Monday, February 27, 2006

where is bin laden?

The Washington Post's latest Sunday Outlook Section has some good essays on Osama Bin Laden. A brief summary from Slate's indispensable Today's Papers:

Ahmed Rashid affirms there that Bin Laden is hiding in Pakistan, where the government isn't doing enough to catch him. Besides offering a monetary reward, which they don't need since money is not scarce, officials aren't doing enough to convince Pashtuns to stop hiding him. Peter Bergen explains why it has been so difficult to catch Bin Laden and emphasizes that capturing him is still important, even if it's just for psychological reasons. He also theorizes that Bin Laden might not really be on the run, as is often speculated, but might, in fact, be hunkered down somewhere. John Brennan says that the United States is focusing too much on Bin Laden's strategy, which is terrorism, and not enough on his vision of global domination.
Some interesting sections from Brennan's article, which has some good points:

Bin Laden has also insidiously convinced us to use terminology that lends legitimacy to his activities. He has hijacked the term "jihad" to such an extent that U.S. and other Western officials regularly use the terms "jihadist" and "terrorist" interchangeably. In doing so, they unwittingly transfer the religious legitimacy inherent in the concept of jihad to murderous acts that are anything but holy. [...]

Leaders of Islamic countries, organizations and local communities have most of the burden, as well as the best chance, of steering Muslim hearts and minds away from bin Laden's world vision. Yet while most distance themselves from his terrorist acts, their penchant for engaging in fiery rhetoric castigating the West helps breed greater intolerance of non-Muslims. The wide disparity between the haves and have-nots in the Middle East also fuels the fires of Islamic activism.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

on neoconservatism

In the recent NY Times Magazine, Francis Fukuyama, in another one of his thoughtfully-written pieces renounces neoconservatism. Not that this is a surprise: there was Fukuyama's very public spat with Charles Krauthammer over the Iraq war, Fukuyama's resignation from the the editorial board of The National Interest and and the launch of The American Interest, and his increasing criticism of the Iraq war.

Some interesting points he makes:
If there was a single overarching theme to the domestic social policy critiques issued by those who wrote for the neoconservative journal The Public Interest, founded by Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell in 1965, it was the limits of social engineering. Writers like Glazer, Moynihan and, later, Glenn Loury argued that ambitious efforts to seek social justice often left societies worse off than before because they either required massive state intervention that disrupted pre-existing social relations (for example, forced busing) or else produced unanticipated consequences (like an increase in single-parent families as a result of welfare). A major theme running through James Q. Wilson's extensive writings on crime was the idea that you could not lower crime rates by trying to solve deep underlying problems like poverty and racism; effective policies needed to focus on shorter-term measures that went after symptoms of social distress (like subway graffiti or panhandling) rather than root causes.

How, then, did a group with such a pedigree come to decide that the "root cause" of terrorism lay in the Middle East's lack of democracy, that the United States had both the wisdom and the ability to fix this problem and that democracy would come quickly and painlessly to Iraq? Neoconservatives would not have taken this turn but for the peculiar way that the cold war ended.

He then goes on to offer the following interpretation of his famous book The End of History and the Last Man:

Many people have also interpreted my book "The End of History and the Last Man" (1992) as a neoconservative tract, one that argued in favor of the view that there is a universal hunger for liberty in all people that will inevitably lead them to liberal democracy, and that we are living in the midst of an accelerating, transnational movement in favor of that liberal democracy. This is a misreading of the argument. "The End of History" is in the end an argument about modernization. What is initially universal is not the desire for liberal democracy but rather the desire to live in a modern — that is, technologically advanced and prosperous — society, which, if satisfied, tends to drive demands for political participation. Liberal democracy is one of the byproducts of this modernization process, something that becomes a universal aspiration only in the course of historical time.

"The End of History," in other words, presented a kind of Marxist argument for the existence of a long-term process of social evolution, but one that terminates in liberal democracy rather than communism. In the formulation of the scholar Ken Jowitt, the neoconservative position articulated by people like Kristol and Kagan was, by contrast, Leninist; they believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will. Leninism was a tragedy in its Bolshevik version, and it has returned as farce when practiced by the United States. Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.

This is indeed strange for me. It is more than 8 years since I read his book but what impressed me most was his philosophical argument about the inevitability of liberal democracy (or at least a form of it), through Hegel via Alexander Kojeve. It turns out though that liberal democracy is a by-product, not the driving force. Could I have read the book wrong? Or was I just carried away by my first true brush with philosophy? (I remember being impressed by the sheer elegance of it all, to explain the entire edifice of human civilization by just three human characteristics: Need, Reason and Thymos).

ASIDE: Fukuyama mentions a book (there's also a documentary) I read recently, Arguing the World. I recommend the book highly. Here's something from the great Daniel Bell (The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism) says in one of his interviews (a little soppy but I don't know why, it moved me a little):

Optimism is a philosophy, pessimism is a character trait. It’s hard to talk about visions. If you have a creed, if you have a belief system, the vision flows out of that. I don’t have a particular belief system. To the extent that my optimism overcomes my pessimism, I would say it’s a recurrent belief in the idea of utopia. What is against utopia? Against utopia is arcadia. The dream of a golden past.

The history of the Jews has never really been a golden past, the history of the intellectuals has never been a golden past. So arcadia may be a false hope, it’s a nostalgia. Utopia’s always an openness, a possibility. I believe in utopia as a kind of aim, a vision, while also mindful of the risks. Utopia represents ideals, and how can you live without some sense of ideals? It’s a necessary way of living. I remain, still, purely a utopian.
ASIDE II: I also highly recommend Mark Lilla's two wonderful essays on the work of the philosopher Leo Strauss here and here.

