Egypt

Paul Krugman sums up beautifully the reasons I’ve refrained from commenting on the recent protests in Egypt:

I don’t know anything, have no expertise, haven’t even ever looked at the economic situation. Hence, no posting. If there comes a point when I have something to say, I will.

I think, from what I can tell, I like the developments there and in Tunisia. But like the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell what their final impact will be. As long as the United States can stay above the fray and above all not even hint at support for the Mubarak Regime, we’ll be doing the right thing.

Whatever Happened, Happened

My new piece at Fortnight, partially inspired by the events of the MV Mavi Mamara Gaza flotilla raid, is all about the facts and just the facts, ma’m. More specifically, it’s about how no one agrees on what should be indisputable, universally accepted truths. Reality itself is now up for debate.

On May 31, 2010, Israeli naval commandos rappelled onto a series of boats in an enemy flotilla that was attempting to run a blockade off of Gaza. Provoked, Jerusalem had no choice but to respond to and interdict the flotilla. Met with hostile resistance as they boarded the boats—rappelling down from helicopters—the Israeli troops responded in kind, and neutralized the terrorist threat.

Or: On May 31, 2010, a band of Jewish thugs murdered several innocent protesters who were on a mission of mercy to the blighted Gaza strip. In an attempt to persuade the world of the injustices and cruelty being perpetrated on the innocent peoples of Palestine, Israel proved that it could not tolerate even peaceful protest, and violated its own principles of free speech by slaughtering those attempting to exercise their rights.

But, how about we phrase it this way: On May 31, 2010, a bunch of people were killed and injured on boats in the Mediterranean. Two parties, clearly at odds with each other, both overreacted and some people died because of it.

Nobody wins.

Sadly, time will heal little, and temporal distance from the Gaza flotilla incident will do even less to clarify what happened and why. Who is correct in their interpretation of history?

***

Today, there is no single agreed-upon history from which to gauge correct accounts of political events. Facts are debatable. Ignorance and willful denial can coexist in a single narrative. Conspiracy theories and epistemic alternate realities (or, to use the recent turn of phrase, a certain “epistemic closure”) run rampant and unchecked. Cultural differences in conceptualizing time even play a part. And this all assumes there is an active desire and search for truth; many news consumers now cope with a world in which shoving their collective past down the “memory hole” is de rigueur.

Read the rest over at Fortnight.

Theories of International Politics and Zombies

A classic example of realist IR theory at work.

In the late summer of 2009, Dan Drezner came out with a delightful piece in Foreign Policy called “How International Relations Theory Would Cope with a Zombie Uprising.” It’s really quite clever, exploring the effects of a zombie apocalypse as seen through the eyes of  a structural realist, a liberal institutionalist, a social constructivist, and so forth.

Apparently, Drezner was so pleased with the idea that he ran with it and turned it into a book: Theories of International Politics and Zombies. And for the launch of the book, he’s doing some sort of speaking tour. I had the pleasure of seeing him talk last night, courtesy of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. There’s no way I could have passed it up – it combines two of my great pleasures in life. International relations theory and the walking dead.

Having an open bar was an excellent call for an event like this. There’s only so much gravitas you can hold while discussing the finer points of the constructivist critique; namely, that zombies “are what we make of them.” No single paradigm can accurately model zombie behavior, of course. Realism assumes that somewhere down the line zombie states will emerge. Liberalism sees the possibility of cooperation with the zombies. Constructivism thinks that the zombies can be socialized. None of these will hold true; the closest real-world comparison for the tactics and effects of massed zombies would include assymmetrical warfare, global transnational terrorism, and the spread of communicable disease.

