The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Noodling What’s Going On

The state and the state system alike are in trouble, and the reasons may go deeper than most suspect.

Published on August 21, 2014

What is going on in this place we call a world? More specifically, what sort of prospects for peace and security are we looking toward in the years and decades ahead? Will the world become a better place, a place of peace, prosperity and brotherhood? Or will it tank? Or will it just muddle along, providing full employment for the commentariat?

Despite the tendency of many social science and history academics in recent decades to crawl as far inside their navels as possible, some panoptical thinkers have engaged this question. Some are optimistic, believing that liberal norms are deeply set in fertile social soil and will spread afield. In some formulations this is bound to happen regardless of the power, prosperity, and reputation of the guiding actors who have founded, encouraged, and sustained that liberal order. Fat chance. Some are pessimistic, whether because of environmental obsessions or because doomsaying makes the pointy-headed ones feel privately heroic.

Optimism or pessimism is beside the point, however. What matters isn’t the conclusion but the adequacy of the questions one asks and the wherewithal one deploys to answer them. So here’s my take, for what it’s worth, on the uber-question: What the heck is going on, anyway?

It is by now banal in the extreme to say that we are living in a rapidly changing world, and it can be misleading, too: The challenge is to understand how the world is changing, not how fast it is changing. No doubt the frequency of exchanges has grown thanks to the technologies associated with the information revolution. Even so, we perceive greater speed not only because of what technology allows, but also because much of what is occurring is unintelligible to us. This reproduces the same sense of exaggerated velocity we experience upon hearing spoken a language we do not understand.

The analogy to a foreign language is not entirely decorative: We lack an adequate vocabulary for contemporary affairs, a common plight in unstuck times. Just as Newton had to more or less invent calculus in order to think coherently about the physics he was contemplating, so we need new language to think coherently about global security and peace. The intellectual categories we are accustomed to using are obsolete: society, politics, economics, culture; foreign and domestic; international, national and local; corporate and not-for-profit; private and public. They are flowing in and out of one another on a planetary scale arguably for the first time. This has left us with an inherited vocabulary misaligned with reality and, therefore, one that often impedes our understanding of it.

We are not entirely helpless, however, for history, if carefully parsed, can offer some guidance even during times when reality outruns vocabulary. The first lesson it offers is the need to distinguish levels and orders of causality, lest we end up, as Charles A.W. Manning once put it, trying to influence the position of a shadow by doing things to the shadow. There are, it seems to me, three such levels of causality: a primary one having to do with the sources of insecurity and violence; a secondary one concerning the modalities of conflict; and a tertiary one concerning the enablers and shapers of warfare.

Sources of Insecurity and Violence

Human societies exhibit both universal and particular characteristics. The universal characteristics can be described in shorthand under the rubric of social organization, the particular ones under the rubric of culture.

Universal social tendencies arise from the fact that societies must organize stable means for fulfilling certain fundamental functions (feeding, sheltering, procreating, securing order and justice within and security from without) that inhere in our physical and psychological nature. Human social organization has doubtless been driven by evolutionary selection; societies that fulfill these functions endure or thrive while those that have not worked so well don’t.

This suggests that how any society takes care of these necessities will give rise to substrata of characteristics held in common. For example, all premodern human societies display a tri-generational child-rearing pattern in which grandparents play critical roles as educators and guardians of culture (among other things). Social organization will still vary from society to society, but within similar technological milieus it will not vary nearly as much as culture.

The particular tendencies of culture arise from a paradox: All societies construct social reality in the same way, through the human capacity for symbolization, of which spoken language is the central shared form. Symbolization, however, is free in the sense that, as Erving Goffman once put it (in the name of phenomenologists as a group): “Social life takes up and freezes into itself the conceptions we ourselves have of it.” This means that common understandings of the forces acknowledged to be loose in the world vary widely from society to society, and change within societies from epoch to epoch. Culture, in other words, is capacious—universal in its presence and means of generation, but wondrously diverse in its expression. Think of it metaphorically, if you like, as being a bit like fingerprints or snowflakes.

Thus, every society shares at least some understandings with every other society because we are all members of the same species with the same elemental survival needs; but no society shares every understanding with any other society, or else by definition it would be that society.

As it happens, different societies exhibit different levels of tolerance for shocks, whether the shocks come in the form of foreign invasions, pandemic diseases, large-scale natural disasters (sudden ones like volcanic eruptions or more gradual ones like desertification), or relatively sudden but pervasive technical change. Shocks can generate unstructured migratory behavior, which is simultaneously a sign of social disruption and an accelerator of it because migration, now at very high if not unprecedented levels, causes pluralization—one people coming into contact with others whose cultural understandings differ from its own.

No society is completely brittle or it could not endure for long; but, clearly, some cultures handle the challenges of change and pluralization better than others. We are not sure why this is. Some societies may privilege entrenched elites more uncritically than others, reducing social flexibility under duress. It could be, too, that attitudes and institutions in more resilient societies reflect cosmologies in which change is associated with a positive, unfurling teleology, while those in less resilient ones conceive a cosmology based on cyclical or static conceptions of the world. Or perhaps something entirely different is at work; as I say, we don’t really know.

Whatever the reasons for observed differences in social adaptive capacities, it follows that some societies will be roiled more and others less when significant change and associated accelerated pluralization occur on a planetary scale, as is occurring today. Some societies are thus bound to be seen as causing or “owning” the sources of change while others are seen, and will often see themselves, as being on the receiving end of forces believed to threaten their corporate identity and dignity as individuals. Such a world will tend to polarize into core and periphery: that part of the world seeming to manufacture and “manage” change, and that part composed of largely unwilling recipients of the consequences.

It is no fun being on the receiving end of changes one does not understand and can neither control nor defend against. It causes stress, anxiety, and insecurity. Insecurity leads to fear, and fear, we know, often engenders violence. This sequence is part and parcel of human nature, and society’s ability to control it has changed only by degree since the emergence of modern humans some 200,000 years ago.

Insofar as human societies have been able to limit the social consequences of fear and insecurity, they have done so largely through the universal cultural phenomenon of religion. Whatever else it is and does, religion disciplines individuals and groups though the power of moral conscience, teaches hope and patience, and, perhaps above all, restrains individual behavior through collective sanction. Whenever fear and uncertainty reach levels that threaten to dissolve the cultural glue holding societies together, religion forms a shield for collective sanity. In other words, it usefully raises the threshold of social disintegration.

Over the past few centuries in the West, reason has vied to replace religion as a conceptual template for society’s defense against shock and uncertainty. Science offered hope of a more effective means of controlling risk, and so of reducing the frequency and magnitude of social shocks. It also privileged two key orienting assumptions that differed from those proffered by most earlier religious cultures: Reason took pride of place among the various functions of the human central nervous system; and the individual rather than the community became the elemental unit of measure on which attention focused. These are, of course, among the main definitional hallmarks of modernity. How has science done in providing balm and buffer for social disruption over these past few “modern” centuries?

The record has been mixed. Some kinds of shocks have been dramatically mitigated, to be sure, by medical advances and rising material standards of living. But other kinds of shocks both extant and potential have been created by inadvertent, man-made phenomena based in applied science (weapons of mass destruction, for example, and whole classes of affluence-enabled non-communicable diseases). Only over the past few decades has doubt about science as a means of reducing social risk and uncertainty risen into general consciousness. Within Western societies, therefore, debate continues over the relative utility of religion and science as templates for organizing human understanding and knitting societies together—in other words, for generating culture, the meaning-making, metaphorical externalized signposts that members of a society hold in common.

This debate has recently acquired a surprising aspect. Again, the archetypal paradigm of the scientific worldview insists on reason as the best means to generate functional social arrangements, and that the individual, not the group, is what matters first and most. Alas, both of these predicates have come under attack from within the scientific estate itself. A growing body of research suggests that humans do not readily separate reason and affect in their behavior, and that this is not “irrational.” Related research, including research into the composition and evolution of the brain itself, suggests as well that the proper level of analysis to study human behavior is the group, not the individual.

