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Current Events — Egypt’s Experience and a Worry for the United States

29 Mar

“The Fires of Spring” is a book about the Middle East that is part analysis and part travelogue through Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia.

The book is worth reading because it is a snapshot in time that gives a sense of history and also where we are today. But, when I read further into it than I probably should, I get a little concerned about the future of the United States.

Shelly Culbertson, the author, interviews Egyptian Diplomat Nabil Fahmy. He says that one of the great things about the United Stats is that its institutions are self-correcting.

“I lived in America during 9/11 and also when the U.S. went into Iraq. There is a laundry list of when U.S. institutions went overboard. But the strength of your system is that you came out yourselves and said that this is unacceptable — we need to change this,” Fahmy said.

He also said that U.S. did well because when one group lost an election it lost its influence in the government, but not its rights. He said Egypt needed to cultivate a more pluralistic approach.

“You need also to cultivate a political ethic where people of a different point of view not only express their opinion but also accept the role of other opinions,” Fahmy said.

Culbertson reflects on this in a particular context and writes:

“But I wondered now if Egypt’s Islamists were left out, with their identity taken from them. A sustainable system, in which people (both secularists and Islamists) thought they could make their voice heard without resorting to violence, would depend on including both.”The Fires of Spring Hardback Book

My worry is that we in the United States are losing our political ethic where people accept the role of other opinions.  Everything has been ratcheted up to a place where shouting, assuming the worse, and believing people on the other side are villains, rather than other people that we disagree with.

It is worse than the fans of sports teams. They at least can admit when one of their players makes a boneheaded move or a bad play. Sports fans will critique their teams’ coaches and management. In politics, it seems that there is no room to admit that your guy made a mistake, or that anything the other side does or even thinks could be good.

Perhaps it was always a fiction, but people used to be proud of saying that they voted for the candidate rather than the party. Now, it seems to be the opposite, people seem to think that voting for someone from the other party would be the ultimate betrayal of their moral fiber.

I worry that we are going to get to a place where the United States is full of irreconcilable differences. I don’t think it has to be that way, but we do need a change in our national conversation. Somehow we need to educate ourselves so that we slow down, think first, and stop engaging in outrage as our favorite sport.

I am not the first to think this. Jon Stewart tried to get people to calm down, but it was seen as a collection of laugh lines. I guess that is why we are here today.


Homeric Tweets, or The Epic Poetry of Donald Trump

11 Jan

Donald Trump’s communication quirks have gotten a lot of attention, but commentators have missed what he shares with Homer and the other epic poets.

Books of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey

Homer has lessons for modern communication.


Something was familiar about his patterns of “Lying Ted,” “Crooked Hilary,” and lately “Sneaky Diane Feinstein.” (If you want to see a more complete list, The New York Times has one here: It was in a bar conversation with my friend Steve, with whom I went through a couple of classical literature class, that it became clear.

Trump was using epithets – Homeric ones as well as insulting ones. In epic poetry, epithets are used to help the poet remember the poem both by providing guideposts and helping to maintain the meter, or rhythm of the poem.

Some of the Homeric ones described things, like “the wine dark sea” and “rosy fingered dawn.” More importantly, they were used to describe people, both groups, like “flowing-haired Achaians,” and individuals, like “swift-footed Achilles.”

The use of these epithets and repetition of them anchors a character trait to the individual and provides a memory anchor for listeners. Looking at the names he assigns, there also is a flow to what he says: two syllable epithets. It provides almost a metrical foot for his poetics.

Consciously or unconsciously, Donald Trump is tapping into an ancient, and effective communication tool to drive home his point and build recurring associations.

His use of repetition and anchoring phrases is similar to the epic poets who first had to recite their works out loud for audiences. They used repetition, epithets, and themes as guideposts to help them remember their poems and help people keep track of the story. He’s not quite using ring composition, where he returns to his starting point in every instance, but he comes close by trying to bring things back around to particular points.

Consider his tweets about his mental stability.

mental stability

He starts with stability and brings it back to stability.

