Pigeons, shallow benches, and asthma (The Cracked Vessel: April 23rd, 2018)

Hello Friends,

I grew up with terrible asthma. Asthma is a vicious cycle where inflammation causes one’s body to produce mucus, some of which drips into one’s lungs, which then in turn cause more inflammation that produces more mucus, etc. The symptoms are a lot of coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. The prognosis is incurable, though it can be managed.

As a kid, my bouts of asthma were so bad that they sent me to the hospital a couple times. All I remember from these occasions was gagging in pain as I acutely realized that there was only one thing I needed to live, air, and I wasn’t getting enough of it. Then I would black out, waking up in a hospital bed.

Naturally, I developed an antipathy towards sports. Anything that taxed my weak respiratory system was out of the question. I also couldn’t stand being outside because pollen allergies would often trigger an asthma attack. The world seemed to be full of threats that only my body could detect.

The cycle of asthma felt inescapable. I remember looking for something inside of me that I could never quite catch. I coveted the sense of normalcy embodied in other kids at school and on TV, free to navigate the world unburdened. I thought that if I could find a way to break this asthmatic cycle inside of myself, my body, I could finally be free to be me.

My asthma subsided in 1996; my family had moved into a freshly built house in an outer edge suburban subdivision of Atlanta. My condition improved once we were no longer living in a low rent apartment brimming with allergens.

By climbing onto the next rung of the middle class ladder, our reward as a family was just a little bit more respect and my reward was being able to breathe. I believed in a childish way that I could work my way out of my own asthma.

A couple years ago, I started having asthma attacks again. The great British comedian Spike Milligan once described his manic depression as a hunch in his back, always there, always a part of you.

Having an asthma attack felt like meeting an old friend again. I felt helpless and even a bit relieved. You wouldn’t turn an old friend away from your front door would you?

Nevertheless, this time I was certain that I could discipline myself and my environment into something clean, safe, and healthy. I’ve done everything from dusting, vacuuming regularly, running an air filter, checking for mold, placing pillows and mattress in special hypoallergenic sleeves.

I felt like Hausmann let loose on Paris, studiously planning the transformation of the medieval city of my body and environment into a true metropolis with tidy french gardens, wide boulevards, and geometrically precise public squares.

But there is always folly in this approach. Next time you’re in the middle of a city, pick a spot downtown and make a survey of which buildings around you were designed to prevent birds from perching on them.

Sometime around the 1980s, I think, particularly wealthy developers and their architects started to design buildings that pigeons couldn’t befoul with their presence or their excrement. They’re often very smooth, with sloped edges that birds can’t rest their claws on.

Looking around a city, you’ll also notice that there is no shortage of places birds can hang out. It’s not like these smooth bird-less buildings are hurting the birds. Pigeons, seagulls, and sparrows can fly and roost nearly anywhere.

It’s more like these smooth buildings are a discourtesy to the birds, denying them a place to sit because we don’t want to deal with their visual detritus settling in on our world.

It just seems a bit rude to the birds I suppose.

Moreso, the design philosophy behind making buildings that birds can’t sit on has also given us benches people can’t lie down on and other instruments of torture masquerading as public facilities. They are smooth and flat with carefully placed spikes, and I’ll admit, not a single speck of shit on them most of the time. Yet these cases of hostile architecture are cruel, designed so that those who are homeless can’t seek respite on them.

There’s a belief in this design that the homeless, like pigeons, are a pollutant, and that by denying them a place to rest, they’ll leave. Alas, we don’t even need to look beyond the progressive Bay Area and the gleaming high-tech utopia of San Francisco to realize that "foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." As noted in the San Francisco Chronicle, the city is full of benches that fold up at night, spikes in planter boxes, and even boulders placed on potential tent sites. By smoothing over the appearance of the city, its citizens and planners have merely buried the rot under a thin veneer.

Despite my childhood belief in personal perfectibility, I’ve also long distrusted smoothness and flatness. To borrow some terminology from mathematician Irving Segal, smooth and flat things are unstable, because their curvature, in mathematical terms, is exactly zero. Any slight deviation from zero, no matter how infinitesimal, would make it curved, and therefore no longer smooth and flat. Two things curved to different magnitudes are still curved. No curved thing can ever be flat though.

What this means is that a smooth and flat surface can’t gracefully transition into a surface that’s curved without breaking the quality of flatness. It’s like dividing a number by another really small infinitesimal number versus dividing by zero. The former just gives you another number, the latter gives you infinity. In smoothness and flatness I’ve always seen a brittle non-resiliency that would be unreliable and untrustworthy under any strain or pressure.

Immanuel Kant reminds us that out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing could ever be made. But if you can’t make something straight, you could at least break it down into pieces and rebuild it to be straighter, faster, and more efficient right? Take light for example. As every schoolchild knows, if you pass a beam of white light through a prism, out the other side will emerge a rainbow of colors. This is because a prism’s crystalline substance refracts the light like an angled column of soldiers trudging in lockstep across a muddy field. Thanks Newton.

So shouldn’t it be possible to break things down, perfect each molecule, and recombine them into something that inherits perfection from its parts. Theoretically, yes, but did you know that each of these colors can also be refracted into a spectrum too? And that depending on which country you’re in the colors that come out are different? Or that Newton didn’t care much for this experiment, or really most of physics.

Newton was obsessed with the state of his soul and the nature of the afterlife and how to interpret Scripture, so much so that scholars have yet to work through his incredibly prodigious output on the topic of devils, how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, and the like. Newton worked on math and physics because he thought that the application of reason ad infinitum could reveal God’s truth.

Alas, when you take apart a gothic cathedral, study its parts, and throw all the parts back together again, you don’t ever get a gothic cathedral again. You just get a pile of rocks.

As far as my asthma goes, I’m doing a lot better now. I take preventative medication to keep it under control. I’ve domesticated my condition without vanquishing it.

What has surprised me about keeping my asthma under control is that I miss the feeling that my body is reacting to something real and urgent. While I might have brought myself to a state of normalcy, I still can’t shake the feeling that this normal is deeply wrong.

We adopted a cat last year, and she fortunately hasn’t affected my ongoing tenuous truce with my environment. We recently discovered, however, that she has asthma too. Like father, like son.


Events

For the latest events listing, please see this Events page


Fragments

The best book review this week -- Dan Sinker on James Comey's new book in The AV Club:
>> You’d think given a lucrative book contract and free rein to write the tale of his tumultuous four months with the Trump administration, former FBI Director James Comey would use A Higher Loyalty: Truth Lies And Leadership to drop some bombs. Instead, he drops 24 gallons of milk.

