Charlottesville and Americans’ Increasingly Polarized Response to Terrorism, Political Violence

On the night of August 11th, white nationalists held a torch-lit pride parade through the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. They were met with counter-protests, and the demonstrations descended into a melee.

The next morning, these same organizers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Emancipation Park, centered on a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that had been scheduled for removal. Once again, battle lines were drawn, and a fight ensued. This time, the white nationalists were driven back by the counter-demonstrators and then dispersed by police.

While most of the others in the nationalist camp were retreating, one young man aligned with the movement rammed his car into the crowd of counter-demonstrators who were celebrating their victory—killing one and injuring dozens of others. Two state police officers assigned to help contain the unrest also perished en route when their helicopter crashed.

The method of violence deployed against the counter-protestors in Charlottesville seemed to draw inspiration from a string of ISIS-aligned attacks involving motor vehicles. In fact, ISIS claimed responsibility for an incident that occurred days later, when terrorists piloted a van into a pedestrian zone in Barcelona, Spain—killing 13 people and wounding more than 100. It is a common tactic of ISIS to try and “one-up” atrocities committed by others while frenzy about the initial attack is at its height, in order to divert the massive public attention and outrage towards their own cause instead.

In this instance, ISIS was unsuccessful because President Trump’s subsequent remarks–which seemed to praise many of the ethnic nationalist demonstrators as “very fine people,” and to place ethnic nationalists and those protesting against them on equivocal moral standing—generated immense blowback from across the political spectrum and seemed to suck the oxygen away from all other stories.

However, for social scientists symmetrical incidents such as those in Charlottesville and Barcelona can often serve as the basis for “natural experiments”—for instance, to explore whether public reaction to terrorist acts seems to vary in systematic ways when one key variable is changed, such as the ideology or cause of the perpetrator.

My extensive research on this question shows that progressives and conservatives tend to respond to terror attacks in sharply divergent ways—with the biggest contrast occurring when the attacker is either a Muslim or an ethnic nationalist. Continue reading “Charlottesville and Americans’ Increasingly Polarized Response to Terrorism, Political Violence”

Gender Differences, Silicon Valley and that Controversial Google Memo

Google software engineer James Damore set off a firestorm with the publication of a company memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” The essay criticized Google’s policies for promoting a more diverse and inclusive workplace, alleging that they instead fostered a company culture of fear and conformity which runs contrary to the company’s stated ethos–and likely its economic interests as well.

Upon being leaked to the press, the blowback against his memo was swift and fierce. A widely-circulated response from former Google employee Yonatan Zunger is emblematic of the prevailing consensus, reading in part:

“(1) Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.  (2) Perhaps more interestingly, the author does not appear to understand engineering.  (3) And most seriously, the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.​ I’m not going to spend any length of time on (1); if anyone wishes to provide details as to how nearly every statement about gender in that entire document is actively incorrect, and flies directly in the face of all research done in the field for decades, they should go for it. But I am neither a biologist, a psychologist, nor a sociologist, so I’ll leave that to someone else.”

Well, I am a sociologist—and one who happens to specialize in social psychology and cognition. And I’d be happy to take up Mr. Zunger’s challenge and discuss the scientific evidence related to cognitive differences between men and women. But first, it is important to highlight a troubling aspect of his rejoinder, which was echoed in many other articles criticizing Mr. Damore and his claims

Scientific fundamentalism

Progressives often see themselves as the champions of science—and hold that scientific inquiry, rather than religious or other commitments, provides the most reliable source for knowledge and sound policy. Importantly, however, this does not imply that progressives are actually more knowledgeable about, or deferent to, scientific research in practice. Consider Mr. Zunger’s rejoinder: Despite acknowledging that he was not a specialist in psychology, biology or sociology, and was not himself fluent in the scientific literature on gender differences, etc.–the author was supremely confident that “all research done in the field for decades” would affirm his moral understanding of the world.

This mindset is not far removed from that of certain religious fundamentalists who lack a strong grounding in the scriptures—let alone the linguistic, historical and cultural backgrounds of their sacred texts and the broader religious tradition they hail from—yet nonetheless feel deeply certain that their moral vision of the world, as well as their lifestyle and actions, would be approved of by God, their ultimate arbiter of truth. They have faith.

And much like their brethren within religious communities, were these “scientific fundamentalists” to more rigorously engage with the relevant authoritative texts surrounding their pet causes, many of their most dearly-held commitments would be challenged, some would be disconfirmed and others would simply fail to find validation. For instance:

Differences in cognitive styles

Google’s diversity efforts implicitly concede that there tend to be important cognitive differences between men and women. If women didn’t generally solve problems, execute tasks or manage organizations any differently from men, there wouldn’t be much benefit to diversifying: it is primarily cognitive and ideological diversity which render other forms of diversity valuable to a company like Google.

Perhaps the most authoritative and accessible survey exploring how cognition tends to vary between men and women is from Diane Halpern, the former president of the American Psychological Association, entitled Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities—now in its 4th edition. This work, and most other research in the field, suggests that, men and women on average seem to have different cognitive styles. These cognitive styles are the product of a rich interplay between one’s inherent capabilities and dispositions, one’s particular life experiences, and how particular capabilities are valued and utilized in a given social context—all of which influence if and how particular capacities are developed.

One cognitive style is not intrinsically “better” or “worse” than others in any blanket sense. However, it may be the case that in any particular environment, or for some particular task, one cognitive style may on average outperform another. This is what researchers are referring to when they describe average differences in “abilities” between men and women–although in many cases performance disparities can be mitigated by simply tweaking the format of the task at hand.

In the case of jobs like engineering, the differences in average ability between men and women are more-or-less negligible. Mr. Damore could be faulted for overemphasizing these differences while underemphasizing differences in average preferences and dispositions across genders. These tend to be far more substantial, begin very early in life, and cut across cultures. In fact, perhaps contrary to many Western-liberal assumptions, it turns out that the freer and more equitable a society is, the more pronounced these differences become. That is, in societies where people have more options, they often carve out employment spaces where they work disproportionately with others who share their gender identity.

Of course, to recognize the role female agency likely plays in their over or under representation in particular fields does not require denying the prevalence or severity of sexual discrimination, harassment or exploitation in Silicon Valley, which render many tech firms hostile work environments for women, likely discouraging many who would otherwise apply. Similarly, we can acknowledge apparent psychological and cognitive trends among men vs. women while remaining sensitive to the reality that stereotyping is often pernicious, particularly for those whose interests and abilities deviate from the group average. In some cases stereotypes can even help reify or maintain performance disparities between men and women in professional settings.

However, by recognizing that underrepresentation is not exclusively, or perhaps even primarily, a function of unjust discrimination–but that these trends are also the product of differences in preferences and dispositions–then it becomes clear that a more ambitious set of policy interventions would likely be required to approach a goal of gender parity in Silicon Valley.

