Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Clash of Civilizations? by Samuel P. Huntington

“Conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict”

I had often heard of Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations? and wanted to know more about it, so I finally read the initial article, watched a rebuttal lecture and then read the Wikipedia article. My thoughts are below:

Original article
I wasn’t too impressed. This could be because it wasn’t impressive or because the idea was so influential that I already know it (as it was written 15 years ago) and therefore (unfairly) don’t give him much credit.
I tend to think it is more the former though, because the central concept, a civilization, isn’t sufficiently defined. Huntington seems to present a super category of civilization above nationalism, ideology and religion and other factors, but at other times provides anecdotal evidence using nationalism, ideology and religion to support his argument.
To say that people tend to form groups based on various traits, beliefs, and characteristics they share and that they have greater friction and/or disdain for those not in their groups was and is nothing new. To say that the group identify that will be most important is that of a civilization is one that I did not find overtly convincing because I tend to think that is not the main wedge issue. Sure enough, “Western” power/imperialism is often railed against, but I see that more of various actions (military, economic, ideological) that have had impacts on other nations and cultures instead of “Western Civilization.” So, there is some truth to his thesis, but not to the extent that it should have received the high degree of attention that it did. Finally, I kept getting the impression he is saying it is cultural, but then he’ll indicate it is something more than that, and I would be left with uncertainty. Consequently, the concept of ‘civilization’ lacked clarity and utility.

Edward Said presents a severe critique of Huntington, saying his thesis is wrong at best and he is warmongering at worst. Said importantly, noted the diversity that exists within a civilization/culture (political/ideological, various sub- and countercultures) and therefore refuted the simplistic characterization used by Huntington. Said also questions Huntington’s purpose, is he trying to understand and resolve conflicts or to galvanize and defend hegemony against cultures? Said concludes that Huntington is not engaging in a constructive task (and notes that in his subsequent book there is no longer a question mark).
I agreed with much of Said’s lecture (but I also seem to agree with him ideologically, so that is a potential factor in my assessment of his position(s)).

I learned that it was supposedly a response to Fukuyama’s End of History thesis. So perhaps this is a case where an overstatement leads to an opposite overstatement, with reality lying in the middle.
Other useful wiki content:
“The definition, nomenclature, and even the number of civilizations are somewhat ambiguous in Huntington's works.”
“According to Berman, distinct cultural boundaries do not exist in the present day. He argues there is no "Islamic civilization" nor a "Western civilization", and that the evidence for a civilization clash is not convincing, especially when considering relationships such as that between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In addition, he cites the fact that many Islamic extremists spent a significant amount of time living and/or studying in the western world. According to Berman conflict arises because of philosophical beliefs between groups, regardless of cultural or religious identity.”
“Said argues that Huntington's categorization of the world's fixed "civilizations" omits the dynamic interdependency and interaction of culture. All his ideas are based not on harmony but on the clash or conflict between worlds. The theory that each world is “self-enclosed” is applied to the world map, to the structure of civilizations, to the notion that each race has a special destiny and psychology. According to Said, it is an example of an imagined geography, where the presentation of the world in a certain way legitimates certain politics. Interventionist and aggressive, the concept of civilizational clash is aimed at maintaining a war time status in the minds of the Americans. Thus, it continues to expand the Cold War by other means rather than advancing ideas that might help us understand the current scene or that could reconcile the two cultures.”

Finally, although there are many flaws in Huntington’s essay, I did think he provided a concise description of why other groups/culture’s take issue with Western hegemony:
THE WEST IS NOW at an extraordinary peak of power in relation to other civilizations. In superpower opponent has disappeared from the map. Military conflict among Western states is unthinkable, and Western military power is unrivaled. Apart from Japan, the West faces no economic challenge. It dominates international economic institutions. Global political and security issues are effectively settled by a directorate of the United States, Britain and France, world economic issues by a directorate of the United States, Germany and Japan, all of which maintain extraordinarily close relations with each other to the exclusion of lesser and largely non-Western countries. Decisions made at the U.N. Security Council or in the International Monetary Fund that reflect the interests of the West are presented to the world as reflecting the desires of the world community. The very phrase "the world community" has become the euphemistic collective noun (replacing "the Free World") to give global legitimacy to actions reflecting the interests of the United States and other Western powers. Through the IMF and other international economic institutions, the West promotes its economic interests and imposes on other nations the economic policies it thinks appropriate. In any poll of non-Western peoples, the IMF undoubtedly would win the support of finance ministers and a few others, but get an overwhelmingly unfavorable rating from just about everyone else, who would agree with Georgy Arbatov's characterization of IMF officials as "neo-Bolsheviks who love expropriating other people's money, imposing undemocratic and alien rules of economic and political conduct and stifling economic freedom."

They Stood up for Love - Live

"They Stood up for Love" was/is one of my favourite songs, which I happen to rediscover today. Unexpectedly (and happily), it is taking me back to a time when I was more relaxed, hopeful and connected.
Lyrics are below, followed by the original video (which is okay), an acoustic version and one of the many Youtube unofficial edits.

