Who needs nuance?

“But now, let’s talk about the bad guys,” Brian Kilmeade began on a Fox and Friends segment called “World on Edge” this week. His guest was Gillian Turner, a former staffer on the National Security Council and associate at Jones Group International, who spent the segment discussing concerns over terrorism in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East.

I first saw the clip in the gym without sound or subtitle, so all I knew about what Ms. Turner said was what the screen infographic said Ms. Turner said:

Turner: Turkey must defeat Assad, then ISIS.

I was so floored by this description declaration that I was fully prepared to dismiss Ms. Turner as an know-nothing hack drummed up by the Fox and Friends crew. Then I went back to the actual video. In fact, Ms. Turner give a short, fair summary of the security issues facing Turkey with regard to the refugee crisis and terrorism, noting that the Turkish government considers (and treats) the PKK as terrorists and that the Turks are accepting refugees with no financial support. The account is, almost by necessity, a bit anodyne, but she also dodges the segment’s premise in terms of the situation in Turkey leading to terrorism in the United States. Nowhere in this account does she actually mention Assad.

Now, I could be misled by a short segment, but nothing in this segment indicated that Turkey should do anything against Assad, let alone doing so unilaterally while Assad is supported by Russia. Turkey has enough of a strained relationship with Russia right now over the violation of airspace and subsequent shooting down of a Russian fighter (Pravda’s most recent coverage, or do a google search).

This sort of manipulation probably happens all the time on cable News shows and is a form of doublespeak where, not only is there vague and euphemistic language, but there can be two disparate statements that are being conveyed at the same time, as Stephen Colbert used to show on his “The Word” segment. Yet, there is one big difference. In my opinion, these cable news shows are not meant to be consumed as an all-encompassing experience. The noisiness of the on-screen information may “add” to the experience of someone listening to the show with the volume on, but is actually designed for gyms, airports, and other public screens that might be tuned to the channel. These screens frequently won’t have even a closed caption, so the shows rely on flashing icons and the movement of the hosts to draw attention to the screen where there is an easily-digested, if misleading, talking point.

As a final, tangentially related point, it sometimes amuses me to watch the Fox and Friends hosts fidget as they try to keep from checking their smartphones, which are set immediately next to them on the couch. Screens are addictive, it isn’t just a young-person problem.

Donald Trump and some assumptions about ISIS

In general my policy here has been to avoid politics because politics online usually results in unwanted headaches, but the latest round of sparring between Pope Francis and Donald Trump touched on something bigger that has been festering. To set this up, though there needs to be the context. Speaking in Mexico, Pope Francis questioned Trump’s Christianity if he were to deport immigrants and build a wall along the border. Not for the first time, these comments incited an outcry of hypocrisy! from right-wing sources who are quick to point out that the Pope lives in the Vatican City, itself surrounded by walls. Of course this is a questionable line of rebuttal because Francis had nothing to do with building those walls, the earliest of which were more than a thousand years old and were built when Vatican City was in fact under attack by marauders. However, Trump directly responded to the Pope on a more contemporary tact:

If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.

There is no need to investigate this particularly statement with reference to Trump–the target of Trump and ISIS are going to be interchangeable in this sort of invective. Nor is there any point in examining the legitimacy of the statement, which is a topic for foreign policy wonks and strategists. It speaks, however, a broader preoccupation about ISIS targeting Christianity, which I think emerges both from a corruption of history and a good bit of narcissism.

The underlying assumption of Trump’s statement is that ISIS is waging a religiously-motivated war to exterminate Christianity and, by extension, European-American civilization. [Note already how nebulous this concept gets in peddling a vague sense of doom.] Certainly some of the ISIS propaganda calls for attacks on Europe and America and bin Laden made such pronouncements. In the latter case, though, those attacks were retaliatory and, in general, the war between Christianity and Islam comes from the point of view of the Christians, at least in the last thousand years or so. This is not to say that there has not been fighting or attacks by Muslims against Christians, and religion is ever a convenient excuse, but much of the capability for waging such wars come the other direction. Wars in the Middle East targeting Europeans far more frequently had other motivations, such as opposition to colonialism.