Achieving a diverse, inclusive workforce

For many, the most controversial aspect of Mr. Damore’s memo seemed to be his criticism of Google’s efforts at increasing gender diversity. While the author took great pains to assure readers that he staunchly supported diversity efforts in principle, he argued that his company’s particular approach was unlikely to be successful:

Given the radical disparities in the current applicant pool, attempting to have the makeup of Google’s workforce mirror gender distributions of the broader U.S. society would likely require the company to pass over otherwise more qualified men in favor of female candidates with more eclectic backgrounds and less direct experience or expertise. Mr. Damore suggests that this approach would be unjustly discriminatory, and would likely be suboptimal for the company’s productivity and profits over the long term.

He goes on to argue that if tech companies really view it as a priority to become more appealing and hospitable for women, the literature suggests they should be making far more dramatic reforms of their structure, policies and culture: increasing direct collaboration, emphasizing cooperation over competition, adjusting rules, regulations and expectations to allow for easier work/life balance, etc. However, while some of these changes would make organizations more attractive to women, they would often bring their own costs and tradeoffs for a company like Google. This may explain why some more commonsense reforms have not been implemented already. In any case, he asserts, the kind of marginal tinkering companies like Google have committed to so far are unlikely to meaningfully address the problem.

In fact, feminists have long articulated many of these same points: to the extent activism is centered on narrow questions of wage parity or proportional representation, the prevailing system of exploitation is not undermined, but instead, reinforced. They’ve argued that if women truly want to flourish in male dominated industries, they must demand much more than preference in hiring or promotion, or other marginal concessions of the sort—indeed, a fundamental rethink of the current capitalist system may instead be in order.

That is, while one can certainly dispute the merits of Mr. Damore’s particular suggestions for addressing gender inequality–or object to his uncharitable portrayal of tech companies’ efforts in this regard—there are elements of his argument that are worthy of being seriously reflected upon.

What did we learn from all this?

Mr. Damore’s manifesto does not fly “directly in the face of all research done in the field for decades” as his detractors have accused. While some claims were overstated, some nuances overlooked, some inferences ill-founded—and the whole thing delivered in a strikingly tone-deaf fashion–on balance, his claims were more-or-less in keeping with the preponderance of evidence on these questions to date: men and women do tend to have different cognitive styles—and this likely plays a significant role in driving gender imbalances in certain fields of employment.

Undoubtedly, this verdict will be jarring to many readers: Journalists overwhelmingly lean left, as do “hard scientists” and social scientists. None of these parties are particularly interested in trumpeting findings, however well-established, which would undermine their moral commitments or provide fodder for their ideological rivals. As a result, research which defies progressives’ preferred narratives tends to be treated as taboo in mainstream culture—as Mr. Damore found out the hard way. He was ultimately fired for his blasphemous line of questioning.

To be sure, from a public relations standpoint it was likely necessary for Google to fire Damore. But the reality is that after this particular story fades from the public view, the workforce disparities between men and women in Silicon Valley will remain roughly unchanged. What will clearly change is that from now on, all across the valley, indeed all across the country, employees will be far less likely to question, challenge, or even discuss diversity policies–even when those policies fail to produce the desired results.

Notwithstanding Mr. Damore’s ill-fated memo, if companies like Google truly want to become more attractive and hospitable to women, they would be well-served by more soberly and comprehensively accounting for the causes of gender imbalances in their industry–and by formulating more grounded and substantial approaches for reversing these trends.

And for the rest of us—especially pundits and those who claim to FL science—it would be good to consult actual scientific literature relevant to discussions before making grand pronouncements about what “science says” on a matter. Science being science, it will often fail to confirm our priors—even for progressives—but that’s supposed to be its charm, right?

 

Published 8/25/2017 on the Huffington Post.
Syndicated 8/31/2017 by Observer.

Social Research Will Benefit from Greater Ideological Diversity

Beginning in the late 18th century, post-secondary education was restructured across Europe—in part under the auspices of accelerating the transition to an envisioned rational and secular age.[1] In order to enroll the broadest swath of the public in this enterprise, institutions and curricula were rendered more accessible, inclusive, and professionally-oriented. At the time, Nietzsche condemned[2] the “ubiquitous encouragement of everyone’s so-called ‘individual personality’” and the growing trend to curb “serious and unrelenting critical habits and opinions” at universities—discerning as astutely in his own time as Jonathan Haidt today that the use of educational institutions for promoting a particular social vision is fundamentally incompatible with the pursuit of the truth wherever it leads.[3]

Yet across Western societies, and especially in elite circles, the 18th Century faith persists that a proliferation of education, science, and technology will help usher in a more rational and secular age[4]—one governed by expertise, and defined by worldwide peace and prosperity.[5]  Among adherents of this vision, universities are held in particularly high regard, as incubators of that better tomorrow—where our best and brightest hone the character, skills and knowledge to solve the world’s ills in an environment that promotes reasoned and civil debate, the free exchange of ideas, and an unflinching commitment to truth. However, contemporary research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences suggests a much bleaker picture:[6]

For instance, rather than serving as an objective base upon which agreements can be built, evoking scientific studies or statistics in the context of socio-political arguments tends to further polarize interlocutors.[7] Both conservatives and progressives politicize science and evaluate its findings on an ideological basis: exaggerating conclusions when convenient while findings ways to ignore, discredit, defund or suppress research which seems to threaten one’s identity or perceived interests.[8] Rather than contributing to open-mindedness or intellectual humility, greater cognitive sophistication or knowledge often renders people less flexible in their beliefs by enhancing their abilities to critique and dismiss challenges, or advance counter-arguments, regardless of “the facts”—thereby exacerbating people’s natural inclinations towards motivated reasoning.[9]

That is, if one wanted to create an environment which actually promoted closed-mindedness, dogmatism and polarization, contemporary research suggests the following prescription: consolidate societies’ most intelligent, knowledgeable and charismatic people, at a time in their lives when their identities are just taking shape (which increases the perceived urgency of protecting and validating said identities[10]), and place them in a competitive environment focused largely (and increasingly) on the sciences. [11] In a word: universities.[12]

Perhaps then, it should not be surprising that the long leftward trajectory of U.S. institutions of higher learning seems to have culminated with conservative faculty, students and perspectives almost completely absent from many fields,[13] while dissent from progressive ideology is met with increasing sanctions and scandal[14]—from which even historical figures are not immune.[15]

However one may feel about these developments from a moral or political point of view, they are harmful for the practice and profession of science–especially for the social and behavioral sciences.

Continue reading “Social Research Will Benefit from Greater Ideological Diversity”

The Big Debate About Microaggressions

The concept of microaggressions gained prominence with the publication of Sue et al.’s 2007, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” which defined microaggressions as communicative, somatic, environmental or relational cues that demean and/or disempower members of minority groups in virtue of their minority status. Microaggressions, they asserted, are typically subtle and ambiguous. Often, they are inadvertent or altogether unconscious. For these reasons, they are also far more pervasive than other, more overt, forms of bigotry (which are less-tolerated in contemporary America).

