Foreign policy in the age of Obama: First principles

obama triangle

The Swirl of Events

Barack Obama has presided for six years and change over the government of the most powerful nation on earth:  time enough for decisions and revisions, and for consequences to be manifested.

During his tenure, the Middle East has lurched into revolt, repression, and brutal conflict.  An entity calling itself the Islamic State, which endorses slavery and crucifixion, now rules a territory larger than Britain’s.  Al Qaeda is on the march in Yemen and Syria.  The Iranians, we think, are trying to build a nuclear bomb.  Vladimir Putin’s Russia, we know, has swallowed the Crimea and seeks to impose a puppet regime on Ukraine.

Events, as always, have been in the saddle.

The Obama administration has tried to navigate the tempest by applying the usual instruments of American power in what I consider to be highly unusual ways.  It isn’t too early to ask how the president and his foreign policy team have fared in the attempt.

My plan of analysis is a simple one.  First, I want to understand the principles that have guided Barack Obama’s foreign policy.  That effort will consume the entirety of this post.

I will then examine how the president’s principles of action have worked in that swirl of global events, and compare administration expectations with what, in fact, transpired.  That I hope to make the subject of future posts. 

The Repudiation of Power

The foreign policy strategy pursued by the president has puzzled some seasoned observers, and worried others.  It seems disconnected from past US aims.

In their engagement with other nations, US presidents have struggled to balance the country’s interests with its ideals.  Because presidents are also politicians, they tend to fudge over the distinction, but in truth there are big choices to be made.  If the United States is really the strongest power on earth, it should defend the status quo everywhere and treat every change as a potential threat.  However, if the US is the champion of democracy and individual rights, then many changes are in order around the world.

Circumstances and temperament determine which side of the equation is given higher priority.  Richard Nixon was a master of realpolitik, for example, but had no time for fine ideals.  On the other hand, George W. Bush committed the US to “ending tyranny around the world,” but only after realism had failed him in the awkward matter of Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction.

From the first, Barack Obama rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”  Although the statement sounds like presidential boilerplate (President Bush:  “America’s vital interests and deepest beliefs are now one”), I don’t believe that to be the case.  President Obama distrusts sharply-drawn differences – between nations, groups, ideologies – which he tends to represent in terms of false choices.  Faced with the tension between US power and American ideals, he has chosen to opt out, maintaining an unprecedented indifference toward both sides of the equation.

The pursuit of the national interest elicits a meaningful silence from the president.  The concept is simply absent from his rhetoric.  Even the word is used sparingly, and mostly in the context of how our interests coincide with those of other nations.  The reason for this neglect is never fully explained:  it must be pieced together from a patchwork of presidential utterances.

In brief, the world according to Barack Obama is a zero-sum place.  A nation can advance only at the expense of other nations.  This dark vision of our fallen nature underlies his judgment of history:  “For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes – and, yes, religions – subjugating one another in pursuit of their interests.”

The individual state, like the individual person in the Obama scheme, is naturally selfish and prone to bullying, unless constrained by a community.

The Hypocrisy of Idealism

Though he has repudiated power politics, the president has shown few signs of succumbing to foreign policy idealism.  Again and again, when presented with the opportunity, he has refused to commit the influence of the United States to the overthrow of tyrants or the promotion of democracy.  It has made no difference whether the authoritarian regime in question has been an ally, like those of Iraq and Egypt, or hostile to the US, like Iran and Syria.  In each case, the administration behaved like a detached observer, volunteering advice from afar but refraining from any action that might influence the outcome.

The one exception was Libya.  Intervention there, however, was justified in humanitarian terms, and was portrayed by the Obama administration as a rescue mission rather than taking sides in a revolt against a singularly brutal despot.  The goal was “saving lives.”  The overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi and the advancement of freedom, the president acknowledged, would leave the world “better off” – but he explicitly excluded both objectives from the Libya operation.

In part, such skittishness reflects Barack Obama’s ambivalence about the role America has played in the progress of freedom.  When he speaks about a favored cause like women’s rights, his rhetoric can elevate the United States into a model for the world.  Just as often, however, he will depict this country as a land of reactionary struggle and regression.  In general, whenever the president compares us to “our wealthy allies,” the point is rarely flattering to the home team.

But the rejection of idealism in foreign policy rests on a more fundamental conviction.  For President Obama, such idealism is hypocrisy – a pretext for interfering in the affairs of other countries.  The invasion of Iraq under President Bush was only the most recent example.  US promotion of democracy, in the president’s words, has aroused “much controversy” because it has been perceived, probably correctly, as self-interested.  Pious talk is thus part of power politics rather than an alternative to it.  The dichotomy is an illusion inviting a false choice.

President Obama’s indifference to foreign policy idealism separates him from earlier progressive presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson.  Yet he is even more averse to Nixonian realism.  His starting-point for action in the world isn’t love of freedom or lust for power, but an extraordinary confidence in his own ability to read the direction of the march of history.

The Importance of Smart

Barack Obama is deeply persuaded that he has cut the Gordian knot of great power politics.  This breakthrough, his rhetoric hints, has depended less on old-fashioned strategic maneuvers than on a cluster of personal attitudes and attributes, none more important than “smart.”  Hillary Clinton, his first secretary of state, called the new approach “smart power.”  The president, who is power-allergic, has preferred to speak in terms of “a smart foreign policy” and “a smarter kind of American leadership.”

To be smart means to discern how sharply the current moment has broken with the past.  President Obama is an unwavering historicist.  His rhetoric assumes that human events move in a predetermined direction, and that a select band of extra-smart minds, armed with masses of data, can shepherd the country and the world into the inevitable future, of which the president himself is a messenger and a representative.

With regard to Iran, for example, the president refused to “remain trapped in the past.”  With Cuba, “we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.”  Because of newfangled threats like foreign hackers and Ebola, “we’re looking beyond the issues that have consumed us in the past to shape the coming century.”  Similar statements can be found at will.  In each, President Obama speaks as the voice of tomorrow, with a unique awareness that “human progress cannot be denied.”