Alexander Chee on the grim fate of the American writer in The Paris Review:
>> To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth but into it.

Jaron Lanier on what went wrong with tech in NYMag:
>> The rhetoric from the companies is often about AI, that what they’re really doing — like YouTube’s parent company, Google, says what they really are is building the giant global brain that’ll inherit the earth and they’ll upload you to that brain and then you won’t have to die. It’s very, very religious in the rhetoric. And so it’s turning into this new religion, and it’s a religion that doesn’t care about you. It’s a religion that’s completely lacking in empathy or any kind of personal acknowledgment. And it’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideas. And I think that of all of the things, that’s the worst thing about it.

Maud Newton on David Foster Wallace in the NY Times:
>> Qualifications are necessary sometimes. Anticipating and defusing opposing arguments has been a vital rhetorical strategy since at least the days of Aristotle. Satire and ridicule, when done well, are high art. But the idea is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, straightforwardly, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward

Matt Pearce on Standard Gawker English in The New Inquiry:
>> Reading a little deeper into Newton’s criticism, we see the same two implied culprits we met with Wallace: a philosophy of moral relativism that softens critique and a culture of social insecurity that pleads for likes and follows. The two mash together to create a generation of pleasers and hedgers, a digital world of opinionless opinionators. We don’t know what’s right, and even if we did, we wouldn’t want to make anybody mad. And these choices are reflected against the pools of “sort ofs” and “reallys” swamping our prose, like portraits of a spineless Dorian Gray.

Rick Perlstein's “Outsmarted” in the Baffler:
>> “Smart” is an identity. “Smart” has a politics. “Smart” can be a road to authenticity, or “smart” can be a con. (Think of Elizabeth Holmes, who founded the biotech startup Theranos after studying Mandarin as a child, launching a company during college at Stanford, and then dropping out; she gulled George Shultz and Henry Kissinger into serving on her new company’s board of directors, becoming “America’s youngest self-made female billionaire in the world,” according to Forbes, even though the technology she was selling apparently didn’t even work.) “Smart” carries within it its own logic of domination, resistance, resentment—the logic that produces both reactionary pedants and ferociously winking liberal elites.
 

Output


Maud Newton: “Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all.”

Oscar Wilde: “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”

Bernard Crick: “Politics is ethics done in public”

Onwards,

Sarang

Let's try something different (The Cracked Vessel: April 16th, 2018)

Hello friends,

As some of you may already know, I no longer have a Facebook account.

Why, you may ask, would I leave? I’m sure that at this point, with Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Congress or the myriad privacy scandals that have emerged over the past several years, that you know a few reasons why you would leave yourself.

Even if Facebook hasn’t threatened your privacy itself, a globally conscious, civically minded person may also be incensed by Facebook’s manipulation of people’s emotions for clicks, its deliberate interference with entire country’s politics, such as in Myanmar and Cambodia, its willful decimation of the digital publishing industry in its cutthroat pursuit of lock-in, and, of course, its enormous knowing role in the dissemination of extremist views and false information in the US and the UK during our election seasons.

Unfortunately, these reasons alone weren’t enough to compel me to leave. Like many of us, the spectacle of overwhelming technological progress and its absorption of every aspect of my life had left me with a cold, submissive resignation in my heart. Years of inculcation into the cult of technological progress had convinced me, rather ironically, that nothing will ever change.

As the years have gone by, I became aware that something had gone terribly wrong. I’ve gotten into trouble in the past, whether it was resisting to do work that I didn’t believe in at the school or office, or just plain refusing to be told to sit down and stay quiet. Yet, the more I used Facebook, Twitter, and the like, the more I felt this rebellious spirit dim. I realized that my own courage to confront the world became dissipated, while these technologies and platforms frictionlessly transformed my cowardice into a thin waxy skin over my life.

I have also seen public life change drastically. Train cars have gone quiet, everyone tilting their head downwards into their phone, unaware of the bodies around them (as a small person, it has been really annoying navigating myself through fleshy pillars of stupor to find a hanger strap on a crowded commute). Restaurant patrons place their phones in front of them and mediate their social interactions, even with the people they are on a date with, through social platforms. Coworkers endlessly scroll through Facebook during meetings and between frenzied, anxious bouts of “Oh shit, we have to get this done now!” (in their defense, most jobs in the “knowledge economy” are bullshit). I have even seen my own friends and relations drown. But how could I tell how much we’ve submerged together if I’m drowning too?

I have found that social media, smartphones, and other daily technological agents of distraction were small ways  by which the great vitality of our lives could be chopped into chunks that could be bought and sold. As a generation of renters we’ve given up the right to own our homes and neighborhoods. As contract workers we’ve given up our say in what we do. And as media addicts, we’ve given up our time. Now it has become clear that we’ve been giving up our relationships, our voice, and even, as Audre Lorde would put it, our uses of the erotic.

Most importantly though, I found that the addictive qualities of modern life, its consumptions, its distractions, and its anxieties, made me depressed. It;s been making others depressed too. And its effects rend relationships and understandings like a river of daggers coursing through our body politics and our personal communities. I found that the longer I was in the hamster wheel of Facebook and its like, the more I became de-socialized. I have been losing my ability to be graceful and well-tempered because I had fallen out of the practice of being socially present.

We are all addicted to it. It may not be Facebook, but it may be Instagram. It may be buying things on Amazon. It may be all sorts of digital and non-digital distractions that refract us away from just sitting with our own lives in all their terrifying beauty and pain and saying these lives are ours, this life is mine. Thus addicted, we feel like we have no control except over these little tchotchkes that form our identity and appearance, and the poverty of our collective imagination leaves us unable to imagine how things could be otherwise.

If we continue to live this way, this Age of Anxiety we live in will surely culminate in an Age of Despair.

We don’t have to live this way. Every path to salvation emerges from the gaps of what cannot be controlled. In every interaction between us and the world, and between ourselves, exists an electric frisson of possibilities yet to be seen and understood.

This ether is the unknown, and unknowing is how it can be seen. In a world where everything is proscribed by rational, scientific progress, and thus the world fully known and persistently able to be known, unknowing seeks to reveal what has been hidden away and unseen.

Unknowing is the practice of living in truth by seeing.

