Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Of Kids and Drones and Culture Wars

The other day I viewed a French film with Catherine Deneuve that featured an impossible pre-teen boy, and I vaguely remembered having remarked on similar behavior in other recent French films. Having lived in France when kids and teens behaved very differently, I was saddened, once again. 
This morning RT ran a short feature on the upsurge of drones, including soon to be under-the-tree toy drones. Imagine a near future when kids will add a deadly panoply to their propensity to act out. The RT series is part of a broader take that includes battlefield weapons scheduled to soon make their own decisions about killing.

I know I’ll invite criticism for saying this, but I think we need to consider a heretofore taboo idea: could Putin possilby be right to oppose Western culture?

We’re headed for a time when the fight between different parts of the world will increasingly be about ‘morals’ - and that includes attitudes toward war, and violence in general. In the West, morality is almost a dirty word, while for most of humanity, it’s something people still care about. Even if the Western press doesn’t acknowledge it, Putin is far from alone. His determination to steer Russia back to traditional values is applauded by a growing cohort of right-wing Western leaders, but also, and increasingly, by anti-globalization movements that tend to be left-leaning. Most importantly, it puts him squarely on the side of Islamic polities, which account for a quarter of humanity. 

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, represents a sort of middle way between those anxious to create libeal consumer societies and Islamists who want to return to the Middle Ages. It was briefly in power in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak, but Tunisia’s Ennhada Party appears to have been the most adept at straddling this divide. Reading Eric Walberg’s “From Post-modernism to Post secuarlism: Re-Emerging Islamic Civilization”,  I learned that Ghannouchi is not only a politician but the movement’s intellectual leader. According to Walberg, for Ghannouchi, “The Islamic contribution is primarily a form of ethics, a transcendent morality that seems to have no place in today’s democrtic practice.” He criticizes the “total stripping of the state from religion, which turns the state into a mafia, the world economic system into an exercise in plundering, and politics into deception and hyocrisy.” In 2012, Ghannouchi, Ennhada’s leader since 1991, was named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World and was also among Foreign Policy’s top global thinkers. (Apparently he did not take Washington’s bate, because in this year’s parliamentary election, Ennahda was defeated by a liberal rival.)

Reading about Tunisia, I was reminded of Samuel Huntingdon’s famous 1994 essay ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, that has recently been evoked - and dismissed - by political thinkers of right and left, both at home and abroad. It turned out I stiill had among my books a French translation, published by the magazine Commentaire together with rebuttals from various English and French language authors. I myself had dismissed the essay at the time, but now, rereading it, I recognize that although Huntingdon inevitably got some details wrong, its main thrust, that of a clash between liberalism and Islam, aptly describes what has been happening for the last decade. (Huntington sets the beginning of the clash in the nineites, with the Kosovo war.)

In other, not unrelated news, today the Russian currency, the rouble, took a significant tumble following on OPEC’s decision not to slow oil production in order to let its price closer to $100 a barrel. I strongly suspect that the preponderant Gulf producers were doing Washington’ bidding as part of a campaign to weaken Putin when they held firm on their decision. But in yet another demostration of the chessman’s talents, while that vote was taking place, Putin was in Turkey, making a deal with President Erdogan to route Russian oil through that country to Europe, instead of via the South Stream pipeline that was to have transited via Bulgaria: Brussels had leaned on Bulgaria to put the project on hold, and tonight both Bulgaria and Hungary are hoping Putin will reconsider, according to 

The Russia/Turkey deal can be seen as merely an oppor-tunistic commercial alliance, but according to Walberg, Turkey wants to recreate an Ottoman Empire-type Califate, and that dovetails with Putin’s Eurasia project. A lot of ink is being spilled in the West about that project, with most analysts claiming that Putin wants to recreate the Soviet Union. They utterly fail to see an Orthodox Christian nation teaming up with neighboring Muslim nations in anything other than power relations. 

The West’s obssession with the broad arc of bedroom politics prevents it from seeing that tradition and morality are every bit as significant as power, and more significantly that morality is not only about sex. It warns of a mindless tomorrow in which some killing machines become independent of humans, and others become toys.

P.S. Today, (December 3), Steven Hawking predicted in an interview with the BBC that the development of artificial intelligence (of which he is the beneficiary) would lead to the demise of hte human race.....


  1. Being gay I'm not attracted to traditional values, U.S., Russian, or Muslim, but you have a point. The US/Western empire is updating and expanding its historical role as an amoral and immoral killing machine. Today it targets the whole world. That's where the U.S. now asserts a right to kill anybody it wants, for any reason it may choose -- with the temporary exception of U.S. citizens while they are within the U.S., where legal process is still required (pending another White House memo).

    Putin and IS get support (despite their huge negatives) because they can and do say "No!" to the colossus. Almost everyone else is (quite reasonably) afraid to do so.

    PS: Hawking is right about the danger of artificial intelligence. We don't know when the threat will become critical, but I suspect that when it happens, it will be sudden. We have already lost the ability to feed ourselves and otherwise survive, without the computers. Our electric and other infrastructures are not properly secured, and open to cyber and other destruction. These are huge vulnerabilities to attacks from human groups abroad, as well as from self-directing machines.

    I would be more sympathetic to spending for national security, if it would start with the obvious security choice -- stop making war against the whole world and forcing other nations and peoples to fight us whether they want to or not. The U.S. will still need traditional security, build on weapons, cops and soldiers. But imagine how much safer that simple first step would make us! Simply behaving ourselves will greatly limit our potential attackers -- mainly to the fanatics, and the insane.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful commment, John. Hawkins' worry is that artificial intelligence will some day enable machines to reprogram themselves - and them we're done for!

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