What this means, at the least, is that science now increasingly credits the orientation of traditional religious worldviews with having positive evolutionary functions. Human culture is now seen as being within the evolutionary process, and religion is, as all anthropologists know, a key element of most cultures. It may further suggest that even in post-pluralized, supposedly secular societies the functions once satisfied in traditional societies by religion remain, only they take forms that self-described secular people in their “natural attitude”—I mean here precisely Alfred Schutz’s Lebenswelt—do not recognize as having any kindred function with religion.

A different kind of dialogue has ensued between Western societies and others, for whom the rise of modern science has not been an organic social development. In this dialogue Westerners have tended to claim that science is a qualitatively different kind of symbolic system from religion, but not everyone is convinced. Science sounds as faith-based to many non-Westerners as any religious system they know. Moreover, many non-Western observers, as well as some within the West, have noted that the headlong de-spiritualization of Western political and social life attending the “age of reason” has not ensured the peace and toleration so many predicted would come of it. That de-spiritualization, some have argued, rather underlay the totalitarian enormities of the 20th century.

In short, while it may seem esoteric in discussions of international peace and security, it is nevertheless undeniable that the symbol systems societies have always used to define and defend their corporate integrity against risk and uncertainty are now, perhaps for the first time, the subject of very widespread conscious and contentious questioning. The wholesale pluralization of templates may be undermining the heretofore taken-for-granted “natural” credibility of all templates, thus lowering the threshold of social disintegration in the face of potential shock and challenge.

If so, an increased sense of insecurity and fear flowing from what is increasingly a global condition will spawn efforts to reassert traditional templates. That, it seems clear, is what has ignited ethno-linguistic and sectarian identity politics in much of the world, in place of the broadly ideological templates of an earlier time. It is also what appears to have stimulated certain chiliastic movements, of which al-Qaeda has proved the most telegenic example, just as similar circumstances brought forth such movements in earlier centuries. As always, much chiliastic energy is directed inward and produces devout quietism, but some, also as always, is projected outward in suicidal violence. A propensity for violence thus seems likely to increase on a global scale as the rapid pluralization of heretofore “natural”, innocently accepted cultural templates proceeds.

Modalities of Conflict

Aworld divided into core and periphery, to the extent that it is prone to violence, will generate varying forms of violence. These forms constitute the modalities of conflict in today’s world, which take five basic forms: national, subnational, transnational, anomie/small group, and what may be called, for lack of a better term, the “imperialism of the commons.”

Fear can congeal, drive action, and be manipulated at the national level by states. Even wars in the Westphalian era that seem to have been wars of aggression, like those caused by 20th-century fascism, were seen by their fomenters as defensive wars. All were generated by the perverse inversion of the Golden Rule under the spell of the security dilemma: Do unto others before they can do unto thee. States have often used violence against weaker states in defense of their interests, for fear that small or latent problems might grow larger and become dangerous. That, ultimately, has been an important contributing factor in U.S. involvement in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today the prospect of war among the great powers is probably lower than it has been since the advent of modern times. One reason concerns the spread of the core Enlightenment notion that competition can be a multi-sum (as well as a zero-sum) game. But great power stability and peace is not tamper-proof and may not be permanent. Nor do regional balances come into being all by themselves; if they did, the historical record would not be so rich with chronicles of war. State elites may still conclude that the use of violence is their least-bad option in given circumstances. That may be because of resource competitions in which some states are put at a decided disadvantage on account of technological or geographical factors. It may be because of fears that internal control is disintegrating on account of what other actors do to mobilize populations in rival states. It may be on account of ethno-linguistic chauvinism. Or it may be because ideological or religious—that is to say, creedal—reasons take pride of place. All such reasons may look better to governmental elites when accompanied by the withdrawal or apparent passivity of the state or states that have been providing global security goods, as has the United States since the end of World War II.

Fear can also congeal and be manipulated at the subnational level, by groups that feel abandoned, exploited or humiliated by their national government or by the actions of other states against kith and kin. Civil war became much more prevalent in the second half of the 20th century than great power war, particularly in regions in which the state (mainly a Western construct whose origin lies in part in the development of print-driven literacy and the collective consciousness flowing therefrom) is not organic to their historical development. It is hardly a surprise that state structures artificially imposed on societies not accustomed to them tend to be fragile, and that the explicit or implicit social contract defining the relationship between rulers and ruled is weak. A dynamic of resistance to authority and coercion by authority to command obedience has generated endemic violence in many countries, the more so to the extent that the societies themselves are ethnically or culturally heterogeneous. The shock of change washing over such weak states tends to accelerate and deepen the fears and insecurities that lead to violence within them.

It usually does so, however, in a characteristic way. States on the periphery of the world system do not produce cutting-edge science and technology; do not generate indigenous wealth from human capital, social trust, and institutional coherence; and cannot control the increasing porosity of their physical and virtual borders. Thus they tend to divide within themselves over how to deal with the pressures from without (and sometimes within, as generated, for example, by growing rates of literacy and urbanization). Usually societies under pressure divide into three factions: modernizers who want to align their society with the ways and means of the core; nativists who reject change for fear it will destroy their corporate identity and dignity; and traditionalists who seek ways to adapt to new opportunities, but on their own cultural terms. These different reactions to pressure sometimes align with ethnic and sectarian divisions in society; sometimes, however, they cut across them.

Fear can also congeal and be manipulated at the transnational level. Imagined communities of religious believers or ethnic diasporas can now organize themselves as has never before been possible. This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Some earlier examples, like the anarchist epoch of the late 19th century, were based on ideological communities constructed around utopian conceptions of a classless society. Episodes of anti-Semitism arose from the unusual history and transnational social organization of Jews in diaspora. The possibilities of potentially violent transnational communities in the future, however, are vast: Note just one already existing example in the nature of Islamist extremism in Western Europe.

Fear can congeal and be manipulated at the anomic and small group level, as well. This is what Islamist apocalyptical terrorism is, but it hardly subsumes the class of possibilities. Aum Shinrikyo in Japan is an example, too, and so are Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber in the United States: cults or cultic individuals who have organized their fear and insecurity into attacks against the perceived agents of indignity or threat.

Such behaviors are commonly articulated in creedal terms, and almost always proliferate in times of disorienting change. They dot the history of nearly every recorded age and of every inhabited continent. Contrary to popular belief, the violence of chiliastic movements is not caused by poverty, by discrete political grievances or by authoritarian repression. Its expression may be enabled or channeled by these factors, but they are not the true causal agents of the violence they propagate.

There are also links among the national, the subnational, the transnational, and the anomic levels at which violence may take place. Generally speaking, the less cohesive a society is at the national level—in other words, the less effective its state organization and the less congealing its culture are for accomplishing core social tasks—the more prone it will be to spawn subnational and transnational impulses to separation and violence, and the more those impulses will stimulate anomic impulses to separation and violence. The loop then feeds back: The more impulses to separation and violence there are at levels other than the state, the more confidence in the state’s ability to govern and provide security will wane.

There is one other level at which fear can congeal and be manipulated into violent behavior. It appears to be new, so we do not have an agreed term with which to label it. We will therefore describe first, name second.

In recent decades many educated people have come to believe that the world is more tightly interconnected and interdependent than it used to be. Whether and to what extent this is true and why are interesting questions; but the belief that it is true has an autonomous impact—it is, in other words, a force loose in the world in the form of a belief. As global social life takes up and freezes into itself this conception of interdependence, what happens?

Possibly, good things happen. At least some people are apt to think through the consequences of their behaviors for others and hope that others reciprocate. To the extent they do, we may expect more empathy and cooperation. But other things happen, too. When do people start caring about property taxes and municipal services? After they purchase a home. When does a cotton farmer in the Sahel start to care what the U.S. Congress does? After U.S. agricultural subsidies drive down the value of his labor. In short, the more interconnected we think the world is, the more moving pieces we feel obliged to pay attention to, and the more influence we will seek over them. After all, if these moving pieces impinge on our livelihood and safety—if what chicken farmers do or don’t do in Thailand or China can cause avian flu in Texas or California—what’s wrong with wanting to have influence on or, in extreme cases, exert control over them?

But, of course, others will feel the same way, giving rise to competitions to influence global interconnectedness. These competitions may take at least two forms.

