A Hole in Humanity

bowieDESCRIBING David Bowie as an “artist” would be like calling the Sun a water heater; it would be literally correct, but so woefully inadequate.

When news of his death flashed across the news wires Monday, I felt as though I had been punched in the chest; again, words like “shock,” “dismay,” and “sadness” are accurate, but insufficient. That reaction surprised me. I am not a sentimental person, and before Monday I couldn’t honestly say when the last time I heard anything about David Bowie or otherwise given him any conscious thought might have been.

After I thought about it for a little while, the realization of why I felt the loss so acutely was startling. David Bowie began his career about the time I was born, and because he was who he was, he is necessarily inseparable from the perceptions of art and culture I have been ingrained with for my entire life. He was a constant: From the time I was old enough to perceive and understand it, music, style, storytelling, and the various other parts of the artistic realm have always existed as “music, style, storytelling, and the various other parts of the artistic realm, and David Bowie.”

It didn’t matter if one was a “fan” in the conventional sense or not, because he transcended that with his permanence. To this day I cannot remember my grade-school years in the latter part of the 70’s without a soundtrack consisting of “Suffragette City,” “Young Americans,” and “Golden Years” running through the back of my mind. He was always there, always doing something new and different, and it was always something that influenced a great deal of the rest of the artistic atmosphere and stuck with you, whether you actually realized it or not. And he was good at it: I came of age in the 80’s, an era of both goofy post-disco stylish excess and Cold War spookiness, and while there were a lot of artists who could capture one mood or the other, nobody but David Bowie could completely, seamlessly nail them both (this and this were both released in the same year, 1984).

And he kept it up for half a century. His last album, Blackstar, was released on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death, and is as bold and original as anything Bowie ever created. We just didn’t realize he was saying goodbye.

David Bowie’s passing was like waking up one morning and discovering there are no paved roads anymore, because his entire career was a lesson – this is how you do art. There will never be another like him, and it is hard not to feel that we are diminished, that there is now a hole in our humanity, because of it.

Making sense of those Krazy Koreans

NorthKoreaTHE impression I get from the kilometric volume of analysis and commentary that followed the latest apparent nuclear test by North Korea last Thursday is that the entire world is once again completely flummoxed about how it should react this time to the misbehavior of the bizarre little hermit kingdom.

Up until now, the pattern in these kinds of episodes has always been consistent: North Korea does a provocative thing. The enlightened world led by the US imposes or at least threatens some kind of “sanctions” as punishment for the provocative thing. After a suitable interval, North Korea agrees to stop doing the provocative thing and not do it again in exchange for some small concessions, such as food aid, or having South Korea stop blaring K-pop songs and propaganda across the border with giant loudspeakers, and the situation returns to a more or less normal state. Until North Korea decides to do some other provocative thing, and then the whole cycle repeats itself.

The only difference this time is that China, who is North Korea’s only ally of any consequence, seems extraordinarily annoyed at its wayward client state. In the past, China has worked to moderate the punitive actions taken against North Korea, something it has for the most part been able to accomplish because it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This time, however, China’s rhetoric about the nuclear test was unusually harsh, and following as it does a strange incident a few weeks ago in which North Korea’s all-girl “Moranbong Band” abruptly canceled a performance in China and returned home (reportedly because their Chinese hosts were offended by a video display the band uses which feature footage of North Korean missiles), the sense is China has lost patience with its neighbor.

All that will accomplish is to make the imposition of sanctions a little smoother; unless there is a drastic change in policy on the part of China on the one hand or the US, South Korea, and their UN colleagues on the other, the pattern as it has played out in years past will simply be repeated. One would think that at some point, the unresolved state of affairs would become intolerable. It has persisted, however, for more than 60 years – ever since the Korean War ended in a stalemate – and by all appearances a solution will continue to elude political minds on both sides of the conflict for another generation or more.

In order to try to sort things out, or at least understand what is happening and why, we need to make a few assumptions that may run against the grain of conventional diplomatic thought:

  1. Kim Jong-Un knows precisely what he is doing.

One of the common viewpoints towards North Korea’s leading Kim dynasty, especially in the case of Kim Jong-Il and his son, current leader Kim Jong-Un, is that they are reckless, crazy, or both (North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung was also thought to be a dangerous nut, but not quite to the same degree as his son and grandson). That is almost certainly not the case, which becomes apparent when we consider a couple obvious factors.

First of all, North Korea is essentially a monarchy, one whose existence is justified by the complicated (and actually rather clever) political philosophy of Juche, or in very simple terms “self-reliance,” which was developed by Kim Il-Sung in the years after the foundation of North Korea, formally adopted as national policy in the mid-1950s as the country worked to recover from the devastation of the Korean War, and intensely strengthened as a set of guiding principles in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s-early 1990s. At the core of Juche thought is a rejection of Marxist-Leninist relations of production in favor of the primacy of the people’s will; this permits, or rather requires, the emergence of a “great leader” to organize and guide the people.