In a more general sense, Donald Trump is tapping into the traditions of epic poetry by doing his best to turn everything he does into an epic struggle or into an epic success. This is interpreted as narcissism or self-aggrandizement. While it may be those things, it is also an attempt to have a story worth telling, an epic tale. Let’s face it, no one seems to be able to stop listening, as the press reports on every tweet as though it came down from Mount Olympus.

I don’t know if Donald Trump ever studied epic poetry, but his communication style has tapped into a human tradition that has been effective throughout human history. People may not like the story being told, or the person telling the story, but in an age where politics has become a performance art, it doesn’t seem too surprising that these techniques should be effective.

The effectiveness of the communication doesn’t mean that the content is good. Plenty of effective communicators in history have used that power to do bad things. But recognizing how the message is delivered can help us separate form from content and to decide whether something is really worth hearing. This is part of the value of studying the classics.

Current Events – Chelsea Manning Lives in a Cage – And Says One is Closing on All of Us

18 Oct

As she sat in a metal cage in a tent in the Kuwaiti desert, one thing stood out to Chelsea – then Bradley – Manning, PFC: the cage was made in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

At the time, she also felt she was caged in the wrong physical body.

Despite having a thirty-five year prison sentence commuted after seven years and beginning the process of transitioning to a body that feels more like her own, Chelsea Manning is still living in a cage.

At the New Yorker Festival, Chelsea Manning was interviewed by Larissa MacFarquhar, during which she revealed the outlines of the cage she lives in. She also described how all of us are being increasingly caged in, slowly but surely.

Chelsea’s Current Cage

Ms. Manning’s cage is partially built by legal settlements, and partially built by her own sense of honor, duty, and right and wrong.

The legal sides of her cage come as a result of her court martial from the videos she leaked of the Iraq war.

“There’s a particular statement I read at court martial – that’s what I can talk about,” she said.

Even when she was asked about the most famous video that she leaked, which shows a helicopter attack that killed journalists and children, she said she was legally bound not to talk about what was in the video. That video is all over the Internet, but she still cannot talk about it.

Nonetheless she is adamant that she did not reveal anything that would harm the interests of the United States.

“I knew what was in them. I worked them every day. It is historical data. There’s nothing sensitive in there – no troop movements or mission critical data….We’ve proven that repeatedly. There’s no identity of sources….It’s what happened. It’s historical data.”

But the legal constraints are not the only reason she wouldn’t talk. When asked about the work she did, she refused to give away things that might be military secrets. She described her work in the military as doing data analysis on large data sets, similar to what marketers might do, trying to predict people’s behavior, but when Ms. MacFarquhar asked for details about what she was analyzing and how, Ms. Manning’s response was simple and direct.

“I can’t tell you.”

It was clear she was not going to give up any of the information or methods that she had learned which were secret. This seemed to be less out of any legal responsibility, but more of the sense of duty. Her tone was that of any military person who has reached the limits of what they can tell you.

She also wouldn’t violate the sense of camaraderie she had with her fellow soldiers, refusing to characterize the ribbing she got from fellow soldiers as hazing.

“I’ve never said I was teased and bullied by my colleagues. Maybe it is something we just did in military culture and we justify it. There were times it crossed the line. I don’t think that [the disclosures and transitioning or being picked on by fellow soldiers] are connected.”

Ms. Manning said that she felt she had to share the videos and files that she leaked because Americans needed to know about what was happening in Iraq.

“It was like drinking from a fire hose of death and destruction every day,” Ms. Manning said.

Feeling boxed in was the reason she ended up in Iraq in the first place. After struggling with family troubles, homelessness, and a sense of being in the wrong body, Chelsea Manning was trying to figure out her life. Her father said she should go into the military to gain structure and discipline.

Looking at what was happening in the world she joined the army for two reasons.

“I saw the images of the Iraq war and thought I could make a difference. And I thought I would not be trans. I can’t be trans [in the army]. I joined the army because that is where the fight was and I thought I could help. I was 18.”