Drezner was great, peppering his talk with clips from Night of the Living Dead, both the original Dawn of the Dead and the remake, Shaun of the Dead, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Also getting heavy mention was Max Brooks’ World War Z, which I was especially glad to hear as it meant I could ask a question about the Battle of Yonkers being a failure of RMA without having to explain the former. (Answer: not a failure of RMA, but a reflection of the bureaucratic morass at the Pentagon – the intransigence of Standard Operating Procedure.) Here are Drezner’s general conclusions:

  • Thucydides is still relevant in a post-zombie world
  • The zombie canon is too pessimistic (from Patient Zero to the apocalypse always takes about ten minutes)
  • International relations paradigms probably suffer from intellectual rigidity
  • Analytic eclecticism has its advantages to explaining a zombie uprising

And now, some highlights from the Q&A. Drezner’s zombie contingency plan:

If you don’t hear from me for a week, pack up and move to New Zealand.

The zombies’ effect on existing conflicts:

If zombies broke out in Belgium, you know the Flemish would throw the Walloons under the bus.

We would see a large exodus/mass migration from urban centers to far more rural areas:

Richard Florida would be devastated. And eaten.

A protracted counter-zombie campaign would most likely lead to a ‘counter-zombie policy fatigue’. We might, perhaps, come to take the same view of such a strategy as we eventually did of Prohibition. Drezner also suggested his next book, in keeping with Keohane’s After Hegemony, might simply be titled After Aliens.

Anyways, it was a great event, and many thanks to the Chicago Council for putting it on. Especially as a Young Professionals event. I picked up a copy of his book there (and had him sign it. “To Graham: hope you survive!”); expect a review soon.

Hitch

I’ve been remiss in not linking to my most recent Fortnight article (this one dating back to December 15). One of my big influences both politically and intellectually in the last few years has been Christopher Hitchens. Modeled after his Letters to a Young Contrarian, “Letters to Hitch” is my attempt to express the spirit he represents – one that I fear may be emblematic of a dying breed. An excerpt:

Dear Mr. Hitchens,

You must be reading far too much correspondence these days from people from whom you have never heard or of whom you have never thought. I imagine a terminal diagnosis is somewhat like being a lottery winner in that respect–a reverse lottery. Pardon the dark humor. I hope I’m not breaching the new etiquette of cancer you’re composing on a daily basis; it is lines like: “In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist” that give me confidence in your undiminished wit.

To that end, I won’t even bother asking how you are (your answer, I assume, would continue to be “I seem to have cancer today”).

Forgive my fawning; I have spared nuance to save time. Allow me this moment to express my admiration for the evolution of your writing and political thought. This is not just because your path tracks with my own, but because your work represents a devoted iconoclasm I fear my generation will not reproduce.

You can read the rest here.

The Fires: A Review

Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities. That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx.

Starting with the machine politics of Tammany Hall and the various city departments’ resistance to reform, Flood traces the ascent of Fire Chief John O’Hagan, a unbelievably intelligent, young reformer in the FDNY with ideas of quantitative analysis in his head. Flood explores the origins of systems analysis and operations research in World War II, and then follows the rise of the RAND Corporation through the early days of the Cold War, and the inexorable meetings between RAND, O’Hagan, and Mayor John Lindsay that led to a radical new firefighting regime citywide.

Sophisticated computer modeling directed the closure of many fire stations throughout the South Bronx, which (unbeknown to me) had been an upscale, classy developed area mostly inhabited by Italians and Jews escaping the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side. As fire after fire engulfed the Bronx, and the fire department proved woefully inadequate at fighting them, a massive phase of white flight began to accelerate. Coupled with Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and  Lindsay’s repeal of a city law requiring municipal employees to reside within city limits, the number of whites in the outer boroughs dropped dramatically as they fled to suburban Westchester County and across the river to New Jersey.

Of course, there’s far more than even that to the story. Flood does an absolutely masterful job of weaving together all these disparate threads into a cohesive narrative. There’s Moses and his misguided plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LoMEX), an eight-lane behemoth of an elevated highway that would have utterly destroyed Greenwich Village and much of the surrounding area. The Ford Motor Company and Robert McNamara make an appearance as early benefactors of RAND’s pioneering quantitative research. Flood also gives the rezoning of Manhattan that banished most industry and manufacturing a brief, if absolutely intriguing treatment. He excoriates the weak building codes that existed for much of the twentieth century, and the loophole of the World Trade Center’s construction by the Port Authority that allowed it to skirt New York City building codes.