I've decided to start a project called The School of Unknowing (SOU). This performance of law, art, science, and politics is my attempt to break out of the addictive cycles of the world we live in through the practice of unknowing. It's the next stage in a project I started years ago under the mentorship of the late Dr. David Finkelstein to develop a poetic action-based language for describing a "praxiological" world.

So, how does unknowing differ from other practices of seeing and being present? Many of these practices focus intensely on the individual and that individual’s struggle to cope with the world, whereas unknowing seeks to be more generative and willing to foster something new. As a school, unknowing places a strong emphasis on teaching to learn. As a canon of knowledge, it seeks to bring to light and draw connections from around the world and throughout history between criticisms of our modern order, much as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin struggled to do through his essays. As a community, the school of unknowing seeks to build a revised moral order and to create or nourish institutions that encourage this order in all sectors of society.

By unknowing what we’ve been taught about the markets, progress, human nature, the “correct” order of things, relationships, science, religion, and even our own mortality, we may gradually accumulate the symbols, myths, and rituals to emerge from this vicious cycle of addiction in which we’re trapped.

Furthermore, unknowing allows us to live in our own lives and not the projected lives of others. It gives us a chance to exercise control over our own sense of truth. There are no arbiters of what is true, no ontological overlords, no professional, specialized authorities to appeal to for truth. What is seen and felt sincerely is true.

Unknowing is the cultivation of taste. It acknowledges beauty and the sublime, rejects the tyranny of choice, and by cultivating ethical tastes, seeks moral conviction. As we say at Distilled, it encourages people to stand their ground and defend it, wisely.

Finally, unknowing is engaging with the world. Only by acting in the world can one learn wisdom and cultivate one’s knowledge and experience. Unknowing stagnates when it is never acted upon because it merely generates the same questions over and over again. If power is the ability to act and produce an effect, then to unknow is to seek power, exercise it with wisdom, and observe carefully the consequences. By unknowing something and acting on it, you change what is being unknown and allowing oneself to be changed. Unknowing seeks to adapt the artists, writers, and actors’ craft into the realm of politics and social relations.

The School of Unknowing project is a performance dedicated to teaching unknowing to others so they may practice and teach it themselves. By this process, these students of unknowing may seek to cultivate their own gardens wherever they are, whether that’s in their home, their workplace, their church or temple, or their public square.

The SOU will be a series of lectures, performances, meetups, and publications, starting with this newsletter. The intent is to grow the SOU into an organization that is harmonizing, humanizing, and civilizing of our human desires and needs. It seeks to channel the essential, undeniable dignity accorded to each person into a powerful force for inner freedom.

There’s a lot more to write and do. Thankfully, without Facebook and other distractions, I’ll have a lot more time on my hands. I’d like to delve into what the practice of unknowing looks like, apart from shunning soul-sapping distractions. I’d like to explore the shifting canon of work that has informed this project for me, and to borrow from the personal canons of others. And I’d like to greatly expand the performative aspect of this project in the short-term with lectures and plays. I suspect that it will take a very long time before the School of Unknowing project comes to a graceful end.

But for now, this feels like a sufficient beginning. Every one of us has to take a first step towards expressing that great web of meaning that lies at the core of our being. I hope that I have just taken mine.

Announcements

I am going to Berkeley Law School this fall.
I'd love to receive any advice or thoughts on law school and pursuing a legal career.


As for this newsletter, I'll be publishing weekly on Monday mornings (with future e-mails likely being shorter than today's introductory edition). I'll also see if I can insert a table of contents into these things at the top of the e-mail.

Events

Fragments (Shored)

T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding    

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing    

Memory and desire, stirring    

Dull roots with spring rain.    

Winter kept us warm, covering             

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding    

A little life with dried tubers.    

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee    

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,    

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,      

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

 

On Philip Roth in the NY Review of Books:

On a morning walk in Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution, with a crowd of people laughing at giant television screens showing footage of a Communist Party meeting held several months earlier. “I thought that this must be the highest purpose of laughter, to bury wickedness in ridicule”

 

John Ruskin in Modern Painters:

“The power which causes the several portions of a plant to help each other we call life. Intensity of life is also intensity of helpfulness. The ceasing of this help is what we call corruption.”

 

From Vaclav Havel’s Politics and Conscience

Does not the perspective of a better future depend on something like an international community of the shaken which, ignoring state boundaries, political systems, and power blocs, standing outside the high game of traditional politics, aspiring to no titles and appointments, will seek to make a real political force out of a phenomenon so ridiculed by the technicians of power the phenomenon of human conscience?

 

Will Davies on the "data sublime" in The New Inquiry:

This is the possibility that lurks within the Data Sublime. Sheer quantitative magnitude is as disturbing as exciting, no matter from which angle one perceives it. The engineers of the smart city or the sharing economy undoubtedly want to be rich. But the capacity for social control has now outgrown any currently available political project. Its sole purpose is to sate the more dispersed desire to be controlled.

 

Barbara Ehrenreich on dying (as told to The Guardian):

“When you think about some of these issues, like how a cell can make decisions, and a lot of other things I talk about in the book, like an electron deciding whether to go through this place in a grid or that place. When you see there’s agency even in the natural world. When you think about it all being sort of alive like that, it’s very different from dying if you think there’s nothing but your mind in the universe, or your mind and God’s mind.”
 

Death becomes less a terrifying leap into the abyss and more like an embrace of ongoing life, she believes.

“If you think of the whole thing as potentially thriving and jumping around and having agency at some level, it’s fine to die,” she adds reassuringly.

 

Italo Calvino in "Six Memos for the Next Millenium"

“The mind of the poet and in certain key moments the mind of the scientist both function according to a process of image association, which is the quickest way to link and choose among the infinite forms of the possible and the impossible.”

 

Restaurants are doing it for the gram

“They saw the photos and they say, ‘I want that for my Instagram,’” she says. The average guest takes pictures for 10 minutes before ordering anything, Markoe says. Many bring tripods to better frame their shots. “It’s just really insane,” she says.


Saul Bellow: “The noise of life is the great threat, the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.”


Tom Scocca's classic treatise On Smarm

What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.
...
Where does the grease go? Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity. It's not enough anymore to point to God or the Western tradition or the civilized consensus for a definitive value judgment. Yet a person can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely.
...

Anger is upsetting to smarm. But so is humor and confidence.
...

The actual answer, and his actual fear—the fear that keeps the smarmers tossing on their bullshit-stuffed mattresses on the beds of bullshit they would have us all sleep in—is this: We are exactly the same size as you are. Everybody is.