The idealism of the 18-year-old Bradley Manning was tempered by death and destruction she saw, and the imprisonment that she endured. After all that she went through, Ms. Manning said that she realized that it did not make sense to try to be someone else. Instead, she had to try to become the person she felt she was and that is when she decided to transition from being a man to being a woman.

The Banality of Cages

Despite leaving the cage of prison and even the confines of a body that didn’t fit her, Ms. Manning thinks the she and all the rest of us are becoming entrapped by two macro trends: 1) the growth of the surveillance state, and 2) the growth of algorithms determining what information we get.

“I got outside, and I said ‘this is a different place. It feels like the most boring and predictable dystopian novel I ever read.’ There is a dystopian element, but it is banal.”

She said that prison has encroached on the outside world. While she acknowledges that her time in prison may have made her more sensitive, Ms. Manning said that she notices how often she sees surveillance cameras and heavily armed police officers everywhere.

“Everything that makes prison bad is starting to happen out here.”

The other thing that she warned about during her talk is that the use of algorithms in technology is creating feedback loops that could end up restricting our knowledge and our choices, which could lead to societal harm.

“There are systems that if misused could be very dangerous to society. There are feedback loops going on.”

She said that we can see this with the way data sets are analyzed. As an example, she used Google search results, which programmers will use to optimize algorithms in order to make the information more relevant.

“What ends up being the top search results changes society over time. It makes [the results] more relevant, which makes it more prevalent, which makes it more relevant. Who’s in control? Us or machines?”

She said that she saw examples of destructive feedback loops in the data she analyzed in Iraq. The military would look for trouble and enemy activity and then go into specific neighborhoods to try to deal with it. By going into those neighborhoods, the military would draw more of the enemy, and sometimes instead of decreasing violence and stabilizing neighborhoods, the data would lead to an increasing spiral.

Can We Escape The Coming Cages?

The question that arises is, of course, what do we do about it?

Ms. Manning brought up three things, perhaps not in direct response to the big question, but both of which were related to the solution.

First, people need to assert their rights. She said that she learned this in the context of being a trans person. What she came to realize is that we all have rights, and that they are not something given to us by judges, or police officers, or institutions.

“We all have rights. No one gives them to us. We don’t win them. It’s how we assert them or demand them. You already have rights; you just have to assert them.”

Second, she said that we need to recognize institutions, no matter how good they may be, sometimes fail. And that is when something like her leak becomes important, because it gives the people the knowledge to hold the institution accountable.

Third, people need to think about what might happen with the work that they do. She said that technologists, software engineers, and others need to think about what can be done with the tools that they are building. They need to think about how those tools might be used in other contexts, and they need to talk to one another, whether formally or informally to get outside perspectives.

“Software developers have an inherent ethical obligation. We need to think beyond meeting deadlines and meeting criteria.”

She recognized that this has real world costs in time and money, but she said that they need to “red team” more of their work – have someone look at it oppositionally – to make sure that the tools they are developing don’t cause harm.

“Let’s take some chunks of time and say ‘what are the consequences of this system.’ How can this be misused?’”

Throughout the interview Ms. MacFarquhar came back a few times to the question of what advice Ms. Manning would give someone facing the decision about whether or not to leak information or take some similar action. But there was no easy answer or guidelines.

“There’s not a one-sized fits all answer. It depends on what is in front of you.”

Ms. Manning said that her leak was a political act. It was done out of the sense that sometimes people need to do something that goes beyond the ballot box to make up for when institutions fail. Individual circumstance and conscience will often determine what should be done, but people need to realize that they have the power to do something, she said.

“Every single person has to make their own decision. Every single one of us has the innate agency to act.”

Current Events: War by Thursday? How Rational Are We?

8 Oct

The United States could be at war with North Korea by Wednesday.  The scenario, as laid out by Ambassador Wendy Sherman at The New Yorker Festival’s North Korea panel, could go something like this.

Tuesday, October 10: North Korea tests a new long range missile to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the communist party and to show it can hit the United States.

