The Casual Blog

Category: history

Beauty, violence, and delusions: a Macbeth ballet, a Vietnam history, and a Kenya drone strike movie

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It was raining lightly on Saturday morning when I got to Raulston Arboretum, and there were quite a few new irises and roses. I enjoyed the colors, textures, and strange architecture, as accented by the raindrops. I had to work fast, because I’d scheduled a spin class for 9:30. But I had 25 minutes of strolling, peering, sniffing, and clicking, and made it to Flywheel in good time for the spin class with the cheery, peppy, hard-driving Vashti.

I’d felt a little discouraged after my spin class last week, when I was aiming for 300 points and managed only 281. I decided on a slightly different approach this week, involving more conscious pacing and allowing for short recovery periods. My results were better, with a final score of 307, and an average heart rate for the 45 minutes of 154, tying the record.

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That evening we went over to Durham for some food and ballet. We ate at Watts Grocery, where I had a delicious asparagus salad and couscous with beets. At DPAC we saw the new Carolina Ballet production of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s play is a bloody one, dense with painful emotion. This new ballet by Robert Weiss is also violent and anguished, but with interludes of light – friendship, play, and love. It succeeds as storytelling and as dance, with many subtleties and flourishes. Unfortunately, the music was not very interesting and highly repetitious. But I really liked the dancing, the craggy set, and the costumes.
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Speaking of bloody intervals, last week I finished reading a history of U.S. misconduct in Vietnam by Nick Turse, entitled Kill Anything That Moves. It is a difficult and almost unbearable story. The catalog of American atrocities is long – wanton murder of civilians, widespread rape, torture, and mutilation, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed on a wholesale basis by massive bombing and artillery. Hardly any of those who engineered the policies behind this carnage or those who carried it out were held accountable.

This history has been substantially suppressed, ignored, and forgotten. The human capacity for sustaining ignorance and self-delusion is a remarkable thing. In general, we are amazingly adept at suppressing new information that’s inconsistent with our prior beliefs, at justifying bad conduct when it fits with our preferences and self-interest, and at repressing memories that don’t fit into our preferred narratives. For Americans, coming to grips with any story of American action where we aren’t heroes is extremely difficult.
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But doing so is important work. Understanding the conditions that give rise to cruelty can help us prevent it. Therefore, with some hesitation, I recommend Turse’s book, with the caveat that it should be read only by mature readers not currently considering suicide or other violence and that, when reading, they take frequent breaks from these dark chapters to get hugs and kisses from their loved ones. One of my takeaways was that it’s usually or never a good idea to invade distant countries where we are ignorant and contemptuous of the people and culture.
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We saw Eye in the Sky last week at the Raleigh Grande. It was our first visit to the recently upgraded theater, and we liked the soft reclining seats. The movie is about setting up a drone strike by combined British and American military leaders and technicians in Kenyan on Al-Shabab terrorists. The primary tension in the movie is whether they should fire a powerful hellfire missile when it looks like it will kill a sweet little girl.

I thought it was well-played, and it was interesting to see what may well be close to state-of-the-art spying and killing technology. It was nice, in a way, to think that some military leaders might find it hard to decide whether to kill one little girl when they had a chance to execute several terrorists. The big question I left with, though, was never addressed in the movie: why would the U.S. and Britain be devoting themselves to fighting enemies of Kenya?
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In New York — FOSS, museums, Broadway, and the marathon

A window table at Stella 34, with the Empire State Building in the background

A window table at Stella 34, with the Empire State Building in the background

New York City is still the greatest! It’s so energizing. I went up Thursday night to attend the Software Freedom Law Center’s fall conference on Friday, and for the weekend we did some fun city things – museums, Broadway, sports, and food.

The conference at Columbia Law School was in part a celebration of how far free and open source software has come, but also discussed less pleasant things, like copyright trolls and security. I enjoyed seeing a number of business friends from leading tech companies and catching up.