The mission of a smart foreign policy is to save the nations of the earth – ours included – from their own destructive history.  Under this scheme, everything old is mired in error.  Peoples and governments are irrationally shackled to the past:  their actions are driven by outmoded prejudice, not reality, and thus often end in disaster.  Among the prejudices clouding the judgment of those who are not smart, the president clearly includes the pursuit of national power and interest in an interdependent world.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that President Obama believes international conflict would cease if only the actors would open their eyes and perceive the new reality.  He preaches to the Israelis about the Palestinians:  “Sometimes the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change.”  He lectures the Arabs about Israel:  “choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.”  He himself stands neither here nor there, pro or con, but on the Platonic heights where all is revealed:  “If we come to see this conflict from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth.”

Conflict, on this account, is never a clash of interests, only a failure of intellect.  The president and his team, who are smart, thus understand the true interest of every nation.  They will represent Russian aggression in Ukraine as “not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.”  When foreign rulers like Vladimir Putin persist in playing the power game, they will be told, more in sorrow than in anger, that they have committed an egregious blunder and placed themselves “on the wrong side of history.”

This is more than a persistent rhetorical flourish.  In Barack Obama’s universe, history is always on his side, because he has outgrown the irrational impulses of more backward times and embraced the inevitability of human progress.

The Avoidance of Stupid

Since history already favors the president’s cause, a smart foreign policy needs only one operating principle:  avoid mistakes.  To dive into Barack Obama’s pronouncements is to encounter a mind preoccupied to the point of obsession with the mistakes of the past.  The “painful chapter in our history” that was Vietnam, the “overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran,” and, hovering over everything, the “dumb war” in Iraq – this administration’s prime directive for dealing with the world has been never again to indulge in such a toxic cocktail of ignorance and aggression.

When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in the military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world.

Or, in the more concise foreign policy mantra of the age of Obama:  “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Certain modes of interacting with foreign governments follow naturally from a strong focus on avoiding mistakes.  Most obvious is the urge to engage with those hostile to the US to “lift suspicion and fear” – that is, wipe away the legacy of earlier errors.  To Iran, Russia, Cuba, the Arab countries, the Muslim world, the administration has extended an open hand in the hope of coaxing an unclenched fist.  “America,” proclaimed the president at the start of his first term, “is a friend to each nation.”

I will postpone for the future a full accounting of the fruits of this benevolent policy.  Suffice it to say, here, that none of the regimes being engaged with have altered their behavior in a significant way.

One way to lower the cost of mistakes in the global arena has been to delegate to other countries the initiatives promoted by the administration.  President Obama is nothing like a builder of grand coalitions in the manner of, say, George H. W. Bush.  He holds international organizations like the UN in high rhetorical esteem, but unlike the second President Bush he has never sought their approval of his policies.  Rather, on an ad hoc basis, he has endeavored to shift responsibility away from the United States to governments that have been sometimes friendly, but sometimes not.

In Iraq, for example, the administration bet on an Iranian-backed autocrat over potential chaos:  in the end, it got both.  In the Libyan conflict, the president pledged the US military to “a supporting role” to NATO after the first bombing attacks:  a White House adviser famously explained the US posture on Libya as “leading from behind.”  Again, when the Syrian regime trampled on his own “red lines” forbidding the use of chemical or biological weapons, the president seemed relieved to outsource the crisis to Syria’s patron, Russia.

My guess is that these and other cases of stage fright are a reflection of policy rather than timidity.  Leading from behind may sound like a contradiction to traditional minds, but the phrase has that gloss of nuance and cleverness so important to the president’s people.  Their concern has been to avoid mistakes at all costs, while history does the heavy lifting.  In that context, it has seemed smart to yield the spotlight to less highly-evolved governments.

The logical conclusion of this outlook, of course, is utter inaction.  The Obama administration has remained determinedly passive in the face of events that have shattered forever the old strategic landscape:  the revolts in Egypt and Syria, for example.  When it stirs itself to action, as with Libya and the Islamic State, it acts under many self-imposed limitations and qualifications – and, as noted, it prefers, when possible, to shift responsibility to other shoulders.  Even in Afghanistan, that “war of necessity,” the president hesitated for months before committing to increased military involvement, then scheduled the date of withdrawal even as he was announcing the start of an offensive.

The remarkable fact is that, for Barrack Obama and his foreign policy team, there are no mistakes of omission.  His grim vision of history is tightly focused on the consequences of selfish aggression.  His rhetoric leaves no space for references to Munich or appeasement:  that was a quirk of the World War II generation, part of the dead hand of the past.  The president remembers Vietnam and Iraq.   These teach a different lesson:  that US intervention in foreign nations degenerates inevitably into recklessness.  Inaction is thus restraint.  To stand pat is to avoid disaster and incur no blame.

Experience hasn’t altered President Obama’s thinking on this score.  Failure to intervene in the Syrian uprising, for example, left the door open for the Islamic State, which in turn caused the near-collapse of an Iraq forsaken by US forces.  I find no evidence that the president would accept any linkage among these events.

The Dream of Different

The administration’s reluctance to act, together with its rigid information-processing requirements, leave it at the mercy of the speed of events.  By the time the data has been gathered and arrayed, and the discussions held, the world has often moved on.  A smart foreign policy has turned out to be a largely reactive one.

Faced with the crisis of the Egyptian regime, the administration never worked out whether to back old ally Hosni Mubarak, the attractive street protesters, the democratically elected Islamist Mohamed Morsi, or ultimate winner Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.  Each player in turn felt betrayed by the vacillations of the US government.

Intervention in the Libyan civil war was delayed until after the rebels had lost the initiative, and Qaddafi’s forces were on the verge of victory.  Though the stated aim of US and NATO participation was saving lives, its effect was to prolong the conflict for seven bloody months.

Similarly, the current bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria began only after the Islamic State had conquered large chunks of territory, and threatened the city of Baghdad.  Previously, the president had proclaimed that in Iraq “the tide of war is receding,” rejected intervention in Syria on smart-policy grounds, and dismissed the Islamic State as a “JV team” to Al Qaeda’s full varsity squad.