The authors propose a tripartite taxonomy of microaggressions:

  • Microassaults involve explicit and intentional racial derogation;
  • Microinsults involve rudeness or insensitivity towards another’s heritage or identity;
  • Microinvalidations occur when the thoughts and feelings of a minority group member seem to be excluded, negated or nullified as a result of their minority status.

The authors then present anecdotal evidence suggesting that repeated exposure to microaggressions is detrimental to the well-being of minorities. Moreover, they assert, a lack of awareness about the prevalence and impact of microaggressions among mental health professionals could undermine the practice of clinical psychology—reducing the quality and accessibility of care for those who may need it most.

Towards the conclusion, however, the authors acknowledge the “nascent” state of research on microaggressions and call for further investigation. They emphasize that future studies should focus first and foremost on empirically substantiating the harm caused by microaggressions, and documenting how people cope (or fail to cope) with experiencing them. They suggest further research should also probe whether or not there is systematic variation as to who incurs microaggressions, which type or types of microaggressions particular populations tend to endure, how harmful microaggressions are to different groups, and in which contexts microaggressions tend to be more (or less) prevalent or harmful. Finally, the authors recommend expanding microaggression research to include incidents against gender and sexual minorities, and those with disabilities.

 

The State of Microaggression Research Today

In the decade following Sue et al.’s landmark paper, there have been extensive discussions about microaggressions—among practitioners, in the academic literature, and increasingly, in popular media outlets and public forums. But unfortunately, very little empirical research has been conducted to actually substantiate the ubiquity of microaggressions, to catalog the harm they cause, or to refine the authors’ initial taxonomy.

In “Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence,” published in the latest issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, HxA member Scott Lilienfeld highlights five core premises undergirding the microaggression research program (MRP):

  1. Microaggressions are operationalized with sufficient clarity and consensus to afford rigorous scientific investigation.
  2. Microaggressions are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members.
  3. Microaggressions reflect implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives.
  4. Microaggressions can be validly assessed using only respondents’ subjective reports.
  5. Microaggression exert an adverse impact on recipient’s mental health.

His comprehensive meta-analysis suggests that there is “negligible” support for these axioms—individually or (especially) collectively.

Continue reading “The Big Debate About Microaggressions”

One Thing Trump Gets Right About Muslims, Terrorism (Kind of)

Let’s start with all the usual caveats: while there may be, abstractly, a lot to like about Trump, in reality, he is proving to be a demagogue. Moreover, both he and his advisory team are painfully ignorant about Islam—and as a result, most of his policy proposals and rhetoric about Islamic terrorism have been ill-informed and counter-productive.

But for all that, Trump has repeatedly emphasized a point which many of his rivals and critics are perhaps a little too eager to gloss over—namely that in many instances, a would-be terrorist’s family, friends or religious advisors know that their loved one is heading down a dark path, but fail to report it.

Trump’s insinuation, of course, is that the reason friends and family fail to report it is because they are, themselves, sympathetic to ISIS or al-Qaeda and want to see terror plots succeed. And certainly, there are instances of this: the San Bernardino attacks were carried out by a husband and wife, the Paris attacks by two brothers and a couple they were friends with, the Boston Marathon bombings by the Tsarnaev Brothers. Often people travel to ISIS territory with their lovers, siblings or best friends, and typically people are brought into ISIS’ orbit by someone they know who has previously committed to the group.

Nonetheless, according to the New America Foundation’s records, 84% of disrupted jihadist plots were foiled as a result of someone “seeing something and saying something” (28% of the time information was volunteered by concerned family, friends, other community members; 47% of the time intelligence was provided by a paid informant; in 9% of cases authorities were given a tip by a stranger who observed suspicious activity). For comparison, only 42% of non-jihadist terror plots are disrupted by this kind of reporting—meaning the social networks of Islamic extremists are relatively more cooperative with authorities than those of non-Muslim extremists (about twice as cooperative, in fact).

However, these statistics just reflect the 330 Muslims (and 182 non-Muslims) who have been indicted over the last 15 years for supporting terrorism. There are thousands of other ISIS sympathizers within the United States—and law enforcement agencies are hungry for more fine-grained information to determine which of these are most likely to act on their convictions (or are actively plotting attacks). In order to close this intelligence gap, it is critical to understand why family, friends and associates who may be deeply concerned about a loved one’s trajectory are often also reluctant or unwilling to cooperate with authorities.

 

Continue reading “One Thing Trump Gets Right About Muslims, Terrorism (Kind of)”

Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice

Originally published in Comparative Philosophy, Vol. VII, No. 2 (Fall 2016)

Print version available here.

 

In “Perfectionist Liberalism and Political Liberalism,” Martha Nussbaum (2011) persuasively argues that political liberalism is superior to its perfectionist cousin. However, her critique of perfectionism also problematizes Rawls’ account of political liberalism—particularly as it relates to his account of “reasonableness” vis a vis comprehensive doctrines (CDs) and life plans (LPs). In response, Nussbaum attempts to refine Rawls’ account to make it more inclusive—however, her alternative conception of political liberalism may actually be more parochial than that of Rawls, and seems to rest uneasily atop a series of profound contradictions. Yet, if we render her position more consistent, while the inclusivity problem is largely addressed, the normative force of political liberalism seems to be severely undermined—especially in contexts which are not already predisposed towards liberal ideologies, systems and institutions.

This dilemma arises out of the brute reality that, in many instances, there is not a clean correspondence between promoting the will (or even the interests) of a given population and advancing liberal practices and institutions therein. In the event of such a conflict, the internal logic of political liberalism seems to not only allow, but to mandate, deference to the former—even if the resultant society exceeds the bounds of liberalism, per se.

Continue reading “Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice”

Why 2016 May Be Donald Trump’s Race to Lose

As the 2016 presidential primaries got underway, there seemed to be a couple incontrovertible truths: Hillary Clinton’s nomination was inevitable, and Trump stood no chance (it was going to be Jeb or Rubio). Yet, here we are six months before the election, and Trump has seized the Republican nomination while Clinton is still working to box out Bernie Sanders’ insurgency (without losing his voters, who it turns out, may be ripe for Trump to peel off after all).

Nonetheless, the prevailing narrative is that while there is now a chance that Trump could actually win in November, it’s basically Hillary Clinton’s election to lose. Pundits focus on “fundamentals,” like Hillary’s superior fundraising, analytics, or ground game; however, these haven’t proven terribly predictive this cycle. And by focusing on conventional elements, analysts seem to be overlooking novel dynamics which are likely more important—specifically, the public’s persistent and negative perception of Hillary Clinton, the incumbency handicap, and a phenomenon I call “negative intersectionality.”