Jocelyn picked out some fun places to eat, including Stella 34, which is on the fifth floor of Macy’s. The Italian food was good, and we had an epic view of the Empire State Building.
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On Saturday morning Sally and I went to the Metropolitan Museum and saw two special exhibits – Kongo: Power and Majesty (art of central Africa), and Ancient Egypt Transformed: the Middle Kingdom. After our recent Africa trip, I’ve been listening to African music, and was eager to learn more about its art.

Slavery and horrendous colonial exploitation is what I think of first when I think of central and western Africa, but the exhibit demonstrates that there was an elaborate and well-developed culture and artistic tradition before Europeans arrived. There was extraordinary craftsmanship in their carvings and weaving, and something powerful in their religious objects. If you can’t get to the Met, you can see all the objects here.
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As for Egypt, the Middle Kingdom ran from 2030-1650 BC and from the 11th through the 13th dynasties. This exhibit also changed the way I thought of this society. It’s strange, of course, to think that pharaohs were viewed as gods, but all religions have their quirks. I’d thought of the sculpture as normally cold and formulaic, if well crafted, but was struck by how tenderly human and individual some of it was. Here again, you can check it all online.
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I’ve generally avoided museum audio guides, on the theory that it’s good to struggle with finding the message of objects than to be spoon fed. But it was well worth using the Met’s audio guide for these exhibits. The commentary was usually intelligent, and it was helpful to hear the pronunciation of the unfamiliar African and Egyptian words.
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Afterwards, I went down to the Museum of Modern Art to see a special exhibit of the sculpture of Picasso. Apparently Picasso did not think of himself as a sculptor, but used sculptural tools for exploring new ideas. These were often witty and lively works, in a variety of styles and media. Picasso is really inspiring in his never-ending curiosity and energy.
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That evening we went to see Hamilton, a big hit on Broadway about the life of Alexander Hamilton told in the hip hop vernacular. Jocelyn had seen it twice off-Broadway, and was hugely excited about seeing it again. Her enthusiasm had motivated me to do a bit of homework beforehand, including reading the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton, listening to the cast recording, and listening to some of the big hip hop hits of the last three decades.

I really liked the show. Hamilton’s life story is richly dramatic, and his achievements were extraordinary. That’s a good start, but to bring them into the present with an urban vernacular is such a great idea! At the same time, to take on some complicated history, with a spirit that is both playful and serious, is remarkable! The creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda is surely brilliant, and seems to understand that history is not something that is fixed, but rather always subject to reexamination and new understandings. Anyhow, it’s both a fun show, and richly thoughtful. How often does that happen?
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On Sunday morning we walked up to Central Park South to see the New York City Marathon. It is, of course, remarkable that people can run 26.2 miles at any speed, much less the pace that the elite athletes do. We were privileged to see the top finishers approaching Columbus Circle, close to the end. They looked focused, but not miserable. I read the next day that the men’s winner, Stanley Biwott of Kenya, ran mile 21 in 4:24, and only a few seconds slower for the next two miles. That is beyond amazing!

Winner Mary Keitany of Kenya, with about a third of a mile to go

Winner Mary Keitany of Kenya, with about a third of a mile to go

Good grad school news, reading Coates and considering our racism, and some butterflies

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Gabe got into grad school! Whew! We’ve all been waiting anxiously to hear from Parsons School of Design, and thank goodness, the news was good. As is his wont, Gabe had considered the issue of grad school carefully, and had worked on his application carefully, and ended up getting the application in rather late. But it worked!

The Parsons program may be done either online or in the classrooms in New York, and Gabe is leaning towards doing the first semester online from here in Raleigh. This would avoid the stress of a last-minute apartment hunt, and would also allow him to work on his promising new relationship. Is this a good idea? The question is not an easy one. For motivated, self-directed learners, on-line can work. These past few months, both he and I have been studying photography and design subjects on-line (e.g. Lynda, Udemy, and free YouTube videos), and learning a lot.
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Considering how important education is, it’s remarkable how little we know about what works and what doesn’t. This week I listened to a couple of podcasts from This American Life on the educational effects of desegregation and resegregation, which were bracing. I wasn’t surprised to learn that desegregation improves the educational outcomes of minorities, but I didn’t know that since the mid-80s, our schools have been increasingly segregated. This is another indicator that we haven’t worked all the way through our problems with racial distinctions.

