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Wednesday, December 17

Thoughts about a blogosphere formal debate on whether the U.S. should disengage from the Middle East

UPDATE
This entry is crossposted, with pictures, at RBO.

When I went looking for a picture of Dave Schuler, I knew the only ones I could find would be a very few taken with one of his magnificent Samoyeds (or, to be strictly accurate, "one of the magnificent Samoyeds with their human") and that even then, his face would remain hidden or in shadow, as befits the blogosphere's "glittering eye."

Here is a larger version of the picture that RBO published. It shows Dave with one of the Samoyeds, Qila, who left this realm in 2007 after many years of cheerfully babysitting Dave.

Looking at the photograph you barely need to read the post that accompanies it to recall how fortunate we humans are when a great-souled one arrives to help us ford the river of life.

Methinks the tradition of canine angels is very strong in Dave's family. I seem to recall that one of Dave's antecedents, a card-carrying Christian saint, went to live and meditate in a cave in Switzerland for many years during which his companion was a St. Bernard.
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I made the mistake of checking Mark Safranski's Zenpundit blog as I was getting read to pack for vacation -- but then again, I'm glad I did. Here is the absolutely, positively last post I put up before decamping:

Zenpundit has all the details on the debate (with formal rules 'n all!) taking place at Outside the Beltway blog between the redoubtable Dave Schuler of The Glittering Eye and Dr. Bernard Finel.

I note that the best U.S. foreign/defense policy discussions are coming not from academic institutions but from the blogosphere, a phenomenon that has seen a rapid increase during the past four years and will only increase.

This doesn't mean that academics are not contributing to the blogosphere discussions; indeed, many academics connected with the 'soft' disciplines are happily finding on the blogosphere rigorous challenges to their assumptions, which seems so lacking in the modern American university system.

One of Colonel John Boyd's nicknames was "Thunder and Lightning," which came from his habit of standing in the doorway of his office at the Pentagon while he gestured at the other offices and screamed, "Out there -- business as usual! In here -- thunder and lightning!"

The same can be said for the contrast between academia and the blogosphere: in academia, business as usual; out here, the thunder and lightning of the free exchange of ideas.

David Graeber famously defined the modern university as a hierarchical disciplining device; Zenpundit alludes to this view in his post on the academic elite in the USA:
[...] What strikes me as amusing though is the entirely visceral, euphorically emotive and almost tribal “he’s one of us” support from the elite for the President-elect. Reactions that run against the supposedly cerebral and “reality based” pretensions of empiricism and skepticism for which they make a claim but seldom practice because most of them are highly-trained, vertical thinking, experts. When you are accomplished within a domain and have built a reputation by operating within its often complex (to laymen) rule-sets, the price is often an acquired blindness that prevents you from challenging the cherished shibboleths of the group.

To look across domains and question fundamental premises in horizontal thinking fashion is to be the bull in the china shop. Or the skunk at the garden party. Or both.[...]
Right now we need more bulls in the china shop; more importantly we need the assumptions of academics tested in the crucible of public discussion and subjected to the feedback of generalists and experts in the field.

If there was ever a powerful argument for this view, it can be found in Nils Gilman'sMandarins for the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America., then by studying how modernization theory was applied to the development of poor nations.

It is not possible to know about the applications without recoiling at the devastation visited on humanity by academics whose ideas were never challenged by facts on the ground -- not even by the businessmen, bankers, bureaucrats and politicians who blindly put the ideas into practice and using the world's poorest as guinea pigs.

So if there is sometimes a hysterical edge to William Easterly's arguments in White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, perhaps it stems from the knowledge that not one of those experimenters will ever be charged with crimes against humanity. Not one. Not one. Not a single one. And yet the devastation they wreaked boggles the imagination.

And what Nils Gilman's careful history of the thinking that led to the development mindset makes horrifying clear is all that was done in the name of modernization. To be more precise, in the name of placing ideas about modernizing a country above helping the citizens establish a humane system of government.

That humanity has survived the ideas of those academics is perhaps the best argument for the existence of God. And that a bunch of American academics with not a grain of common sense between them -- much less an understanding of their own country's history -- came to influence the government of the world's long-running democracy to support dictators is most assuredly the best argument for the existence of the Devil.

The consequences in every case scream for a version of Colonel Boyd's OODA loop -- something, anything, approaching the concept of feedback.

Instead of feedback we got history, history spinning out in sickening, agonizing slow motion over years, and often so quietly that a result only became clear in an ethnic bloodbath, a diaspora of the starving, wars between dictators. And yet all that horror was unleashed, set in motion, not in the name of conquest or despotism but in the name of being helpful.

To say, 'It might have happened anyway, and without intervention it might have been worse,' is to close to one's heart and mind to the folly of playing God when one has neither the experience to plan for unintended consequences nor the intelligence to devise effective feedback protocols for experiments on one's fellow humans.

You say you want to bulldoze a road through the jungle so farmers can truck their produce to market? Great idea; that will certainly help modernize farming in the Amazon! Uh oh. The project design didn't factor in that a road has more than purpose. When it was used for migration, the Amazon -- the planet's air cleaner -- went up in flames because the migrants used the slash-and-burn method to establish new farms at an unprecedented rate. Well, the stupid Brazilian government overshot the mark on that one, for sure.

You say you want to erect a dam, which will require shuffling around entire villages, tribes and clans? Whaddya mean, soldiers are using bayonets to rape to death girls? What? Mobs are pulling families out of their cars and dousing the families with gasoline and lighting a match? Omigod the goddamn nation has gone up in flames. Holy cow; it's now genocide disguised as riots. No we can't lodge a protest with the ambassador; we can't get involved in politics.

And because your legs will not hold you up, you let the file fall from your hands, and this gives you the excuse to crumple to the floor as you pick up and sort papers spilled from the file.

Memo: Did nobody think it was lunacy to do business with a government of fiends? Memo: Did nobody think to do a study on the effects of locating enemy clans right next to each other? Memo: Did nobody think there would be clan rivalry for jobs on the dam?

Did nobody think..... Did nobody think.....

Okay, big has problems. So let's think small. You say you want to do just a little to help along modernization; limit harm with a microproject? So, give efficiently burning cooking stoves to a village. What? The entrepreneurs in the village bought up all the stoves from the other villagers and rented them back to the same villagers? According to the project design that wasn't supposed to happen; in fact, nobody even thought of that possibility.

In all cases, note: Humans are not potted plants. They do not perform according to what the voices in your head tell you or according to the echoes bouncing off the walls of academia.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to take from Mandarins of the Future is that never again should citizens of a democracy cede the arena of foreign policy to an intellectual elite.

So, follow the debate between Dave Schuler and Bernard Finel. And add your most measured thoughts on the topic. And read Nils Gilman's book, hear?

All right; now I really am outta here. I'll see you on January 3. All the best to you and yours.

Notes:

1. Aside to Nils Gilman:

You might want to glance through my May 2005 post, The Matrix and the International Crime Threat Assessment Report and read the 2000 International Crime Threat Assessment Report I link to, then ask yourself just how many globalized crooks are actually ignoring the state.

I suspect the US government hasn't done a follow-up to the 2000 ICTAR because they're afraid to detail how many governments have fallen under control of globalized gangs since the first study or are at least heavily dependent on the revenue brought in by the gangs. (Puntland, Poland, Kosovo immediately leap to mind.)

2. Nils Gilman responds to my post on his book/ thoughts about deviant globalization. Take a look through the syllabus he links to if you're trying to get oriented to the scope of deviant globalization.

3. Speaking of thunder and lightning on the blogosphere, Zenpundit announces: the Clausewitz Roundtable Cometh
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