Output

Lord Acton on freedom: “Not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

Onwards,

Sarang

Our Inestimable Humanity (originally published at distilled.pm)

We started Distilled in 2012 as an international quarterly magazine. We published four issues consisting of articles written by students and young professionals about politics, economics, and culture. In our initial run, we built a steady readership and a stable of writers, publishing a blog, interviews, and even political cartoons.

What we realized is that our most important asset was the community of writers and readers we brought together. We originally chose a quarterly magazine as our model because we wanted to organize our articles by a theme or a question, and to foster a diverse, wide-ranging discussion amongst our contributors around a particular topic. We cultivated our writing, provoked heated debates about politics, economics, and culture, and even engaged in dialogue with other publications and communities.

Alas, we were unable to keep a community spanning oceans and time zones engaged through just a quarterly magazine. Since our student days, our ability to publish several articles four times a year became strained as we developed our respective careers and crafts, built relationships with our local communities, and started our own eclectic families.

In many ways, this was exactly what we wanted. Distilled, from the very beginning, hoped that its writers and readers would become active and engaged members of various professional and personal communities, and in the process develop unique and diverse ways of relating to the world.

Nevertheless, the world remains troubled. Since 2012, the global crisis of confidence has unleashed a flood of violence, xenophobia, and greed that had previously been tethered loosely by propriety. Every day we see people’s fear manifest in the support of extremist, violent policies; in the rampant predatory behavior of corporate and financial entities; in government crackdowns of free speech and movement; and in the relentless hollowing-out of civic, liberal, humanizing institutions. Dogmatic followers of charismatic leaders promise the end of suffering and redemption, not realizing that out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing has ever been made.

The fragile harmony of our world is under attack from the dogmatic and frightened. The best still lack conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

We believe that the only way forward is through cultivating and nurturing a global community. This global community must have the courage to stand boldly against fear, and to share what we learn as we go along.

We also realized that the only way to salvage courage from fear is to be aware, present, and fully engaged with the world we live in and the people we are around.

Courage erupts from living in truth. The principle of courage was the driving impetus of Distilled in 2012, and remain the reason why we must have Distilled today.

So, how do we live in truth and courage?

We must seek full engagement with the world we live in, forming a community in which we actively share our ideas, wisdom, skills, and ways of living.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, and consequently more unstable, we must forge a community that too is international and diverse but united by a common belief in the value of civil discussion. Only in such a community can people seek refuge from dogma and extremism.

We must together consider the story of where we have been, who we are, and where we are going. And when the time comes, our community must have the courage to stand our ground and defend it, wisely.

For if we succumb, we will be irrevocably devoured by fear.

Distilled is relaunching as a print and digital pamphlet series. Articles and essays submitted to Distilled will be mailed to our community mailing list as a printed pamphlet, and distributed digitally as a secure e-pamphlet.

Why pamphlets?

Pamphlets are intimate, like letters from dear friends. Anyone in the community can respond directly to a pamphlet through either a letter to the editor or another pamphlet. Pamphlets are easy to produce, and the techniques for producing and distributing pamphlets in both print and digital forms can be easily shared with the entire community. They can also be easily distributed in local coffee shops, bookstores, pubs and amongst friends, and digitally via e-mail, flash drive, phone, computer-to-computer connection, and social media. Pamphlets can be smuggled into restrictive countries and workplaces, and distributed in a way that is difficult to trace.

Digital pamphlets can be further securitized and distributed on local devices free from the monitoring and tracking of the internet, facilitating a digital samizdat. Finally, pamphlets have a long and august history of communicating subversive ideas across communities. These pamphlets will create a forum of letters amongst the Distilled community, which is held together by the principles of courage, engagement, and living in truth.

Nothing is permanent. Everything changes. What we are building together is mercifully not a utopia or a paradise. Instead, we are cultivating an intellectual avant-garde in which engaged and meaningful ideas and relationships have the time and patience to germinate and grow.

Our community won’t last forever, but it is indeed a refuge for our own inestimable humanity.

We humbly invite you to join us,

Sarang

April 2016

How to Act in Times of Chaos (originally published at distilled.pm)

By Bram De Ridder, Brecht Savelkoul, and Sarang Shah

Five years ago we started Distilled as a response to what we called "The Global Crisis in Confidence". At the time countries the world over were running into severe institutional problems. These problems weren't limited to one specific field, but ran across the spectrum, from the political to the financial, from the social to the cultural. We thought these issues were serious, but probably not yet existential, as there was still time to fix them. That is why we followed up our first magazine with three more issues analysing these problems in a thoughtfulorderly manner.

Now half a decade further a lot has changed, but nothing has really been fixed. And in a lot of places time has run out. This was the case first of all in the Islamic world, where the open wounds caused by the Iraq war of 2003 quickly infected a whole region destabilised by the Arab Spring of 2011. This might also be the case in the United States and Great Britain, where two electoral Rubicons were crossed last year, undoubtedly leading to a more chaotic future. France and Germany may follow their lead in 2017.

On the geopolitical field nothing has been solved either, and new problems are created every month. North Korea is still North Korea. The Middle-East is suffering from even more foreign interventionism. Both Russia and China are reacting ever more assertively to continued Western containment — Russia more so than China under the Obama administration, under Trump possibly the other way around.

We're experiencing a phantom economic recovery at best, and none of the root causes of the 2008 financial crisis have been addressed. And then there's the small matter of climate change, where the modest progress made before Trump will not survive the next few months. Although we should never give up the hope to fix things, we no longer have the luxury to do so in an orderly, thoughtful manner. We have to figure out a way to do it in times of chaos.

People all over the world have already been trying many different approaches over the past few years. Yet all their efforts can be divided into two general responses. The first is the "business as usual" response. It could be seen for example in Paris after the November 2015 terror attacks, where people made a point of quickly returning to their cafés and concerts to prove that they weren't going to change their values and lifestyle. The other response is "extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures", which probably went through people's minds when they voted for Trump or Brexit.

There's a strong intrinsic logic to both of these approaches and on the surface it's hard to tell which one is better. We want to go slightly deeper though, and try to actually answer the question: should we keep acting as normal, or do we have to take extraordinary measures to defend the values of freedom, equality, and democracy? To a large extent the difference between these two responses boils down to the distinction between structure and agency.

