Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Debate this, not this . . .

In his recent book, The Twilight War, David Crist recounts the story of Suq al-Gharb, a town located south of the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
Militias of all stripes - Christian, Druze and Shia - moved into the void . . . General Tammous ordered the Lebanese army into the fray to reassert Lebanese government control and also tp protect the routed Phalange. He committed his best unit, the 8th Brigade, a multiconfessional unit (though its were majority Christians) trained by American special forces and under the command of an indecisive and panicky Francophile general named Michel Aoun. (p. 118)
Up until this crucial moment in 1983, the United States had committed to a limited, peacekeeping posture in the Lebanese Civil War. The battle for Suq-al Gharb changed the calculus. Then special Presidential envoy to the Middle East, Robert McFarlane sent a panicked cable to Washington urging tacit and immediate U.S. military support for the 8th Brigade, fearing that the Syrian faction would win the battle, and that the Soviet hand would extend to Lebanon via it's "client" in Syria. Not only had McFarlane under estimated the Lebanese army's ability to repulse the attack, he wrongly envisioned the entire conflict as a field in the Great Game of the Cold War. It wasn't, it was essentially a local conflict, granted that the "local" refers to the entire Levant.

Crist goes on to describe how the final decision was shifted to the local Marine Commander, Colonel Timothy Geraghty. Geraghty eventually sided with McFarlane, and the U.S. launched naval artillery attacks in support of the - primarily Christian - Lebanese Army. Any pretense to neutrality was lost. Writers such as Crist and Thomas Friedman believe that the attack on the U.S. Marines barracks, and the death of 241 Marines, was a direct result of that fateful decision in Suq al-Gharb.

It's important to remember this tumultuous moment in history when thinking about the contemporary Middle East, and particularly the remarks made by Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Romney has accused Obama of not doing enough in Syria. I am sure there are people who support Obama who do not think he has done enough in Syria. The question that remains conspicuously absent is, of course, what would you have Obama do? I have written on this blog before that, at risk of sounding like minimizing the challenges in Libya and Egypt, Syria remains a completely different beast. To understand just what sort of fray we are talking about here, we must first view the problem through the right lens. The Arab Spring and subsequent uprisings is not simply the Arab people yearning for freedom, it is the undoing of a system of borders and political arrangements that are unsustainable in the absence of dictatorships. This is the final undoing of the colonial legacy in the Middle East. The fact is, simply stated, that the endgame in Syria will affect every country in the Levant, and will have consequences for Israel, Iran and potentially Saudi Arabia.

So, is my recommendation to say "Its too complicated, so we should do nothing"? No. However, I actually do think that we are wiser to wait and see. Direct support for the Syrian opposition will embolden the Hezbollah and Iran, who have both chosen to sink or swim with Assad. The potential for disastrous mission creep looms large, considering that the combination of refugees, foreign fighters and popular revolts in neighboring countries (and increasing friction with Turkey)would inflame the tinderbox that is the Levant, and would likely draw the U.S. into a protracted and costly endeavor.

Regan pulled out of Lebanon after the bombing of the Barracks. The god-like Republican president also lost an Ambassador on his watch, along with several top-flight intelligence experts. I am curious as to what Romney thinks he could accomplish. I will gladly stand accused of being "soft" when suggesting there is nothing we can do to make this situation better. However, I think Romney is debating from the wrong side of this thing. He says that the Iranian people, for example, long for freedom from an oppressive regime. Is this true? We all saw the Green Revolution and its infant steps towards dissent. However, how often do we forget that beyond the northern suburbs of Tehran, Iran is a very conservative country, and for most Iranians, the biggest gripe is the economy, while the nuclear program provides a sense of pride in a nation that inherits a history that includes imperial glory and playing the fanatical underdog.

We need a debate on the Middle East that faces the uncomfortable facts, that sometimes there is no winning to be done. We must face the fact that in the decades-long absence of effective national narratives, Islam powerfully fills the vacuum. Despite our greatest aspirations, we need to accept the Middle East that is, and not the one we want.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Why I'm addicted to HuffPost Live . . .

The simple reason that I keep logging on to HuffPost Live remains that it is a wildly exciting experiment in webby, social, user-generated media. For anyone who works in tech and new media - like myself - certain concepts and ideas have assumed the place of gospel: make it social, make the user a part of the thing, not an observer of the thing, curate but don't editorialize. HuffPost Live gets this, and embraces it, warts and all.