Since the Juche philosophy has become an actual political and legal framework, the major objective for the leader is to justify his place. One of the easiest ways to do that is to maintain a constant state of tension with real or perceived external enemies. It is no accident that the Korean War never actually ended, because it was not in Kim Il-Sung’s best interests that it should; so long as he had the lingering threat of America and its South Korean puppet state (and to a lesser extent, those other US puppets, the hated Japanese) that he could ‘lead a defense’ against, his position was that much more secure. Likewise, it is no accident that every move towards an easing of tensions between the two Koreas is shortly followed by some provocation by the North that causes the situation to deteriorate again.

To the Kim way of thinking – and there is some validity to the perspective – there is no greater defense, no greater deterrent to an external threat, than nuclear weapons, the more powerful the better. By maintaining a strong military presence surrounding North Korea, the US and its South Korean and Japanese allies are playing right into Kim’s hands.

The best evidence of who the ‘message’ of the “hydrogen bomb” (it probably wasn’t one, but we’ll get to that in a moment) was really intended for – i.e., the North Korean people, and especially the military and bureaucratic establishment whose cooperation is vital to Kim’s retaining his position – was his comments linking the downfall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi to the thwarting of Iraq’s and Libya’s nuclear ambitions. Kim is not so stupid as to be unaware that his key officers and ministers understand what a dictatorship is and realize they are serving one, and so the message is, “The strong leader who gives up his nuclear goals is weakened, and will eventually be overthrown, but I have successfully pursued that goal, and so what befell Saddam and Gaddafi won’t happen to me. So don’t screw with me.”

  1. North Korea presents virtually no significant military threat to South Korea, the US, or Japan.

A prospect that gives Western policymakers and military planners the heebie-jeebies is that North Korea, if not held in check, will escalate its actions from the long-running low-intensity conflict that it has perpetuated since the end of the Korean War to a major attack – something like an invasion in force across the border into the South, a missile attack against Japan, or a strike with either conventional or nuclear weapons against Hawaii or Alaska, which are plausibly reachable with North Korea’s current missile technology (and a lot of luck, presumably).

Although North Korean aggression has been frequent and sometimes quite serious – incidents like the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968, the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, and the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in 2010 are among the worst – Pyongyang seems to have mastered the art of pushing its enemies to the limits of their patience without going too far. Despite having one of the world’s largest armies, the Kim regime realizes that its comparatively unsophisticated forces would not last long in the face of American firepower; the Korean War was a painful object lesson for Kim Il-Sung, and it is a lesson that his son and grandson clearly took to heart. A massive attack across the border might spring enough of a surprise to wreck Seoul and cause a huge amount of damage, but would result in the utter destruction of North Korean forces – and in any case, North Korea is watched so closely by the nervous South that any attempt to amass the forces necessary to carry out such an attack would set off alarms long before it was prepared to strike. Likewise, a stand-off attack against Japan or the United States would almost certainly provoke a brutal response that the regime might not survive.

The constant aggression carried out by North Korea is simply part of the policy of maintaining a constant state of tension in order to keep the ruling order intact; and in order for the tension to be maintained, some aggressive reaction from the other side is necessary – when it is not forthcoming on its own, North Korea simply provokes it. The aggression also serves as a sort of safety valve. The country cannot maintain such a large military and keep it inactive indefinitely, and so it occasionally allows it to see some action. But only enough to maintain a proper level of alertness and discipline – the myth of “defending the country” would be shattered and the Kim dynasty would come to a quick and unpleasant end if the military was ever put in a position to be defeated and weakened.

  1. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t a hydrogen bomb (and there’s still a possibility that it was).

The assumption that North Korea’s latest nuclear test was not the explosion of a hydrogen bomb seems to be accurate; seismic data indicated an explosion with a yield of 6-9 kilotons (some estimates say 6-15 KT), which is only one or two percent of the power of even a modest thermonuclear weapon (the common US W88 warhead, which is about as small as a legitimate hydrogen bomb can be made, has a yield of about 475 KT). Yet the North Korean announcement of the test and Kim Jong-Un’s later statement made a point of referring to it as “a hydrogen bomb.” So what’s the real story?

There are three possibilities. The first, and the easiest to believe, is that the North Koreans are simply lying, and that the bomb tested was a regular fission weapon, similar to the three previous weapons the country has tested. If that was the case, it would be a bit smaller in terms of yield than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs (which had estimated yields of 15 and 20 KT, respectively), and given what is known or surmised about North Korean technical capabilities, would probably be a fairly large, unwieldy weapon – manageable perhaps as an air-dropped bomb, but almost certainly too large and heavy to mount on a missile.