Naked lovers feel the blood beneath their veins
electric nerves communicate
with tiny explosions through our brains
who is this energy that never left or came?
give rise to passion the only glory
of this human story I give my heart and soul to the one

we spend all of our lives goin' out of our minds
looking back to our birth, forward to our demise
even scientists say, everything is just light
not created, destroyed but eternally bright
masters in every time lord in everyplace
those who stood up for love down in spite of the hate
in spite of the hate

who put the flower in the barrel of that gun?
who lit the candle that started the fire,
burnt down the fortress, the throne?
who could house all the refugees in a single shack
or a lowly bungalow?
who lives in a different dimension, free from the
struggles we know?

I give my heart and soul to the one

we spend all of our lives goin' out of our minds
looking back to our birth, forward to our demise
even scientists say, everything is just light
not created, destroyed but eternally bright
masters in everytime lord in everyplace
those who stood up for love down in spite of the hate
we spend all of our lives goin' out of our minds
they live in the light

we made it to the moon
but we can't make it home
waitin' on a rescue that never comes
made it to the moon
but we can't make it home
maybe home is where the heart is given up
to the one
to the one

we spend all of our lives goin' out of our minds
lookin' back to our birth, forward to our demise
we spend all of our lives goin' out of our minds
they live, they

they stood up for love
stood up for love
stood up for love
they stood up for love
stood up for love
stood up for love

we spend all of our lives goin' out of our minds
masters in every time
we spend all of our lives goin' out of our minds
stood up for love

Original Video
Video Cover
Another Video Cover (of which the different acoustic version is why I linked it)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Stunt man jets across Colorado gorge

Soon I'll just need a cape?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Kabul 30 Years Ago, and Kabul Today

Have We Learned Nothing? - Fisk in The Independent

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb examines the underappreciated role that randomness plays in our lives, with an emphasis on traders and markets. I enjoyed this book because it was intelligent, diverse, quirky, accessible and informative. The first part discusses ideas of probability and randomness and how they affect what we (can) know. The second part provides information on the various cognitive biases that humans have. I found the latter less useful because of prior exposure, but because these biases are so pernicious a review is always welcome.
I was pleased that Taleb explored an idea I’ve been thinking about the last little while – how much luck might have influenced the life of someone who is successful. An analogy is if you had a national coin flipping guessing tournament surely someone would be the winner by guessing correctly 25 times in a row. But the particular winner does not have luck as a personality trait; it is just that luck happened to them. Consequently, this could be true in other areas of life, such as business and markets. Sure enough, if there is a large pool of traders, one can figure out how many would be successful due to luck. This is called survivorship bias. I recommend this excellent overview of randomness, its influences and human cognitive biases.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Chomsky vs. Buckley: The Complete Interview

I watched the supposedly historic interview/debate today and was disappointed. I thought it would be a intelligent discussion of ideas and not a sophist providing poor argumentation, false analogies and cheap tactics to address Chomsky's statements and ideas.

Deference to authority is rarely warranted, but it is when there is good reason to trust such an 'authority.' I sometimes wonder if I have done that too much with Chomsky, but considering Buckley was the leading intelligent conservative of his time and displayed such weak argumentation, it does seem that Chomsky deserves even more credibility and respect for his views than I have thus far bestowed.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Physics: Quantum balls, Einstein supported and space pictures

Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

A very worthwhile endeavor because I had never read any Freud firsthand and wanted to have a (somewhat) informed opinion (as my prior limited exposure consisted of discussions about secondary criticisms). The book was short, generally interesting and didn’t say too many insightful things (as the author kept pointing out). The book briefly discusses Freud’s better known theories (Ego, Id, Superego, Sublimation… etc) as they relate to how civilization and cultural pressures have had an impact on people and their thoughts and feelings.

I get the impression that the book is representative of Freud in that he displayed a highly analytical nature, a belief in the validity of science, experimentation and data collection, and had incredibly weird theories that (I’m guessing) were based on misunderstandings of evolution and history and unwarranted extrapolation from his clinical and personal experiences. I thought it was intriguing how Freud was so highly aware of our biological instincts but could usefully situate this knowledge into an evolutionary framework.
What took the proverbial cake for me was a footnote early in the book that addressed the issue of discovery and control of fire and dominance in a group. Freud suggested that it was the man who could resist the urethral urge to put out the fire that would be able to maintain the fire and therefore the respect/fear of his group. Such a peculiar conjecture warrants the “I guess that is possible, but as there is little evidence or reason to supply validity to that hypothesis, it seems highly improbable.”

Aside: Although I have both an undergraduate and masters degree in psychology I was never exposed to Freud because I was studying cognitive psychology. So it is consistently interesting (and intermittently annoying) that Freud is the main association to “Psychology” and the first thing people say when you say you are a psych major is “Are you analyzing me right now?” Regardless, I was pleased to have read it but probably won’t explore much more of Freud’s works.

The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us by Robyn Meredith

Overall, a decent book. It explores how China is increasingly becoming the “factory to the world” and India is increasingly becoming the “back office to the world.” The book also provided some brief history of both countries and their respective economic paths. It was informative, but not extensively so because I was exposed to much of content in Friedman’s The World is Flat. Consequently, if you haven’t read that book or something similar, you would probably find The Elephant and The Dragon worthwhile.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

"My major hobby is teasing people who take themselves & the quality of their knowledge too seriously & those who don’t have the courage to sometimes say: I don’t know...." (You may not be able to change the world but can at least get some entertainment & make a living out of the epistemic arrogance of the human race).
(from his homepage)

Fascinating interview here