  Continue reading “Why 2016 May Be Donald Trump’s Race to Lose”

Creating Visionaries

Education plays a pivotal role in cultivating excellence—although its function is largely misunderstood. Consider the case of entrepreneurs:

Successful entrepreneurs tend to be both more intelligent than average, but also more confident. Perhaps for these very reasons, they are also far more likely to engage in disruptive or even illicit activity in their youth. Fortunately, wealthy children tend to grow up in an environment which helps them cultivate and productively channel these impulses:

Elite schools generally respect students’ drive and intelligence rather than teaching to the lowest-denominator; they are not afraid to challenge students’ pre-existing beliefs, even at the cost of creating controversy or offense—nor are they afraid to teach ignorance and uncertainty. At the same time, these programs tend to have less testing, less busy-work, and less memorization or regurgitation of trivia. This enables students to explore course subject-matter with far greater depth, breadth and rigor. Overall, elite institutions tend to be less-structured, to prize inter-disciplinary pursuits and collaboration, and to give students a good deal of latitude in forming their course of study. In other words, it is the virtual opposite of what the rest of us experience. Continue reading “Creating Visionaries”

Progressives: It’s Time to Stop Patronizing White People

On average, whites are far better off than blacks. But the problem with averages is that they often conceal radically uneven distribution of the phenomena in question. This is certainly true of wealth among white Americans.

It is well-established that white people are overrepresented in the upper classes. And even in the middle class, whites are far more likely to own their own home, to own their own business, to send their kids to better primary schools and have them go on to college. By contrast, the children of most black middle-class families earn less than their parents when they reach adulthood, often sliding into poverty—and for blacks, college does little to ameliorate this trend. And even among the lower classes, blacks are far more likely than whites to live in areas of “concentrated poverty,” which has a severe debilitating effect on social mobility.

However, the fact that blacks are so much worse off relatively speaking does not entail that white people are generally enjoying prosperity. Although most Americans continue to believe they are “middle class,” overall 15% of the U.S. population lives in poverty—40% of these in “deep poverty.” An additional 30% of the total population lives just at the cusp of poverty. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans struggle with economic insecurity, and most will sink below the poverty line for some period of their lives. And these dynamics persist across generations, regardless for instance, of how hard people work: the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor.

A majority of America’s poor are white, as are a plurality of those receiving federal assistance. Why does this matter? Because poor white people seem to be a natural ally for the social justice movement. In fact, there is widespread support among this constituency for policies addressing inequality, enhancing social mobility, protecting social safety nets, and reforming drug and sentencing laws.

However, when crime and poverty are discussed in racialized terms, this dynamic changes completely: whites become far more likely to support stricter enforcement of the law and harsher sentencing. They also grow far more receptive to policies which erode safety nets for the poor and redistribute money to social elites. And this is not just a problem for old white men, these trends are just as prevalent among millennials. Similarly, when reminded of the fact that whites are trending towards being a minority in America, both Republican and Democratic whites grow more conservative in their political views.

Is this racist? Of course. But it’s easy to misunderstand what this means. At its core, racism is not about xenophobic reactions to difference, stereotyping people from other groups, or a sense of intrinsic superiority. Racism is about preserving a socio-economic order which privileges the majority group (in this case, whites) at the expense of minorities. And while hate can (and typically does) play an important role in justifying this cause, strictly speaking, it is not necessary: there are plenty of racists who do not hate black people, per se. Many may even have black friends and colleagues whom they hold in great esteem. But this does little to alleviate the gnawing, pervasive and persistent fear that the empowerment of minorities will ultimately come at the expense of whites. For those many white Americans already struggling (or failing) to keep their head above water or support their families, this prospect doesn’t just induce dread—it motivates resistance.

Continue reading “Progressives: It’s Time to Stop Patronizing White People”

Do Black Lives Matter? The World’s Shameful Response to Charleston

In the wake of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), analysts have been busying themselves with apparently self-evident questions as to whether the atrocity was racially motivated, or constituted an act of domestic terrorism. Americans have been focused on questions about gun control and the ubiquity of the Confederate Flag—with an emerging consensus that there will be little-to-no evolution on the former issue at this time, and token movement on the latter (while the flag will likely be removed from the S. Carolina capitol, most other Confederate icons will remain in place, both in S. Carolina and across the South).

But there has been one glaring absence in our public conversation about the tragedy—namely any meaningful acknowledgement of just how pervasive and dangerous the white supremacist views which motivated the Charlotte massacre are—and not just in America, but throughout most Western societies.

This omission is shameful, not only because the victims of this massacre had dedicated their lives to exposing these ideologies and dismantling the systems, institutions and practices built around them (indeed, this is why they were targeted for assassination)—but also because this silence enables further crimes, creating a culture of complicacy and complacency about the threat these groups pose to the security of Western nations, and also to the values which are supposed to define them.

 

Continue reading “Do Black Lives Matter? The World’s Shameful Response to Charleston”

Understanding ISIL’s Appeal

“Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”

Slavoj Zizek

 

It is oft-remarked that proponents of the prevailing international order, despite rhetoric about freedom and democracy, eagerly support dictators, warlords and other autocrats in order to preserve the status quo. However, this tendency is no less pronounced in opponents of the system. For example: during the Cold War, Lenin and Mao inspired large swaths of Westerners, particularly young people, into leftist movements—many of which carried out campaigns of domestic terrorism in order to provoke revolution.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) similarly aspires towards a new form of social arrangement. In this post-Occupy movement period, where no one else seems to have the willingness or ability to meaningfully “fight the system,” ISIL appears to many as virtually the only actor interested in, and capable of, radical societal reforms. Understanding this source of ISIL’s appeal will be critical to countering its narratives, undermining its recruitment, and ultimately defeating the group.

 

Beyond brainwashing

ISIL’s recruits are generally not stupid, ignorant or naïve , nor are they religious zealots,  nor are they somehow unable to resist social media messaging. It is comforting to write-off ISIL supporters as deranged or “brainwashed” because it helps distract from the role the anti-ISIL coalition’s members played in creating and perpetuating the conditions under which the “Islamic State” could emerge and flourish—but the extensive post 9/11 body of research on terrorism clearly shows that regardless of how a campaign may be framed, the primary reason people support terrorism is to achieve political aspirations.

For example, it is widely assumed that most suicide bombers were uneducated, mentally ill or otherwise cognitively deficient. Or that martyrs were simply nihilistic (often from having few socio-economic prospects), or were narcissists eager for notoriety. It turns out that those cases are the exception rather than the rule:  Suicide bombers tend to be wealthier and better educated than most in their societies. In fact, it is their deeper understanding of societal problems that often impels their activism. And rather than being sociopathic, would-be martyrs tend to be prosocial, idealistic and altruistic, driven by compassion and a sense of moral outrage.

Millennials tend to be especially globally conscious and passionate about making a difference. However, they are also intensely skeptical about societal institutions, or that “the system” can work to evoke sufficient change on pressing issues. This is the main source of ISIL’s allure among youth.

Sympathizers are well-aware of the atrocities committed by the organization—crimes which are disseminated widely by ISIL itself, in part to lure unpopular foreign actors into their theater of war. By taking the bait, the Western-led coalition has allowed ISIL to position itself as a resistance organization against a U.S.-dominated unipolar world order, a bulwark against meddling in Middle East and Muslim affairs by former colonial and imperial powers and the repression of western-backed autocrats. ISIL’s recruitment has surged as a result.