The second possibility, which is much more alarming, is that it was a boosted fission weapon. In a ‘normal’ atomic bomb, the fissile material (usually plutonium) is in the form of a hollow sphere – the shape keeps it from going critical before it’s supposed to – with a “neutron reflector” (usually a sphere of beryllium, although some other materials can work) suspended in the void at the sphere’s center. High explosives surrounding the plutonium core uniformly compress the sphere, releasing neutrons to begin the chain reaction; some of the neutrons are reflected back by the beryllium pit at the center, increasing the speed of the reaction. However, the reaction can only last while the compressed core is at critical mass; once it explosively flies apart – which takes only milliseconds – the nuclear chain reaction is ended. Thus the fission efficiency of early atomic bombs was rather low, something on the order of 20 percent or less (meaning only 20% of the core material actually underwent fission, the rest being blown away in the resulting explosion).

In a boosted weapon, a small amount of fusion fuel – typically tritium and deuterium, isotopes of hydrogen, in a gaseous form, which could account for North Korea referring to it as a “hydrogen” bomb – is placed in the void at the center of the core, replacing the “reflector.” When the implosion occurs, the early stage of fission in the plutonium core exerts enough pressure on the gaseous fuel to cause a fusion reaction, which releases a large amount of fast neutrons, speeding up the fission process and consuming the fuel much more efficiently. The fusion reaction is so small that it doesn’t really contribute much to the overall power of the bomb, but it can improve the fission efficiency by a great deal, raising it to perhaps 50%, which results in a larger explosion. The benefit of a boosted fission weapon is that a higher explosive yield can be obtained from a smaller amount of fission fuel, which means the bomb can be made smaller – small enough, perhaps, to fit on a rocket or be configured as an artillery shell. It is also not quite the large technological leap from conventional fission bombs that a true H-bomb is, requiring only the additional ability to produce and handle tritium and deuterium.

The third possibility is that it was an actual hydrogen bomb, a true thermonuclear device, which simply failed to explode properly. A hydrogen bomb is actually two bombs in one: A fission bomb (the ‘primary’), the explosion of which compresses a second bomb consisting of a heavy casing (usually of uranium, which can be made to fission, or sometimes an inert material such as lead, which reduces the yield and is a cheaper option for testing) containing the fusion fuel (usually lithium deuteride) and a hollow plutonium rod (the ‘sparkplug’). Radiation pressure from the exploding primary compresses and then heats the fuel of the secondary stage, which begins a fusion reaction that releases an enormous amount of energy.

The basic concept of a hydrogen bomb is not terribly complicated, but actually building one that works requires a degree of engineering capability and precision that most observers doubt North Korea has. Nevertheless, since the basic design is not a mystery (the configuration is called Teller-Ulam after its first inventors, physicists Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam working in the US, but it was eventually independently worked out by scientists in the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China), it is at least remotely possible North Korea attempted to build one, but that it simply “fizzled” – i.e., the atomic primary stage of the bomb, a powerful weapon of several kilotons’ yield in its own right, exploded, but failed to ignite the secondary fusion stage.

The assertion that it was a “hydrogen bomb” seems likely to be intended for the North Korean people and the military establishment, an assurance that efforts are being made to increase the strength of the country’s defenses. Whether it was a hydrogen bomb or not doesn’t really matter to the outside world – the real point is that any remaining mystery about whether or not North Korea has or is capable of producing functioning nuclear weapons is now resolved. Even if the country’s capabilities have only risen to the point of being able to manufacture relatively simple atomic bombs, a 6 to 9 KT explosion could level a medium-sized city (for reference, that explosion would be three or four times the power of the second and larger of the two explosions in this video). Whether or North Korea has tried to advance beyond that level of technology or is simply aspiring to, they have apparently gotten basic atomic weapons pretty much figured out. That presents a challenge to the US and its allies, and even China, a challenge which is much more complicated than that posed by Iraq’s or Libya’s abortive attempts to get a nuclear program off the ground, or even Iran’s much more advanced program: None of those potential ‘nuclear threats’ ever resulted in actual weapons, and as the history of disarmament efforts has demonstrated so far, it is far easier to compel a country to stop trying to build a bomb (those efforts have so far all been successful) than it is to force a country to give it up once it has actually produced it (the only country that has obliged was South Africa).

  1. China doesn’t want a collapse of the Kim regime or a unified Korea that would potentially put US troops on its border.

That first assumption is probably true – keeping in mind, of course, that trying to figure out the subtle contradictions of the Chinese mind is tricky at best – because a disorderly collapse of the Kim regime would result in an as-yet unknown outcome. As far as the worry about “millions of refugees” crossing into China, as many analysts have suggested, that concern might be overblown; one should probably presume it would be a bigger problem for South Korea than it would be for China.

The other assumption, that China would not want a US-allied, unified Korea on its border, is true so long as one presupposes that a unified Korea would look exactly like South Korea, and that China would not be able to exercise any sort of positive influence on it at a level that at least fairly matches US influence. There is no reason that any of that would necessarily be the case. For one thing, the reunification of Korea, which would spell the definitive end of the Korean War, removes the reason for the US being there.