Administration people would no doubt argue that, at a minimum, they have avoided foreign policy catastrophes of the magnitude of President Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.  For this argument to be valid, however, two conditions must be met.  First, in the matter of catastrophes, sins of omission – that specialty of the Obama White House – must be shown to be harmless.  That depends on the second condition.

Barack Obama inherited a world order of which he plainly disapproved.  It may seem surprising that he has never tried to change it:  but he discerned in the depths, at the subatomic level of geopolitics, a world that was already changed.  His task, he thought, was to align the foreign policy of the United States with the elements of this irresistible transformation.  “For the world has changed,” he told us, “and we must change with it.”

The president perceives a world different in radical ways from that imagined by other heads of state.  He is smart.  They are blinded by ancient prejudice.  In his transcendent vision, power has little connection to security, and “bigger nations can’t bully the small.”  If this corresponds to reality, Barack Obama may indeed be the good shepherd leading his global flock to a peaceful new world order.  His mistakes of omission in that case have been, as he and his people insist, trivial in their consequences.

But if, as seems far more likely to me, the principles that govern today’s world are not much changed from yesterday’s, and power still matters greatly, and strongly-held ideals like nationalism still matter too, then over the last six years the president of the United States has been trapped in a naïve dream, and his policies have reflected his own fond hopes rather than reality.  This, if true, would mean that the new world order is being erected behind President Obama’s back, without US participation, consultation, or even awareness.  Our interests will form no part of the new scheme, and are likely to be at odds with it.

The probability of a catastrophe – or several – lurking behind our inaction and inattention would then be uncomfortably high.  Even now human disasters confront us in the Islamic State, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Ukraine:  there and elsewhere, a catastrophic decline in the ability of the US to influence events may be one passive moment away.

Posted in analysis, cataclysm, influence | Leave a comment

ISIS and the war on history

mosul mayhem

Barbarism As a Feature, Not a Bug

The Islamic State’s apparent destruction of ancient artifacts at a Mosul museum has been called “barbaric” and “an odious crime…against the heritage of humanity.”  But what looks like barbarism to François Hollande – in his words, an attack on “people, history, memories, culture” – is to ISIS a strategic objective.  The group has been waging a revolt against history and memory that is even more ruthless than its war against the governments of Syria and Iraq.

By a sufficiently savage negation of the past, followers of the caliphate mean to demolish the odious present order of things.

This is an extreme version of a familiar story.  The impulse to repudiate history and break free of its causation has been a prominent feature of what I have called the revolt of the public:  the serial uprisings that have battered governments and institutions around the world since at least 2011.

Everywhere the rebels – mostly young, media-savvy, glib rather than deep – have demanded the restoration of virginity in human relations.  Craving pure, authentic lives, they imagined innocence was natural and Eden near at hand, if only the stain of events was washed clean.

Paradise could be reached from any number of ideological directions.  For the indignados of Spain, it was an anarchist utopia.  For the National Front, it’s an ideal France, purified of foreign elements.  For Syriza in Greece, it’s a neo-Marxist people’s state.

For ISIS, it’s the caliphate.  The rhetoric is Islamist, but the aspiration, the inchoate vision behind the words, is far more contagious than sheer religious mania.

I want to be precise about what I’m saying.

Analysts have engaged in a delicate back-and-forth regarding the importance of religion to ISIS.  Barack Obama, for example, accuses the group of having “perverted Islam,” while Graeme Wood arrives at the opposite conclusion:  “the reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”  Much of this talk is posturing for the benefit of specific constituencies.

I take the influence of Islam for granted.  Many of ISIS’s weird bloodthirsty practices, Wood makes clear, look back to early Muslim traditions.  Once that is accepted, the meaningful question, let me suggest, becomes whether we can safely quarantine the barbarism of ISIS within a space called “Islam” – perverted or not – or “Arab culture,” or “the Middle East.”

I’m going to argue that we can’t:  that the pathologies involved are viral and global, and can be detected by a horror of history.

The Lure of Apocalyptic Politics

The sincerity of ISIS’s quarrel with history can scarcely be doubted.  Its minions not only smashed the statuary at Mosul Museum – they made a show of it.  In a five-minute video, posted online, burly bearded men huff and puff and pull the ancient idols down, taking sledgehammers and jackhammers to the fallen figures.  The frenzy is at times recorded in slow motion, for romantic effect.

This is vandalism as political theater, performed for the edification of the world.  The lesson is simple.  Since the seventh century, the human race has been entangled in lawlessness and moral chaos.  The implicit solution is equally simple.  ISIS doesn’t mean to change history but to end it.

The human race is being invited to jackhammer its way to the apocalypse.

Although followers of ISIS speak in an opaque theological jargon, there’s nothing peculiarly Muslim or religious about yearning to escape the coils of history.  Their message has resonated with thousands from secular Western countries who have flocked to the caliphate.  Many knew just a few words of Arabic.  A significant minority was of non-Muslim origin.  They chose barbarism over boredom, becoming actors in the apocalyptic drama instead of software programmers back home.

“Jihadi John,” star of ISIS beheading videos, turned out to be a computer science graduate of the University of Westminster.  Some expressed shock, but he fits the profile.  Radicalism today has nothing to do with the poor or the downtrodden, but is all about the existential frustrations of young college-educated professionals immersed in the new communications technologies.

Becoming "Jihadi John"

Becoming “Jihadi John”

With a slight twist of the dial, Jihadi John could have been Occupier Ozzie or Indignado Juan.

If you happen to be a member of this privileged caste, history has always felt like grievance.  This is so regardless of ideology.  Tea Party activists can casually observe that it has taken “a hundred years or so to reach our present state of crisis.”  Feminists go one better, locating the Fall of Woman “in the second millennium BC.”  The indignados claimed that modern Spain had slipped from military dictatorship to a “partycratic dictatorship.”  Implicit in Syriza’s Marxist rhetoric is the belief that all history “is the history of the class struggle.”

Anders Breivik murdered 77 persons, including many children, in placid, affluent Norway:  in the manifesto in which he explains his turgid ideological motives for the atrocity, the word “history” recurs 510 times.

