Friday, April 30, 2004

Tribes Tripes Tropes

Richard Brookhiser has some pithy words about the difficult project of modernity. It would be nice to think that local advocates of 'da Tribe' should read them and pause. A little teaser:

"More and more, everyone in the world wants self-esteem; less and less, everyone gets it from the kinship group and village customs. For the missing extra jolt, they turn to totalist simplifying ideologies, or they begin the long slog into modernity."

It ain't easy being modern - all those choices! And it's very easy, as RB notes, to delegate the task to a 'simplifying ideology' - religion (think, Islam, where man is specifically regarded as unable to formulate new, let alone criticise existing, prescriptions), a State (think, Stalinist Russia or France), or a Tribe (you have a wide choice here, in NZ, some State subsidised). In all these cases, the burden of choice falls away.

Of course, it's a form of enslavement (something historically closer to many groups' actual practises than any would admit), a brake on innovation, and an economic dead end (read anything by Gareth Morgan). But it's a price that historically many or most have been willing to pay.

An aspect of the price is the group rituals which are needed to cement the 'us' against all 'others', which provide a certain surveillance to ensure that members do not develop seccessionist tendencies, which act to replace the ever-present danger of individual thought, and which provide a pleasing pattern or sequence to a day.

I have always had an aversion to these rituals without really knowing why - apart from the obvious anti-intellectual aspects. The ones that come closest to hooking me are the traditional church services we struck in England: but even there, the religion was a much watered-down version of high-church Anglican, and it was a visible triumph of faith over actuality for even the in-group participants. But certainly the pleasing rituals had a pull at the time.

As Jared Diamond notes in "Guns, Germs and Steel", one formative reason for religions is that they can regulate behaviours which cannot be left to chance - Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' amongst them. By simply stipulating a prohibition, group outcomes are enhanced. Diamond's example is the prohibition on pig meat common to both Judaism and Islam: it solved a pressing issue in the newly-deforested and rapidly degrading Middle East of the time, as pigs' needs for forage in general and water in particular, competed directly with humans'. No eating them. No point in owning them. Problem solved.

But a growing issue is the reversion to tribal and religious thinking which accompanies the current exaltation of tribes in funny little NZ: a sort of mental irredentism. While the more risible forms (taniwha - monsters - which have impeded the planning for a major highway - you can't make this stuff up) can be dismissed, the underlying tendency towards 'magical thinking' is no laughing matter. Any abandonment of the intellect, in the sense of scientific thought, repeatedly demonstrable causes and effects and so on - is bound to undercut the very reasons for and energy of our current state of civilisation, however that's defined.

And this trend is not much better for art: which thrives at the edge of, or in the whirlpools between, great currents of thought. Ask yourself: how much good art over the past 300 years was produced by tribes, as opposed to by lonely outcasts, 'canaries in the coal mines' (as Kurt Vonnegut characterised the role of an artist), existential despair, war, love lost, alcohol and other chemical propellants, and some proportion at least, by individuals with certifiable mental illness?

Oh, there's that word again. Yes, Art is produced by Individuals. Hold that thought.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Prepare for the worst?

Both Ralph Peters and David Warren - two old hands in the Middle Eastern game - seem rather pessimistic to say the least. Their basic intuition - no more than that, at present, is that we are seeing the first stages of an implosion of the entire Arab culture. The money quote from Peters:

"The Arab Middle East has become the world's first entirely parasitical culture; all it does is to imitate poorly, consume voraciously, spit hatred, export death and create nothing."

The whole area hasn't exactly been on my own travel destinations 'one-day' list, but if this goes all the way one of the consequences will be the sequestration of the whole mess. If, as other writers have argued (see, perhaps, Belmont Club) the terrorist is an entirely parasitical method of warfare, then a simple and quite reasonable response is to exercise far stronger border control and movement vetting. That's certainly absent in the EU now. See it while you can?

Amusing Arabian Ablogger (had to make the alliteration work somehow)

Here's a guy will make you reconsider every stereotype you may have had. (And if you don't have stereotypes, how do you survive life in a crowded world?)

He's taking a big risk in doing what he's doing (think, a Luther but in 1510, not 1517) so the least we can do is read it all. And laugh a lot. My two favourites so far: (oh, the linky thing):

(It's a scene from an OBL play)..."I'm so s..s..sorry" howls Bin Laden, "I n...n...never meant to become a terrorist. I always wanted to b..b..become an Imam, but my IQ was over 30."

(On the rather inadequately developed Saudi execution as a satisfactory public spectacle).... "It’s magnified on a massive screen. There are endless replays from different angles. Then in slow motion. Two commentators, retired executioners, discuss the finer points of the swing. Sombre music plays as the corpse and head are removed. The lights dim. That’s it until the next time"

With a sense of humour like this, you just gotta love the guy.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Oil for Fraud is big news now

The irrepressible Mark Steyn, whose articles are always amusingly written and capital-F Forthright, has a good piece in the Telegraph on the tangle of deceit that the Oil-for-Food humanitarian relief effort in Iraq quickly turned into. No quotes (although starving moppets do make another appearance) - just RTWT.

Friday, April 16, 2004

As irrelevant as New Zealand

This assessment from Michael Totten takes our little country as an example of the altered state of relationships between America and Europe. It's a view often heard from the other side of the ditch as well: that NZ is essentially a neutral, and a neutered one (in terms of defence spend) to boot. If we need defending, we'll have to contract it out.

Update: Wog thinks much the same. Sigh.

Not great for the old self-esteem, but this sort of clear-eyed, name-it-for-what-it-is analysis is what I go looking for in the blogosphere.

And another chiller: Heather MacDonald writes about the continuing failure to be able to 'connect the dots': the triumph of privacy rightists (from the right) and civil liberties protectors (from the left) in preventing the projects which would advance this capability. Talk about a Pyrrhic Victory......

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Oil for Fraud - UN to be implicated in massive scam

Looks like this is set to blow on April 22. The usual suspects - France (specifically, Chirac), UN officials, inspectors up and down the chain, and so on, are expected to be unequivocally linked. Sure explains France's efforts to keep Saddam rolling.

Are we surprised? Na. Chirac will go down in history as responsible for the nuclear reactor France provided to Iraq (the Osirak plant, known ever since the Israelis took it out in 1981, as the O'Chirac) plus the Oil-for-fraud palm-greasing (possibly quite literally...) that has, according to an investigator quoted in the article, the potential to be

"one of the world's most disgraceful scams" .

Read it all.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Iraq's first birthday

This little, heartfelt piece, from a so obviously different point of view, is a great antidote to the barrage of lazily misinformed news from the regular outlets. The joy at celebrating (April 9) the liberation just shines out.

Other insights I've found useful include an ongoing series over at Belmont Club, an opinion piece from the plain-speaking Ralph Peters, and the always reliable Cap'n.

Two aspects stand out from these pieces and other reading:

1. despite the spike in Coalition casualties, which are always reported accurately, the kill ratios are staying very high. Of the order of 50-100 to 1. That's good news.

2. The involvement of Syria and Iran in financing, infiltrating, fomenting and generally stirring, is now clear (vide Peters, who makes this explicit). June 30 is a drop-dead milestone for them: it means a freer Iraq and that cannot be tolerated.