I’ve been reading Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s currently high on the best seller list, which ordinarily means I’m not in the target market, but this was a big exception. It is a black man’s jeremiad on what slavery really means for our country’s past and present. I’ve found it painful and difficult, but also helpful in understanding our bizarre situation with respect to “race.” I use quotes because evidence is accumulating that race is a social, rather than a biological, construct. Coates argues that it was created to justify oppression, and I believe he’s right.
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The legacy of our long history of slavery is unquestionably still with us. As recently as two weeks ago, there was a rally near here in support of the Confederate battle flag. And every day black people are stopped for “driving while black.” Coates makes us understand that those who are stopped believe that the police might well kill them without justification, and if they do, they might well get away with murder. Recent headlines corroborate his view.

We’ve come a long way in my life time in addressing the massive injustice of slavery and racism, but it’s taken a long time, and we’re not done yet. It saddens and shames me to admit it, but as a child in the 60s, I was taught that Negroes were inferior. Not bad, mind you, but lesser. Everyone I knew, good people and bad, thought that and taught that. I remember at first thinking it strange that little children, who called all white adults Mr. and Mrs., all called our black elementary school janitor by his first name. He was Preston. Preston was a sweet, kindly man, but I’m guessing he would have preferred Mr.
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Getting that early, deep, wrong imprinting straightened out has been a long journey for me. Along the way getting to know some great black people was critical, but so was literature and film. Reading Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright helped. William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner definitely helped. Life on the Run, by Alice Gorman, opened my eyes. Karl Hart’s recent book, High Price, did as well. Hollywood had helped, at times – Amistad, Twelve Years a Slave. Watching the PBS series Eyes on the Prize about the Civil Rights movement helped. And Coates, with his hot burning anger, is helping me, too. I recommend his book.

Some evidence that we’re at least trying to sort this out: the end of Jefferson-Jackson dinners. The Times reported this week that although these dinners have been a traditional fund-raising bonanza, the Democrats are quietly dropping the association to these unrepentant racist, slave-owning presidents. Jefferson has gotten a huge pass from subsequent generations based on his ability to turn a soaring, inspiring phrase (“all men are created equal”), but it looks like he’s finally being held accountable for the things he did to hundreds of humans that were horribly wrong. That’s good.

This is the time of year for butterflies, and I spent some time in the area parks this weekend looking for them. I took the photos here at Raulston Arboretum on Friday after work. Back home, when I got the images onto my laptop, I realized that some of them had been knocked around a bit by life. I considered repairing some of the damage to their wings with the Lightroom healing tool, but decided I liked seeing them as individuals.
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A down home ski trip

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Last weekend I drove up to Massanutten, Virginia for a down home ski trip. Brother Paul is in his twenty-sixth year as a volunteer ski patroller there, and we’ve had many happy times on this unfancy mountain. This trip was especially happy, in that his three kids, my niece and nephews, were all there, with spouses and a spouse-to-be, little ones, and friends.

My nephews Josh and Adam are strong boarders/skiers (turns out both can do both). (Niece Lauren is also a good skier, but is expecting and so sat this one out.) We had a blast shooting down the steep places. It was sunny and cold, and the snow was good.
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We also spent some time helping a couple of beginners in the group. Paul has helped a lot of people learn to ski or improve (including me, come to think of it), and has a really kind, encouraging way of getting across the basic concepts.
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There’s no getting around the fact that being a beginner is hard. There are various specialized physical skills that you’ve got to grasp. Then there’s the fear of falling. And a certain amount of actual falling. It takes some gumption. It was great to see our newbies progressing quickly. When hanging with them on the gentler slopes, I practiced skiing on one ski (trying to work the counterintuitive outside edge) and skiing backwards.
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On the drive back, I listened to podcasts. I’m a recent convert to this technology/medium, which I got started loving after Jocelyn recommended Serial (now the most popular podcast in the history of – podcasts). I listened to several episodes of a BBC production called A History of the World in 100 Objects. Each show discusses an object from the British Museum, and uses it as a jumping off place for probing the society in which it was created. Some are very ancient (a hand ax 1.6 million years old) and some are just ancient (Clovis points 13,000 years old). I got up to 700 B.C., found most of it fascinating.