First, they can result in powerful states, coalitions of powerful states, or international organizations directed by powerful states trying to exercise governance functions over groups who are, for whatever reasons, not interested in being influenced. So, for example, the powerful say to the indigenous inhabitants of some timber-rich land that they must not destroy their forests for the benefit of our common biosphere, and the locals answer, in effect, you mind your business and we’ll mind ours.1

Second is the problem of devising transnational governance mechanisms to deal with threats to the commons. Everyone knows this is increasingly necessary, and few fail to understand how sovereignty can coexist with cooperation: It merely requires that clear lines of democratic accountability be respected in deciding how much sovereignty to lend out in given cases. The problem is that the interests of states in transnational governance functions overlap but do not coincide, and some large and powerful states do not particularly care about respecting lines of democratic accountability, either within or among societies. This is how the question of regime type can morph into a potential barrier to effective international governance.

In sum, states could fall into conflict over the terms of transnational functional regimes, and perhaps even fight over them if they are deemed important enough (how to deal with a looming pandemic, for instance). Even if they do not fight but merely cause policy paralysis, we are willy-nilly back to reliance on self-help: powerful countries trying to coerce smaller ones, or groups within other countries, to either do or stop doing something the more powerful state believes threatens its interests in an interdependent world. Let us call this, as hinted at above, the imperialism of the commons.

Enablers and Shapers of Warfare

We have so far sketched lightly the basic sources of instability and violence in global human society manifest in the early 21st century, and then limned five interlocking forms they can take. We are left with describing the instruments of warfare, and how those instruments may double back to affect the modalities and even the sources of instability and violence.

It is by now a commonplace to observe that the conventional military forces of powerful states cannot so readily be used to secure political results in a host of unconventional contingencies ranging from insurgency to terrorism. There is nothing new about this either: The British learned as much in the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the French learned it in Algeria, and if the Americans had not forgotten what they learned in the Indian Wars and in the turn-of-the-20th-century Philippines, they would not have had to learn it all over again in Vietnam, and yet again in Afghanistan and Iraq. What is new about the impotence of force is new only in degree. What is new, specifically, is that formerly passive populations in many parts of the world are no longer so passive, and politicized groups are harder to intimidate and pacify than disorganized and divided ones.

What is new is therefore not the impotence of the seemingly mighty but the capacity of the underdog, the dispossessed, the stateless, and even the insane to seriously harm nominally far more powerful actors. We saw this on 9/11, as we awoke to a possibility previously smothered by a failure of imagination. Now we know: Just as the Colt 45 enabled a weakling to be just as deadly as a hulking giant more than a century ago, now and in the future a growing range of instruments will enable small, weak groups to be as potentially deadly as many a state.

Much attention today focuses on the danger that Islamist terrorists might get hold of nuclear weapons. This is not likely. More worrisome is that suicidal, chiliastic fanatics might get their hands on biotoxins. Controls over biogenetic research, in America and in the world, are scandalously inadequate; unlike nuclear science and engineering, too, bioscience and bioengineering are still unbounded and hence much harder to predict; and the raw materials for evil bio-deeds are cheaper and easier to fabricate, hide, and deliver.

Then there is cyber-terror and related ways to wreck the nerve centers of modern societies. Attacks on information systems and nodes of communication and transportation can cripple an advanced modern economy. People will not just be inconvenienced when such things happen; they will die, too. The key to dealing with potential threats to strategic system nodes is devising hedging strategies for investment in resiliency, not making old ladies take off their shoes before they’re allowed to board an airplane. We have been obsessing over improbable, near-term Islamist nuclear threats when we should be concerning ourselves with longer-term bio- and cyber-threats of far more diffuse potential origin.

The inversion of who can harm whom—of individuals and small groups being able to jeopardize states, while states often seem powerless to stop them—could have profound effects on international security. There are, most obviously, the literal effects: bombings, mass murders, and paralyzed economies. But such literal effects, if there are enough of them, could redouble into qualitatively distinct social-psychological effects. States are in the protection business: They protect people from each other in civil society, and they protect society as a whole from other states. If states are widely seen as being unable to do these things effectively and consistently, the silent conspiracy of presumption that enables them to function in the first place will evaporate. States that cannot monopolize the control of violence within their boundaries, and a state system that cannot monopolize the control of violence in the wider global arena, will not very long endure.

If that happens, the devolution of de facto decision-making to levels other than those of the national state will accelerate. Some devolution of state control both downward and upward is a good thing. The wars of the past few centuries, together with the centralizing impetus of industrial-age technologies, created a more state-centric political order than at any time in the past. Now that this centralizing impulse is abating somewhat, fractionated “states” or would-be states, such as Bosnia, Scotland, Catalonia, and perhaps Lombardy, seem to be emerging. The problem is that the formula for democratic accountability has only been worked out on the level of the state, and the deterioration of democratic states will probably deepen the ambient sense of fear in the world, making change appear more frightening to many societies. The trick is to carefully and by consent selectively devolve the social and political authority of states to loci where it can be both more effective and possibly even more legitimate. That is not the same, obviously, as a headlong, near-simultaneous crumbling of that authority among states, a situation best described not as state failure but state-system failure.

Planned subsidiarity, therefore, may be the best protection against state and state-system failure. Indeed, a generic problem inherent to globalization today, as it functions within a state-centric context, is that it often works at cross-purposes with subsidiarity. One gains economies of scale from amalgamations of various kinds, but loses flexibility in the process. Nature is resilient because it is both diverse and in a sense modularly designed. When successful, it balances itself in ever expanding loops or concentric circles of dense interdependence, but failsafe mechanisms built into the connections ensure that if something goes awry on one level, others levels can adjust without collapsing. Even fish are “smart enough” to do this. But when financiers and bankers aggregate a host of regional business cycles into one massive global cycle, everything collapses if that megacycle collapses. (Sometimes this happens in a single, massive financial corporation: JPMorgan, for example, is so huge that no chief executive officer can possibly know what the company as a whole is doing at any given time.) It amounts to doubling down on a bet when one cannot even read clearly the cards in one’s own hand. This is not a formula for resilience; it’s a thumbnail description of what happened to Humpty-Dumpty.

Many have complained that U.S. foreign policy in recent years has suffered from the absence of a strategy process. No one is looking at the big picture or asking whether the structure of the government, designed in and for a different era, suits current circumstances. The same observation holds for the governance, such as it is, of the planet. The world is over-institutionalized in the sense of having an alphabet soup of aging organizations whose functions no longer align with the environment, but it is under-institutionalized in the sense of not having the functional systems it needs to manage emerging or growing problems effectively.

The only way systems that will actually work can be instituted is through the voluntary association of sovereign states in some way or other accountable to those they rule. If this happens, it could lead to a more orderly and less fear-inducing pace of change, hence less instability and violence. If it doesn’t, the growing mismatch between the dwindling capacities of most national political units, on the one hand, and the real, effective space in which economic and cultural exchanges are taking place, on the other, will expand.

That would not be so good for peace and security, either within or among societies. How do we know this? Because there is a long history of shifting “fittedness” (please excuse the term) between polities and economic and social space. One way strong polities endeavored to recreate a fit has been through contiguous territorial expansion: land empires, a favorite pastime of the ancient and not-so-ancient world. A second way has been through overseas empires, facilitated by the operational method of mercantilism. A third way has been through cross-polity regimes of free trade that resolve discrepancies not through force majeure but through agreement on a system of ongoing material exchange and reconciliation that involves, inter alia, some means of devising a form of legal tender—money, in other words. These trading systems have tended to be rare, limited, imperfect, and short-lived, but territorially contiguous and overseas empires have had their downsides, too—slavery and war, for example. This is perhaps what led Hegel to define history as “a butcher’s block.”

We need to do better. We need to devise a large-scale means of preserving and expanding the reach of accountable government in forms other than the Westphalian/Weberian territorial state—not just for moral reasons, but also because such government tends to be more stable, efficient, and legitimate in mutually reinforcing ways. In the meantime, we need to figure a way for economic interactions, at the very least, not to undermine existing accountable institutions via technical bypass, social exit, or large-scale criminality.3 Don’t worry; I’m working on it.

1A recent example is described in Joshua Partlow, “A Jungle Struggle Heats Up in Mexico”, Washington Post, July 7, 2014.

