real motivating interest is assumed at all times and levels to be selfish (never mutual or altruistic, never enlightened and never balanced - how weak!). So long as you've already bought into the precept and been hooked by any one of the plausible peices of 'evidence' or their interpretations then you'll be content to seek any self-affirming post-rationalisation to reinforce the original false choice and deny your own culpability. Essentially the interview is an advert for a book produced by flavours of the month - the links to order free copies (shipping costs $4.95) is a simple data-mining exercise which reverse-engineers standard mass-marketing techniques and is easily cross-referenced with voter databases for targetting in campaign donations or for canvassing purposes. As they say, "No pressure - no gimmicks - no strings attached" - exactly, it's straight-up psychological blackmail, gimmicks and fraud (at least it would be in this country)!

It's not serious, it's very serious semi-serious, semi-entertainment.

To give them their due Newsmax and other political 'news machines' are relevant to the debate and they do fulfil a valid function, recognising and identifying concerned confusion at the state of the world. However the manner of expression fails at every level because it distorts perceptions by exaggerating and dramatising suitable aspects rather than reserving qualifications - failures of omission, not of commission. The very title foreshadows a revelatory 'final chapter they tried to ban', using shock tactics as a lure, building an irresistible anticipatory premonition with the prospect of access to 'valuable secrets' - yet if the logic of this pay-off were sound and would benefit wider society then wouldn't it be better if the insights were available to the widest audience possible? which makes any commercial restrictions look perverse or at least should arouse suspicion of their worth.

Some of the analysis in Aftershock is legitimate, but the doomsday scenario and shameless politicisation throughout destroys any vestige of objective credibility about it. Of course the mass market is not set up to easily consume answers with the complexity of unknown interactions between unknown numbers of factors, but it strikes me that by playing down to the demands of the consumer it becomes impossible to raise our expectations - or is that the deeper idea?

BTW Today saw the first public seminar as part of The Leveson Inquiry into media standards. Partisanship may be less high up the agenda on this side of the Atlantic, nevertheless according to Richard Peppiatt the matter of reporting facts to fit preconcieved conclusions is both pervasive and endemic.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Swapped at birth: Carlos Tevez and Peter Oborne

Manchester City's £250k/week Argentine work-horse and goal-threat, Carlos Tevez, made backpages this week by deciding he preferred to stay on the bench when called upon to help fight back from a 2-0 deficit during a Uefa Champions League group stage match against Bayern Munich. The act has been described as 'selfish' and as 'a distraction from the teams shortcomings', increasing speculation of an impending transfer.

Carlos Tevez prefers to sit on the sidelines in Europe
Peter Oborne prefers to sit on the sidelines out of Europe

The Telegraph's flatulent Thatcherite political commentator and star columnist, Peter Oborne, made waves this week when he decided to gratuitously insult European Commission representatives as 'idiots' and the 'Guilty Men' who are responsible for the Eurozone crisis during a round of TV (Newsnight clip) and other media appearances, which coincided with the publication of his similarly-titled pamphlet, supporting calls to end European integration.

Two peas from the same self-serving pod!


Obviously the Union of European Football Associations is completely immune to any form of administrative or institutional corruption whatsoever and operates absolutely perfect competitions with a completely level playing-field offering perfectly equal access and opportunity to all, and equally obviously the European Union is an evil unaccountable institution completely ridden with corruption and maladministration which is unsuited to the needs of the separate economies of 27 member states.

We get sweet FA, obviously

- It's like comparing apples and oranges.

Not like Europe, obviously

- See, even their logos are circle and square!