Unlike Japan, where the continuing US military presence is ultimately the result – many generations removed – of an original US occupation, South Korea did not start out under US administration; the US presence there is a result of the war, and, it is important to remember, began under sanction of the UN. Once that sanction ends – and bear in mind, China is a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power – the US cannot unilaterally justify its continued presence; at least not at the level it is now present in South Korea. Any agreement to unify Korea would probably involve Chinese participation anyway – which it rightfully should, since the country borders China – and would almost certainly stipulate a US withdrawal. The political and economic relationship would certainly continue, but that wouldn’t present any more of a problem for the Chinese than the US relationship with any other country in the region.

All of this, however, is a moot point: Unless the US and its allies take the virtually unthinkable step to actually reach into North Korea and remove Kim Jong-Un, the Kim regime – and as a result, the current, unsatisfying status quo – will exist for at least as long as he does.




The short, weird insurrection of Yokel Haram


Y’all Qaeda (Getty Images)

BY now most people, even in this relatively self-distracted part of the world, have heard the news of the standoff taking place in rural Oregon between a self-styled “citizen’s militia” and government authorities.

Over the weekend, the armed group of about two dozen people led by Nevada rancher Ammon Bundy (more on him and his family in a bit) and calling itself the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, ostensibly to protest the prison sentences imposed on a father-and-son pair of local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who had been convicted in Federal court on arson charges three years ago for a fire that burned 139 acres of Federal land.

The group had initially participated in a peaceful street protest in the nearby city of Burns in support of the Hammonds, before taking over the closed-for-the-season refuge headquarters, where the protest became less about the Hammonds in particular and more about what the group (mostly ranchers like Bundy) says is a persistent, heavy-handed effort by the Federal government to force ranchers off their lands. Although the occupation understandably caused a great deal of alarm at first – schools were closed in the area, and Federal law enforcement assets quickly arrived to reinforce the local police – tensions have subsided a bit as the standoff wears on and it becomes clear that the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” are not really much of a threat despite having apparently brought more guns than food with them, and swearing that they will remain at the refuge “for years, if that’s what it takes” until their demands – which are more than a little vague, but at a minimum include a call for an investigation into Federal land management policy and practices – are met.

Vanilla ISIS

Although the group should have tapped into some fairly strong public currents – the present atmosphere of growing right-wing populism throughout the country in general, and in the West specifically, the long-simmering animosity between the people of the western states and the Federal government over land use and property rights – the widespread support they were hoping for has not materialized. Very few if any additional sympathizers have answered the call to travel to Oregon to join the rebellion (despite assurances that there is plenty of parking), and Bundy’s appeal to the local residents was pointedly rebuffed; in a town meeting in which Harney County Sheriff David Ward briefed residents on the situation, an impromptu vote of the townspeople was almost unanimous in favor of asking the “militiamen” to please leave peacefully; while many people in Burns and the surrounding area said they sympathized with the grievances of the Bundy group against the government, they would rather the ranchers go home and find some other way to air their complaints. It also did very little to help the protestors’ cause that the Hammond men, the original catalyst for the standoff, quietly reported to prison as ordered by a Federal judge, and made it a point to inform the public that “the occupation is in no way connected with the Hammond family.”

Much of the distinct lack of seriousness with which the Oregon standoff is being regarded can be attributed to the group’s distinctly bumpkin-esque character. Early on in the drama, some observers decried the apparent double standard with which the media was treating the group; had they been Arab or African-Americans, some commentators observed, they would have been branded terrorists, and not mere “militiamen.” It very quickly became apparent, however, that a more appropriate description might be “idiots”:


This happened. Under the tarp is a rancher from Arizona, a 55-year-old grandfather, armed with a rifle. He told MSNBC (this picture is a screengrab from the interview) that there is a warrant out for his arrest, and so he is hiding to prevent being served with it.

Apart from the group’s comical nature, its inability to gain public sympathy is at least partly due to the reputation of its erstwhile leader, Ammon Bundy. Bundy is the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who in April 2014 led a similar standoff with Federal authorities that came to be known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” That particular situation was the result of a years-long feud between the elder Bundy and the government, stemming from Bundy’s refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on public land. Although Bundy tried to turn his dispute into a populist revolt against an overbearing government, as details emerged he rather quickly began to look less like an oppressed farmer and more like a rich, white landowner being a greedy asshole; the matter, while never resolved – something political analysts say was an error on the government’s part, because it only encouraged more such tomfoolery like the current Oregon situation – was allowed to quietly fade.

Although the sheriff of Harney County, Oregon and the people he serves are anxious to be rid of their unwelcome visitors, every indication now is that the Federal authorities intend to let the current standoff run out of steam in similar fashion. While that may appropriately avoid making martyrs of a bunch of overgrown adolescents, it does little to address a couple of real issues the Oregon standoff actually has raised, something that must be maddeningly frustrating to others who have a serious stake in them.