Is delusional thinking driving us once again to war in the Middle East? And reading Eating Animals.

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I used to think that mass delusions were historically rare and unlikely to recur, but I’m coming to think they’re common and unlikely to ever cease. We seem to have largely gotten over ideas like witches’ spells are dangerous and stars determine our fates, but we’re constantly exposed to and threatened by ideas that are just as loony.

It would be interesting to work out a taxonomy of mass delusions, from those that are usually harmless to those that may cause death. The classification system could also identify the strength of the delusion, from ones, like fear of black cats, that are persistent but not really serious, to those that are sometimes subject to reconsideration, to those whose adherents will kill to establish them as eternal truths.

Yesterday I learned that the President has ordered more troops into Iraq to fight ISIS. This is clearly premised on the view that this crazy outfit is bent on the destruction of our way of life, and will in due course attack us. There is, to be sure, some support for this view in their rhetoric and brutality, but it may be totally wrong. Remember, they haven’t attacked us, and it is entirely possible that their strategy is to provoke us to fight them so as to inspire their supporters. And if they aren’t really a threat to us, the idea that we must wipe them out to survive should be classed among the most pernicious of delusions – ones that seems so reasonable as to be beyond question, and that lead inexorably to violence and mass death.
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Tom Friedman wrote an unusually thoughtful column a week or so back comparing ISIS and North Vietnam. He reminded me that in the 1960s, US leaders, and presumably a majority of the electorate, were convinced that the Communists in North Vietnam were primarily motivated by an anti-capitalist ideology and a willingness to fight along with other Communists for world domination. Thus we pursued a war that led to the deaths of some 58 thousand of our soldiers and more than a million Vietnamese. We now know, or at least are starting to understand, that the Vietnamese were primarily driven by nationalist concerns. They weren’t a domino.

Friedman suggests that the success of ISIS may similarly be attributable less to religious or political ideology than to nationalist concerns and anger at Sunni oppression by Shiites. There clearly are some jihadists with dreams of regional, if not world, domination, but their numbers are probably much smaller than those who back them out of more pragmatic and local concerns. In short, this looks more like a civil war with mainly regional implications, not an existential threat to the western way of life. If this is correct, there is no way the US can wipe out this enemy, and it would be a horrific folly to try.
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While I’m talking about uncomfortable subjects, I’ll mention I just finished reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book is part factual reportage, part memoir, and examines what factory farming means to the animal victims and to human society. I knew something about this subject beforehand, but learned a lot from the book. It’s written in an easy-going, thoughtful, personal voice, but includes some very disturbing subject matter, particularly the accounts of routine corporatized animal torture and abuse.

Here are some sample facts: “Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.” “More than ten billion land animals [are] slaughtered for food every year in America.” “We know, at least, that [not eating animals] will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history.”

Here is a sample aspirational thought: “What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we sat down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and the pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption?”