At our startup, we have people working in numerous locations in the country. The Google + hangout is our conference room. Its not always perfect, you get slowdown, dropped connections and of course, you can hear when the trash trucks pull up just outside my "office" window. HPL's embrace of the hangout is bold, both as an embrace of an imperfect technology, and of tech that more people - both media and tech professionals, and everyone else - are quickly adopting. HPL has its finger in the pulse.

Of course, the big sell with HPL is the participation of the audience, whether as community "pundits" who make their way through the screening process onto one of the discussion hangouts, or via the chatbox and tweet features. The big debate in the world of the user-generated web centers on those who question whether or not the wisdom of the crowd is actually all that wise. HPL's is selective enough, they are curating on air contributors that provide intelligent, broad and passionate discussion. There is a sense that while these people aren't "professional" pundits - like the usual suspects on the cable news shows - they are people who are perhaps more in touch with the nitty gritty of the issues they discuss.

Its not perfect. I am not particularly enamored of the tone of some of the hosts. I don't want to call out anyone in particular, but sometimes you get a sense you are watching college kids who are well versed in the Simpsons/Conan O'Brien school of humor. Not a bad thing in and of itself, but it comes off as distracting and slightly amateurish. millennials probably won't care (for me, electronic music is the Chemical Brothers, not Skrillex, so sort that out). It may be a deliberate effort on the part of the staff to make it fun and young and irreverent. I believe its possible to be serious and intelligent without being elitist and stuffy, but I will admit that perhaps this criticism is based on affectation more than anything else.

When I finally try to get on the air, and hopefully succeed, perhaps I can drop a Family Guy reference. In the meantime, I will watch HuffPost Live with an eye towards its bold embrace of innovation in an industry that desperately needs it. 

Monday, August 06, 2012

My Broken Heart

I have a daily routine that involves reading several news sources, both foreign and domestic. Its part from professional necessity and part out of a natural curiosity about the world, a habit I probably picked up by watching my father read his newspaper daily with rapt attention, as if for a small span of time, nothing was more important than what was in the paper. Usually, I will pick through the headlines and take notes on anything of interest, particularly as it may relate to a future blog post or topic for further research. Today, I am shocked and pained to see familiar images and read familiar words from my life used in connection with senseless tragedy.

A lot of commenting on articles being written about the shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, mention how peaceful the Sikhs are as a people, and I couldn't agree more. Our faith demands of us a certain kind of gentleness. Our first guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, was a mystic and he revealed to the world that the true revolution in human life came from understanding that it wasn't the worldly forms that matter,  but the underlying unity. We are all the same, we are all children of the same creation, and to it we would return when our soul's journey came to its end.

Of course, like many religious minorities, our history too often is framed in violence. Growing up, we attended a gurdwara in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra. As kids, my cousins and I would go to the small library - no more than a broom closet back then - and make jokes and generally act like kids do. On the walls above our pre-adolescent covered heads hung paintings depicting some of the darker moments in our history: the torture and martyrdom of guru Arjan Dev, the great sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the murder of the sons of our beloved Guru Gobind Singh.

As I got older, I did what a lot of teenagers do; I rebelled. I stop going to the gurudwara and basically gave up any connection I had to Sikhism. It became a sort of minor footnote in my life; I was Indian, and yeah, my parents were Sikhs, whatever. It wasn't until I got to college and tried to get "back to my roots" did I really come to understand Sikhism. Besides the spiritual and philosophical dimensions, I learned about glorious - and often violently bloody - times in our history. I read about the great admiration with which British military leaders often spoke regarding the warrior spirit of the Sikhs during the Imperial period. I learned the true meaning of our symbols, how the kirpan - a small ceremonial sword - stood for justice and defending those who had no means of defending themselves. I realized that being Sikh wasn't simply a religious identity, it is a quasi-ethnic identity, which I think can best be compared to being Jewish. You may not go to synagogue, you may not keep the Sabbath, but for the most part, you don't stop being Jewish.

The apex of my first trip to India as an adult came when we visited the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in Sikhism. A powerful, gracious and beautiful humbling. In the presence of the devout who variously hope that prayers of supplication come true, to those who seek nothing but to stand in the light of divine truth, something deep inside you feels as if an alchemy takes place, making a part of you shine like the domes of the sacred shrine.

And of course, there the museum dedicated to the 1984 massacre by the Indian Government - Operation Bluestar - that sought to overthrow an alleged separatist guerrilla movement. Images depicted the damage done to the shrine and the surrounding structures, the corpses of many heroic Sikh Shaheeds who died in defense of the faith. Another bloody frame for the hall of historical remembrance.