For rebels on the right, history is the pollution of a once-perfect society.  For those on the left, it’s the obstruction of every progressive demand.  But “right” and “left” have limited descriptive value in this context.  Insurgent sects have been violent and nonviolent, statist and individualist, secular and religious:  such differences do make a difference.  All, however, agree that the times are out of joint – that history is stuck in a tormented place.  All convert their rejection of the past into a sincere and ferocious loathing of the present, of every arrangement that surrounds and sustains their current lives.  They want out.

The political apocalypse seduces because it is, at bottom, a nihilist’s dream.  That may well make the biggest difference of all.

The Caliphate As Hollywood Revenge Fantasy

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

While ISIS has the surface look of a retrograde movement, it moves easily among the obsessions of the left and the right.  The End of Time can be interpreted as a restoration and purification, or a complete break with the past in the manner of Marx’s communist society.  Adherents may be reactionary in dress and theology, but on the subject of social change “they sound like Che Guevara.”

Even the frantic performance in Mosul was ambivalent on this score.  “We want to demolish the museums” is a line from the Futurist Manifesto – not the Quran.

In fact, the Islamic State is a product of our moment.  To attract a public, it must flatter contradictory opinions, and do so visually and vividly online.  (We sometimes forget that the movement isn’t the sum of all its videos.)  To overcome the contradictions, it must fix the attention of supporters on their shared nihilism:  that is, on the all-consuming desire to destroy the institutions that govern the modern world.

The caliphate, I want to say, is less a government than a visceral impulse against.  Every positive program or plan will divide the faithful and set them one against another.  That is likely to happen eventually.  The recurrent revolts undertaken under the conditions of the Fifth Wave have had a limited shelf life.  But for the moment, advocates of the new Eden, Arab and European, romantic reactionary and social revolutionary, can all indulge in what they truly love to do:  take a sledgehammer to the status quo.

Oppositional rage defines the person and the message of the recently anointed caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.  Baghdadi is a man who practices what he preaches.  Before becoming spiritual guide to all Muslims, he was responsible for the suicide attack on a famous mosque in Baghdad.  His language shimmers with a peculiar violence.  Of worldly life he says:  “kick it down, trample it.”  Alien ideologies also deserve a thrashing:  “trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy.”

In the Ramadan sermon from which these citations were taken, preached not far from Mosul Museum, Baghdadi lays out the grand vision of the caliphate he now rules.  In every detail, it’s a revenge fantasy in the best Hollywood tradition.  The plot begins with a history of unending oppression:

Indeed the Muslims were defeated after the fall of their caliphate.  Then their state ceased to exist, so the disbelievers were able to weaken and humiliate the Muslims, dominate them in every region, plunder their wealth and resources, and rob them of their rights.  They accomplished this by attacking and occupying their lands, placing treacherous agents in power to rule the Muslims with an iron fist, and spreading dazzling and deceptive slogans such as:  civilization, peace, coexistence, freedom, democracy, secularism, baathism, nationalism, and patriotism…

With the establishment of ISIS and the caliphate, the heroes appear on the scene, and the real action begins.  First comes a rupture with history:  “let the world know that we are living today in a new era.”  Then oppression in the tainted past becomes the pretext for the bloody mayhem of the new dispensation.

So by Allah, we will take revenge!  By Allah, we will take revenge!  Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator.

Baghdadi and his disciples, like Jihadi John, are sincere believers, willing to die as well as kill for the cause.  No one can doubt that.  But they have bent their beliefs to a specific purpose.  Early Islam, for them, performs the work that “real democracy” did for the secular Spanish protesters of 2011.  Both are ideals of perfection wielded without mercy against an imperfect world.

The War on History and the Irresistible Future

From this analysis it follows that the Islamic State conforms to a new type of revolt from below, one that has tended to be visually dramatic, sometimes physically destructive, yet always ephemeral.

Recall that the Tahrir Square protesters brought down Hosni Mubarak’s regime within three weeks, then disintegrated into squabbling factions.  The indignados helped obliterate the ruling socialist party, but that meant the triumph of the conservatives, not the rebels.  The Tea Party smashed Barack Obama’s governing coalition in 2010, but failed to unite behind a candidate in 2012 and was helpless to prevent the president’s reelection.

The precursor organization to ISIS – Al Qaeda in Iraq, under the leadership of none other than Abu Bakr al Baghdadi – was defeated in the “Anbar Awakening” by the Sunni tribes it sought to rule.

Apparently, negation and nihilism can only be pushed so far before the destroyer self-destroys.  The rebels are the favorite children of the digital age.  Much of their effectiveness derives from their ability to manipulate new media.  Yet everywhere we encounter them in the act of wrecking the social and political conditions that brought them into being.

If they are striking poses, lack of gravity will pull them apart.  That has often been the way with protesters in Europe and the US.  But if the rebels are serious and somehow succeed in disconnecting from the society that engendered them, the effect will be identical to suicide.  Politically, they will vanish into air, as if they had never been.

This sounds like good news but, in truth, is very cold comfort.  We don’t know just how long the caliphate will keep its grip on power.  We do know that there are no internal limits to the barbarities it will perpetrate so long as it retains any capacity to play out, on an endless loop, its fantasy of cosmic revenge.

We know, too, that in wanting to erase history, to organize humanity beyond the reach of the human condition, ISIS isn’t eccentric or unique.  For people of a certain age and education – and for reasons that have yet to be explained – apocalypse is in the air.

Don’t be surprised to find multiple avatars of ISIS in our future.

Posted in the public, visual persuasion | 3 Comments

Andrey Miroshnichenko’s review of The Revolt of the Public

Andrey Miroshnichenko is the author of Human as Media, a book I have cited often in this blog.  He and I became connected as fellow scholars who turn out to have an astoundingly similar perspective on the impact of media on politics.  I say astounding because we wrote our books in complete isolation from each other yet arrived at almost exactly the same place, used many of the same words, and even reached for the same obscure citations (Ortega y Gasset being a favorite).

Andrey and I take the similarities to be meaningful.  We think we are on to something.  We may even be advancing on that phantom, truth.