Recovering, reading about B. Franklin, and addressing climate change

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This week the weather in Raleigh was mild, and it was pleasant to walk to work. The walk takes 15-20 minutes, depending on how I catch the lights and whether I’m trying to get there for an early meeting. When I wasn’t especially pressed, I made a few pictures of people working and playing.
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Now, after two weeks from our return from Dominica, my various wounds (assorted bruises, scrapes, and blisters) are mostly healed up. The most worrisome, my severely sprained right hand, is still swollen and sore, but hurting less, and I’m able to play octaves on the piano, though not loudly. It reminded me of when I first tried to learn to catch a football as a little kid, and jammed up my fingers.
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It is remarkable how the body can overcome and regenerate. In fact, did you ever notice how sometimes a new injury seems to help an old one to heal? My nagging shoulder issues, which I’ve been trying to get over for several months, seem to have gone away, cured or obscured by the addition of new, more pressing discomforts.
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It’s Memorial Day weekend, and we’re still full of memories of our friend Scott, who shuffled off this mortal coil right after leading our Dominica trip. He managed, by being an unusually vibrant and generous person, to hook himself into the fabric our lives, and his departure has ripped that fabric. We’ve been talking about him, his good deeds and his goofiness, and looking back at photos. For therapy and comfort, I’ve been rereading some of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s poetic memorial to his beloved friend Arthur Hallam. Yes, it rhymes, in a style that’s way out of fashion now, but it can still speak to us. It takes grief and loss seriously, and delves deep.
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As I’ve noted before, my favorite founding father is Benjamin Franklin. Last week I finished another biography of him, by H.W. Brands. Franklin was a protean genius with many aspects, and so the biographer will inevitably neglect some of them. Brands is most interested in the political and literary Franklin, and less in the scientist and philosopher. But in describing Franklin’s diplomatic efforts in England prior to the revolution and his diplomacy in France during it, he gave me new perspectives on the war. For those of us who cut our historical teeth on revisionism, it is reassuring that Franklin, who loved England dearly, could conclude that there was no alternative to war.

For all Franklin’s enormous fame during his lifetime, it’s interesting that there are significant gaps in the record, and much we don’t know about his inner life. But what keeps shining through is his insatiable curiosity about the natural world and his constant effort to make the human world better. It’s also inspiring to me, as I get on in years, that a good portion of his greatest achievements, including helping invent and establish American democracy, were in the last quarter of his long life.
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Apropos of making things better, there’s a good short op ed piece on climate change by Tom Friedman in the NY Times, which poses a question I’ve been wondering about: “How do we do something about [global warming] at the scale required, when many remain skeptical or preoccupied with the demands of daily life[?] He also quickly hones in on the central moral and political quandary – the conflict between the welfare of this generation and future generations: “our ethical values point one way, towards intergenerational responsibility, but our political system points another, towards the short-term horizon of the next generation.” (Quoting Thomas Wells, a Dutch philosopher.) Friedman argues for urgent change, including a carbon tax and energy efficiency standards. This seems sensible, at least as a starting place.
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On Sunday I took a walk through Raulston Arboretum, which I try to do once a week, but missed recently. I completely missed the irises — they’d come and gone while I was traveling. But the roses are in full bloom, and there are some remarkable lilies.
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Diving out of Wrightsville — the good, the bad, and the ugly

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We had a dive trip this weekend out of Wrightsville Beach with Aquatic Safaris. We were scheduled to go to two wrecks on Saturday afternoon, the Hyde and Markham, but rough seas prevented that. Plan B was the Liberty Ship, which sits just three miles offshore. Things were bumpy with some current, and I found my heart rate and breathing increasing as I went down the anchor line. There were still a few leftover thoughts of my near death experience of a few weeks back.
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Visibility was quite bad – perhaps 5-10 feet. We followed a line laid out by the mate. There wasn’t much we could see besides the line. It was nice to be diving again, but this was not pleasant diving. The second dive was similar. There were several divers taking a wreck diving course who laid out lines, and we got their lines confused with the mate’s line at one point. We finally figured it out and made it back to the anchor line and the boat.
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Saturday night we stayed in Wilmington with Sally’s sister, Anne, and went to Cichetti, an Italian restaurant. We had a nice meal and a lively conversation. We discussed Shakespeare’s concept of evil, Greek playwrights, and youthful experimenting with psychedelics and pot.