2It should go nearly without saying that the viability and effectiveness of states vary widely and for several reasons. Many of the 192 sovereigns recognized by the United Nations never achieved the status of Weberian states in the first place. Others did but less than fully, and some states have witnessed institutional decay. Still others differ in terms of the distribution of their executive, legislative, and judicial components, creating a distribution of effectiveness among both democratic and non-democratic states. See Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) and Political Order and Decay (forthcoming in October); and John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Fourth Revolution (Penguin, 2014)

3See Nils Gilman, “The Twin Insurgency”, The American Interest (July/August 2014).

Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest. He especially thanks Anna Simons and Lawrence Rosen for their seminal contributions to this essay.
  • ljgude

    It seems to me that the article supports, without naming them directly, two of the great chestnuts of the Western liberal world order – to wit, democracy and the UN both of which are exhibiting serious limitations. Granted by abstractly calling for a more effective transnational order something better than the UN is implied – but that is not a high bar. Moving on I heartily agree with the critique of reason and science in the modern project – particularly in its inability to recognize its own belief system serves many of the same functions as religion. That kind of cultural self awareness is potentially a way out of the prison of our own assumptions. Western rationalism has produced unprecedented scientific and technological progress, but has not been able to address many of the fundamental issues of the human condition. Like many children of Modernity, I have found that Buddhism addresses the unsatisfactory nature of human existence much more effectively than the one sided belief in progress that ignores, for example, the problem of mortality . And, ironically, very rationally too.

    • mc

      Sorry, this comment moves from one straw man to another. The article deals with a number of dilemmas which you seem to believe are avoidable if only we were to recast them into familiar terms of reference–a sort of liberal nativism. You are to be congratulated for having found a measure of peace in Buddhism but its capacity for resolving our present conundrums is no more self-evident or realistic than Islam’s is.

      • ljgude

        Sorry if what you experience is a series of straw men then I think I have failed to communicate. No, I accept and applaud Garfinkel’s dilemmas which I agree I failed to note properly in my comment. . What I was trying to say in my first two sentences was that I felt as I read the article that democracy and internationalism persisted as givens even though he seemed to be trying to hold them at a distance. I wasn’t trying recast them as static and obsolete categories of thought and evidently didn’t make that clear.. I don’t think either Mr Garfinkle or myself are ‘liberal nativists. (Is that liberal in the American sense, as in liberal Democrat or in the sense of classic liberalism that WRM uses?) No, I get it that this article is trying to get outside Western liberal culture (2nd meaning bove) we all swim in. In any case, I think of it more broadly as our entire post enlightenment Western modernity. Garfinkel’s awareness that science itself creates a cultural container is a way out of being unconsciously contained -as any cultural nativist normally is.

        I suggested Buddhism because of all the worlds religions it is more approachable by Western reason and is therefore another possible way to get outside the dilemmas that beset us. I would argue that ‘the enlightenment’ was both a great expansion of human awareness and also a narrowing because it apparently reduces religion to a collection of comforting beliefs. As you politely imply when you congratulate me for having found a measure of peace in Buddhism. My field is comparative religion and also the actual practice of particular religions so I happen to know that the Buddha primarily addressed the problem of suffering and that peace, or more precisely enlightenment, only occurs, after dealing with apparently endless dilemmas, perhaps over apparently endless lifetimes. If Buddhism interests you at all I can’t think of a better introduction by someone fully conversant with the Western mindset than Eknath Easwaran in his introduction to his translation of the Dhammapada which can be read in about an hour. .

  • Andrew Allison

    Re:” We need to devise a large-scale means of preserving and expanding the reach of accountable government in forms other than the Westphalian/Weberian territorial state—not just for moral reasons, but also because such government tends to be more stable, efficient, and legitimate in mutually reinforcing ways.” Alternatively, we could leave societies alone to live with the form of government they have chosen unless/until they directly threaten our own. Our attempts to impose democracy have largely been futile disasters.

  • qet

    This is a big subject, too big for a comment space. Anyone truly interested in thinking through our current situation could do worse than consult Karl Mannheim, who wrote in a similar context (post-WWI) of an existing world order having fallen to pieces and a number of alternative new orders struggling against each other for primacy.

    However, I would say that if one thing about current times is clear, it is that people everywhere are shaking off–violently in many cases–political aggregation in favor of dissolution and partition. To suggest that the correct course is to pursue an even more aggressive political re-aggregation of people in the face of these forces strikes me as. . . . . . ..unsound.

    Let’s look at it this way: if a larger scale political aggregation could occur anywhere on Earth, it would be in Europe, with its Enlightenment traditions and its history of extreme suffering at the hands of ardent nationalists. The EU has been just such an attempt at this larger scale institutional structure Garfinkle urges, and it appears at the moment to be an abject failure, as more Europeans today are actively trying to get out from under its administrative state tyranny.

    There may be an iron law at work here, an inversely proportional relationship between polity size and “accountability.”

    • Corlyss

      “However, I would say that if one thing about current times is clear, it is that people everywhere are shaking off–violently in many cases–political aggregation in favor of dissolution and partition. To suggest that the correct course is to pursue an even more aggressive political re-aggregation of people in the face of these forces strikes me as. . . . . . ..unsound.”

      I couldn’t agree with you more. Aside from the natural instinct of Liberals to think that ever larger aggregations of people are a decided plus for the administrative state, I can’t understand the apparent intractable devotion to “maps that lie” to use Kaplan’s analysis. Maps are artificial lines on paper. They may be SUPPOSED to reflect reality, but outside of topographical maps, they are useless, esp. for reflecting cultural and often political realities. If the Palestinians can’t live in any other country but their own, let governments whose existence depends on ridding themselves of Palestinians do so, hopefully as humanely as possible. If the Muslims want their wretched lands all to themselves, help them disperse their non-Muslim populations, don’t take on as if there were something unnatural and inhuman about their desire. It’s perfectly natural to tribalism, and God knows we have ample evidence that tribalism is not a phase nations pass thru but a very real process for ordering their lives. Before everyone jumps down my throat for stating the obvious, let me say that I don’t think this is achievable because human nature will always chose the most expedient and usually violent way of purging the Other. But I think cultural hegemony is not the scourge that modern Liberals treat it as. Peace within a nation’s borders more often than not depends on cultural hegemony.

  • Anthony

    “As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to men of all nations and races.” (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

    Implicit in essay is that institutions are stable (generally), valued, recurring patterns of behavior and most importantly facilitate collective action. In other words, social, cultural and material conditions matter in “what’s going on”. Likewise, moral valuation of nature, community, tradition, emotion, reason, and science can be distilled from essay’s expanse (“the intellectual categories we are accustomed to using are obsolete….”). Yet, what are we left with?

    Reading essay one can come away with contrasting view of the natural and distinct experience of the world (weltanschauung) and the distributive intellectual activity that breaks reality down through conceptualization, calculation, and theorization (welt-an-denken). The question remains and concerns: can transformation of both human life and Leviathan by science, technology, reason, etc. and the attendant marginalization (or in some cases intensification) of custom, faith, community, etc. have fittedness (that word) in current historical dynamics? So just maybe, Peter Singer may be on (when people are rapacious and terrified… when cooler heads prevail…) to something – expanding circle (globalization literally).

    • Corlyss

      “As man advances in civilization,”

      There was his FIRST mistake . . .

      http://www.sciencecartoonsplus.com/gallery/math/math23.gif

      • Anthony

        I’ve noticed you’ve started to include graphics in some replies and comments. Exclamation.

        • Corlyss

          Images pop in to my mind when I read something. If I think they’re funny, I share. /g/ In this case, I am a devoted fan of Sidney Harris’ cartoons – they were so apt to so many situations I was in when I worked. But I just include a link, Disqus or whatever decides to turn them into graphics.

          • Anthony

            Thanks for insight.

    • qet

      I can’t tell if you quote Darwin approvingly or disapprovingly, but it has been clear for a long, long time that his reasoning on the subject was deficient, no doubt a result of a lifetime spent studying things other than men.

      • Anthony

        Neither, introductory context to Adam Garfinkle’s essay.

  • Corlyss

    “We need to do better.”

    Wow! All that bafflegab just to arrive at that conclusion?

    “We need to devise a large-scale means of preserving and expanding the reach of accountable government in forms other than the Westphalian/Weberian territorial state—not just for moral reasons, but also because such government tends to be more stable, efficient, and legitimate in mutually reinforcing ways.”