Government inflexibility and overreach

The first issue is the rather disturbing sloppiness with which the Federal courts have handled the Hammond case. The father-and-son pair were accused of arson, and finally sentenced for it in October last year. The fire which burned 139 acres of Federal land bordering their own property was the result of an accident, they said; while clearing brush on their land, the fire they had set simply got out of control. A witness testified, however, that they had intentionally set the fire to cover up illegal hunting, something the pair steadfastly denies. Whatever the case may be, they were sentenced in Federal court to less than a year in prison (the elder Hammond was sentenced to three months, his son to one year), with the judge in the case deeming the five-year minimum sentence prescribed for arson on Federal property unnecessarily harsh. He was overruled, however, by an appeals court, who ordered the already-released Hammonds back to prison to serve the balance of the five-year required sentence.

Like the Bundy family, the Hammonds had a long history of conflict with the Federal government over land management, and probably have a case to be made that Federal laws – in this instance, mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines, which have come under fire for years in all manner of cases (particularly for drug-related offenses) as being inflexible and counterproductive – are being used to persecute them. Unlike the Bundys, however, the Hammonds have made it a point to pursue legal action, letting the outcomes of procedure reveal their own shortcomings.

The larger issue of Federal land policy, which the Bundy-led buffoonery in Oregon does little to highlight in any productive way, has pitted the West against the Federal government for decades. In the 11 Western states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming), about 47.2% of the land is under Federal control, administered by a collection of agencies – the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Defense Department, and others – who often work at cross-purposes and with little regard to the sensibilities and needs of parties with an interest in the land, whether ranchers, miners, loggers, sportsmen, environmentalists, Native American communities, or state governments.


A map of land owned or controlled by the Federal government in the US (from Wikipedia).

Certainly, it is no easy task to fairly balance all those competing interests for the land in a way that is sustainable, but the widespread agreement among people in the West is that layers of bureaucracy managed from faraway Washington is demonstrably about the worst way to go about trying to accomplish that task.

None of which makes the actions of misguided “patriots” like Ammon Bundy and his retinue of rednecks the least bit sensible or acceptable, because the topic is no longer the serious issue of equitable and sustainable land management, but simply the mere fact that a bunch of armed yahoos occupied a bird sanctuary. That they are being treated as a joke is probably the best reaction Bundy and his companions could have hoped for, because it shows that people with serious concerns are restraining themselves from the fury they must feel at being made to look foolish.

The Elephant in the Masjid

isis guysThe potentially insoluble problem of ‘Islamic extremism’ is that it is, in fact, Islamic.

THOSE who fear that the obnoxious brutality of terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is creating a growing backlash against Muslims in general routinely make the claim that the “extremist ideology” used to justify the violence is a perversion of Islam, a mere fig leaf of reason contrived to cover what is little more than a grotesque, willful sociopathy. We should not view all Muslims with fear and suspicion, so the argument goes, because of the behavior a few outside the mainstream.

In studying the background and the ideological underpinnings of ISIS, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the group – which, it should be pointed out, is just one of about 50 groups of various levels of competence and organization with similar aims – is not simply the gang of gruesome bullies “mainstream” Muslims desperately would like to convince themselves and the rest of the world they are, but as legitimately “Islamic” as any of the dozens of other variations of the faith that coexist more-or-less peacefully with the rest of the world.

In March of this year, the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution published an enlightening analysis of the ideological and political roots of ISIS1; drawing primarily from the group’s own voluminous public discussions of its dogma – whatever else ISIS is, it is not at all ambiguous about what it stands for – the study’s author Cole Bunzel summarized the group’s consistent and rigorously-followed ideology in this way:

“The Islamic State’s texts and speeches emphasize a number of doctrinal concepts. The most prominent of these stipulate: all Muslims must associate exclusively with fellow “true” Muslims and dissociate from anyone not fitting this narrow definition; failure to rule in accordance with God’s law constitutes unbelief; fighting the Islamic State is tantamount to apostasy; all Shi‘a Muslims are apostates deserving of death; and the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are traitors against Islam, among many other things. Importantly, the Islamic State anchors these concepts in traditional Salafi literature, and is more dogmatic about their application than al-Qaeda.”

The Islamic school of thought which ISIS follows is known as Jihadi-Salafism, a rigidly fundamentalist ideology that evolved from Wahhabism, the strict form of Islam practiced and applied, albeit with a few unavoidable modifications, as state law in Saudi Arabia. The ideology is not a perversion of Islam, but an extreme form of orthodoxy that strives to apply Shari’ah as literally as possible and has as its most important aim one of the bedrock ideas of all forms of Islam, the eventual return of the Caliphate, the state to unite all Muslims.