Andrey has just produced a brilliant and thoughtful review of The Revolt of the Public.  As old-fashioned bloggers used to say:  read the whole thing.  It’s worth it.

For those who want a foretaste, here is Andrey’s version of how he and I came to recognize each other as kindred spirits:

Reading Gurri’s book was for me a particularly fascinating experience, because of the many overlaps between his ideas and those presented in my book “Human as media. The emancipation of authorship.”(Miroshnichenko, 2013). Gurri and I were not familiar with each other’s work until I came across his book and wrote to him. Our understanding of the present moment is so strikingly similar that we both turned to the same, regretfully obscure, “mass man as a spoiled child” quotation taken from Ortega y Gasset (Ortega y Gasset, 1930).

We have since discussed this similarity in our analysis, and we agree that if two independent researchers can see and describe their subject so similarly, that subject in all likelihood has been correctly portrayed. I find this to be an exciting development, particularly since neither physics nor math are involved; there are no “objective” laws of nature applied… Or are there? In the age of accelerated information, the social-informational sphere is so mediated by technologies and so alienated from an observer that it can probably be caught by an inquisitive mind like something “physically given”.

As might be expected, he and I don’t agree on every point regarding the great media-driven transformation of social and political life – what I have called the crisis of authority.  But I find his disagreements to be the most interesting aspect of the review:  they are fascinating, instructive – and probably correct.

Gurri has researched the manner in which the Fifth Wave influences politics. But at some point, with growing Internet penetration, media ceases to be just a factor of the political process; quite the reverse, political processes become internal parts of the media environment.

The review concludes on a thought-provoking note:

Societies accustomed to the conditions supported by broadcast-style, top-down media – i.e., the Fourth Wave, according to Gurri – including those societies that just recently began to experience those conditions, have suddenly found themselves sinking in the Fifth Wave, which is the environment of engaged media, where everyone has the technical capability to express publicly their personal reactions.

This new environment has thus far emancipated technical authorship for about 2.5 billion persons. Considering the spread of information technologies, the “normal” rate of Internet penetration, and population growth, we can predict that number of emancipated authors who can communicate reactions beyond their physical circle will reach 8-10 billion within the next 30 years.

We are at the moment in the middle of the explosion of mass authorship. Books like Gurri’s Revolt of the Public are extraordinarily helpful and necessary if we are to understand the present and prepare for what is to come. The next wave of turbulence caused by emancipated authorship is coming, and it will not be Tahrir-like. The likelihood is that it will develop the characteristics of the recent conflicts in Ukraine and Ferguson, Missouri, the first hints of which could be observed in the London riots of 2011. These future collisions should be analyzed in the context of media ecology as well as of political science.

Go read.  Now.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Posted in analysis, new media, the public | Leave a comment

The problem is…

mickey sorcerer

This is a post about analysis.  I mean nothing magical by that word, just the ways by which we subtract a little from our ignorance.  We need a frame to understand the world, and facts to make that frame helpful to our actions.   But how can we be certain?

The frames come in the form of stories or narratives that explain to me who I am, where I belong, and what the point is to life, the universe, and everything.  These stories are full of assumptions.  As they move further from my immediate circle of perception they become sketchier, and ultimately elide into the black vacuum of space.

We can never be certain.  That’s the one fixed truth of analysis.

The barbed-wire barrier between the human race and the truth is the feeling that we know.  This feeling depends on the relative success of our daily habits rather than on any inner representation of reality.  I live in two worlds simultaneously.  In my small world, I feel confident about a lot of things, so I say “I know how” about them.

I know how to drive in the toll road during rush hour.  I know how to do my job.  I know the temperaments of my wife and children.  I know where my house is.

Pretty early in this progression, though, I cross into another world – one that is vast, massively complex, and subject to mysterious rules.  I should feel a lot less confident, but I don’t notice the transition, so I keep saying “I know.”  I know O.J. Simpson killed his wife.  I know George W. Bush lied about Iraq.  I know how to end poverty and hunger, and what the best strategy against terrorism is.

We are blinded to the truth by the feeling that we know.  Because we know, we stop looking, we stop thinking – suddenly, we are tumbling off the edge of complexity, and it’s a long way down.

Here’s a small-world example.  My daughter recently lost her cell phone.  When I dialed the number from my car, we could hear it buzzing.  The phone, we knew, was inside the car.  We had performed our analysis, and we had our story:  it must be wedged in some crevice in the floor or the seats.

My wife, daughter, and I spent a day rooting around the dusty hidden spaces inside my car, nearly taking the damned vehicle apart.  No phone was found.  Then, completely by accident, we discovered it:  my daughter had left it on top of the hood.  We had known that it was inside and down.  I had even looked in the same low places two or three times, somehow expecting a different result.

In reality (which is all that counts), the phone was outside and up.  Yet I never raised my eyes, not once in all the hours of searching.  I never went against the story.  That eats at me, even now.

A seductive narrative whispers to the analyst that he knows because he’s scientific.  That’s a potent incantation, an argument-killer and discussion-ender.  It hints that I have techniques beyond your comprehension.  I may have a laboratory, a famous experimental method, esoteric data sets, even mathematical equations.  I don’t actually have any of those things, but it’s implied.

Scientists say” is our equivalent of God’s voice thundering on the mountaintop.  It’s tough to dispute without sounding like a devil-worshipper or a buffoon.

The most thumb-sucking version of the scientific narrative holds that the elemental unit of reality is called “the problem.”  It has the advantage of following a mechanical format, without ever pausing to think.

Here’s how it works.  First, something is described:  the latest unemployment numbers, for example, or the Greek elections.  Then, add the phrase “The problem is…”, as if the complex situation you just described had become, in your planet-sized analytical brain, a simple differential equation.  Finally, toss in your opinion:  unemployment is President Obama’s fault, say.  Magic happens.  Problem solved.

“The problem for Greece,” Paul Krugman writes, “…is the fragility of its banks.”  But fragility is a condition, not a problem.  If by problem Krugman means “painful circumstances,” Greece has a great many more, and worse, than the fragility of its banks.  Greek banks exist as a problem only in Krugman’s enormous brain:  when it comes to the convoluted web of history and culture entangling Greece, he has the feeling that he knows, and we need to listen to him.