It’s hard to do The Fires justice. It is so far-reaching – but never over-reaching – that to describe all the different components of its narrative would be impossible without actually writing the book again. But in that sense, hopefully this represents a new trend in historical writing, a truly interdisciplinary effort that never seems to bog down. From sociology to politics to urban planning to history to engineering, Joe Flood just bounces around without getting distracted, but while conveying the sheer complexity of a series of events like this. There’s no single explanation; there are six or seven. It’s an impressive feat.

While this book certainly is a “commercial” history (i.e. no footnotes), it has a wealth of information in the back anyways, using the page-number/quote-fragment system (on another note, does anyone know the actual term for this citation method). Much of Flood’s sourcing consists of personal interviews, giving him a truly first-hand perspective of the events he’s covering. The obscure documents he unearths in some instances also speak to his devotion to the subject. And I know that some of the random tangents he meanders down have given me ideas for a book of my own.

If it’s any kind of testament to the quality of The Fires, not only did I buy it for myself, but I got my father a copy for Christmas. I would buy pretty much everyone a copy of this if they don’t already have it. The Fires is unequivocally recommended by me to anybody who can read.

Buy The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities at Amazon.com.

Human Sacrifice, Cats and Dogs Living Together

Mass hysteria!

“Truedog” has found the one word necessary to describe modern America: ‘hysterical‘. Everything’s blown out of proportion; no one has an ounce of common sense; we’ve all lost our collective shit. He also offers a most intriguing explanation:

Here’s my theory:  I think everyone in America shares an unconscious, often hidden, and largely unarticulated conclusion that we fucked up, the glory days are over, the country is in deep shit, and there’s no way out.  We know in our bones that we’re falling apart and the rest of the world is moving ahead.  Forget about being #1, we’ll be lucky to level off at #17.  I think that panic is shared across the political board.  Although ideology plays a strong role in who is blamed, the hysteria comes from a common root.  This isn’t just about now or the unemployment rate.  It’s deeper and more primal.  It taps into our inner terror of losing our grip and never getting it back.  Hysteria is just the vibration in our national fuselage as the American empire noses over and loses altitude. People sense they have lost something and are frantic over it.

So let’s just chill the fuck out until we regain our senses, or at least come to grips with our emerging place in the world. In the meantime, we would do well to acknowledge that we’re overreacting, and to at least back up our paranoia with meaningful actions instead of half-assing it. Bruce Schneier suggests that we close the Washington Monument instead of installing airport-like security. “We can reopen the monument when every foiled or failed terrorist plot causes us to praise our security, instead of redoubling it.”

Deep breaths.

Two Steps Back

Do you get the feeling that we’re slowing down? I mean that in the entropic sense, that humanity may have gone as far as it can and is now contracting. Look at how far we’ve come since the year 1910 – two world wars and all the carnage and technological progress they produced, rocketry and space exploration (we put a man on the moon), the rise of computing, Moore’s Law, all the conveniences of modern life. And yet, where are the big breakthroughs?

John Horgan recently wrote in Scientific American about “scientific regress,” fields of science that are not just slowing down as a result of diminishing returns, but that are actually retreating from their own discoveries. Infectious disease is back, including some that were on the brink of eradication. The Concorde, fastest commercial jet in history, was entirely scrapped, and there are no plans to replace it. Even science itself has come under fire – evolution has shifted from common knowledge to a disputable “theory.”

Research and technologies without ‘practical’ application never get off the ground. Hence the hole in the ground that could have been America’s own Large Hadron Collider. Who knows what CERN’s will discover? Alexander Fleming was just studying some bacteria. He ‘invented’ penicillin. Or consider the Vela satellites used to detect nuclear explosions on Earth, which ended up discovering the existence of Gamma-ray bursts. Even the most mundane of new technologies can have serendipitous results, and that’s why continued innovation and discovery is so important. But we’ve stopped.