The nature of Islam as a temporal power is part of its origins; to spread his religion, the Prophet Muhammad created an expanding state, originally based on Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia, which after his death in 632 became the Caliphate. The concept of the Caliphate seems to have gone through two phases. The literal phase – the Caliphate as an actual political entity – in a practical sense lasted from 632 until the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258; it lingered on in a nominal fashion in Egypt until 1517, when the last Caliph was carried away to Istanbul after the Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt. The more modern phase, which is implicit in the beliefs and practices that are common to the many variants of Islam, seems to regard the Caliphate as more of an ideal, creating space for Muslims in the rest of the world through gaining acceptance and accommodation.

The uncomfortable upshot of all this is that the rejection of the Islamic State by the majority of Muslims is necessarily equivocal. They can be properly horrified by and condemn its methods, they can refuse to accept its leaders’ claims to doctrinal legitimacy, but they cannot completely reject the basic idea – rejecting this Islamic State is dogmatically justifiable, but rejecting any Islamic State would be literal apostasy.

Because the fundamental nature of the faith too easily allows itself to be twisted into horrors like the “Islamic State,” for Muslims that means being subject to the suspicion of non-Muslims is by default unavoidable, because the only thing that reduces the risk of being subjugated by Islam, as non-Muslims would see it, is personal restraint on the part of individual Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims, to be fair, already practice that, and for the rest of us, we should be reminded to recognize and respond favorably to it. Whether it is fair to the non-Islamic world that we should have to expend that extra mental effort for the sake of someone else’s religion is debatable; since it is rather obvious religion itself – regardless of its flavor – is a concept humanity is not likely to ever be able to evolve beyond, we probably ought to resign ourselves to the permanence of the tension Mankind has contrived, and try to make the best of it.


1 Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World Analysis Paper 19, March 2015. Available from the Brookings Institution website at www.brookings.edu.



Life Inside the Walls

shit(Author’s note: This is an old post that’s been floating around in my ‘drafts’ folder for a couple months, which, for lack of anything better to do this evening, I decided to finally finish up. It was originally written in early May this year.)

SOMETIME this year, if all goes well, the first major projects of an ambitious, multiyear plan to give Intramuros an extensive makeover will get underway, with the long-term objective of turning the old walled city into a proper upscale tourist and commercial district.

From the perspective of broad developmental policy the proposed gentrification of Intramuros – because that is what the plan is, even though the word and its negative connotations are carefully avoided – is for the most part a positive initiative. The district is an important part of the Philippines’ history, and is a valuable tourism resource; it also contains some of the last property open for commercial development in densely-packed Manila.

That progress, however, will come at a price. After being virtually obliterated by American bombs and artillery fire during the Battle of Manila in 1945, Intramuros was rebuilt, but in fits and starts; the result is an urban environment and character that is probably unique – a working mix of heritage and decay.

back to nature

wireThat gives Intramuros a distinctly transient, living-in-the-ruins kind of feel and makes for a fascinating neighborhood culture, one that seems almost certain to be lost if or when the grand designs for Intramuros are ever realized.

The transient nature of Intramuros is reflected in its population. The permanent population divided among Intramuros’ five barangays is only about 5,000; the daytime population of workers at government agencies and private offices, students of the four universities within the walls, seamen from the nearby port, and visitors may be as high as 10 times as many.

The majority, all but perhaps a few hundred of Intramuros’ permanent residents, are the vendors, the pedicab and calesa drivers, the canteen operators, the street sweepers, and parking attendants that hustle a living out of Intramuros’ workers, students, and visitors every day. Most live in ramshackle ‘informal housing’ tucked away in otherwise neglected property lots; perhaps as many as three or four hundred are homeless.

hivebeaterioThey are, by conventional standards, apparently poor. Living in a scratch-built, hive-like tenement or on a street corner on the hand-to-mouth proceeds of proletarian jobs is not an ideal existence, and there is, to be sure, a certain frustration that permeates the environment.

shithay buhayIntramuros, however, seems to be one place where the resourcefulness of the poor pays off especially well. Pedicab drivers can earn well over P1,000 per day, and many street vendors can count on routinely earning significantly more than minimum wage. There are relatively few squatters, and most of those were formerly homeless people who simply made their encampments semi-permanent; most residents are legitimate renters, the haphazard construction of their dwellings notwithstanding. That is not to suggest that life is easy for Intramuros’ underclass, or that everyone benefits, but on the whole it seems that the faint glimmer of hope may be just a tiny bit brighter here than in other parts of the metropolis – a difference, perhaps, between ordinary despair and crushing hopelessness.

loloTherein lies the paradox of urban renewal as it applies to Intramuros. The vision behind the reconstruction of the district leads to something the city never was. Throughout its history, Old Manila was always a gritty, crowded port town and colonial capital; yes, it had its numerous churches, and universities, and semi-monumental government buildings, but as a center of political and commercial life in the Spanish era, it attracted the downtrodden, the petty criminals, and the opportunists of both the honest and dishonest sort. There has always been a healthy proportion of seediness in Intramuros; what the district is today is, in effect, the result of letting 500 years of history in a working town run its course without applying too much in the way of comprehensive planning to it.