    Ever heard of span of control issues? We already have those a-plenty because too many putative nations do not reflect their own political realities. The speaker assumes facts not in evidence that the human capacity for self-governance is not already at the outer reaches of its span of control. More effective does not mean bigger. In most cases, it means smaller.

    “Don’t worry; I’m working on it.”

    Get back to us when you’ve figured it out. I’m sure we’ll disagree with you . . .

    • witheo

      “Get back to us”? “… we’ll disagree with you …”?

      Who is this allegedly coherent clique to which you refer? Are you sure you “reflect your own political realities”? On whose behalf, dare one ask, in whose interests and for what ulterior motives are you holding the floor here? “The speaker assumes facts not in evidence …” Whence comes this authority? [If not from equivalent idle assumptions.]

      I think that’s the problem right there. There are far too many eminently qualified, highly intelligent, eloquent to a fault [you can almost smell the madeira and cigars], commenters holding forth, roused from chambers, in a language that sounds so reassuringly like English. Much as the village parson used to drone on, above the snores of the faithful, in a vein so totally alienating to the average punter, to whom, God save us all, the powerful must on occasion condescendingly appeal.

      What has happened to ‘the world order’ is the Internet. Twenty years ago, such remarkable efficiency with which the overwhelming flood of viscerally sincere discussions take place all over the ‘blogosphere’, was not possible. But for Twitter, only a century ago, the First World War would have been unthinkable. [Not enough Likes, for a start.]

      Two decades ago we had time to think. Let things sink in. Allow the seeds of dissent to germinate. And in the fullness of time we might deliver our eminently sensible intellect of a measured, civilised response. Those genteel [good old?] days, for better and for worse, are gone for good. “Political coherence” is a thing of the past.

      The human brain, prodigious in its output, has its limits. Which, I suggest, is just as well. The way electronic devices “talk to each other”, at the speed of light over quite irrelevant distances, would render perfectly catatonic even the brain of an Einstein. [Who begged his students to explain things to him slowly.]

      The average blog thread enjoys a half-life of barely a week. By the time a thoroughly decent, thinking person has had time to compose a reasoned response, the noisy carnival has rolled on. To the Next Big Thing.

      Are “we” better off? Get back to me …

      • Corlyss

        The “we” refers to the habitués of this little corner of the ‘net. We’re a contrary lot. We rarely agree on the official take here. I assume Mr. Garfinkle will air the results of his labors here, if for nothing more than editing. /g/

        • witheo

          I know, I know. That’s the intention. “We” all know what’s required to fix the world. Just so long as we don’t go into the detail. Except that I don’t subscribe anymore to the notion that words “refer to” things.

          “The Middle East” is a blinding beacon in this regard. How many “Peace Envoys” have set about getting the parties to sit down at the negotiating table? Always on the implicit understanding that the future of Jerusalem is left off the agenda. Because, as we all know beyond all reasonable doubt, Jerusalem is not negotiable. [And yet we insist that educated, intelligent people really are capable of rationality.]

          I have grown suspicious, to the point of paranoia, of the efficiency with which language is mobilised, manipulated and exploited, always to serve inherently private agendas. “I love you”, simply put, does not mean what it “says”. Because it “says” nothing at all.

          Which immediately requires a qualification, or three. To say the words mean nothing, sounds like, “guns don’t kill people, people do”. The timeless cliché, “I love you” can only mean something specific to the parties involved in the transaction, “as we speak”. The context is everything. And then some. The range of possible meanings we must occasionally attach to the things we say and hear is virtually unlimited.

          I know what I said. And I can even convince myself that I understand, more or less, what I might have meant by what I said. Depending on how much time has elapsed. But that is a long way from permitting me to assume the other will read my words in exactly the same way.

          The severe limitations of language, confined as it is by strict rules of grammar and syntax, renders all of us pathetically susceptible to solipsism, sophistry and cant. Language lends itself to circularity.

          The Euclidian circle is defined as an infinite number of hypothetical points of no dimension equidistant from one hypothetical point of no dimension. Which spawns the intractable paradox of pi: the infuriatingly imprecise ratio between the diameter and circumference.

          This inescapable mathematical phenomenon applies equally to the dialectical circular argument with which we are all so familiar that we don’t even notice its routine deployment. Such as: The establishment of the State of Israel proves that “The Jews” have an inalienable right to their homeland. Islamic Jihad proves that Zionism is right. If God really did exist, there would be no need for atheists.

          And so on, ad nauseam. The perfect circular argument is so ubiquitous precisely because it is perfectly unassailable. Each point on the circumference of its interior logic has no dimension, therefore cannot be dislodged.

          • Corlyss

            ” “We” all know what’s required to fix the world.”

            All I said was “we’re a contrary lot.” You’re reading too much into it. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

            ” “Except that I don’t subscribe anymore to the notion that words “refer to” things.” ”

            Mmmm. Must be hard to order a burger.

          • witheo

            Oh, but it is, it is. A burger is just a burger to you? How about coffee. Or tea? A boiled egg …

            Here’s a guy we all know and love, struggling to order what he wants in a diner.

            It’s a classic of American cinema. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember where you were when you first saw this scene played out by the master of menace himself. Enjoy.

          • Corlyss

            There are certain cinematic icons of us Boomers’ generation that I have not seen, and with any luck at all will die without having seen. That’s one of them.

            I concede that ordering a burger can be a challenge of insurmountable nature to certain philosophy majors and some suffering from personality disorders. Perhaps that’s a tautology . . . .

          • witheo

            Oh dear. That moral high ground again.

            “… cinematic icons … that I have not seen, and with any luck at all will die without having seen.”

            What a shame, my dear Corlyss, that you so recklessly refuse to look where you may perchance see what you so peremptorily deny.

            In the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who led the main attack, is reputed to have disobeyed his Commander’s order to withdraw by holding the telescope to his blind eye, so ‘mis-reading the signals’.

            The ‘Wilful Blindness Defence’ cannot succeed, as courts routinely find the defendant should have known what feckless Donald Rumsfeld famously called the “known unknowns”.

            The following passage is taken from Galileo’s 1610 letter to his friend, the German mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

            “Oh, my dear Kepler, how I wish we could have one hearty laugh together! Here at Padua is the principal professor of philosophy [Giulio Libri, who taught at Pisa and Padua] whom I have repeatedly and urgently requested to look at the moon and planets through my glass which he pertinaciously refuses to do. Why are you not here? What shouts of laughter we should have at this glorious folly! And to hear the professor of philosophy at Pisa labouring before the Grand Duke with logical arguments, as if with magical incantations, to charm the new planets out of the sky.”

            Another of Galileo’s colleagues who refused to look through his glass was Sizzi who held that the discovery of an additional planet would destroy the seven-day week, based as it was on only seven planets.

            I grant you, dear Corlyss, much of cinema is indeed, has always been, noisome sludge. Which ought not blind us, please God, to what jewels, from time to time, there may be.

          • Fred

            I disagree with Corlyss about Five Easy Pieces. It’s a very good movie. However, I don’t think that scene really illustrates your point. Nicholson’s character’s difficulty in ordering toast does not result from the failure of the word “toast” to refer to anything but from the rigid rules of the restaurant surrounding toast and chicken salad (or at least the waitress’s choice to be rigid about it). So while you are right and he is wrong about the film, he is right and you are wrong about the referentiality of language. Derrida to the contrary notwithstanding, while language is imperfect and ambiguity and the potential for misunderstanding are intrinsic to it, it does, in fact, refer to an extra-linguistic reality and does so fairly effectively most of the time or communication would be impossible.

          • witheo

            Thanks Fred. While I appreciate the sentiment, I have a few problems with the thrust of your comment. As you might expect. Which is odd in itself, I think. The more provocative the comment, the more valued it may be. Which is to say, your comment is not necessarily provocative to the disinterested “world at large”, but only to me.

            What invariably ignites my passion is eloquent statements such as your assertion that, “… while language is imperfect and ambiguity and the potential for misunderstanding are intrinsic to it, it does, in fact, refer to an extra-linguistic reality and does so fairly effectively most of the time or communication would be impossible.” I realise you probably didn’t mean to gag the debate. But couldn’t your words be taken as stating, “what I say is therefore beyond dispute”?