Charles Krauthammer describes anti-Semitism as a “European problem.”  Oxfam takes for granted the “problem of inequality.”  Michelle Obama wants to solve the “problem of obesity.”  According to a Danish parliamentarian, “the problem is Islam,” but Tony Blair thinks there’s just a “problem within Islam.”  Blurting out this formulation has become almost involuntary, like Tourette’s syndrome.

Such language might be construed as metaphorical, but it isn’t.  It’s an ideological posture, however dimly self-aware, that makes two demands on the rest of us.

The first is that we swallow a lot of adolescent cynicism.  Everything is phony.  Everyone’s a fraud.  Academics today thus believe that their job is “to problematize.”  What is, is a problem:  history, society, morality, all false, all to be problematized.  Sex, in the past merely embarrassing, is suddenly a big problem.  Race relations?  Arizona State teaches a course on “The Problem of Whiteness.”

The second demand is for a single final “solution” to whatever is agitating the analyst.  If this sounds delusional, it’s for good reason.  If it sounds dictatorial – it’s that too.  Here the analyst takes up the Mickey Mouse role in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”  He thinks he’s riding the fuhrer principle on a cosmic scale, wagging his finger at reality as to a puppy:  but reality, the whirlwind of chaos, has other ideas.

The analytic universe is plural, not singular.  The human race has an infinite number of ways to get from here to there.  While I, the Analyst-Tyrant, command that the solution be found inside and down, the lost cell phone of truth buzzes mockingly at me, concealed in plain sight, outside and up.

Three generations ago it was a commonplace to speak of the “Jewish problem” or the “Negro problem.”  Before that, it was the “social problem.”  But Jews, blacks, and the working class weren’t really problems.  They just were.  Analysis, as an activity for grownups, confronts the opposite fallacy:  the problem is that problems aren’t.

Posted in analysis, narratives | 1 Comment

The crisis of European democracy

parthenon

With the victory of the Syriza Party in Greece, the sickness of European democracy has entered a potentially fatal stage.  Greece is only an indicator – the shrieking alarm around the hospital bed.  Other political establishments in Europe, equally prostrated, hear the sound and shudder.  The Greek present is their future.

The forces at play are global and secular.  There can be no quick cures, no escape acts, no tricks to conceal the helplessness of a political order that has controlled the continent for two generations.

Syriza promised what Greek voters wanted:  the impossible.  The party is run by unreconstructed Marxists nostalgic for the Soviet era.  But it won, and won big, chiefly on a platform of negation and repudiation.  Syriza stands firmly against the European Union, the euro, austere budgets, debt payments, capitalism, the Germans, the banks, “the rich, the markets, the super-rich, the top 10 percent.”

The status quo became the enemy.  Those who promised to smash it with the most destructive zeal have become saviors.  Negation triumphed in part because the Greek public mistook vandalism for salvation, but also because Europe’s political class has lost the will to grapple with reality.  The cluelessness of rulers, exposed for all to see by the Fifth Wave of information, has triggered an extraordinary reordering in human relations:  and liberal democracy is in play.

Democracy isn’t on the Syriza demolition list, but neither is it particularly valued.  “Our foremost priority is that our country and our people regain their lost dignity,” says the new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras.  That probably means clobbering the status quo and the super-rich.  For their part, Europe’s elites wish to retain control.  The public wants utopian outcomes.  The creaking machinery of representative democracy, with its compromises and manipulations, seems to get in the way of everyone’s priorities.

* * *

Europeans have never been sold on democracy.  From Robespierre to Putin, they have been largely persuaded that dignity – justice, equality, all the political virtues – must be conquered at the point of the bayonet.  State power exists and expands for that purpose:  individual dignity, like the old titles of nobility, must be granted from above.  That’s how Tsipras understands his mandate.

European elites fear and loathe their own public, which they hold responsible for the nationalist outbursts that twice destroyed the continent.  They have evolved a form of democracy in which nothing is decided by elections, and they have organized society so that political discussion gets herded into a small safe space by the power of taboo.  The public thus votes but never chooses, talks freely but with little to say.

This sterilized approach to democracy deals with painful political questions by denying their existence.  Immigration, for example, was never seriously debated anywhere in Europe.  Guest workers who had been invited during the fat years stayed for the lean, and a sudden migratory tide of millions materialized, unsought and unplanned, in nations whose identities were firmly linked to blood and land.

It is remarkable – I want to say, pathological – that basic questions about social costs and benefits were never considered.  Such discussions were declared beyond the pale by elites who remembered the horrors of Nazi Germany and their own colonial crimes, and feared the inherent racism of the public.  The immigrant became a test of European virtue.  Intellectuals applauded, while governments looked the other way.  The public, as usual, was told, not asked:  that was the point of the exercise.

The European Union and its precursor organizations have been central to the politics of denial.  The EU is totally undemocratic.  Its parliament, a bizarre collection of elected eunuchs, seems to exist as a mockery of the democratic ideal.  The language of the treaties which constitute the Union is both verbose and impenetrable.  Nobody has the slightest idea what the EU’s powers are or should be.  Nobody cares.  Its bureaucracy touches everything but achieves no known purpose – a useful attribute for national governments bent on avoiding reality.  The EU is a bit like the elephant graveyard:  a place where large questions go to die.

* * *

The public responded to political emasculation the way the public always does.  So long as times were good, it was happy to play the elites’ game, but once the economy wobbled and then fell apart in 2008, it began, like the Roman plebs, to secede from the system.  The public is walking away.  Because of the virtuous silence of the thinkers and the media and the politicians – because in Europe nothing gets decided, nothing gets discussed – the first step out is a long one.

party decline europe

While orthodox parties peddle avoidance, ordinary voters, in despair, turn to strange new political groups.  Syriza, National Front (France), Five Star (Italy), UKIP (Britain), have emerged from left and right:  but such labels, which refer to a dead world, lack precision here.  The new movements gather beyond the pale.  They are taboo:  that is their appeal to the public and their true orientation.  They put in play forbidden subjects, eternally settled questions – the economic system, immigration, the EU.