we deliverApplying the comprehensive planning now – with the entirely reasonable objectives of maximizing a valuable tourism resource, attracting new businesses and residents, and improving the overall economy and standard of living in the district – means applying a certain degree of artifice: If the grand design is ever realized, Intramuros will be a nice place, but it won’t be an authentic one. From a tourism perspective, at least, it is not a problem unique to Intramuros or the vision of the leaders driving the changes; authenticity is almost always contrived – think of it as the difference between putting on a little make-up and a nice blouse to greet visitors, rather than answering the door wearing eyebags and the t-shirt you slept in.

window on the world

And it’s probably not a problem that can actually be solved, not when “maintaining authenticity” means consigning a certain part of the population to permanent poverty, or low-return labor, or otherwise less-than-dignified living conditions.

When it’s gone, the disappearance of the “real” Intramuros will undoubtedly result in a net positive for most everyone concerned. But there will still be something lost, and even if that is ultimately for the better, it’s still worth remembering.

All photographs © 2015 by the author, who spends the better part of six days a week working in Intramuros, and has never gotten over being fascinated by it.


Liberty in the Real World

jew hebdoThis past Thursday morning, at just about the time people on this side of the planet were learning of the savage attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I was in a Q & A session at The Manila Times College with a group of visiting students from Thammasat University in Thailand. The group of about 30 – mostly third- and fourth-year students and all Thais, naturally, except for a trio of young ladies from Indonesia – were in town primarily to attend a youth conference on ASEAN integration, and the majority of them were students of international relations or political science.

One of the questions asked by the students was about the state of press freedom in the Philippines, which was poignantly appropriate, and not only because of the big international news of the day; just that morning, yet another local journalist – a tabloid writer and radio news anchor in Bataan – was murdered by cycle killers. Press freedom is obviously an issue in this country, not only because of the all-too-frequent attacks against media people, but also because this is one of the few places where libel is a criminal offense. The latter circumstance is one our visiting students could relate to; Thailand, of course, has strict laws against anything perceived to be offensive to the King, and Indonesia’s laws accommodate restrictions against perceived offenses to Muslim sensibilities.

Those kinds of institutional limitations imposed against freedom of expression are actually just imperfect reactions to the sort of social resistance to it represented by the spectacularly visible horror of the Paris attack, and on smaller but perversely more ubiquitous scale by the not-infrequent attacks against individual journalists in the Philippines. The underlying logic is that preventing criticism and ridicule of certain threads of the social fabric eliminates one source of disorder. It makes the assumption that some things are in fact sacred – for example, Thais’ reverence for their monarch, Indonesians’ deference to the perspective of their country’s major religion, and Filipinos’ overweening sense of self-worth.

The opposite point of view, expressed by the narrative that dominates the public discussion in the wake of the Paris tragedy, is that freedom of expression, particularly freedom of the press, should be absolute. The underlying logic in that is the existence of that freedom prevents greater disorder, because those threads of the social fabric are harmful – obeisance to royalty takes away the right to self-determination, Islamic morals are discriminatory and encourage a certain level of violence, and an excessive consciousnesshead selfie of personality encourages impunity.

Neither perspective is quite right, but both have a certain intellectual appeal. The latter is based on a very visceral response; whatever we may believe about the context of the event, we are repulsed by its extreme asymmetry. The assumption that some limitations must exist is based on reason, faulty though it may be in some cases – any event must have a cause, after all.

The absolutist perspective condemns that as victim-blaming, which is exactly what it is because it could not be anything else. No matter how sensitive one may be to the barbarity of the crime, examining the motivation for it always leads to assigning part of the liability to the victim. It may be something as unwitting as being in wrong place at the wrong time – that seems to have been the unfortunate fate of the French hostages at the end of the rampage that began with the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices on Wednesday – but the inescapable reality is that if the victim had done something differently, he would have not been killed.

On the other hand, the flaw in the more idealistic perspective is just that, its idealism. There is the world as it ought to be, and then there is the world as it is: Making judgments about what the limits of others’ sensibilities should be may not be expressed in the same sort of appalling violence as that carried out by Paris’ self-styled defenders of Islam, but the underlying attitude in some ways just as intractably separates people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ because a universal benchmark for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ doesn’t really exist; all humans can rely on for guidance in how to behave towards one another is the difference between “what I believe” and “what the other believes.”

The media as a profession has to wrestle with humanity’s problematic reality every day, because the occupation forces a trade-off; one either takes the risk of provoking some degree of violent reaction, or takes the risk of compromising one’s own ideals and possibly even the objective truth by accepting limitations to freedom of expression. Making the right choice seems almost impossible. Of course the world would be a better place if media practitioners – or anyone else, for that matter – did not have to make that choice, but it is what it is.