            I cannot deny that we all believe we seem to “communicate” very well, most of the time. The problem that immediately arises for me though is to decide what is meant by “communication”. Because both parties to the transaction so often appear to go away happy, I’m afraid we are much too quick to jump to the, in my view erroneous, conclusion that “communication” involves an effective means for the accurate exchange of “information”. [Another notoriously ambiguous term.]

            For example. When I buy a dozen eggs for six dollars, the commodities involved [legal tender, provided my money is not counterfeit, and the hen eggs, provided they are fresh and unbroken], certainly do not mean the same thing to the people involved in the transaction. That is to say, the customer, the shop assistant, the investors behind the retail chain, the packing plant employees, transport drivers, the poultry egg farmer and the bank. Imagine that I had only ten dollars with me at the time and I still needed $3.90 for the bus to get home. That essential existential fact for me is literally meaningless to everybody else.

            To me, words are very like money. We exchange them quite freely, apparently without thinking very much about their supposedly intrinsic value or utility. We just assume, in my analogy, that six dollars means the same to a poor widow as it does to a millionaire.

            Which I think was the point I was trying to make to young Corlyss here. The efficient public discourse notwithstanding, which Derrida et al so notoriously identified, a cigar is never just a cigar. [I know the popular phrase is habitually attributed to Sigmund Freud, who, having died eleven years before we find the first recorded reference, almost certainly did not coin the words. And certainly not in German. Nevertheless, the cliché is freely bandied about as Freud’s casual reminder that his ubiquitous cigar did not necessarily always imply a phallic symbol.

            Of course, when the house is burning, we experience little difficulty in conveying that fact to the fire department. But, as I’m sure you will agree, whether my house burns down or not does not mean the same thing to everybody involved. The fire department does not respond to my call because the men particularly care about my welfare. They do what they do so well precisely because they are not emotionally involved. [The inevitable water damage is quite irrelevant.]

            Which is why I insist, despite the deeply entrenched social conventions that sustain our most comfortably beguiling assumptions, language cannot facilitate the conveyance of meaning. To understand what sense we are obliged to make of every text, we have no choice but to rely absolutely on the pretext [derived from my own life experience], the context [circumstantial evidence surrounding each transaction] and the subtext [what we miraculously manage to “read between the lines”].

          • Fred

            Wow. So much sophistry, so little time. It’s hard to know where to begin. But I’ll give it a shot.

            But couldn’t your words be taken as stating, “what I say is therefore beyond dispute”?

            You can dispute it all you like, but the very notion of dispute presupposes that you take my words to refer to something that is untrue, inaccurate, or incomplete and you will attempt to correct them with words you expect me to take as referring to something at least more true/accurate/complete.

            When I buy a dozen eggs for six dollars, the commodities involved [legal tender, provided my money is not counterfeit, and the hen eggs, provided they are fresh and unbroken], certainly do not mean the same thing to the people involved in the transaction.

            So what? Both the grocer and I know what the word “egg” refers to or there could be no such transaction. How we feel about eggs is irrelevant. We both know what currency is and how it is used and denominated. If not, that grocer won’t be in business very long. Again, how we will use the money or where I got it or how the grocer and/or I feel about it are irrelevant to the point in question, which is whether words refer to things.

            Imagine that I had only ten dollars with me at the time and I still needed $3.90 for the bus to get home. That essential existential fact for me is literally meaningless to everybody else.

            Literally? So if I’m the grocer and you explain your situation to me I will perceive only gibberish? Nonsense. I may not care, or I may feel sorry for you but still not give you the eggs, or I may relent and give you the eggs out of the goodness of my heart, but I will certainly “literally” understand every word you say to me and know exactly what you are referring to. Your “argument” here depends on an equivocation of the word “meaningless.” Your situation may be meaningless to the grocer in the colloquial sense of not being important to him and/or causing no change in his life or business, but it will certainly not be meaningless in the sense of not seeming to refer to anything. And by the way, I can recognize your equivocation because both of those referential possibilities of the word “meaningless” are “literally” meaningful to me.

            We just assume, in my analogy, that six dollars means the same to a poor widow as it does to a millionaire.

            Everyone has their favorite fallacy. Yours apparently is equivocation. Once again you are equivocating on the word “means.” Of course six dollars will “mean” something different to a poor widow than to a millionaire in the sense of “be important to.” But if that’s what you mean, the statement cited above is not only irrelevant, it is false. We may or may not care about the difference, but anyone who is a product of a culture in which currency is used will understand that six dollars (or whatever) is more important to a poor person than a rich one. If you are using the word “means” as in “refers to,” your statement is not only false, but ridiculously so. Assuming both the millionaire and the widow use currency and know basically how it works and can both count to six then “six dollars” will “mean” exactly the same thing to both of them.

            Your final example, i.e., the fire department, depends on the same equivocation, so I don’t see any need to address it specifically since I have already addressed the issue twice.

            Which is why I insist, despite the deeply entrenched social conventions that sustain our most comfortably beguiling assumptions, language cannot facilitate the conveyance of meaning.
            And, of course, you have just used language to convey that meaning to me. Apparently, you are also partial to self-refutation. Give up the pomo, son. It leads nowhere. It is, as Raymond Tallis described it, a “vast pyramid of bullshit.”

          • witheo

            Thank you for taking the time. I’ll do my best to do your polemic the justice it deserves. One point at a time.

            First, to the popular device of enlisting patronising sarcasm.

            Mind you, when I say, I perceive “patronising sarcasm”, that is entirely my own interpretation of your choice of words. I could be wrong. In fact, my thesis states that I can never know precisely what your intentions are. Nor you mine. We are always condemned to guessing the probable approximations. You can easily disown the charge as not being what you intended at all. Which only serves to confirm the status quo involving our instinctive suspicion of strangers, so activating the self preservation imperative.

            Don’t blame me. I like to believe, if it were down to me, I would have devised a very different game. The animals seem to “communicate” without any accidental ambiguity at all. I think that might be precisely because they don’t have access to our glorious range of linguistic conceit and subversion.

            Believe it or not, I don’t actually want to “win” this debate. As that would obviously make a mockery of my core premise: that language is an unreliable means of conveying meaning. Your valiant, indeed admirable, attempts to rebut that outrageous premise, on the basis of what I would naturally interpret as your inevitable misinterpretation of my intended meaning, only serves to confirm my thesis. In other words, my thesis requires that neither of us can ever hope to come out on top.

            We might very well agree that we have all learned first to speak and then to read and write. [It’s how each of us applies that apparent consensus, according to our own lights, where we are bound to come unstuck.] We all know how to “communicate”. Ergo, by the time we have learned to fly solo, we are all experts, each in our own inimitable way, to ruthlessly exploit, to our own perceived advantage, the very inherent ambiguity of language.

            If you could place yourself in my shoes [a physical impossibility, of course], you might realise your apparent sarcastic approach could be perceived [rightly or wrongly] as betraying a certain frustration with my equally apparent insolent contradiction of your essential reality. Alas, in my experience, to belittle your interlocutor may very well induce the other to abandon the chase. It’s just that you don’t get to enjoy the cigar.

            I think you made this point yourself, when you wrote, “… the very notion of dispute presupposes that you take my words to refer to something that is untrue, inaccurate, … in the very act of disputing me, you prove my point.”

            Now isn’t that hilarious. And revealing. If, as you say, dispute presupposes taking the other’s words to refer to something that is untrue, we are forever condemned to noisily confirming the same point from opposite perspectives. It’s about the moral high ground, isn’t it. So as not to appear the loser. Neither of us can hang our ego on the coat rack.

            I hate to be the one to tell you, but, while the grocer and I appear to know what the word “eggs” refers to, “or there could be no such transaction”, I treat that as a compelling, indispensable illusion. Your frank refusal to acknowledge my analogy concerning the efficiency with which we alert the fire department, suggests to me [I could be wrong] that you prefer to overlook the glaring chasm between agreeing that the house is on fire [precisely by ignoring, for the time being, all the important irrelevancies] and trying to resolve “The Middle East Conflict”.

            It is precisely this pernicious propensity we all share that “what I see is what you get” that ensures the ever widening rift between The Left and The Right, Republican and Democrat, Atheist and Deist, Pro-life and Pro-choice.

            We will always blithely assume [because there simply isn’t time for the thousand qualifications every word requires], that if we can agree on how to boil an egg, surely we should all be able to agree on how to respond to social inequality and “Climate Change”.