 

Continue reading “Understanding ISIL’s Appeal”

Foreign Policy Fundamentalism

Originally published in The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3 (Summer 2015)

Print version available here.

 

With pomp and polish and platitudes, the 2016 presidential campaign is underway. It began in December, as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced he was “actively exploring” a run for the White House. Bush is more moderate than much of the Republican base on many issues–perhaps too moderate to ultimately win his party’s nomination.[1] On foreign policy issues, however, Bush tows a hawkish line, pushing for a more aggressive U.S. posture against Syria, Russia, Iran, China, and Cuba in order to better promote and defend American ideals and interests throughout the globe.[2]

On the whole, the Republican hopefuls are “racing to the right” on foreign policy, arguing for a more muscular approach to international affairs. A narrative is taking hold that many of the problems facing the world today are the result of the Obama administration’s “failed leadership.” More specifically, they were not brought about by America’s ill-conceived actions, but instead, because of U.S. inaction: a failure to intervene as often or aggressively as “needed” around the world, which (to many conservatives’ minds) projected American weakness and undermined U.S. credibility.[3] The solution? Clear principled American leadership. This line of reasoning permeates the recently-announced campaigns of noted surgeon Ben Carson, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and increasingly reflects the political strategy of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as well.[4]

The presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is perhaps more aggressive still: unwavering in her advocacy of Israel, comparing Putin to Hitler over Ukraine, pushing for a more confrontational approach to China, championing intervention in Libya and Syria (just as she previously did for Iraq), supporting the troop surge in Afghanistan as well as the likely ill-fated campaign against ISIL, defending the counterproductive drone program, and arguing for increased sanctions and the threat of force against Iran (although she now tentatively supports the nuclear negotiation effort).[5]

During her pre-announcement book tour, Clinton lambasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy, particularly the administration’s aspirational credo:[6] “Don’t do stupid shit.” Her complaint was not that the Obama administration has failed to live up to such an apparently modest goal, but instead, that “don’t do stupid *stuff*” is not an organizing principle, and “Great nations” need doctrines to guide their foreign policy.[7]

On its face, this line of criticism is absurd. Clearly, “avoid doing harm” is, in fact, a maxim designed to guide action (just ask any medical professional).[8] Granted, it’s a principle guiding what not to do, rather than what to do. However, for this very reason, it is more basic (and more important than) any offensive strategy: it constrains what sorts of affirmative policies are desirable or even permissible. But notwithstanding this apparent lack of understanding about what “organizing principle” means,[9] there is a more profound error that Secretary Clinton holds in common with the Republican frontrunners: the assumption that grand strategies are necessary or useful in guiding foreign policy. They aren’t.

 

Continue reading “Foreign Policy Fundamentalism”

If Underpants Gnomes Took Over the Pentagon, Very Little Would Change

In the Comedy Central television series South Park, the boys discover a cartel of gnomes who steal people’s underwear. Over the course of the episode it’s revealed that these seizures are part of their business plan which goes:

 

Step 1: Collect Underpants Step 2: ? Step 3: Profit

 

The punchline, of course, is that the underpants gnomes have set up this elaborate enterprise for stealing and stockpiling people’s unmentionables, but none of them have any idea how to leverage these resources in order to reach their aspiration (profits).

It is immediately obvious that step 2 may be the most important part of the entire plan: it tells you if there is a viable path from step 1 to step 3. If there isn’t, step 3 is irrelevant and step 1 is (at best) a waste of time and resources.

But Step 2 happens to be the least exciting part of the process, and the most difficult, complex, contentious—which explains why so many attempt to circumvent it. Instead they just keep repeating step one, at an ever-increasing scale, hoping that step 3 will somehow magically materialize in the process.

So it goes.

While this particular episode was meant to lampoon many aspects of the business world, it unfortunately seems just as reflective of U.S. national security policy. Consider:

 

Step 1: Sanctions Step 2: ? Step 3: regime change or substantial revision of regime policies

Step 1: Overthrow “rogue” government Step 2: ? Step 3: a democratic, secular and/or liberal state emerges in its stead (see: Iraq, Libya, and coming soon, Syria).

Step 1: Arm sub-state or non-state proxies Step 2: ? Step 3: American strategic interests successfully realized in the region

Step 1: Support dictators Step 2: ? Step 3: long-term stability in the Middle East; containment of radical ideologies antithetical to the prevailing order (see: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and coming soon, Libya).

Step 1: Bomb “militants” with drones or airstrikes Step 2: ? Step 3: Transnational/ supranational jihadist groups are defeated

Continue reading “If Underpants Gnomes Took Over the Pentagon, Very Little Would Change”

Social Movement Requires Force

 

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Other America

 

On the night of Freddy Gray’s funeral, violence erupted in Baltimore. The revolt was immediately condemned by everyone, from media organizations, to civil rights activists, and even by President Obama himself—with all parties referring to the rioters as “thugs,” and the violence as senseless and counterproductive.

We can set aside the clear double-standard of how rioting is depicted depending on the skin color of those involved; or the absurdity that most seemed more concerned about the destruction of property than of black lives. We can ignore the central role that Baltimore’s police department played in escalating the events of that night, which were neither random nor unprovoked—and paradoxically, the role that actual “thugs” and gangsters played in maintaining the peace.   We can even set aside that the Gray family has condemned the riots. Because while the illegal arrest and extrajudicial execution of their son was the catalyst for the current unrest, the protests are about more than just their personal loss.

Beyond the firewall of rhetoric about the crisis in Baltimore lies a stark reality: there is no social change without coercion. Authoritarians do not step down because people are saying mean things about them on Facebook or Twitter; social elites do not relinquish their privilege simply because they saw people walking down the street, arms locked, singing kumbaya. One has to speak to power in a language it understands. It must be made clear that there are consequences for ignoring dissidents, that a return to the status quo is not an option. Shy of this, there is no change.

Violence is always unfortunate, especially insofar as it is indiscriminate. However, these outbursts must not be reflexively dismissed—if for no other reason than because it is violence which enables non-violent resistance.

Continue reading “Social Movement Requires Force”

Factions Speak Louder Than Herds

There is a growing body of research suggesting that when beliefs become tied to one’s sense of identity, they are not easily revised. Instead, when these axioms are threatened, people look for ways to outright dismiss inconvenient data. If this cannot be achieved by highlighting logical, methodological or factual errors, the typical response is to leave the empirical sphere altogether and elevate the discussion into the moral and ideological domain, whose tenets are much more difficult to outright falsify (generally evoking whatever moral framework best suits one’s rhetorical needs).

While often described in pejorative terms, these phenomena may be more akin to “features,” than “bugs,” of our psychology.

For instance, the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis holds that the primary function of rationality is social, rather than epistemic. Specifically, our rational faculties were designed to mitigate social conflicts (or conflicting interests). But on this account, rationality is not a neutral mediator. Instead, it is deployed in the service of one’s own interests and desires—which are themselves heavily informed by our sense of identity.