Today it all comes back to me. Not even 24 hours from the shooting, it is too soon to make sense of things. Too soon after Aurora to perhaps ever make sense of either tragedy. Aurora made me angry and confused; why does this keep happening in this country? Oak Creek brings with it a different kind of sadness. I can't help it, I know I am supposed to be a global citizen, and regard any human loss of life as a tragedy for all of us. But sometimes its hard to shake the sounds, the colors, the scents and the experiences that are in fact the very content that has defined your own  existence as an immigrant or a minority. Its too close to home, precisely for the reason that for so many immigrant communities, it is in our homes and places of worship that we can truly express and practice the culture from "back home," as we struggle to assimilate and become part of the "broader American family," as our president called it.

Another picture on the wall, another moment to remind us of the wisdom and sacrifice of those who came before, and those will have yet to be born. Waheguru ji ki Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Syrian Knot

With the massacre in Houla, and the discovery of 13 people who had been apparently bound and executed near Deir az-Zour, the grim reality of the deteriorating situation in Syria has taken center stage across the globe. The diplomatic isolation induced by the expulsion of Syrian diplomats in numerous countries also seems to suggest a turning point in the conflict. Even the Russians couldn't stay silent. Meanwhile, many commentators now openly speak of the failure of Special Envoy Annan's Six-Point Plan. With the brutality coming to life - and diplomatic channels being closed - the question looms with a long and stark shadow, what is the way forward in Syria?

The problem with Syria is that its not just a problem with Syria. I wouldn't try and suggest that Libya or Tunisia present "simple versions" of post-Arab Spring situations. That would begin to trivialize the struggle, the sacrifice, made by the citizens of those nations in their resistance to and success over tyranny. Furthermore, I am confident that a detailed study of either case would prove that the implications of whatever comes next in Tunisia and Libya impacts other nations, particularly in the Maghreb, and perhaps ultimately in Southern Europe. The problem with Syria, however, rests in the fact that any outcome will change the strategic calculus for the entire region.

Its no wonder that Turkey's Erdogan was quick to make a pronouncement and condemn Assad, urging him to move quickly to reform his country and address the will of the people. It is similarly no wonder that Hezbollah chief Nasralllah's unusually tone-deaf and miscalculated appeal for patience from the Syrian people was met with such criticism; the Shia leader doesn't usually get these things wrong, and his public support for Assad fell completely flat. Turkey will have to deal with a refugee problem at best, and an emboldened Kurdish Movement at worst, but more on that below. In the case of Lebanon, recent reports indicate that the turmoil in Syria has already reached across the border. The countries fates are inextricably linked, and it is more than likely that Nasrallah will lose his patron in Damascus. Its hard to tell how that may affect the balance of power in Beirut, but clearly Hezbollah showed its hand when Nasrallah asked the Syrian people to give the dictator Assad more time..

And its not just the Hezbollah that has benefited from the graciousness of Assad. Already, there are reports of Hamas leaders fleeing Syria for Egypt and backing away from Assad, while perhaps strategically positioning themselves with a future Ikhwan government and president in Cairo.

The Arab Spring had previously pressed Jordan into reform, though some feel it has come too slowly and without significant result. Refugees will be a problem for Amman, as well as a renewed push for democratization. The refugee issue will likely spread to Western Iraq as well. However, for Iraq and Turkey, the question of the Kurds presents perhaps the greatest challenge. A good friend who works with representatives in the Kurdish Government in Iraq makes the point that despite expressions of pan-Kurdish unity and national aspiration, the reality is often more splintered and complex. Syrian Kurds often consider themselves simply Syrian Kurds, with little to do with Kurds in Turkey or in Irbil. However, that doesn't mean that a transnational Kurdish moment could not arise, especially given that what we may ultimately be seeing in the region now is the slow dismantling of the colonial legacy, including its stilted dictatorships and national boundaries.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not a Dark Age, maybe just a dim one.

The digerati believe that we don't need to memorize things anymore. Well, maybe some things, but not most things. The reason should be apparent to anyone from my generation, and perhaps just taken for granted by kids. Its because the machine will do it for you. Think Wikipedia. As the apostles of the new age have said, its not vital to know the date of the Battle of Hastings. you can just look that up. What is important, is that the Norman Conquest influenced English culture by bringing in a permanent French influence etc. Just Google it.

Similarly, it has been argued that we should stop teaching algebra in high schools. The rational here is that whatever simple operations algebra helps us with in everyday life - like paying a tip perhaps - can be done on a smartphone. Instead, what we should be teaching kids to do is to program to design and develop the tools (software and hardware) that are going to continue to power innovation, efficiency and productivity.