            Incidentally, if the average competent housekeeper understood the physics and chemistry involved in boiling a perfect egg, you would quickly decide to forget about the eggs and just have a nice cup of tea. Only to fall into the confounded conundrum, as to how you like your tea.

            If you live at any significant elevation above sea level, pure water “boils” at a considerably lower temperature than the boiling point at sea level. Your egg will take longer to cook, if it cooks at all. In the high Rockies you can’t make a good cup of tea. Unless you use a pressure cooker, your water simply will not reach 100C [212F].

            NASA has successfully managed twelve Apollo Moon missions. That does nothing to suggest that we ought to communicate so well all the time. The entire NASA outfit is focused on only one thing, just as the military must be, to achieve the desired objective. By relying on the cold, unemotional mathematics of physics. No music. No dancing girls. That is only possible by ignoring all our messy detail of everyday life, personal tragedy, divorce, the mortgage, truant kids, indigestion, blood in the street.

            And do I now believe you understand what I’m getting at? Not at all. Do I now believe that I understood what you were getting at? No. We are both obviously well-educated, eloquent and sure of ourselves. That, to my way of thinking, is precisely the crux of the problem. Our sophistication, which is getting better [worse] by the day, as we speak, renders us ever more incapable of hearing the other. Or, perhaps more precisely, what we hear is certainly not precisely what was said. Because of the noise in our own head.

            As a devoted parent wrote at the foot of a letter to a son at college. “PS. I was going to enclose $100, but unfortunately I had already sealed the envelope.”

          • Fred

            You understood my comment pretty well. It wasn’t composed entirely of “patronizing sarcasm” but that element was certainly there, and well earned by your absurd attempt to illustrate an absurd point. I also notice you didn’t respond specifically to any point I brought up except to use it as a springboard to spout nonsense. Just because you can spout gibberish does not mean that language is essentially gibberish. In fact, gibberish is only recognizable as gibberish because making sense is what language is designed to do. The fact that you reject logic in favor of non-sequitors and, let’s be frank, bullshit, in no way invalidates logic. I suspect you couldn’t respond to my arguments logically if you wanted to. In fact, I’m quite sure of it, since I merely pointed out the inconsistencies and fallacies in your previous comment, inconsistencies and fallacies which were quite glaringly there. But if you are going to respond to an honest analysis of your “arguments” with this kind of silliness, I think we’re done here. I have better things to do with my time than trade nonsense with a bullshit artist.

          • Corlyss

            “So while you are right and he is wrong about the film, he is right and you are wrong about the referentiality of language.”

            If the “he” you refer to above is me, I be a she. We wouldn’t want to lose sight of an object of the referentiality of language.

          • Corlyss

            “What a shame, my dear Corlyss, that you so recklessly refuse to look”

            Quoth the judge, “Some concessions must be made to the shortness of human life.” It’s anything but a reckless decision. All one may look to the cinema for is trends in herd thinking and behavior. I had a front row seat to the tantrums and fatuous hubris that has been the Mark of the Boomers. I don’t need to watch movies about them as some form of self-actualization.

  • RealityCrashesIn

    There is one element missing from this piece – the role of State-sponsored terrorism and its use in international affairs and in government propaganda. The overthrow of the elected government of Iran in 1953 by CIA-fomented riots and the overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine by CIA and State-Department fomented riots in 2014 are examples of State use of terrorism. Al Qaeda is a CIA and State Department invention, created to counter Soviet power in Afghanistan, then used alternatively as a tool in covert foreign operations or as a bogeyman in US politics. ISIS is an offshoot of Al Qaeda, developed by the same CIA and State Department with the cooperation of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, and Israel, to destabilize Syria, Iran, and Iraq, and counter Russian influence, while being presented to the world as an independent terrorist force threatening US interests. NATO was created as a security alliance to protect Europe from fears of invasion by the Soviet Union, but it has morphed from a defensive organization to an offensive organization, used to invade and overthrow regimes such as that in Libya – in clear violation of the Nuremberg rule created by the Western allies prohibiting the waging of aggressive war. “Responsibility to Protect” is an invention of Western governments that condones the invasion of foreign countries allegedly to protect the citizens of those countries from their own governments. This doctrine was among those used to justify the invasion of Iraq and the execution of Saddam Hussein, but more than 1 million Iraqis have been killed as a result and the country remains in the grip of chaos and violence. Until academics learn about, and include the role of State-sponsored terrorism in discussions of terrorism and violence, their discussions will remain incomplete, and largely irrelevant.

    • qet

      I saw this movie. Wesley Snipes turns out to be the GOOD guy!

    • Bernecky

      If the US had a free press, academics would be pitted against informed students (and wouldn’t have time to write/justify grant proposals, for they’d *be* proposals).

  • KrazyP

    Because of the writer’s credentials, I am a little reluctant to offer a candid response. What I will suggest, in all humility, is that the writer may want to spend some time and effort learning some fundamentals of complex systems science. He uses some of the language of complexity such as emergence, adaptation, fittedness and resilience. Much like the character in the Princess Bride movie who says: “you keep using that word … I don’t think it means what you think it means.”… I think the use of this language leads in a certain direction – which the writer does not take – and the use of these words is, at a minimum, imprecise.

    I would agree with the general sentiments expressed – that understanding of the complex dynamics in the world today – or any period, for that matter – it is often helpful to try and understand the attributes of the systems involved. Hubris that policy makers (including would-be policy makers) have is ignorance regarding the efficacy of top-down system design. The “law of stable forms” states that a complex system can never be designed from scratch, but only can develop from a simple system that is stable (think of ACA). Such a system will always fail and one has to start over beginning with a simple system.

    Another important element that an understanding of complex system yields is that the most crucial attribute of a system is its rule set – and the incentives that support those rules. Since human societies have been around for a long time, we do have a variety of examples to evaluate. I believe it was the writer’s colleague, W. R. Mead, who opined about the rule set we know as Christianity and its relative effectiveness in “God and Gold”. Since some of our most noteworthy and disruptive antagonists continue to use another, similar rule set – radical Islam – to drive the effectiveness of their system function, we can see, in my view, the power of these constructions to drive agent behavior in complex, conscious, human systems.

    Legend has it that Constantine had a dream and because of that dream he had his soldiers paint a symbol of Christianity on the shields of his soldiers before the battle of the Milvian Bridge. As they fought their enemies over the Tiber River, the idea that he was leading God’s chosen, many believe, helped bring Constantine his victory. The victory that the fighters of ISIS have enjoyed in a short time – a force of less than 1,000 soldiers defeating a well-armed Iraqi military of 30,000 in days – will be a very
    compelling story in the weeks and months to come. What ideas can the modern world offer to those attracted to fundamentalist Islam? Only time will tell.

  • William Price

    The logic of empire follows from either conflict or disorganization on the margins of a state system. Rome first conquered the Etruscans, then its Latin allies, then the rest of Italy, but none of these areas were disorganized shells. Greece, however, presented the remnant of organized states, since Alexander the Great’s heirs had fought each other out, without leaving any one of them able to organize the rest of the former Macedonian conquests. Rome couldn’t either, not in one go. So she attacked Macedonia many times, Mithradites’ kingdom and other parts of Asia Minor often, making desolations and calling them peace. That condition never applied until full responsibility for governance was taken on by the conquering Republic, and later Empire. With functioning imperial city-states, imperial taxes to fund legions and auxiliaries, and coherent religious policies after Constantine, political Rome lasted until May 29, 1453 — 2,206 years after the founding of the City on 21 April, 753 B.C. Roman provincial governors like Pliny wrote their emperor (Trajan) about organizing fire brigades. We’re not yet sure whether or not we want to fight our own political, moral, and forest fires, much less those outside our boundaries. Unfortunately, as Leon Trotsky is said to have observed, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” The United States and its allies can either organize their neighborhoods, or suffer their neighbors to grow into effective barbarians.

  • witheo

    As I recently posted elsewhere.

    Suppose we call this ‘The Dawkins Fallacy’. The deluded certainty, with which we all seem equally afflicted, that there must be such a thing as “human rationality”. The idea that those who say something I find outrageous, based entirely on my own life experience [which is all anyone can rely on, just to get through the average day] is, by definition, obviously suffering from “cognitive dissonance”. Or some such fashionable, DSM-inspired cliché.