This brings me to the ultimate point about the assumptions in Trump’s statement. He declares, whether he believes it or not, that “everyone knows” that Vatican City would be the “ultimate trophy” for ISIS. This is not something that “everyone knows,” it is something that many people might nod their heads about because, the Vatican City (or Rome, more generally) is synonymous with Christianity—even though this is not true for every denomination. There is a reason that most of the Crusades went from Europe to the Middle East rather than the other way around. A curious interlocutor might ask why Jerusalem or Mecca and Medina, or even Damascus, Baghdad or Istanbul would not be a more apt trophy should ISIS be genuinely interested in reestablishing the Caliphate. But this is an arena where facts don’t matter and flying in the face of globalism is a potent clash of civilizations narrative that is constantly being revivified. In this case ISIS is the backward east, Christianity is western civilization and Rome [or Vatican City] is Christianity. Thus distilled, naturally Vatican City is the ultimate trophy for ISIS, and if ISIS buys into these core assumptions they might even think the same way. The irony, of course, is that there is nothing inherent about Vatican City that would make it the ultimate trophy other than the very narratives currently being abused.

Goodbye, Lincoln Chafee

I was not going to vote for Lincoln Chafee in the Democratic primary. In fact, at this point, there is little any of the candidates could do to actually change my mind as to who to vote for. To be honest, the only major change in my opinions since campaigning began way back before the Canadian election kicked off is that Martin O’Malley, the candidate I knew least about, moved up in my opinion, rather than not even being on the radar.

These campaigns are long, loud, and serious and, while mocking things said by Republican candidates trivializes the seriousness of governance and the traction they have among voters, humor is a nice break from the grind of American campaigns. But I don’t want to talk about them. Instead, I want to share some appreciation for Lincoln Chafee, who just withdrew from the Democratic primary race.

To date, Chafee had my favorite campaign plank: convert the United States to the metric system. His reasoning made sense, namely that the changes will not be too painful and that there are economic benefits, but it was this sort of non-traditional statements that made me like him and his withdrawal speech lived up to expectations.

Chafee linked Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Vietnam War, the Middle East, and Feminist International Relations theory in his speech before the Women’s Leadership Forum (without directly saying that Hilary Clinton should be president). As a historian of Ancient Greece I always appreciate a good reference to Greek theater, the other great example of which being Bobby Kennedy’s impromptu invocation of Aeschylus the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Chafee mentions the basic plot of Aristophanes’ play, albeit not its conservatism, and encourages women to get involved in ending wars around the world. But his message is also reminiscent of another feature of Aristophanes’ play–that it is women from around Greece who make a joint cause to stop wars. Chafee’s message was one of understanding an unification and said, “from what I’ve heard none of the Republicans running for president want to understand anything about the Middle East and North Africa.”

I wasn’t going to vote for Chafee, but, at least on the day he withdrew, he preached a humanistic message of understanding and obliquely endorsed the value in a classical education.

Local Advertising and Concussions

Despite the national sports media members who loudly protest that they played through concussions and were just fine, concussions are serious. Of course players are going to try to go back into the game if given a choice, competitors are driven to compete and do not like being forced to watch, particularly once they reach a level where past performance validates their ability. That is why the coaches, the officials, and the support staff need to step in and protect the players from themselves. And, as Stephania Bell used to remind the hosts of ESPN’s fantasy focus podcast, it is a misnomer that there are “mild” concussions. Concussions are brain injuries that range in symptoms, but that are all serious and get worse with repeat occurrence.

Michigan football has a number of problems right now and while the fans are angry for any number of reasons, it was the procedure (or lack thereof) for a concussed quarterback, Shane Morris, who was allowed to go back into the football game when visibly in need of his teammates to stand upright after a vicious hit, that landed Michigan football on national TV morning shows. It was an NFL concussion lawsuit that saw a judge reject a 870 million dollar settlement because she believed the the settlement would not be able to cover all the damages (she approved it when they removed the cap on payouts). A new book, Boy on Ice, details the life of Derek Boogaard, an enforcer in the NHL, who suffered multiple concussions and then died of a drug overdose at 28; Boogaard’s family donated his brainstem to science because he underwent a personality shift in the last years of his life. Major league baseball has had issues with players hit in the head, colliding with walls and players, or getting kneed in the head while sliding into a base, which has derailed the career of a number of excellent players.

The list goes on, the point is just to illustrate that concussions are not an isolated issue and are hardly limited to contact sports. This is the context in which I am actually outraged at the radio ad run by one of the local car dealerships.