We also talked some about slavery, which I’ve been reading about in a new history of the pre-civil war and civil war period called Ecstatic Nation by Brenda Wineappple. The book brings vivid life to the 1850s when there were slave states and free states, and it was by no means clear which would ultimately prevail. It require real imagination to understand the pro-slavery viewpoint. Wineapple is certainly not pro-slavery, but she gives a sense of the incredible intensity and complexity of the struggle.
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Early Sunday morning the skies were clear and calm, and the seas were calm as well. We left the marina about 7:30 a.m. and made it to the wreck of the John D. Gill in about an hour and half. The Gill was a tanker sunk by a German u-boat in WWII. Visibility was pretty good – perhap 50 feet. We saw several barracuda and thousands of small silvery fish, and we also spotted two large flounder.
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For the last dive, we went to the Hyde, a wreck that still look like a ship, though with lots of things growing on it and lots of fish around it. Visibility was less good – maybe 30-40 feet – but the wreck itself was interesting, and we could see thousands of little fish, along with many barracuda. One sand tiger shark passed close by.
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Congratulations to courageous young revolutionaries of Egypt, and best wishes

Yesterday a group of brave young people in Egypt accomplished something astonishing. They rid their country of a tyrant. They did so mainly through peaceful but strenuous protests. The group is hard to sum up. They didn’t fit into one of the few usual story lines that Western news sources normally recycle, such as radical Muslims or corrupt elites. The protesters lacked a clear leader or ideology.

But one thing they had in abundance was courage. They faced a security apparatus famous for torturing opponents and making them disappear, an awesomely powerful military, and leaders with no apparent humanity or conscience. The faced a very real risk of widespread imprisonment, injury, or death. No one before had ever done exactly what they did. But they overcame their fears and doubts, and changed the world. Their accomplishment bears comparison to those of Gandhi and King — but they did it faster, with less bloodshed, and without a Gandhi or King.

Was technology an enabler of the Egyptian revolution? There were early stories about Twitter and Facebook facilitating organization of the protests. However, the protests continued to grow after the government crippled the internet. It seems too simple (and suspiciously western-centric) to give too much credit to Twitter. Still, it may have played a role. Even this possibility will make dissidents, and entrenched dictatorships, think differently about the internet from now on. It isn’t hard to believe that new internet tools will help humans organize more powerfully.

Exciting revolutionary moments have often been succeeded by periods of monstrous brutality, as in France, Russia, and China. But it doesn’t always work out that way. The revolution generation in the United States somehow managed to fashion a fairer government. Plainly, the young revolutionaries of Egypt believe it can be done. So we shall see. Whatever the outcome, I honor those courageous young Egyptians and wish them well.

Fear, courage, and the costs of misunderstanding 9/11

This week I heard an NPR report on the U.S. Army’s recruiting station in Philadelphia called the Army Experience Center.  It offers video war games and helicopter simulators to prospective recruits, and it sounded entertaining for adolescent males.  The report suggested that it had been a great success in getting kids to sign up.  It would, of course, be unacceptable to say straight out that war is fun and give this as a reason for enlisting,  but the Experience Center has found a workaround to that dilemma.  It sends the message of fun without saying it.

There’s probably no way to persuade every teenager that war is something to avoid if at all possible.  Even with the fullest possible disclosure, it isn’t possible for a non-combatant to fully comprehend the shock and horror of battle, or to appreciate completely the resulting trauma.  Adolescents are in general both inexperienced and eager for adventure.  So an Army Experience Center devoted to the sights, sounds, and smells of exploding and dismembered comrades would probably not dissuade all potential recruits.  But that sort of full disclosure would be more appropriate, and more fair, really, to those being asked to consider sacrificing their lives.

The Army Experience Center not only exploits the desire for adrenalized fun, but also the more noble aspiration to be courageous in a righteous cause.  We all like to think we’d be willing to stand up to a fearsome enemy, and we’re all proud to confront and overcome our fears.  Few of us ever test ourselves in mortal combat, but we cultivate little bits of courage in lower risk activities.  That’s one reason people like scary movies:  it’s a safe way to experience blasts of adrenalin and demonstrate courage. Some sports do the same.

But the longing for excitement and nobility is the mother’s milk of demagogues.  Fear mongering is the time honored way to motivate choices that become policy disasters.  People love to be frightened, and to imagine a heroic solution.  This explains the most politically powerful fear narrative of the past decade, which is now known simply as 9/11.  I originally thought 9/11 just meant a horrible crime by a handful of religious fanatics, and I still think that’s what it should mean.  But the term became shorthand for an existential threat conceived of as a powerful, organized force capable of destroying the American way of life.  Despite the lack of connection to objective reality, this 9/11 idea has transformed American life.  We view ourselves as under siege by radical Islamic bombers.  There are, no question, a few such crazies about.  But our response has been massively disproportionate, at an enormous cost, in money spent and lives lost.