Those who advocate that "business as usual" provides the best response to political and economic chaos believe in the strength of moral and societal structures that have been created in the past. In some cases those structures, such as local and federal governments, financial institutions and marketplaces, the institution of marriage, and the church extend back a few decades. In others they might reach back centuries or even millenia. The fact that these structures have survived for all of this time, regardless of the occasional bump in the road, means that society will always return to the moral and social institutions that now seem in disarray. Sooner or later the world will rectify itself, and in the mean time the best course of action is to maintain stability in one's personal actions. By doing so, the world is not further disrupted and the path to recovery remains open for those who are willing to walk it.

Conversely, those who profess that we should take extraordinary measures believe that the existing structures have already failed. In their view it is up to individual people to re-open the roads that the current chaos seems to have closed. Everyone has to use his or her own agency — for example through strikes, protests, or boycotts — to oppose negative developments and to restore order. This idea often ends in support for decisive action. As history has often demonstrated, organisations and systems do not necessarily have sufficient powers to rectify themselves, therefore relying on the above-mentioned structures can be an issue.

Both views pose problems when applied to the current situation. The reliance on structure is too passive and constrained given the extent to which earlier certainties are being eroded, whereas decisive action is difficult for anyone who has vested interests such as a job or family that demands most attention. As a consequence everyone is confronted with the same dilemma: how do we reconcile the need to act with the practical limitations of family, work, and public pressure?

Therefore, the course of action that is most desirable is both active and workable, a middle position between structure and agency. We suggest that the best strategy to deal with chaos is to do the same in most circumstances but pick a few areas where you try to act differently. Think of it as a "picking your battles" approach, instead of "business as usual" or "extraordinary measures". Although to some, such limited actions might seem too little, we believe that this is the most realistic way forward.

How do we, therefore, determine when and under which circumstances to act differently? That depends on your current place in society.

Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, historian Timothy Snyder offered a set of practical guidelines by which to live in an age of creeping authoritarianism. Among bits of advice such as practicing measured disobedience and maintaining calm in the face of crisis, Snyder recommends the nourishment of one's sense of professional ethics. If great institutions and professional bodies are subverted into instruments of oppression, professional ethics are a set of tools and heuristics that allow workers to determine how they may have the greatest impact.

Professional ethics may range from swearing an oath to do no harm to heuristics regarding transparency, accountability, and honesty. Ethical practice may even encompass the realm of privileged non-compliance, the art of knowing when not to perform a professional action as a means of resistance.

For example, the fields of medicine, technology, law, finance, etc. try to practice professional ethics by convening institutional review boards and other conscious study groups. While these groups may not be able to determine the ideal course of action under every conceivable situation, they may be able to recommend sets of ethical heuristics to their member practitioners. In rare cases they can even set punitively binding "red lines" that must never be crossed. Both the medical and legal professions, of course, have maintained these institutions for many years. Despite their occasional lapse into corruption, these institutions may serve as practical models for professionals in other fields with ever-increasing societal influence.

We recommend that people who are already part of "the system" take ownership of these ethical bodies and discussions within their profession. It might seem more heroic to quit your job in finance, lobbying, or security, and become a professional revolutionary instead, but the truth is that you're probably more likely to make a meaningful difference through a qualified form of resistance within your sector.

As another suggestion to those who are struggling in their professional life, we say stop feeling ashamed, stop apologising. Don't just take any job because you feel pressured to do so. Most jobs that are available to you are probably harmful anyway, either to society or to your own future. You can keep your head up high and be proud to refuse them. People might see your behaviour as lazy or immature, but there are many ways to prove them wrong.

These actions can put you into conflict with your peers and members of your community. By carefully questioning the areas in which we can exercise agency in our lives, we must inevitably resist external pressure. Yet, at the same time, we diminish our resistance to our inner sense of conscience. The late Czech dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel described this approach to action as "living in truth". To live in truth not only means seeking truth but living according to the sense of truth guided by one's conscience.

This individual choice will have a collective impact when exercised in concert with others who have made a similar vow to live in truth. With time and patience, these actions coalesce into movements and provide a sense of renewed energy and focus in reforming existing structures. Havel's Charter 77 movement emerged out of a desire to adhere to the standards and principles declared by the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia and culminated into a movement incorporating existing institutions as well as creating new ones such as the Civic Forum and the slate of post-communist parties.

In times of chaos the truth is rarely orderly and simple. In mathematics, chaos is simply high variability of outcomes given low variability in initial conditions over a finite period of time. A chaotic system would be one in which a single vote one way or the other leads to drastically different political climates. In systems that exhibit high levels of chaos, the elements of predictability and stability that underpin consensus are weakened. Hence the truth as a compass must lie within ourselves as individuals first and from there spread amongst our immediate community. We can never fully understand how our actions will roil global systems, but we can seek to understand the part of the world in which we live and the communities we are part of.

While we must seek to restore a balance between chaos and order, it is also important to remember that the uncertainty generated by chaos is fertile ground for creativity. We can cultivate within ourselves a resilient inner freedom by accepting and even embracing the chaos of the world we live in. We have created systems that have replaced the gods as highly potent forces for unpredictable change. Rather than fear these forces, we can better understand their power and harness their ability to help us.

Let's embrace the opportunity to make unexpected connections and to generate new rituals and ethical practices in the wake of what chaos leaves behind. While what we create will at first lack the refinement of the culture and institutions we had inherited and lost, our creations may nevertheless be a more genuine and appropriate response to the open-ended questions we currently face. A time of chaos can indeed be a time of opportunity, but only if you pick your battles.

April 2017

CROATIA JOINS THE EU (1/26/2012)

At a time when Greece seems on the way out of the European Union, Croatia has just secured its way in. On Sunday, January 22nd, the Croatian public voted overwhelmingly in a national referendum in favor of joining the European Union, with 67% voting yes despite a low turnout. This referendum comes one month after Croatians voted in a new centre-left pro-EU party for the first time in decades.

Croatia’s application to the EU, submitted in 2003 with negotiations started in 2005 alongside Turkey, has not been without its difficulties. Croatia first had to resolve border disputes with EU-member Slovenia and fulfill satisfactorily 35 chapters of the acquis communitaire which outline the political and economic criteria of joining the EU.

Yet, for many Croatians, these were simple obstacles to overcome compared to the transition from a communist to a free-market economy and their bloody involvement in the Yugoslav Wars of the early 1990s. Croatian nationalists have always maintained a westward orientation through strong ties with the Roman Catholic church, latin script, and the access its Adriatic coast has given it to Western Europe.