Even in terms of military procurement – and let’s not forget that ARPA and DARPA brought us the internet and the global positioning system – we’re taking steps backwards in the name of fiscal sanity. Not that balanced budgets are an ignoble pursuit, but we’re voluntarily ending production of the most advanced fighter in the world (the F-22) in favor of its slightly less capable cousin (the F-35). Production of the F-35 itself will be notably slashed. With Britain retiring the Harrier and the F-35B variant in jeopardy, the novel technology of VTOL aircraft may itself not be long for this world.

Meanwhile, the Russian-designed contemporary of the F-35, the Sukhoi Su-35, is making waves, with China about to become a major purchaser of the technology. It takes ages for a new system to come online – the Airbus A400M military transport just now making maiden flights has been in the works since 1982! And even the new weapons systems intended to create capabilities where there are none – the Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle comes to mind – are being canceled.

We don’ produce anything any more. The picture of our economy, especially vis-a-vis China, is that of a junkyard. We have a resource economy now, where we ship raw materials out for “more skilled” hands to mold into a finished product. These products are things that just fuel our consumerism, a consumerism wherein we look forward to things breaking just so we can feel the rush of buying something new.

We put so little energy into real long-term thought. Everything we do as a society is all about the quick buck, the near-term gain, what we can see and hold and spend now. Politics continue to be an internal, mind-numbing struggle with no winners and no vision beyond the next election. And of course today’s politicians won’t be living with the consequences of their decisions (there’s still time to atone, though). As the Great Society gets rolled back, the New Deal is next. And what then, the gains of the Progressive Era?

It’s not like I don’t understand why – when you don’t even have a paycheck to look forward to in the next week, every day becomes its own micro-scale struggle just to get to the next one. But it’s not impossible to take care of today’s problems and plan for the future. I’ve previously called for stronger leadership, or a real public works plan, or maybe some British-style openness and transparency (and when the Brits are leading the way in those fields, you just know something’s gone horribly wrong somewhere). These things are not impossible. And they’re not too expensive. I don’t care how bad the deficit looks; no one cares (no, really, outside of a vocal few, it’s not the most pressing concern). It’s certainly a problem, but we have the chance to solve other problems while still looking to the future.

Things are expensive. But in the long long term, doing nothing and stagnating will be even more costly. We need to keep building, inventing, dreaming, knocking over test tubes accidentally, leaving petri dishes next to each other, and to stop arguing over today. Tomorrow is more important.

Think big. Think bold. But most importantly, think ahead.

Underground Testing

Recently, France and Britain concluded a defense agreement which, among other things, provides for increased joint nuclear research between the two. In the spirit of that nuclear cooperation – and also in the spirit of getting things done while Congress has their heads up their asses – I have decided to reprint my essay “Underground Testing: Anglo-American Nuclear Cooperation, 1946-58.”

The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, August 6, 1945.

In 1946, atomic collaboration between Great Britain and the United States screeched to a halt. The fruitful partnership between the ‘Tube Alloys’ team in the United Kingdom and the scientists of the Manhattan Project had grown increasingly one-sided, with the United States’ research contributions far outstripping those of the British by the end of World War II. Two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, demonstrating the arrival of nuclear hegemony. The British were merely informed of the decision, to which they acquiesced with “little or no debate.”[1] As the technology gap across the Atlantic Ocean continued to widen in the immediate postwar period, Britain was increasingly thrust into a lesser, subordinate role.

With the passage of Senator Brien McMahon’s Atomic Energy Act in 1946, Anglo-American collaboration in the field of nuclear power and weaponry appeared to be at a congressionally-mandated end. Much of Thatcher-era historiography views that collaboration as entirely dormant until the McMahon Act’s repeal in 1958, and that in the meantime Britain forged on as the jilted partner in the ‘special relationship’.[2] While true on an official level, this ignores the underlying reality of close continuing cooperation on atomic weaponry between 1946 and 1958. Nuclear cooperation did not hit a wall in 1946; it merely endured ‘underground’ for twelve years.

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