This is because our identities are, among other things, prisms through which we interpret the world. These trends hold just as true for secular agents as religious ones, for liberal ideologues as conservatives (as for so-called “independents,” they are generally partisans in disguise)—the phenomenon is known in academic circles as “cultural cognition.” Continue reading “Factions Speak Louder Than Herds”

On the Strategic Logic of ISIL’s Atrocities

Following ISIL’s immolation Moaz al-Kasasbeh, many attributed the viciousness of his execution to the fact that he was a Jordanian pilot. The narrative is that the coalition airstrikes have been devastating for ISIL, and this extreme act was a desperate bid to dissuade allied forces from further strikes. By this logic, their tactic backfired: not only did the execution lead to more airstrikes, but caused widespread revulsion among Muslims.

There are many problems with this narrative, comforting as it may be—not the least of which its assumption that ISIL somehow couldn’t foresee that Jordan’s likely response would be to escalate. Or that ISIL was somehow surprised that most of their co-religionists were outraged that the group burned to death a fellow Muslim. Of course, these were rather obvious consequences, and it strains credulity that ISIL was taken off guard by them. Indeed, this deepened engagement by hostile powers and heightened polarization of the Muslim community actually serve ISIL’s strategic interests.

They burned alive Lt. al-Kassasbeh in the hopes of provoking a heavy-handed Jordanian response. ISIL’s roots in Jordan run deep: the country is among the top producers of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria; ISIL’s movement was started by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, himself a Jordanian released from prison in 1999 when Abdullah II took the throne. Accordingly, ISIL knows their adversary well–they know that Jordan’s involvement in the anti-ISIS campaign is unpopular (despite the monarch’s best attempts to quell signs of dissent), especially given the country’s endemic social and economic problems; they know that the Jordanian monarch is already struggling to maintain his credibility.

And so, to the extent that ISIL is seen as directly challenging King Abdullah al-Thani, of being able to withstand his “earth-shaking” retaliation—it bolsters their own legitimacy even as it makes Abdullah seem weak or inept by comparison. Especially if they can successfully coax Jordan into deploying ground troops: the heavier Jordan’s investment, and the bolder Abdullah’s rhetoric gets, the more pronounced this effect will be.

Outside the region, ISIL is aware that their provocative actions alienate Muslims in Western societies, often provoking Islamophobia, hate crimes and institutionalized discrimination. They proudly tout progress in achieving a “clash of civilizations” because, to the extent that the Muslim diaspora feels marginalized or persecuted, the greater the appeal of an “Islamic state.”

Continue reading “On the Strategic Logic of ISIL’s Atrocities”

Al-Badghadi: Jihadist Provocateur

ISIS distinguishes itself from other jihadist organizations, particularly its progenitor al-Qaeda, by positioning itself as the group that will do what other groups are unwilling or unable to do. There is a clear dialectic wherein other terror organizations will commit an a heinous act that receives widespread media coverage; ISIS will then try to divert the international spotlight to themselves by surpassing their rivals in terms of depravity or scale—especially if it is an act which al-Qaeda condemns as being unfit for mujahedeen.

Continue reading “Al-Badghadi: Jihadist Provocateur”

Why the SSCI Report on CIA Torture Doesn’t Matter

In 1984, the United Nations adopted the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The treaty forbade signatories from carrying out torture or related practices, or from deporting to detainees to other places where they knew these acts would be carried out. It would be ten years before the U.S. Congress ratified this agreement, which would then take on the force of law.

In light of the U.S. signing onto the convention against torture (and also, the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the activities revealed in the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program constitute clear violations of international law, perhaps even crimes against humanity. But it unlikely that anyone will face justice:

Violations would typically be investigated and prosecuted in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which the United States struggled to prevent from coming into existence. While President Clinton eventually signed onto the Rome Statute which established the court towards the end of his term, his successor would withdraw the U.S. commitment before the agreement was ratified by Congress—precisely out of concerns about American policies in the wake of 9/11. And as Undersecretary of State (and future U.S. Ambassador to the U.N) John Bolton underscored at the time, because America is not a member of the ICC, it is not accountable to the court unless referred by a resolution from the U.N. Security Council, which the U.S. would simply veto.

Because the perpetrators will not be held to account in international forums, the United Nations and human rights groups have called on the White House to prosecute those involved in American courts, compliant with U.S. treaty obligations to prevent and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. After all, in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, the United States helped condemn to death Japanese soldiers and leaders who committed or approved of these very same acts against American forces during WWII.

However, contrary to these international obligations (or even the U.S. Bill of Rights which repeatedly prohibits torture), Bush Administration officials approved the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. As a result of this clearance by White House and the Department of Justice, prosecution in U.S. courts would be difficult. Moreover, President Barack Obama has already de facto pardoned those who took part in the program, even those who stepped outside the permissive framework laid out by the Bush administration. In fact, the only agent who has been jailed with regards to the “enhanced interrogation” program to date is the CIA whistleblower who leaked these abuses to the press.

Reforms to rein in U.S. intelligence agencies seem highly unlikely as a result of the partisan way in which the report was received on Capitol Hill—with some Republican lawmakers going so far as to defend the torture program and even its continued use. And across polls, a plurality of the American public seems to agree with these torture apologists.

This leads one to question whether the SSCI report even matters. Continue reading “Why the SSCI Report on CIA Torture Doesn’t Matter”

Credibility is about Outcomes, not “Resolve”

In wake of Vladimir Putin annexing Crimea into the Russian Federation and supporting Eastern separatists against a Ukrainian government it perhaps rightly views as illegitimate, U.S. policy hawks argued the entire crisis could have been prevented: had President Obama followed through on his August 2013 commitment to bomb the Syrian government in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, Russia would have been cowed by America’s resolve and therefore responded to subsequent events in neighboring Ukraine by more-or-less capitulating to Western demands.

These counterfactuals are empty, offered without any corroborating evidence that carrying out the strikes would have actually changed Putin’s calculus. In fact, the whole notion of deterrence has been greatly undermined by contemporary research in cognitive science and psychology. Unfortunately, beltway Washington hasn’t gotten the memo.

Russia’s response to Ukraine has nothing to do with Obama’s actions in Syria (something the critics would know that if they simply listened to Putin). If anything, the Ukrainian crisis was caused, not because Washington was too soft in Syria, but because it was far too aggressive everywhere else.  Moscow was not responding to perceived American weakness, but instead attempting to defend its critical interests from what it viewed as Western expansionism.

Obama’s decision to back down from the precipice of another ill-fated direct military engagement in the Middle East was a rare and laudable moment of sanity. Following through on a threat simply because the president had previously committed to it doesn’t help U.S. credibility if the policies in question prove disastrous. Nonetheless, policy hawks insist that the Administration’s momentary pragmatism has undermined “U.S. credibility”—which, to their minds, is about the United States “standing by” its stated commitments (no matter what).

Succumbing to pressure from these critics, the White House has responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine by striking an even more confrontational posture. A year into this new dynamic, the Obama Administration’s strategy has proven totally ineffective at changing Russia’s approach to Ukraine, and have been highly counterproductive in the broader geopolitical arena.