The rise of youthful political forces in opposition to a senile old guard sounds like a happy story.  However, there’s a hitch.  The rebels are fixated on the status quo.  They are consumed with grievance and accusation.  As Europe’s elites reject the content of reality, their radical opponents restrict reality to the elites.  Their revolt isn’t about reform or revolution, but is a sort of utopian mirror imaging at best – and at worst a parasitic dependency on the failure and decadence of the system.

Negation, in the form of Syriza and its long hit list, confronts paralysis, embodied by the decrepit European institutions that hold Greece’s debt.  The struggle will be conducted with all the integrity of a professional wrestling match, but there will be winners and losers.  Neither side has much love for the niceties of representative democracy.  Both can be expected to seize any possible undemocratic advantage.  The keepers of the old order will try to place tight boundaries around the Syriza government, for example.  Syriza in power will trample on due process to settle scores.

It is possible, even justifiable, to deride the Greeks for reaping the whirlwind of a culture of corruption:  but, from a certain perspective, they appear merely to have moved faster and gone further in the direction we are all headed.  Greece represents one logical outcome of the global collision between the public and authority in the age of the Fifth Wave.  In this version of the future, nihilism assumes the aspect of freedom.

Democracy can fail.  It has done so in Europe, multiple times, within living memory.  Greece, which delivered the infant ideal of popular government to the world, may get the opportunity to throw the first spade of dirt on European democracy’s unmarked grave.

Posted in democracy, the public | Leave a comment

Information and terror attacks

12 killed in shooting at French satirical magazine headquarters

The fateful question, rarely asked, about atrocities like the recent massacre in Paris, is:  what did the perpetrators expect to accomplish?  The answer may seem intuitive.  These men were terrorists.  They obviously expected to achieve their political goals by terrifying the population.

But what were the goals?  And how could three gunmen terrify a nation of 65 million?  Here the solid world of guns and bullets, life and death, intersects with the phantom realm of information.

The strategic political objective of every small gang of violent persons is to appear powerful and important.   That was true of Al Qaeda even in its heyday, and remains true of AQ spinoffs today.  One way to appear powerful and important is to seize the attention of the world, and force presidents and prime ministers of great nations into making statements about you.  To achieve this, you need only commit an act of barbaric violence, then let the media – mainstream and social – do what the media does.

Terror is only incidentally about bloodshed.  If that sounds cold, it’s because it reflects the calculation of cruel minds.  Terror is mostly about information, about writing a message in blood, about communicating a frightening, far-reaching capacity in images reproduced by the news media and cellphone cameras.

Accomplishing this this strategic goal makes any tactical demand – censoring cartoons of Muhammad, for instance – a much simpler task to achieve.

The moral and political dilemma is that murder, conducted in public, will go viral.  Violence, in a sufficiently large scale, will make headlines.  Given an open society, this is impossible to prevent.  The terrorists in Paris may advocate a tightly controlled society, but they understand the ways of liberal democracy well enough.  They know us without illusions, better than we know ourselves.

Murder of innocents in the West:  that is the medium.  We then wonder why we should applaud the message.  But I repeat:  we – our dead and wounded – are the medium, we are not the intended audience.  The audience is elsewhere.

paris terrorists

Look on the images of the killers, pouring out of Paris.  They seem straight out of an action film:  black-clad, ninja-looking, gun-toting, full of self-conscious swagger and mysterious hand signs.  Virginia Postrel has written of the “glamour” of the Islamic State’s recruiting imagery:

Videos, magazine features and Twitter memes mirror the glamour of action movies, shooter video games and gangsta rap.  They make killing look effortless, righteous and triumphant.  They promise to make the jihadist manly and important.

The audience for the Paris terrorists’ message is among young people, mostly but not exclusively male and Muslim, in the Middle East but also in the West, who find the cinematic costumes and poses and clichés difficult to resist.  The slaughter of unarmed journalists translates, for this group, into an exhilarating adventure.  Brutality is never excused or explained:  it’s central to the seductiveness of the message.

Why are Westerners targeted?  After 9/11, President Bush guessed that it was because “they hate our freedoms.”  But, as we have seen, Islamists have been able to exploit Western freedoms of movement and speech to advantage.  They conspire using Western technology, sample Western entertainment, emulate Western cool.

Western governments they hate quite sincerely, however.

Osama bin Laden’s explanation for 9/11 turned the freedom argument on its head.  Since the people elected the US government, he reasoned, the American people “in its entirety” were fair game.

But terror is an information strategy, and there are practicalities involved.  Killing Westerners makes news.  If the goal is to grab the world’s attention, a dozen victims in Paris will generate more media noise than tens of thousands bombed and shot to pieces around Damascus.  This, too, is the cold calculation of bloody-minded men.

People ask about the proper response to such incidents.  I won’t pretend to have the answer.  Elite opinion in Europe favors greater sensitivity to Muslim grievance – this sometimes veers into making the murdered dead responsible for their condition.  BBC, for one, frowns on the word “terrorist,” will not link “Muslim” or “Islam” to perpetrators, and often refuses to publish their names for fear of revealing their religion.

I can’t imagine that killers will ever be influenced for good or evil by the sensitivities of media organizations.

Expressions of solidarity come naturally but seem hollow unless they are made facing the barrel of a gun.  I can identify with the murdered journalists and shout “I am Charlie Hebdo,” but I’m really not.  I’m another person in another place, and I can only hope, in anti-solidarity, never to be in the same fatal predicament as the Charlie Hebdo victims.

Public proclamations of support collide directly with the dilemma of information.  Twitterstorms and crowded vigils, for example, will appear to the murderers as proof that they have become world-historical characters.

The only suggestion an old analyst like me can offer is that we hold fast to our perspective.  We should see the Paris attack with our own eyes, assess it with our own minds, not through CNN or the latest trending hashtag.  Terrorists can inflict suffering and death at any moment.  Whether they pose an existential threat is up to us, not them, to decide.  The degree to which we mobilize for self-protection is also our decision.  We shouldn’t accept these contemptible people on their own terms.