It seems to me that the implication of this is two fold. First, we are talking about basically abandoning certain assumptions about education, that have hitherto been thought of as "classical education." In the case of algebra, the refrain from students for decades has been "why do I need to learn how to do this. I am never going to use it." And while that was most likely true, there were some good reasons for it. the most important of which is that perhaps as a freshman in highs school, you just don't know any better. You may find after a year that you have a knack for math and science and that you in fact want to become an engineer. The education system was designed in some ways to allow for that self-discovery. Of course, others argue that it also made students suffer for struggling with subjects for which they simply had no affinity (this is a subject I will tackle in a future post).

This is the other aspect of the classical education that we assumed valuable on its face for so long. And that is, simply put, that learning for learning's sake is a fundamental good. You learn about literature, not because the school expect you to become a writer, but they expect you to be able to make sense of all the artifacts of culture you may encounter in the world. I think that this assumption is now threatened and its continued influence may be crumbling.

What I don't know is whether or not its a bad thing. The second implication contained in the idea of essentially uploading vast areas of human experience to the machine is that we may end up living in a world that is not dark, but at least dim. I am delving into the realm of the speculative, but bear with me. The idea I am trying to express is that we will still have civilization, we will still have individuals with highly technical expertise, but we will lose a lot as well. What we consider great and good is simply a product of a particular moment in time. In one hundred years, the idea of a Beethoven or a Picasso or a Frank Lloyd Wright may seem quaint, when the value system, language and discourse of that future is considered.  I use the examples of artists because I think that a society based on instrumentalist, individually adapted education and the economic system that it seeks to support, would likely reduce the artistic bandwidth of the population overall. Artists, writer and composers will still exist, but most likely only through a system of patronage, or more likely will be more akin to designers of  various technical products.

Those who see the change coming, who can read the writing on the wall that signals the end of the classical education system will lament the loss of a certain kind of human ingenuity, and may well look back at the industrial age as a golden age. Civilization will go on, but some human knowledge will be lost. Not lost because we have forgotten, but lost because we had turned our responsibility for it over to the machines.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Left, Right and De-centered

Making sense of the world always presents certain dangers. Last night my partner and I discussed various philosophical frameworks that use the word "post" in their primary formulations. Post-modernism, post-materialism, post-liberalism; each carries with it some notion of both a break from what they proceed from, as well as containing the challenge of preventing. or at least eschewing, totalizing views. We are told, on the surface at least, that we must always remain vigilant regarding essentialist statements, and must constantly maintain that anything we can say about the world is contingent, and never to be assumed as taken for granted.

The style of post-modern analysis, of course, extends beyond the jargon of the ivory tower, and allowed for the emerging multiplicities of various minoritarian narratives and subsequent political and social movements. However, the great challenge has been, and remains, how to integrate these positions into a more comprehensive worldview, or system of worldviews that negotiates the position of the minor with the power of the major. The problem is two fold; on the one hand, there is the problem of an infinite regress of contingent propositions, the "nihilistic" tendency that post-meta narrative has oft been accused of. On the other hand, there is the problem of relevance, where by novel formulations of "oppressed" groups remain fully embedded in hegemonic capitalist discourse.

At this point you well may be accusing me of useless jargon, so let me try and put some of this in terms of "real-world" examples (forgive me that this is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis, but a starting point, this is a blog post after all). A simple example of the regress problem can be seen in large scale in the idea of Balkanization. It is not simply the historical and political process of the breakup of the Balkan states, but the notion of fragmentation. Its a question that will undoubtedly emerge (if its not already) in the ongoing breakup of oppressive regimes in the Arab world. Balkanization gained momentum from the notion of discrete groups emerging as communitarian movements arrayed in opposition to "totalizing" constructions (Yugoslavia). Similarly, one can view Iraq, and other Arab nations, as artificial political constructions based on post war geopolitical considerations rather than natural affinity of the various communities contained therein. To paraphrase Dr. Asad Ghanem of Haifa University, there is no Arab state, it simply is not there. What we find instead is a strategy against imposed discourse - the idea of "Iraq" or "Syria" - and instead a sectarian vision with shifting allegiances that more often than not transcend literal national boundaries.