Despite a brief surge in euroskepticism following the sentencing of a former Croatian general for war crimes at The Hague in 2011, Croatian political and public opinion has always been strongly in favor of EU integration.

Croatia must now wait for the remaining 27 EU member states to approve its entry into the EU, with July 1, 2013 as the expected date of entry. The influx of foreign funds and investment as a result of accession to the EU is expected to help rebuild Croatia’s still ravaged tourism, agriculture, and industrial sectors.

Croatia’s GDP per capita, at 56% of the EU average as of 2010, is also expected to increase with greater mobility of goods and labor. Many Croatians are optimistic that entry into the EU will bring more transparency into their notoriously inefficient and corrupt government bureaucracy.

With the EU and the eurozone’s recent economic and debt problems, some Croatians are more pessimistic. Croatia is now far more exposed to Europe’s problems of debt, immigration, and a recessionary economy.

As Europeans look to Croatia for an assessment of Europe, Croatia does not see the referendum as an appraisal of the current state of the EU but a deliberate turn away from its Yugoslavian past and toward a rosier, more peaceful future.

WHITHER INDIA? (2/4/11)

Shortly after receiving a midterm election “shellacking”, President
Obama and his foreign policy team made a diplomatic tour of Asia. Many
domestic observers saw this as seeking refuge abroad as Obama still
has the ability to exercise much of his presidential prerogative in
foreign affairs regardless of the Republican rout. However, Obama’s
choice of India for his longest visit yet reflects the increasing
importance of the bilateral relationship between our two countries in
economic and security matters. Over the last decade, India’s continued
economic growth has threatened American workers through outsourcing
while providing American consumers cheaper imports and services. It’s
influence has grown in South Asia as one of the few democratic stable
nations in the region and has now a far greater role in the security
of trade in the Indian Ocean. From the American perspective we must
ask whether India’s relative power continue to increase without limit.
Despite India’s growth during the 2000s, the country’s own problems
with income inequality, corruption, and ethnic tensions has already
started to place an upper limit to India’s ability to exert economic
power and influence on its neighbors.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the top 10% of India’s
population receive 31.1% of total income and the bottom 10% only
receives 3.6%. India’s rising income inequality, especially between
urban and rural populations, makes it far more difficult for the
country to grow and maintain a stable middle class. Without a large
middle class, there is less aggregate demand in the internal domestic
market, and consequently less affordable education for most students.
This requires foreign companies to re-educate undereducated Indian
workers at great cost. A smaller middle class means less social
mobility and greater potential for social and political conflict
between classes.

Also, without a large middle class, and with an increasing
consolidation of power in an elite, there are far fewer checks on
public corruption. On Transparency International’s Corruption
Perception Index, India ranked 87th out of 178 countries after having
fallen down a few places in the past few ears. Soon after Obama’s
visit, India was rocked by protests over a scandal involving the sale
of the mobile phone spectrum by politicians. This sort of corruption
discourages foreign direct investment, weakens the country’s ability
to govern, and hampers the ability of the government to continue
developing strong nationwide manufacturing and IT infrastructures.

Finally, long simmering ethnic tensions create political and
economic instability across the country. Current ethnic/religious
conflicts include the recent Gujarat riots between Hindus and Muslims,
the conflict among Kashmiris and Indian troops in Kashmir, Maoist
rebellions centered around West Bengal, and the rise of Hindu
Nationalists across the country. Ethnic conflict, language barriers
(despite the increased use of English as a lingua franca), and even
the persistence of the caste system in many aspects of society hinder
the formation of long-term coherent domestic and foreign policy
priorities. Many ethnic groups share more with their kin across the
Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Burmese borders than they do with Delhi. By
comparison, the relatively homogeneous Han population of China,
combined with its single-party regime, has been able to more firmly
direct the powers of state on fixed domestic and foreign policies.

To date, India has benefitted from foreign direct investment and
a large pool of cheap labor. Yet, when it comes to America’s ability
to exert its foreign policy in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, India
is not currently, nor will be soon, an overwhelming regional hegemonic
threat. There are far too many internal issues for India to resolve
first. Obama’s recent trip and his administration’s advocacy of
India’s ascension to the UN Security Council reflects our choice of
making India a regional business and security partner rather than an
adversary.

THE ARBABSIAR AFFAIR – AND OUR DEARTH OF OPTIONS (10/30/11)

Foreign Policy piece on the bungled assassination plot on the Saudi ambassador to the US in Washington. Byman comes up with some plausible explanations of what really happened and who is responsible for the plot, in an attempt to pursue accountability on the Iranian authorities.

Whoever the culprit, and whatever the extent of complicity on the part of the Iranian government in the Arbabsiar affair is a moot point. The US and Saudi Arabia have their hands tied, and are unlikely to loosen the knots around their wrists.

For example, a military strike would be inconceivable among any one of the three parties. Iran still suffers from the trauma of the Iran-Iraq War of the early 1980s, and America has yet to extricate itself sufficiently from Iraq and Afghanistan to assuage a war-weary American public. As for Saudi Arabia, it knows full well that outright war in the Gulf would throw an already unstable succession situation into further political jeopardy.

Then there is war by proxy. For years Iran has played its hand through Syria and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has helped prop up Sunni minorities in Gulf states; recently sending troops across the channel that separates the Saudi mainland from Bahrain in order to support the Al-Khalifa regime against Bahrain’s Shia majority. The Arab Spring, as pointed out by Byman, has thrown the dynamics of this regional “cold war” into an uncertainty that disfavors Iran. Suddenly, the game of great power dynamics is not as executable on allied soil as it once was.

That leaves us with the secret war – sanctions and other, softer options having largely been depleted. Apparently the Arbabsiar affair was a part of this clash of ghosts (although ghosts, as Byman points out, do occasionally materialize and stumble). So are the assassinations of nuclear scientists in Iran and the STUXNET virus sabotaging of the Bushehr plant. Politically, in all three parties involved, the secret war is the only one that is truly politically feasible at this moment. And it is precisely because of the lack of options the US now faces in dealing with an assassination plot on its own soil that the US must rely on rhetoric publicly, and intelligence privately, to pursue its interests abroad.

NATIONALIST GREEK REBELLION (11/2/2011)

Yesterday, Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos expressed the core decision about the future of Greece now facing Greek citizens: “Do Greeks want to remain in Europe, in the eurozone with the euro in a country that belongs to the developed world, or do they want to return to the 1960s? Do they think it is good to owe €100bn to the banks, or do they not think it’s good to live with such debt? Each citizen will make their own decision, with responsibility, in a process that’ll give a national sense of relief and recovery.”