The current rift between the U.S. and Russia threatens critical initiatives, from the impending NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, to the ongoing negotiations with Iran and resolving the crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been aligning itself more closely with other emerging powers to act as a collective counterweight to Western hegemony—even as it enacts its own effective countermeasures to punish the Europeans who joined the U.S. efforts at isolating Moscow.

But instead of acknowledging its missteps and seeking reconciliation with the Kremlin, Washington is ramping up its provocative, irresponsible, and inaccurate rhetoric with regards to Russia (because, once again, backing down would supposedly jeopardize U.S. “credibility”). The hopefuls for the next U.S. administration are also jumping on board, with Hillary “reset-button” Clinton going so far as to compare Putin to Hitler. How these actions are supposed to promote American interests is totally unclear.

In fact, the critics have it precisely inverted: it wasn’t U.S. weakness in Syria that informed Putin’s thinking on Ukraine. Instead, the same pernicious psychology that the U.S. had brought to bear throughout the Syrian crisis also poisoned America’s response to Ukraine: doubling-down on strategies which were clearly failing in a misguided attempt to “preserve U.S. credibility.”

Continue reading “Credibility is about Outcomes, not “Resolve””

Obama is Falling into Al-Baghdadi’s Trap

Just prior to the U.S.-led anti-Daish (ISIS) campaign into Syria, the group released a highly-polished 55-minute documentary, “Flames of War,” in which they challenged the United States to heavily mobilize in Iraq and Syria. They have made similar taunts when they executed Western hostages, seized American weapons, or co-opted the rebels trained to fight against them.

Why are these extremists so eager to lure America into the theater?

Because while al-Daish has unrivaled wealth from multiple channels, a vast array of arms, and commands tens-of-thousands of soldiers– the one thing they seem to lack is popular legitimacy among the local populations. This is a big problem for a group that aspires to statehood. However, the recently-expanded intervention will likely help al-Daish mitigate this challenge by galvanizing the public against a greater enemy (the U.S.-led coalition)—with ISIL portraying themselves as the only force capable of repelling these malignant invaders. Meanwhile, the U.S. will be drawn ever deeper into a war of attrition in which its non-state interlocutors have little exposure and everything to gain.  Continue reading “Obama is Falling into Al-Baghdadi’s Trap”

On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Al-Qaeda & the Islamic State

The public discourse about transnational jihadist organizations indiscriminately lumps together al-Qaeda, its forerunners (such as the Taliban), affiliates (such as Jahbat al-Nusra), its derivatives (such as Ansar al-Sharia or the Islamic State), and even groups which have no strong connection to al-Qaeda or such as Hamas, Hezbollah, or local tribal militants. It is not just laymen who succumb to this error, but media organizations, policymakers, analysts, and often even intelligence and law enforcement officials.

However, understanding the raison d’etre of these transnational jihadist organizations is critical for escaping the pointless cycle of escalation and retaliation which have defined the last decade of “War on Terror.” And in the shorter term, assisting with the evaluation of, and response to, the threats (and opportunities) these groups may pose to the United States and its interests.

Al-Qaeda is a prime example. Osama Bin Laden got his start in the U.S.-sponsored and Pakistani ISI trained mujahedeen resistance movement against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Under the leadership of Bin Laden, the movement drew resistance fighters from across the Muslim world—and after the Russians were driven out, a plurality of the exogenous fighters continued to follow Bin Laden in his new organization, which was to continue to the work of expelling foreign powers and autocrats from the Greater Middle East in order to promote the sovereignty of Muslims. At that time, they considered the United States to be an ally.

The group came at odds with America during operation Desert Shield (and later, Storm) when, against Bin Laden’s protests, the government of Saudi Arabia decided to host U.S. forces in the Hijaz to defend and project power against Saddam Hussein (who, for the reference, Bin Laden also wanted to overthrow). This was the moment where America shifted from being an ally of the cause to another foreign occupier which must be resisted.

It’s been nearly 30 years since al-Qaeda first declared jihad against America. A whole generation has grown up in the aftermath of 9/11—and yet it is astonishing how little people understand about al-Qaeda, its ideology, methodologies, and organization. They are even less informed about the nascent Islamic State—to our collective detriment.

Continue reading “On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Al-Qaeda & the Islamic State”

A Primer on Social Epistemology

Much of what we believe is poorly-justified or believed in the total absence of evidence, or even in defiance of abundant counterevidence. So many cherished axioms are problematic or outright false—or else vague, inconsistent, or of an otherwise indeterminable truth-value (in part because the world cannot be cleanly reduced into language at all).

And you know what? Generally, this is not a big problem. In most circumstances, the truth is not particularly important. Nailing down more accurate information (when possible) can be a costly distraction. In fact, in many situations, untrue beliefs can even be helpful. Of course, there are also a number of circumstances in which false beliefs are extremely pernicious; the important thing is to identify the sorts of situations in which information quantity and quality is particularly important (as opposed to the overwhelming majority of conditions in which adequacy trumps accuracy). Continue reading “A Primer on Social Epistemology”

Rethinking Rationality

In previous analyses, I have demonstrated that while the Enlightenment-era axioms which undergird contemporary liberalism (and its relatives) have long been presumed as facts about “the way the world works,” they are easily demonstrable as mere sociocultural artifacts of a particular phase of history of particular peoples. Accordingly, attempting to instantiate these ideologies and systems in exogenous contexts is likely to foster instability and blowback rather than ushering in a state of universal peace and prosperity.

Instead, people around the world must be given the freedom to derive their own systems of organization, building on their indigenous frames of reference, history, and cultures in order to confront the unique challenges facing their societies.

Of course, there will be overlap and resonance—despite the rhetoric about the “globalized” nature of the “modern world,” as a point of fact the history of virtually any longstanding cultural artifact will be syncretic. Our languages (which frame our communication and conscious thinking) fit things into neat categories like “Western,” “Islamic,” “Shia,” “Sudanese,” “human,” etc.—however, reality is much more complex and messy, and what’s more, it always has been.

Sorry, modernists.

Continue reading “Rethinking Rationality”

Nakba or Fursa? The Collapse of the Syrian Opposition

The Syria National Coalition (SNC), much like its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, has never enjoyed much legitimacy or influence within Syria. Their only meaningful link to events on the ground has been the Supreme Military Council (SMC), headed up by the military defectors who initially called themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ostensibly reports to the Coalition as its civilian leadership. Unfortunately, the SMC has not enjoyed much more credibility than its “government-in-exile:”

Many of the most significant rebel militias have explicitly and unequivocally rejected the legitimacy of both the SNC and the SMC, decrying them as exogenous tools (despite the massive and growing role of foreign money, supplies and fighters these very groups also rely on)—forming the so-called “Islamic Front” as an alternative umbrella group.  Since then, relations between various armed factions have devolved into an open civil war (within the larger civil war) for Northern Syria.