ASIDE III: Fukuyama's essay on The End of History that appeared in the National Interest can be read here. The full version of his criticism of Charles Krauthammer The Neoconservative Movement can be read here.

some essays for the week.

Some great essays appeared this week.

In The New Republic, Amartya Sen analyzes the uses and abuses of multiculturalism.

Thomas Nagel reviews K. Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism and also his The Ethics of Identity. (Extract of Cosmopolitanism in the NYT magazine here). The review is a succinct summary of Appiah's book. Some passages that I thought were worth chewing on:

Appiah poses the societal question this way: "What claims, if any, can identity groups as such justly make upon the state?" His answer, basically, is "none." Groups have no inherent moral standing; their importance depends on their importance to the lives of individuals. Appiah resists Charles Taylor's claim that the value of a culture is not derivative from its value to individuals, but the reverse.

Whatever may be the political implications, I think that he is here taking ethical individualism too far, and that Taylor is on to something important. When a language and its literature, or a musical or artistic form, or even a cuisine or a game, dies out, so that no one is able any longer to appreciate or to practice it, something valuable has gone out of existence. This cannot be explained by the harm to existing individuals, all of whom will have other things to do and other ways to flourish. Even though the lost element of culture could have continued only in the lives of individuals, its absence is not a loss to them if they do not miss it. It is the recognition that its disappearance would be a loss nonetheless, though a loss to no one, that motivates some of the strongest desires for cultural preservation, however quixotic. (I sympathize completely with the lament of a classicist I know that students at Oxford are no longer required to write Greek and Latin verse.)

Appiah shares with Mill an insistence on the value of social diversity to permit the flourishing of different individuals, and a distaste for uniformity. But like Mill, he thinks this means that some forms of diversity should not be tolerated: "It may be that many of us value diversity not because it is a primordial good but because we take it to be a correlative of liberty, of nondomination. But if autonomy is the sponsoring concern, the diversity principle--the value of diversity simpliciter--cannot command our loyalty." So he is not sympathetic to the kind of anthropological relativism that supports the protection of traditional group practices even if they impose serious disadvantages or inequalities on some members of the group (often its female members, as with arranged early marriage). And he denies that the mere legal possibility of exit from such a group is sufficient to immunize it from societal oversight to protect the individual rights of its members. The right of exit is not enough to cancel the constraining power of strong communal identities. What the state should do, however, depends on how fundamental the competing claims are: Appiah would not require the Catholic Church to admit women to the priesthood.

Appiah is also unsympathetic to preservationism: the obligation of a society to help identity groups, cultural or linguistic, to ensure their survival into succeeding generations--which goes beyond its obligation to see that present members of those groups do not suffer discrimination or persecution. Individual autonomy trumps group preservation, just as it does in the case of arranged marriages.

And this one:

Appiah is very good on the confusing issue of the "neutrality" of the state in a pluralistic liberal society. Since this is an evaluative concept, it cannot mean general value neutrality, but must mean neutrality among a certain subset of values and practices based on a non-neutral evaluative premise. Appiah believes that a requirement of equal respect for individuals underlies such neutrality as liberalism requires--among religions, conceptions of the good life, sexual mores, and so forth. But respect for individuals and their autonomy will rule out respect for identities that undermine it, and the liberal state, while it will not engage in the formation of souls to a single standard, will try to impose through education and public forms of equality the conditions for pluralistic self-realization.

Equal respect is required of the state, but not of individuals, whose personal associations and communal identities essentially involve exclusive attachments without which life would be impoverished and abstract: "A radical egalitarian might give his money to the poor, but he can't give his friends to the friendless." Or, "to put the matter paradoxically: impartiality is a strictly position-dependent obligation. What is a virtue in a referee is not a virtue in a prize-fighter's wife."

Finally Nagel quotes Appiah himself on this:

Identity is at the heart of human life: liberalism ... takes this picture seriously, and tries to construct a state and society that take account of the ethics of identity without losing sight of the values of personal autonomy. But the cosmopolitan impulse is central to this view, too, because it sees a world of cultural and social variety as a precondition for the self-creation that is at the heart of a meaningful human life.
Nagel ends on this dismal note:

Appiah believes that the accumulation of changes in individual consciousness brought on by communication and mobility is already propelling us along this upward path. He rejects by implication the "clash of civilizations" as the global drama to which we are all condemned. I hope the future will prove him right, though the experience of our time makes me wonder. Episodes such as the recent widespread and violent reaction to a few cartoon depictions of Mohammed prompt the grim reflection that it took centuries of bloodshed for the West to move from the wars of religion to its present roughly liberal consensus. We may have to wait a long time.
Finally, Leon Weiseltier, in his typically melodramatic fashion, takes on Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I don't much care for Wieseltier's scorched-earth sarcastic (and slightly melodramatic) style myself, but since he's penned this essay as an outraged believer, it seems to suit the issue just fine.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Brokeback Mountain -- again!!

Daniel Mendelsohn, always penetrating, (his review of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, is one of my favorite pieces of contemporary criticism), points out the flaw in the reception of Brokeback Mountain:

Because I am as admiring as almost everyone else of the film's many excellences, it seems to me necessary to counter this special emphasis in the way the film is being promoted and received.

For to see Brokeback Mountain as a love story, or even as a film about universal human emotions, is to misconstrue it very seriously—and in so doing inevitably to diminish its real achievement. Both narratively and visually, Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the "closet"—about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it.