Fletcher Honda in Columbia, Mo, currently has on air a commercial imitating a football game. A player gets taken out in a vicious hit and the coach comes out to ask if he knows where he is. In a dim and woozy voice the player asks for a combo meal. The coach asks a second question and the player says he wants a super-sized combo meal. Then the coach asks if he knows where to get the best deal for his trade-in vehicle, to which the player more confidently replies that the answer is Fletcher Honda. Because the player gets the third question right, the coach proclaims he is good to go.

My problems here are that the ad is completely tone-deaf and that if I heard someone legitimately answer the first two questions I would diagnose him with a concussion over the radio, without needing any training or further confirmation. But then they imply that he is going to go right back into the game. Because he knows a bit of trivia that may or may not be true about a car dealership here. At least if anyone questions them about their message, they can say that their spokesman had a brain injury when he asserted it.

I am not in advertising and I am aware that local dealership ads are not easy and that this is their attempt at provide a humorous, catchy spot. And I have given some thought to how they might revamp this same concept in a way that relieves my concern, but I don’t see one. Making light of concussions is beyond tacky and I cringe whenever I hear it come on.

A Sunday Evening Thought: Humanity

Apropos of everything or nothing, depending on your inclination.

I admire Olaf Stapledon’s vision of humanity in Last and First Men (1930): relentlessly self-destructive but irrepressibly resilient, brimming with potential but fundamentally and permanently limited. In this vision, humanity maintains a precarious existence and is usually too individualistic and preoccupied to realize just how fragile it is.

He repeats the sentiment more succinctly in the opening chapter of Starmaker (1937):

From this high look-out the Earth would have appeared no different before the dawn of man. No visiting angel, or explorer from another planet, could have guessed that this bland orb teemed with vermin, with world-mastering, self-torturing, incipiently angelic beasts.

Unhelpfully trite though it might be, a particularly notable line about the better angels of our nature comes to mind.

Exploitation in the academy

A few months ago news broke that Jehuda Reinharz, the former president of Brandeis University, would receive millions of dollars in continued salary and benefits, including some 800,000 dollars in unused sabbatical leave and millions in what amount to consulting fees to assist the new president. The issue was raised again last month when Brandeis announced that they were giving him a 4.9 million dollar lump-sum payment. In the initial report, Reinharz (known as “Jehuda” around campus, at least when I was there) said that “this is what happens in America,” framing it that he had worked hard while professor and President and that he was just receiving what was owed him. In a more cynical light, however, his comments could be construed to mean that what happens in America is that a few people are put in a position to reap massive rewards that the vast majority of people cannot get.

At roughly the same time, the football players at Northwestern have filed to form a union, saying that they are being exploited. This follows in the wake of players from a number of schools this year talking about player solidarity and about refusing to play and a report from a UNC researcher that some athletes are practically illiterate (not that this is the first time such reports have come out). Basically, the athletes say that they produce millions of dollars in revenue for the universities in the form of donations, publicity, and so on in return for which they (many of them, anyway) receive scholarships and medical attention while they are in school, but the total sum of the benefits are a fraction of the value they provide.

The backlash has been extreme, with many people making the argument that the students receive an education and that providing stipends for the athletes would destroy the game. Of course, the scholarships are not guaranteed for four years, and, in a sport like football, there are life-long injury issues. Moreover, many schools invest heavily in and bring in huge amount of money from athletic programs (even if those ledgers do not always balance) and the schools effectively function as minor league programs for sports that do not have official minor leagues. Universities are enormous businesses, and the complaint that educators sometimes make is that their business is athletics, rather than education.

Of course, the exploitation is not limited to athletics. More and more of the teaching is being done by graduate students and adjunct faculty members on contingent contracts. Junior faculty members (and, sure, tenured ones, too) are subject to their own demands. Alumni, from the very wealthy who can underwrite the cost of a building, to the very poor who are buried under loan repayment and possibly unemployed, are called upon to donate, and the students are increasingly exploited for tuition and fees.

Universities employ thousands of people, from educators, to secretaries, to accountants, to janitors, to construction workers. They also require a lot of maintenance and upkeep, pay for a lot of internet, books, and access to journal articles (to name just a few things). This is where a lot of this money goes, but much of it seems to be going to presidents and deans in the universities.

I am sympathetic to the football players and I am a graduate student. The rhetoric that treats these issues as isolated are missing the larger picture. The entire structure of higher education is built on exploitation, with very few people who make exceptional profit off it.