Dr. Salim Idriss has gone so far as referring to the idea of a unified Free National Army as a “pipe dream”—words which seem prescient in light of the most recent developments:

Following the close of the second round of Geneva II talks, the SNC made the surprise announcement that it was relieving Dr. Idriss from his duties as the SMC’s Chief of Staff, replacing him with Brigadier General Abdullah al-Bashir—thereafter making renewed calls for sophisticated weaponry. It appears as though these efforts will bear fruit, despite the SMC’s proven inability to control the resources already being provided.

Dr. Idriss has refused to recognize this decision on the part of the government-in-exile—and actually now refuses to recognize said government at all, severing all ties with the SNC and those forces which remain loyal to it. And he is not alone in going rogue: a number of the key SMC commanders have joined with him. In essence, there are now two Supreme Military Councils, each of whom refuses to recognize or coordinate with the other, and neither of whom exert much leverage on the ground.

One critical effect of this development is that the already-marginal influence of the SNC within Syria (via the SMC) has been dramatically reduced. This has important implications: Continue reading “Nakba or Fursa? The Collapse of the Syrian Opposition”

“Enhanced Interrogation,” Tortured Logic

Underlying any interrogation technique are a number of assumptions about how people think and behave. Contemporary cognitive science and psychology suggest rather robustly that the axioms which have historically lent credence to some of today’s most-popular interrogation techniques are more-or-less false.

For instance, investigators have long believed (and many continue to believe) that fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, or indirectness in speech are signs of deception. It turns out, however, these may indicate little more than that the person being interrogated relies upon a different communication style than his interrogator. Many, perhaps most, feel generally uncomfortable maintaining eye contact, there is wide cultural variance on directness of communication, and reactions like fidgeting, increased heartbeat, and sweating are natural human responses to stressful situations (such as being interrogated by the authorities, regardless of one’s guilt or innocence)—and many people have a rather low threshold before these somatic reactions are triggered.

It is a very particular sort of person who is a direct communicator, enjoys eye contact, remains calm under pressure, etc. Incidentally, these are also the type of people who often become law-enforcement officers, or better-yet, interrogators. However, because these exemplars mistakenly feel as though their reactions and communication style are “normal” (a conviction reinforced by myriad daily interactions with their similarly-constituted colleagues), when confronted by indirect communicators, or those who do not handle stress as well, these variations are frequently interpreted as evidence of deceit—when in fact, a criminal of a similar constitution to the investigators would have no problem lying straight to an officer’s face, confabulating a coherent alibi, and giving off all of the “right” physical signs.

The supposed connection between somatic reactions and honesty have proven so unreliable that lie-detector tests are generally not admissible as evidence in contemporary courts. Nonetheless, many related dogmas persist (unfortunately, police officers tend not to keep current with the latest studies in cognitive science and clinical psychology). Unsurprisingly, the net-effect of relying on these tactics is a lot of bad intelligence—to include frequent false confessions. Continue reading ““Enhanced Interrogation,” Tortured Logic”

Breaking the Stalemates in Syria (Literal & Rhetorical)

In a number of interviews in recent months, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry has been talking about the need to “change Bashar al-Asad’s calculus” with regards to the conflict in Syria. While there is a sense in which this statement is correct (should the goal be the President’s resignation), Kerry seems to misunderstand what Bashar’s calculus is, and accordingly, what sorts of actions are going to change it.

For instance, according to Kerry, the regime has refused to negotiate an end to the conflict; and this is because Bashar has hitherto assumed he can just “shoot his way out of this.” Of course, no part of this is accurate.  President al-Asad had initially hoped that he could reform his way out of the crisis–enacting a number of significant measures which were met with wide popular support, to include a new constitution which would have enshrined an end to his rule after one more presidential term. Over the course of this conflict, the president has consistently endorsed, proposed, and complied with ceasefires. The primary reason these measures have failed is because the opposition’s “leadership” had no control over the militias (this remains the case): they can agree to ceasefires, but cannot get the rebel forces to comply.

Similarly, Bashar has consistently pushed for negotiations and dialogue, including recently calling on the BRICS nations to help end the bloodshed in Syria, because Western powers and their regional allies continue to exacerbate the violence. Looking at the casualties per month, the rate of killings has accelerated corresponding to the amount of arms, aid, and training being provided to the rebels. This continues to the present, when aid and training to the rebels has expanded to include CIA training and support: March 2013 has been the deadliest month to date in the conflict—the numbers of refugees have increased at an even faster pace.

Thus far, Western (and allied) intervention has, unconditionally, been making things worse rather than better. In fact, the main hang-up to a negotiated end to the conflict has been the U.S. insistence that the president resign as a precondition to talks. Continue reading “Breaking the Stalemates in Syria (Literal & Rhetorical)”

Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers

Originally published in Middle East Policy, Vol. XX, No. 1 (Spring 2013)

Print version available here.

 

The popular discourse on the Syrian conflict has largely taken for granted that Bashar al-Asad and his regime are unpopular in Syria, the revolution is widely supported domestically, the rebels are “winning” the war, and the fall of the regime is inevitable and imminent. To justify their interpretation of the conflict, opposition activists, Western policy makers and media outlets make frequent reference to a number of “facts,” often statistical in nature. However, should we contextualize this data more rigorously, it becomes apparent that a radically different dynamic may be at work “on the ground” in Syria. This becomes important, as a more nuanced understanding of what is happening will have implications for what strategy the United States should pursue.

 

Continue reading “Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers”

[Post(script]ture)

A Reading from the Book of Genesis

“And she said to them, ‘Call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me…”

Ruth 1:20

I.

I once described you as an ancient garden–lost, but not forgotten. Created by a jealous God, who though omniscient, could never truly know the feeling of your whisper in His ear, nor your skin contacting His, nor feel His pulse quicken at your approach, fed by the passions of mortality. But if I now call you a martyr, love, don’t take offense: a rose by any other name would still wilt and die.

II.

I’m the sentry who drove that (mi)stake deep inside you. Your expression showed strain, but you took it all in–the sins of men laid upon you. Transubstantiated by the music of organs, a rhythmic hymn to which sing, with a voice not quite of angels…more like nephilum.

III.

Your nails ran like sweat down my naked back. Crimson lips trailed like blood down my neck, down my chest, down my stomach…And as I reached down, I knew that once I slid inside you would clench, and hold on. And those fingers would never again reach for the heavens, but instead for the shadows–for the damp warmth of the earth. Your cunt is where grace dies: it is the depths to which the angels fell, the first and final battleground.

IV.

You are a coffin awaiting a corpse. What is the afterlife to me now? Your womb is the soil for the tree of life–your legs, the road to immortality. And where the paths intersect, a dew-covered blossom guards the gate and swallows all sin, all reason, all pain. I no longer fear death: your mouth tastes of ashes; your skin is smooth and cool like stones from a river; you smell like dead flowers, and laugh as though you were never a child.

V.

You are my Holy Mother, my Golden Calf, my Promised Land, my Jezebel. Without you, I could live forever…but without you, what would be the point?

Continue reading “[Post(script]ture)”