Following reports Monday that many Greeks planned to not pay their electricity bills following the imposition of a property tax collected via electric companies, and the cratering approval ratings of the ruling PASOK party in Greece, Prime Minister Papandreou decided yesterday to hold a national referendum on a plan that was recently forged by European leaders to save the eurozone (although the fate of the referendum has become much more uncertain since this morning).

Greek opposition leaders believe that this recent move is a cynical ploy to stave off the ruling party’s – PASOK’s – eventual defeat in parliamentary elections. Outside observers, and debt-holders, view the move with intense anxiety and trepidation; a rejection of the European plan means further Euro instability, a sharp decline in confidence, and of course, a diminishing chance that anyone will get all their money back (as MF Global recently discovered).

It’s not often that I see a fairly direct accountability tool, the referendum, assailed by so many ostensibly pro-democratic critics.

Given the circumstances, how do Europeans hope the Greeks will vote? With a heavy heart and utmost concern for the future of Europe, Greece would vote yes, and delay the inevitable just a bit longer.
How will the Greeks likely vote? With a resounding hell no!

The Greeks seem to have realized that the people who are most hurt by economic downturns are those of lower and middle incomes, for purely structural reasons. These are the people for whom taxes are the most regressive, and cuts in social services are the most dire. This basic economic consequence of austerity is one that is only now being realized by Americans and the British. However, the Greeks have had far longer to internalize this fact.

They also likely realize that there is a mismatch between incentives and disincentives in modern society. Sure, many Greeks from all levels of income reneged on taxes. They also enjoyed a level of social services, job protection, and other labor protections beyond those in – let’s say – Germany. But are all Greeks responsible for the current situation in Greece? Not at all! The upper echelons of Greek society and Europe spent years reaping much of the benefits while socializing all of the inevitable costs. These problems are not cured by austerity at all. Rather, austerity accelerates underlying power disparities among social classes.

I also think it’s important to view Greece as a remnant of the former Ottoman Empire and a constituent nation of the Balkans, and not as a Western European nation in the same way we view France, Germany, Belgium, etc.

The romantic view of Greece as the eternal fount of western civilization is one of the myths that led Greece to unwisely join the eurozone, and other eurozone countries to cheer its entry despite clear economic indications that it wasn’t ready. On corruption (according to Transparency International in 2009), Greece ranks 71st, tied with Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Romania, and just behind Georgia, Ghana, and Montenegro. Modern Greece, founded in 1948 after resisting a post-WWII Communist take over, has fairly weak institutions, and is often prone to single-party, personality-driven dynasties. These are core Greek structural problems that Greece would better resolve with its own currency than while chained to the European Central Bank.

And it is for this reason that it is likely Greeks will seek to reassert its own sovereignty, in a way that may or may not be gently guided by PASOK and the referendum.

The best option for Greece is to default, reintroduce the drachma, and in effect, reassert its national sovereignty – provided that its government doesn’t devolve into indefinite political turmoil.

THE MAIN ENEMY (11/15/11)

There is a 21st century “red menace” that threatens America, the UK, and Western Europe. Can you guess the “red menace” that threatens the U.S., U.K., and Western Europe today? This country is under effective single-party rule, has a lengthy Communist past, and is armed with nuclear weapons. It has also been active in key regions such as Central Asia and the Middle East, and currently has a love/hate relationship with the West.

You might have guessed Russia. It is easy to argue that the Russian Federation is the new “Main Enemy.” Only two decades ago the Western world considered Russia its “main enemy.” Since the election of Vladimir Putin, Russia has dramatically increased its military spending, sold weapons in countries in volatile regions such as Syria and Iran, and has adopted a policy of pre-emptive nuclear strike (a policy the U.S. is likewise considering). Its government has also rapidly progressed from a nominal democracy to an oligarchy, and finally to that of a single-party rule under a powerful leader.

But is Russia once again poised to conquer the world? Of course not. Yet as we saw in 2008 during the war in Georgia, Russia is seeking to expand its influence in former Soviet states and satellites. Many regions from Central Asia to the Baltic Sea still use Russian as the lingua-franca. Russian ambassadors, such as Alexander Yakovenko to the UK, explicitly advocate a diplomacy that joins Europe with Russia not through 20th century Russian history and years of enmity, but the cultural influence on Western Europe of Russian literary giants such as Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. Opponents of cultural diplomacy should look to the successes of the USA and India in using its media to lubricate the wheels of diplomacy.

In many ways, China seems to pose a greater threat. Through increased economic integration and reliance on Chinese exports, the West has become dependent on China for goods it can no longer produce. Western economies have also come to depend on bonds sold to the Chinese (the third largest holder of debt in America after the Social Security Trust Fund and the U.S. Treasury).

Furthermore, China views the sea as its primary conduit of their economic and military power, as well as their geopolitical influence through nascent off-shore balancing. China has been rapidly developing its navy, with the notable recent introduction of its first aircraft carrier. Chinese ventures range from the development of the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan, to the port of Gwadar on the Makran coast and the port at Hambantota, Sri Lanka.

Finally, China has, like Russia, been heavily involved in the political affairs of the Greater Middle East, against Western political and economic interests. For example, they’ve assisted the Iranians in weapons development, whether through the UN Security Council or through the active supply of arms and expertise, in exchange for a source of energy that is otherwise shunned by much of the international community.

The West, while obviously agitated by China, seems to be refocusing its attention away from terrorism and back towards Russia. And who can blame them? Fundamentally Russia is a large, resource-rich country, and it has a tremendous influence in all facets of international relations on its neighbors and the rest of Eurasia. It would be a relief to many strategic planners in the State Department and the FCO to finally dust off those old musty Cold War-era plans than to find a way to deal with terrorism or China.

But China still remains the greatest threat for the foreseeable future, despite nostalgia for the KGB, Khrushchev, and the Kremlin. China is both a nuclear power and the world’s second largest economy. Consequently China can exercise an economic leverage over others that Russia just cannot.

Before we rush into centering our crosshairs on China, it’s important to remember that the movement of military forces and other precautionary defensive actions will invoke a mirror-image response on the part of the Chinese. This would then lead to a continued escalation of arms and tension between the West and the Chinese. To a significant extent, We often create our own enemies through fear.