Myth of Egyptian Nationalism in the Arab Spring

In some ways the dominant legacy of colonialism is that the nation states formed since the withdrawal of the military and political attention of the colonial powers [1] are usually artificial constructions that more closely align to treaty boundaries between western powers than they do to any sort of natural boundary, be it geographic, ethnic, or otherwise. Despite ideological claims that democracy will create a peaceful and stable world, repressive military regimes in the Middle East actually created a more stable international scene. So the democratic revolutions in the Arab Spring were welcomed as the birth of democracy, particularly when it meant the overthrow of an anti-Western leader like Qaddafi.[2] Where the protests were against more stable (from the American point of view) leaders, the protests were more hesitantly supported.

In early 2011 the Arab Spring reached Egypt and interested peoples watched the demonstrations in Tahrir Square from streaming web cam. The protests ended with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and, eventually, Muhammed Morsi became the first civilian President of Egypt. Since that time a military coup has deposed Morsi, protests resumed, and violence escalated.

There have been some touching stories from the tragedies in Egypt, including neighbors of different religions helping each other out and the protection of Egyptian museums. I recall reading at the time that these stories and the reluctance of the military to fire upon protesters were indicative of Egypt’s uniqueness in the Arab world. Egypt was said to have a long tradition of “nationalism,” a national ride in Egyptian Heritage, and a geography that nullified many of the problems of tribalism possessed by other Arab states.

Of course this narrative could be exposed merely by pointing out that much of the Sinai is governed by Bedouin tribes and there is little to no government oversight of the peninsula. But that exception not withstanding, one need only point out that the Nile, even with its annual floods curtailed by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, is the constant thread between today, Napoleon trying to conquer the Orient, Crusaders facing ignominious defeat, Julius Caesar cavorting with Cleopatra, Alexander laying out the design for a massive city, the construction of the pyramids, and the settlement of a tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists from the Levant at the behest of one mythical Joseph. With the Nile as a foundation, the long national unity of Egypt is a seductive notion. The problem is that it is another myth of national unity, a fiction of uniqueness that obscures another country dominated by a military establishment.

The story in Turkey is that the military would overthrow elected officials who threatened the secular republican legacy of Ataturk, although their opposition to Erdogan has been limited. The stated motivations for coups in Egypt are not nearly so Romantic. The Wikipedia page for Tahrir Square says that the protests went on long enough that the military (presumably the establishment, people such as al-Sisi) an opportunity to remove Mubarak. There was a brief experiment with democracy, but for this second round of protests the army has not been as reluctant to use violence. It seems that the Wikipedia page is on to something. Perhaps the reason that Egypt under Mubarak did not more resemble Syria under Assad is that individuals in the Egyptian military wanted to remove Mubarak themselves.


[1] This is not to say a complete removal of imperialism since former colonial powers frequently maintain an economic presence and interest in the former colonies. This economic imperialism can quickly turn into military force, particularly if the internationally recognized government requests assistance, as was the case in Mali last year.
[2] One of my favorite moments in the pilot of “The West Wing” is when Leo McGary calls the editor of the New York Times crossword to yell at him about using Qaddafi as one of the answers. This is one of the ways in which the pilot, in particular, dates itself. For another, there are also multiple jokes and appearances of pagers.

Syria and Egypt

Moris and Assad

Assad, Morsi

I know a number of people who can’t stand Danziger’s Cartoons (or politics), but I have had a long-running soft-spot for some of his dark observations about politicians, political campaigns, and foreign leaders. But I wanted to actually deconstruct this cartoon about Assad and Morsi because I think that it doesn’t work.

The target of this comic is Assad, not Morsi. As such, it is the latest in a long series of cartoons in which Danziger is critical Assad being allowed to kill thousands of citizens in Syria and the joke is that if Assad is allowed to murder thousands of citizens in order to keep power, then Morsi should take a hint and do the same thing. Now that the joke has had any trace of dark humor flogged from it, I need to point out that the joke falls flat because, unlike the best observations Danziger makes, it shows no trace of awareness about the situation in that part of the world. Instead, it seems to have taken the casualty count from the civil war in Syria, the headline that Morsi was resisting protests, and a wise-crack that maybe Morsi ought to use military force to suppress the protests.