My comment to the visiting students the other day was that press freedom in the Philippines and perhaps everywhere does not seem to be matched by a complementary level of press responsibility. “Responsibility” in this case cannot be defined by something as simple (and misguided) as prescriptions like “avoid needless sacrilege” or “don’t be a character assassin,” but rather “don’t be reckless.” Journalism, in whatever form it takes, only works when it tells the story effectively. How it accomplishes that must be left to the judgment of the storyteller – judgment that in turn cannot be effective if it is not made within the context of real-world conditions, with an understanding of the implications of framing a story in a certain way.

Hypothesizing the motivations of storytellers whose story got them killed is a speculative trap; to presume that the murdered artists at Charlie Hebdo did tell the story they had to tell in exactly the way they intended and clearly understood what it might provoke is more respectful of those who can no longer speak for themselves, and is logically more secure. Their work, while vulgar, does have a clear point.

I do not believe that a brutally lethal assault is ever a proportional response to whatever perceived harm a cartoon could cause; satirical doodles do not in any sense deliver the same sort of terrorism as automatic weapons fire. Obviously the world has a long way to go towards taking in that bit of news, and that’s a shame. But it’s the world we’ve got to work with.

It’ll All End in Tears

tiananmen squareWhile much of the world has been looking on in admiration at the events unfolding in Hong Kong, on Friday the China People’s Daily, which is essentially an official publication of China’s ruling Communist Party, offered this stark warning: The protests are “against legal principles, and doomed to fail. There is no room to make concessions on important principles.”

In direct terms, that means the protestors’ immediate demand that Chief Executive Leung CY step down will not happen, nor will Hong Kong be granted the full democracy supposedly “promised” by Beijing when Great Britain handed the colony back to China in 1997. Those things simply will not and cannot even be considered by the Chinese government, and in fact, beyond perhaps making some very minor concessions such as not punishing the “Occupy Central” organizers and participants too harshly in the aftermath, the government cannot afford to allow any outcome that looks like a positive result.

Most news analyses of the “umbrella revolution” have pointed out, correctly, that its chances of success are slim because the Communist government needs to avoid the risk of similar protests erupting in other parts of the country, particularly in already-restive regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. But the assessments have overlooked the biggest factor: Hong Kong’s history, and the Chinese attitude towards it.

Hong Kong Island became a British colony as a result of China’s losing the First Opium War in 1839-1842; in effect, the city was a war prize. During the Second Opium War (1856-1860), British control extended into Kowloon, and in 1861, after the Convention of Peking between China and Britain, France, and Russia – one of the “unequal treaties” signed during the “Century of Humiliation,” when China’s sovereignty was progressively eroded by the Western powers and Japan – Great Britain formally took over all of Kowloon Peninsula. The Second Convention of Peking in 1898, in which Britain signed the 99-year lease for Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories, came about as a result of China’s losing the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895; the British simply took advantage of China’s weakened position to expand their foothold.

The concessions made to retain much of Hong Kong’s “uniqueness” after the handover from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 were pragmatic – necessary at the time to ensure the turnover went smoothly and happened on scheduled – but never really intended to be permanent. In effect, the Chinese perspective towards Hong Kong is the same as it is towards Taiwan: The metropolis is part of China and always has been, and sooner or later, the opportunity to take it back in proper fashion will present itself.

The “Umbrella Revolution” may very well have just provided the PRC that opportunity. And the assumption that China could not or would not put an end to the protest in an aggressive manner really has no basis in reality.

The common belief that China wouldn’t dare handle Hong Kong in the same way it handled Tiananmen Square in 1989 because of the risk that it would suffer the consequences of global opprobrium overlooks a couple critical points. China is much stronger economically and much more integrated into the global economy than it was 25 years ago, and is certainly aware that anything more than rhetorical condemnation on the part of the world’s other developed economies would be self-destructive for them. It’s not a difficult inference for the Chinese to make, because in the years since Tiananmen, the West has provided numerous demonstrations of its willingness to subordinate political ethics to economic objectives; for example, the first Gulf War, the Iraq War and the so-called “War on Terror,” and the handling of the global financial crisis.

Beijing’s ‘Plan A,’ presumably, is to achieve its objectives in Hong Kong without having to resort to violence. But the operative process is “achieving its objectives.” What is worrisome about the “Umbrella Revolution” – spooky, actually, in a way – is the way the protesting mass is similar to the one that was eventually dispersed with extreme prejudice in Tiananmen Square a quarter-century. The crowd in Hong Kong comprises people from many different sectors and of all ages, but it is dominated by youth, and does not have clear leadership, but rather is a collection of loosely-associated groups. People here and in other countries that still have an unreasonably romantic notion of democracy find the “grassroots” character of the Hong Kong protest charming, but it may be its biggest flaw, because it was exactly that kind of situation the PRC was able to exploit 25 years ago to break up the embryonic democracy movement in Beijing, and then impose tough measures to prevent its recurrence.

Go home, kids. It was a good effort and we admire your enthusiasm, but this is not going to end well if you hang around.