Last week the Washington Post reported on the vast spy bureaucracy that we have created and paid for with our tax dollars.  There are 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies that work on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in some 10,000 locations.  Since 2001, in the D.C. area, 33 complexes for top-secret intelligence work have been built or are under construction, with square footage almost equalling three Pentagons.  There are an estimated 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances — more people than live in Washington.  Every day the National Security Agency intercepts nearly two billion separate e-mails, phone calls, and other communications.

Never mind the lurking civil liberties concerns for the moment, and let’s just talk about money and safety, costs and benefits.  Obviously the cost of all this is huge.  So what do we get in return?  That’s classified, of course.  Based on press reports, though, it appears that we don’t get much for our money.  We hear now and again that an inept fanatic or little band of them has been arrested, but that’s about it.

According to Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times, “The war in Afghanistan will consume more money this year alone than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican -American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish -American War — combined.”   In short, this war is stunningly expensive, and is contributing to enormous budget deficits.  It seems fair to ask whether the money and lives we’ve expended have made our country any safer, or have any prospect of doing so.  It seems reasonable to consider whether our violence is simply driving the recruitment efforts of the fanatics who hate us.  And it also seems worth reconsidering whether the 9/11 threat — that is, a threat of existential proportions that justifies a military response — actually exists.

But the 9/11 fear narrative is still very strong.  In recent weeks public support for war in Afghanistan has dropped, but there’s still a taboo against discussion of the fear mongering at the roots of the war. Confronting it would involve unsettling some cherished beliefs, which would surely result in accusations of lack of patriotism.  Fantasies of courage will not accomplish anything.  Addressing this deep problem will take real courage.

The crucible of a massive earthquake in Haiti

Last week an earthquake hit Haiti with devastating force.  The destruction was so massive.  Airports, ports, roads, bridges, utilities, and communication networks were all shut down or disabled, and rescuers, aid workers, and journalists still cannot even see much of the area affected.  We know that the scale of death is huge, and the scale of suffering is enormous.  Reports yesterday said there had been 40,000 bodies recovered so far, and without food, water, or medical care, people will continue to die.

Disasters are natural crucibles.  They can reveal unexpected kindness and generosity.  At Red Hat, the population that insists on broadcasting company wide emails on their personal concerns is on an average day a minor but continual annoyance.  After the Haiti earthquake, though, there were many of those emails concerning how to contribute to charitable efforts effectively.  Many people everywhere pity the Haitians and wish they could help. For most Americans most of the time, if they think of Haiti at all, it is as a far away place of unfathomable poverty.  Some may be discovering, as I am, an unexpected feeling of solidarity, kinship, and shared sorrow with Haitians.

But disasters also expose character flaws and crazy ideas.  Pat Robertson, a well known religious TV personality, had this take on the Haitian earthquake:  that the Haitian people made a “pact with the devil.”  He was referring to Haitian slaves’ successful revolt at the end of the eighteenth century against their French rulers.  Robertson thus suggested that Haitian slavery was God’s will and that struggle against it was the work of Satin.  He implied that God personally gave the OK last week to kill tens of thousands of Haitians.  And God was justified in undertaking this slaughter based on the sins of ancestors several generations back.

To judge from press reports ridiculing Robertson, a great many people appreciate that such a view is morally demented.  But it does bring up in a starker-than-usual form difficult issue for religious people who are also concerned with ethics.  If  God is all knowing and all powerful, why would He trigger, or even permit, an earthquake to kill tens of thousands of innocent people?  Indeed, what possible justification could He have for the violent death of one innocent child?  Or for any of the other atrocities that we all see in the ordinary course of  life?  This line of questioning was really valuable to me in finding the courage to step off the path of conventional religious thinking.