But Morsi was overthrown by the Egyptian military, led by General al-Sisi, a man who considers himself an heir to Nasser.[1] In the wake of Morsi’s ouster, Assad praised the Egyptian military for removing him, saying: “Whoever brings religion to use for political or factional interests will fall anywhere in the world.” He draws a comparison between the Syrian opposition and Morsi’s government, suggesting (unfortunately not without a shred of truth) that he (and the army) is ruling a secular government and protecting religious minorities. Like in Turkey, the army in Egypt receives credit for ensuring secular government and stands apart from a government that leans toward one religious denomination or another. So Morsi never had control of the army and had its support for only a short time. Danziger’s joke targets Assad, but brings in Morsi even though their situations were nothing alike. The better comparison to Assad was Mubarak and could potentially be al-Sisi, but Mubarak is gone and al-Sisi is not (yet) a target. And then there are differences between Syria and Egypt in terms of ethnic and geographic makeup.


[1] The army has been saying that they are acting on behalf of the Egyptian protesters (who they may have incited) and limiting the power of the Muslim Brotherhood. But, to put it cynically, the problems that prompted the protests against Morsi’s administration were largely the same problems that prompted protests against Mubarak’s administration. I do not know what, if anything, Morsi’s government did to fix those problems, but anyone who supports democratic governments should be watching Egypt with some concern. Conversely, the past few years have been hopeful for democracy in Turkey in that the military has allowed top officers to be arrested and have not overthrown the Erdogan government. Of course, the result in Turkey has been massive protests met with curfew, tear gas, and arrests by the police.

Assorted Links

  1. Name Calling– A note in the New Yorker pointing out that, while there are still groups in existence claiming to the name Al Qaeda, those jihadist groups are increasingly local, which makes it hard to argue that it is feasible to have a war on terror (much less one that tries to use Al Qaeda as the target).
  2. In Defense of Classics (and Other Liberal Arts)-Another essay (via Rogue Classicism) arguing that the liberal arts train broad thinkers and creative people who can adapt to the specific needs of a workplace, rather than having specific, non-transferable skills that may themselves be antiquated in a few years.
  3. Diary of Archduke Franz Ferdnand RediscoveredFrom Spiegel, Archduke Franz Ferdinand kept a diary on his journey around the world; that diary has been rediscovered. This article discusses some of the things the Archduke did and saw on the trip, including his hunting excursions, his disappointment with Americans, and prisons/work camps in Australia.
  4. The Modern King in the Arab Spring– In the Atlantic, a portrait of King Abdullah of Jordan. This is a favorable account of his efforts to promote democracy, stability, and prosperity in the industrial world. The article notes some of the problems and difficulties Jordan faces as a country (poverty, refugees, lack of oil, Syria, etc), and also talks more generally about the problems faced by an absolute ruler in the modern world.
  5. Obama Sarcastically Asks How Israel Afforded Such a Great Missile Defense System– From the Onion.

Assorted Links

  1. Mali rebels torched library of ancient manuscripts– The first (confused) report out of Timbuktu after French forces recaptured the city. The mayor of Timbuktu claimed the rebels torched the library, though some reports are indicating that a large number of manuscripts were not burned or were never at that library , and also that some three hundred sufi shrines were destroyed. As terrible a loss as this is, what frightens me more is the statement by Malian officials that (partly) as a result of this action, all rebels need to be killed. First, wholesale slaughter is never the answer, but, more importantly, there are also several different rebel groups, as well as ethnic Tuaregs who have not revolted against the government, but who are lumped in with the rebels.
  2. As Extremists Invaded, Timbuktu Hid Artifacts of a Golden Age– A story in the New York Times reporting on how many of the manuscripts from Timbuktu were rescued from destruction as citizens in Timbuktu hid them.
  3. Unesco to rebuild wrecked Timbuktu tombs– UNESCO is taking it upon itself to rebuild the lost tombs at Timbuktu out of local mudbrick, replicating as best as possible the original structures. I understand why they are doing it and that they have little recourse, but it nonetheless feels that the tombs and sites have already lost something fundamental and to rebuild them feels as though people wish to pretend that the destruction never happened.
  4. The Lawless Sahel Offers a Vast Santuary to Islamist Extremists– An article in Spiegel that looks at the gap between the Mahgreb in North Africa and the areas claimed and controlled by sub-Saharan countries as a region that has historically fostered insurgents, but is now providing refuge to Islamist extremists. Only the Algerian army has had success against the Islamists in the region, in large part because the Islamists tend to be better paid and equipped than the national soldiers (such is the case in Mali). Despite this, the Islamists are under a variety of leaders and are unified in purpose alone.