Since the conflict is over control of information, we should take care of how we behave in the battlefield.  Will the next anti-Islamist satire be aborted by fear? That question, I submit, should haunt every one of us, the privileged children of liberal democracy.

Posted in influence, visual persuasion | Leave a comment

The social function of the news

Breaking-News

In his brilliant little book, Human as Media, Andrey Miroshnichenko provides the following explanation of the news business:

The journalist’s profession is about picking up on the social demand for consolidated pictures of the world, clipping off the variety of superfluous opinion and turning a few select topics into something readable. […]

In this sense, journalists are not only authors, but also mediators between the social demand for order and the personal demand for suitable reference points.  This is what society pays journalists for, not with money alone, but also with status recognition:  the status of priests.  The journalist is the priest of social navigation and readability.

Personal reference points become necessary initially at the level of life and love, where they can multiply virtually to infinity.  But we are also desperate for guideposts to cosmic aspirations – meaning, morality, status – that must be validated by some group.  Journalists, in their priestly capacity, utilize the power of recognition and affirmation to reduce the dangerous torrent of subjective private fixations down to a shallow trickle of stories of interest to the elites.

They achieve this by means of extreme and arbitrary foreshortening.  A very few topics and events are shoved before the public’s eyes, and so appear gigantically important, while most are ignored or swept into the shadows.

For example:  politics always matters greatly, religion not so much.  So we will be bombarded with news about the most trivial incident in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but hear not a word about the Christianization of China.  Or:  ours always matters greatly, theirs not so much.  So a single death in Ferguson, Missouri, will receive obsessive news coverage, while the slaughter of thousands in faraway Congo received almost none.

Historically, it is unclear how neatly the news ever synchronized the public’s obsessions with those of the elites.  Success probably depended on the country and the topic at hand.  A suggestive fact:  when increased literacy opened the possibility of selling news to the masses, newspapers bundled a lot of lowbrow content (sports, horoscopes, advice to the lovelorn, comics) along with political and economic reports.  Those who worshipped at the altar of the news may always have been a small, elite-oriented minority.

Not that it mattered.  For 150 years, the news was the only national conversation around.  If other voices or interests existed, they were inaudible.  Confident that they possessed a monopoly over open information, journalists became persuaded that they were in the business of manufacturing correct opinion:  that is, the opinion held by certain political and intellectual elites.

It isn’t remotely true that Pulitzer newspapers stampeded the country into war with Spain, or that Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post hurled Richard Nixon out of the White House.  Other, more powerful forces were at work.  But many people believed that newsmongers were indeed responsible for both events:  and, without question, they contributed to a climate of opinion in which the desired action came to be seen as possible and reasonable, if not inevitable.

If journalists were priests of a false god, the lack of an alternate faith gave them the semblance of influence and power.

Because the news claimed top-down authority, its content became closely aligned with what I would call the framework of nations.  By this I mean the ruling assumptions and modes of perceiving the world that the lessons (and quirks) of history have instilled in the educated elites of each nation.  In France, for example, these are largely ideological.  In Russia, they center on the vigor of the state.  In China, events appear refracted through the prism of social harmony, while Britain’s all about the acts and words of its upper crust.

Everywhere, the framework became the grand organizing principle for journalists in search of the news.  Or to flip this around:  the news articulated the framework, made assumptions explicit, and thus revealed, to anyone with eyes to see, the intellectual and psychological baggage of the elites.

Today, the news is about less and less – and this signifies something more fundamental than disarray among news providers.  Journalists have lost connection to any coherent framework, and are unable to serve the masses as navigators in the sea of complexity.  They still write stories but have been shorn of their power, their social function.  They can no longer affirm.  They can no longer admire.

The reaction has been violent but predictable.  The priest who has fallen from grace can still condemn, can still repudiate, can still curse an established order of which he himself is a shameful part.  Journalists, who get press passes to the White House and the Super Bowl, have fallen in love with the pose of alienation.  They want to smash the system that invented them.

The disintegration of the news reflects a catastrophic confusion and loss of confidence among national elites.  The high modernist ambition of achieving social perfection by way of politics was abandoned as a utopian fantasy.  Nothing has filled the void.  The great conflict of systems of the Cold War was won, and its little brother, the War on Terror, has been forsaken as impracticable.  Nothing filled the void.  The moment is full of nothing – of gloom and doubt.  The framework that once sheltered the political class lies broken beyond repair.  Presidents and premiers, congressmen and ministers, are like blind men suddenly removed to Mount Everest:  the first step forward, they know, may send them whirling into the chasm.

News about nothing is the necessary consequence of a politics of vertigo and panic. The evasions and impostures of journalists are symptoms of a systemic breakdown transpiring far above their heads.  Mock journalists for being empty vessels:  do not confuse them with the cause of anything.  The same can be said about the web and its lynch mobs, the coarsening of culture, the supposed polarization of the public.  They are visible manifestations of a collapsing framework:  of a center that cannot hold.

In my book, I have examined in detail the reasons for this condition.  We are dealing with a massive failure of the institutions, taking place in plain view, before the astonished eyes of the public.  Government has failed, and has been seen to fail, repeatedly, in bipartisan fashion, until it has staggered into a zombie-like state of living death.  Financial houses have failed, and been seen to fail.  Automakers and universities have failed.  In this context, the failure of the news media appears as a minor plot twist in a vast institutional horror show.

For politicians as for journalists, the temptation to condemn and accuse has been almost irresistible.  Rulers can be found repudiating the political systems over which they preside:  this is a reflexive move for Barack Obama.  The president’s world is dominated by shadowy conspiratorial forces – but so, with different villains, is that of Vladimir Putin.  Political vandalism has taken the place of reform and revolution.  It feels liberating, even if it leads to nothing.

Given time, the cumulative erosion of trust, the poison in the air, must damage the legitimacy of the democratic process:  but the leading persons of our moment, teetering blind above the chasm, can take little notice of such long-term effects.

Posted in cataclysm, death of news, newspaperss | 1 Comment