    Just as the evangelical atheist confidently claims the perfectly rational Moral High Ground, so too is the race question, the Middle East, the rise and fall of empires, the gender question, the NRA question, the pro-life/pro-choice question etc cast in the convenient “rational v irrational” takeaway.

    Of course all religion is delusional. What could be more obvious? So is the idea that “A Good Education” is the best preparation for a successful career. [Whatever a good education might be.] And “A White Wedding”, the sure-fire guarantee to living happily ever after. [Underwritten by the indispensable, water-tight Prenuptial Agreement, of course.]

    How many times? Have we so soon forgotten Daniel Kahneman [‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’]? How irrational we really are? Hold a gym membership “to keep fit” and park as near the mall entrance “to save time”? How we struggle to overcome our fear of flying [statistically by far the safest mode of transport] but think nothing of dashing onto the freeway [by far the most life-threatening activity in “the free world”]? “Guns don’t kill people, people do.”

    It’s written in our genes. Permanently deluded into believing that when I say “black is black and white is white”, that is sufficient to establish “The Truth”. Deluded into believing that “Reality” is a neat catalogue of facts. We all know my reality is actually a tangled web of unfinished stories, connecting some of the facts that matter to me and ignoring most of the inevitable, inconvenient contradictions.

    Try this. Just for fun. Look deep into your own eyes in the bathroom mirror. What do you see? Is that your “self”? Or do you see something else? Something unsettling? Something you’d rather not talk about? In every culture, the Shaman, the Priesthood, the necromancers, fortune tellers and New Age gurus have always insisted what you see in the mirror is your guilty soul. It was ever thus. The blatant exploitation of our innate ignorance and fear is universal. Because it works a treat. It’s why the United States is committed to sponsoring the “Zionist Entity” no matter what.

    Meanwhile, we know different. What you see in the mirror is the contradiction between the rational face we have learned to present to the world, by always speaking carefully, sensibly, and what’s really going on. “Up here”.

    Every human brain is genetically predisposed, ever since we learned to say “I don’t like green eggs and ham”, to play with words. Constantly stringing interesting phrases and sentences together. “To see what it sounds like”.

    We habitually [without thinking about it] call this intrinsically involuntary phenomenon “thinking”, “musing” or “quiet contemplation”. And it never stops. Even during sleep. Unconscious, the brain is busily weaving the most incongruous web of disparate snippets picked at random from memory – books, movies, people. Which we sometimes vaguely remember in the morning as “the weirdest dream”.

    We know we are not rational by nature. Quite the reverse. But we have all learned how to present a coherent story to the world. Compliant with all the rules of grammar and syntax. And social convention. In direct contradiction and, ever obedient to the indomitable self-preservation imperative. In bare-faced denial of what’s really going on. “Up here”.

  • http://www.mysticworship.com rameshraghuvanshi

    What`s going on?Nothing, world is running as usual.Only some anxious creatures hue and cry looking some tremors here and there. This kind of thousand tremors happened from ancient time,and some anxious hued and cried time to time but world going on it usual way.I think wise and experiences thinker always neglected these kind of articles

  • idespair

    “… the headlong de-spiritualization of Western political and
    social life attending the “age of reason” has not ensured the peace and
    toleration so many predicted would come of it.”

    Indeed. We seem to be now living in the “age of stupid”. The internet
    was once touted as the means by which the world would achieve a kind of global
    consciousness connecting us into a super-mind that would solve all mankind’s
    problems. What we have learned instead is that mankind is as dumb as a bag of
    hammers.

    I have not given up on science. It is, like double-entry
    bookkeeping, a means of finding and correcting its own mistakes. Religion doesn’t
    do that. What’s missing is wisdom and that is not the sole preserve of religion
    or science. I just don’t know where to find it.

  • vepxistqaosani

    My great-grandfather, who latter became the highest-ranking American
    officer to be killed in battle in World War I, was stationed in the
    Philippines during the Moro Rebellion; growing up, I heard family
    stories about the Moros. First, they only attacked men, so my
    grandmother could bathe in the ocean free of worry even as the stockade
    was under attack. Second, the US Army started to bury killed Moros at
    sea, wrapping their bodies in pigskins and weighing them down with
    stones, and ensuring that all the other Moros knew, which served to
    deter suicide attacks.

    I doubt we could get away with such a tactic in the 21st century.

    • qet

      “A pile of little arms” is the awed recollection of Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (I don’t mean to devalue the living experience of your family by this reference to a piece of fiction). You are of course entirely correct. Sherman said, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” I place this statement alongside anything by Clausewitz, Napoleon or Sun Tzu as an insight into war and humanity. The last war that any Western society can be said to have “won” is WW2, where we practiced a great deal of cruelty. Japan and Germany became the model international citizens they have been because–and I emphasize the cause and effect relation here–they were utterly destroyed. Acknowledgement of this fact–and it is a fact (I say this for all those on the left who imagine themselves to be the sole inhabitants of a fact-based world)–does not constitute a desire for it. We who understand are not thereby “rooting” for war and death and human suffering. But one look at the goings-on in the Middle East/North Africa/Levant today should be all that any inhabitant of a fact-based world should need to see to assure himself of the truth of Sherman’s observation. But accepting this understanding does not answer the question of what the US role should be right now, at this moment. The violence reshaping that part of the world (and we can add in Russia/Ukraine) does not constitute an existential crisis for the USA, whereas the ascendancy of the Axis powers did present itself in that guise to some degree. For us to engage in kind with ISIS and its like is not the obvious correct choice, at least it’s not obvious (yet) to me.

  • Ravi Morey

    On one point, I must disagree with you. While science has caused some problems and mitigated others, science has on balance dramatically improved the human condition. Religion has not. There is a clear correlation between secular values and social health. The most secular societies in the world are socially healthiest. The most religious suffer the most from social dysfunction. While religion did serve a useful purpose in pre-modern times, it no longer does. It is time we gradually reduced the role of religion in society. The good news is that this is happening in most of the world. The Middle East is an exception.

    • Fred

      Your comment is tendentious to say the least. The most secular societies are the healthiest? Please explain then the suicide rates of Scandinavian countries (probably the most secularized in the world). Please also explain the collapse of European populations and their displacement by immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Please explain also the population collapse of Russia, until very recently officially atheist. Please explain America’s devolution to a situation where 47% of the population is on some kind of government dole. You obviously adhere to a scientism that is every bit as archaic as you believe religion to be. You also seem to adhere to the archaic and utterly false view that there is some necessary conflict between religion and science. Science itself arose from Medieval Christianity and has coexisted with Christianity for nearly half a millennium. In fact, many scientists are themselves religious believers. Your comment might have had some relevance in the age of Voltaire. It has none today.

  • Bernecky

    I take it that Adam Garfinkle, too, does not have the yellowcake.

    • Curious Mayhem

      It’s in his basement. But he’s not talking.

  • Jan Morgan

    This is the first time I have been on this site – and I have thoroughly enjoyed it, the article itself and the quality of the commentary on it. Nor has it yet asked me to sign on to anything – but I’ll be back!

    • Richard Foster

      Amen, Jan.

      • Curious Mayhem

        Part of the commentary started with a movie scene about ordering toast. Try and beat that.

  • Arkeygeezer

    “What the heck is going on, anyway?” The same things that always go on when humans interact with each other, either in families, in tribes, or in governments. The sources of insecurity and violence, the modalities of conflict, and the enablers and shapers of warfare are the same as they have always been. The common denominator to all of this is HUMAN INTERACTION.

    Human interaction used be tempered by time and distance. Interaction was confined within the family, tribe, or government by territory. Interaction between territories and was done either by messenger, telegraph, or by telephone. Mass media such as newspapers, radio, and television were predominantly one-way action; not interaction.

    The advent of the cell phone and internet changed all of this. Human interaction was no longer limited by time and distance. People could communicate with each other instantaneously all over the world. This explosion of human interaction is affecting societies, business, government, and religion in all sorts of ways which is being documented very well by blogs like the American Interest.

    I suspect that humans will work out their societies and communication channels according to their own tastes and interests. In the meantime we can only watch and try to anticipate the nuances of these new societies.