Of course, in the case of the Middle East, the urge to "make sense" imposes a new meta-narrative on the situation. As I have written here and elsewhere before, one can view the emerging situation in the Middle East as the aligning of forces into two major camps: The Saudi-directed Sunni world, and the Iranian-led Shi'a world. This of course, helps us to make sense of the top-down geopolitical machinations of regional competitors, but it fails to account for further fragmented communities. How many countries should there be in the Middle East? Surely the Kurds deserve their own homeland, but what about the Marsh Arabs, or Alawites? Does the hyper-communitarianism of the post-modern age have any rational basis for limitations on self-determination?

The Western Liberal response generally comes down to projecting onto these fragmentations the idea of totalizing liberal systems. In other words, as long as all of these communities have access to the major democratic institutions - electoral, legal, socialistic - then no one should fear for their liberty. However, even we progressive minded liberals often neglect the implicit ideology present in our own nobly regarded institutions. For the liberal West, the problem isn't the totality of the system, its that occasionally it goes bad, and it requires reform. the Occupy Movement surely isn't a monolithic thing, and I know that some within it have spoken about socialism or anarchism as ways forward. However, in its early inceptions, some elements within Occupy resisted the temptation to declare the movement "anti-capitalist," and held to a more modest proposal of reform of the lobbying system, the electoral system and tax law. Thus emerges the question of relevance; the 99% may not be the 99% because of certain practices within an otherwise egalitarian narrative, but precisely because the system requires  that there be a 99%. In this case the movement has simply identified the structural relationship that defines its existence, but it remains embedded in the political economy and logic of late capitalism, and perhaps this is because the temptation to reassert an alternative meta-narrative (Marxism, anarchism) is resisted in favor of respect and tolerance for liberal institutions that simple require some tinkering.

To the right of this, is the totalitarianism of God's kingdom. I believe that we are living in a moment that is defined by the ascendancy of a sort of global conservative ideology that is rising from the ashes of the current (though perhaps not complete) failure of the left to make sense of the world. The vacuum has been filled by the God Men, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. This class of power excels at making sense of the world, and in a time when many feel that the end of the world is easier to achieve than the healing of the world, God Men have a ready audience. It is thus incumbent on the left to not only represent the needs of ever fragmenting communities, but to envision a world in which common values can unite disparate groups without a top-down reductionist narrative that forces affinities, rather than nurtures affinities that already exist.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Chirping into the Aether

I signed up for Twittter awhile ago, used it briefly, and then sort of abandoned it. I suppose I just didn't "get it." Lately, my motivation to engage with it has returned and I find myself once again chirping away. I am still not sure, however, that I get it. In fact, I am almost certain I don't.

I suppose the first problem is I don't actually have anything to sell. I would love it if I could use Twitter to bring readers to this blog, but I am afraid of the success. Now, you might think it an insane notion. However, my suspicion is that I would end up being forced to feed the Twitter beast just to sustain followers and redirect them to my blog. I want to blog, not be my own social media marketer. If I produce a couple of blog posts per week, I suspect I would have to fill the rest of the time with tweets about my shoes, or the neighbor's dog, or even -god forbid- how great a turkey sandwich that was. Otherwise, the followers would forget about me.

Maybe not. Maybe my writing is so wonderful, people are so eager to read what I have to say that they wait with bated breath for my twice a week tweet and link. Its possible. But it seems more likely that - given the crowded attention span of modern life - I would have to work to elbow into your mind-space at every opportunity.

I am not a celebrity, obviously, and so I am not going to use twitter to sell myself, or to practice the thinly veiled conceit that social media makes fans feel closer to celebrities. I don't know where this comes from. What do you think is going to happen, that your shining wit and charm is going to come through on clever status comments, or tweet replies, and the celeb in question is going to follow you? I am sure somewhere, someone will come out of the virtual woodwork and object with a vociferous "I've done it." At which point they will describe the strategy by which they convinced some celeb to follow them on twitter. And I, of course, will reply with "Perhaps you should spend that energy on a productive hobby, like wood-working or badminton."

I think the problem is not so much that I don't "get" twitter. Its just I don't care. That is to say, I am not interested in the lives of celebrities. My favorite celebrities are people whom I admire precisely because they seem like working people whose jobs happen to be entertainment. I am not interested in "brands" per se. I buy stuff I need, and I try to get a good price. I could care less about the web presence of my q-tip manufacturer. Your product is going to clean my earwax, let's just keep it real.

I am not giving up on it. I may yet figure twitter out, and if nothing else, it is a fascinating sociological artifact. Its value in grassroots political organizing has been made more than evident. There may be something to all this chipping and chirping. Who knows?

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, feel free to retweet!