Wednesday, October 11: Donald Trump decertifies the Iranian nuclear treaty, despite reports from the International Atomic Energy Commission that Iran is complying.

Thursday, October 12: The United States pulls out of the Iran deal, and war starts with North Korea.

Ambassador Sherman served as special adviser on North Korea to President Bill Clinton, and was the lead American negotiator the Iran nuclear deal. She did not specify what the spark would be that could touch off a war with North Korea or who would initiate it, but instead pointed out that the danger was an escalating cycle that would override the rationality of the two sides.

Ambassador Sherman was on the panel with James R. Clapper, Jr., the former U.S. director of national intelligence, having held the position under President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2017, Suki Kim, is the author of the Times best-seller “Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korean Elite” and the novel “The Interpreter,” Robert E. Kelly, a professor in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University, and the famed BBC dad, and Sue Mi Terry, the senior adviser on Korea for BowerGroupAsia, and who was formerly a senior analyst for the C.I.A., focusing on Korean issues. The panel was moderated by New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos.

This distinguished panel did have some good news. They say that nearly everyone who studies North Korea agrees on two points.

  1. Kim Jong Un is not suicidal, and is primarily concerned with preserving his regime, which leads to…
  2. North Korea is not going to attack the United States directly.

These conclusions are based on the notion that Kim Jong Un is rational person. That rationality also means that he will not give up his nuclear weapons, because he is worried about suffering the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up nuclear weapons and ended up deposed and dead, Ms. Terry said.

So the question becomes whether or not the United States could live with a nuclear armed North Korea that is capable of sending a nuclear tipped ICBM to the United States. The question becomes one of living in a kind of cold war existence with the North Koreans. On one hand, there is a belief that the North Koreans would be unlikely to ever do anything of the sort because they know that it would be the end of their country. On the other hand, there are some observers who believe that the North Koreans would try to blackmail the United States with its nuclear arsenal so that U.S. troops would leave and North Korea could try to take over the whole peninsula.

Prof. Kelly dismissed the second idea as unlikely because the Koreans would never be able to absorb the South Korean people into their society even if they could beat South Korea’s larger, and better equipped army. The South Korean people would never accept a repressive regime, and being far more numerous would overwhelm the North Korean culture. Additionally, they would never buy the notion of King Jon Un as a god-like ruler, not having been indoctrinated into that notion since birth.

The indoctrination of the North Korean people is what makes the problem of North Korea more difficult. Ms. Kim pointed out that the people of North Korea are somewhat infantilized by the constant control and that they have no context to think about their regime from the outside world. So, it makes sense for the average north Korean to believe that the United States is an enemy poised to attack them at any moment and that the dear leader is the only one who can save the people. She believes the long term strategy for dealing with Korea is to try to get information into Korea about the world outside so that they can rethink their situation, but she and the rest of panel admit this is a long play and not enough to deal with the current nuclear situation.

Mr. Clapper said that there are signs of hope in that the a member of the younger generation had said to him on one visit that “I have been to Seoul and I have seen what is there” in a way that made him think that the official had second thoughts about how great North Korea is. Mr. Clapper also pointed out that unless there is some kind of carrot to go with the threat of sticks, there would not likely be much movement in the situation. He thinks that the North Koreans will need to be accepted into the nuclear club and told to act like grownups now that they are in it.

One further complication in all of this is that China wants North Korea as a buffer against South Korea, the United States and Japan, despite being South Korea’s largest trading partner. Convincing China that a regime change in North Korea would be ideal is probably the easiest bet for change, but that is a tall order.

Ultimately, the panel agreed that it will take more than one thing to solve the North Korea problem successfully. As Ambassador Sherman said, the United States will need to use every tool it has, diplomacy, the credible threat of force to support diplomacy, sanctions, public diplomacy to the North Korean people, cyber warfare, and even basketball diplomacy with the likes of Dennis Rodman.

With any luck, we all won’t be singing the blues about Sad News from Korea.