So that begs the question: do we in the US and UK need an existential rival – an enemy that we must meet in opposition on every battlefield and football field around the world? For many western foreign policy practitioners it must surely be easier to return to a cold war than to deal with complex ever-changing terrorist, narcotics, and WMD-trafficking networks. While we must not ignore the threats large states can still pose in our multi-polar world, we must continue to deal creatively with these more modern 21st-century threats while eschewing the creation of a new one.

LIBYAN CIVIL WAR, PART DEUX (11/18/11)

On November 10, 2011, the Libyan civil war erupted again in the coastal city of Zawiya and its immediate surrounding lands. This localized conflict emerged from long-simmering disputes between Zawiyans and the nearby Warshefana tribe, in and around a city that was once under strict Gaddafi control. The conflict ended November 14, 2011, with 13 dead.

Will we see more of these inter-tribal conflicts in post-Gaddafi Libya? Would these conflicts engulf Libya in yet another civil war? If we were to take Libyan history as a guide we can clearly see various geographical, ethnic, and tribal partitions from as far back as the partition of Libya into the provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica during the Roman Empire. These two provinces, in addition to Fezzan – the Sahara desert region in the southwest of the country largely occupied by nomads, form the historical and cultural partitions which have defined Libyan politics and economy for centuries. Fast forward to the 20th century, modern Libya was formed by the merger of two French territories and one British territory and handed over to a monarch, King Idris of Cyrenaica.

Libya has also had a strong tribal culture where loyalties lie with families, place of origin, and adherence to a traditional nomadic culture. Gaddafi was able to use tribal dynamics to his advantage by first elevating his own Qadhadhfa tribe and the allied Warfalla tribe to positions of power and security. Officers in the military of opposing tribes, like the Firjan, were executed. Tribes not allied with Gaddafi would have no chance of advancing in the civil bureaucracy or of running a competitive business.

An unstable Libya would mean a greater chance of weapons proliferation to dangerous terrorist networks or narcotics-trafficking groups who have typically sought desert regions in countries with weak governments, like the deserts of Yemen, as safe havens. An unstable state on the borders of Tunisia and Egypt – countries with nascent civil societies but with significant potential for democratic governance – could throw North Africa into further instability.

But civil war, while the potential is ever-present, seems unlikely. The urbanization of Libya’s coastal cities under Gaddafi means that many migrants to the cities have lost their tribal ties. So while Libya does not have an indigenous tradition of democracy, Libya is also a relatively wealthy, oil-rich country and also relatively well-educated, giving it a chance to have at worst a sectarian democracy but a democracy nonetheless. The NTC also has an international legitimacy that empowers it to negotiate with and disarm the various regional militias which claim to be the guardians of the revolution. While the international community may cast its gaze on Libya, it should remember that the uprising in Egypt has not yet reached its full conclusion, and that the future of Egypt remains in greater doubt than any other country in North Africa (but that will have to wait for another post).
 

THE RUSSIAN ELECTORAL BALLET (1/19/12)

It is difficult to imagine what circumstances would compel thousands of protesters in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, to rally outdoors while enduring minus 20C temperature for over two hours. Despite the harsh winter climate, protesters from all around Russia took to the streets of cities from Moscow to Khabarovsk to protest the results of parliamentary elections to the Duma that took place on December 4th.

Prime Minister, former President, and Presidential candidate Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, was expected to lose its parliamentary majority. Instead, United Russia managed to just barely hang onto a majority in the parliament with 238 MPs and 49.3% of the vote. These results are tainted by widespread allegations of ballot stuffing, vote purchasing, and forged electoral counts. Several liberal opposition parties also failed to clear the 7% vote threshold necessary to enter parliament.

The day after elections, December 5th, protesters in Moscow marched to the Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB and current headquarters of the Federal Security Service, to protest perceived electoral fraud and vote tampering. Protests ramped up throughout the country culminating in large opposition rallies with over fifty-thousand attendees on December 10th and December 24th.

Outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev (who is seen as a subordinate to Putin) responded by offering token proposals to loosen election laws such as a return to the direct election of governors and mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg (elections which were originally rescinded by Putin). Putin, on the other hand, first mocked the protesters, then claimed the protests to be indicative of a healthy democracy under United Russia. So far Putin has sacked Vladislav Surkov (believed to have been the architect of Putin’s “managed democracy”) but has refused to abandon his bid for President. Meanwhile, protesters demand a redo of Duma elections (which Putin has outright rejected) and the freeing of political prisoners.

Symbolising the otherwise divided opposition bloc, political activist and rising personality Alexei Navalny has used his blog and social networks to expose corruption, but has decided not to oppose Putin as a presidential candidate. In his place on the ticket are several opposition candidates who barely stand a chance of beating Putin. The most highly-polled candidate against Putin is the Communist Party candidate at 11%. United Russia has also been caught forging signatures in order to place a Putin ally on the ballot as an insurance candidate should all the opposition candidates withdraw in protest. The most outspoken opposition candidate is metals tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov who favors a gradual moderate “evolution, not revolution” for Russia’s problematic problematic managed democracy.

Russians are dissatisfied with widespread corruption and the absence of rule of law. Unfortunately, the opposition is not unified enough to challenge United Russia. So Russia, unlike Mubarak’s Egypt or even Gorbachev’s USSR, is not a dictatorship but not quite a full-fledged democracy. Unless Russians shed the illusion of democracy and their political apathy, the planned rally on February 4th will likely not avert Putin’s coronation following the March 4th elections.

FULL OF SOUND AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING (11/16/11)

The three defining moments of the Republican debate could arguably be the following: Texas Governor Rick Perry forgetting the third federal agency he intends to eliminate as President, Georgia businessman Herman Cain forgetting his own position on the intervention in Libya, and, ah, ummm….I can’t – the third one I can’t. Sorry. Oops.

These recent gaffes highlight the most unusual aspect of this year’s Republican primary race that differentiates it from all previous races: the complete victory of style over substance – the Sarah Palin-ing of Republican politics. As experience over the past few months has shown us, we should assume that these gaffes will have no discernible negative impacts on these candidates’ poll numbers.

And why should they? This race has only one credible candidate who can possibly beat President Obama: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (the most recent CNN/Opinion Research poll shows Romney leading Obama by 4 points in a two-way matchup, far ahead of any other Republican). In any other year, Romney would be the clear front-runner. He has worked in the private sector, is independently wealthy, and is heir to a Republican dynasty. Republicans should have already coalesced behind him.

But that hasn’t happened yet, because Romney, with his liberal social record in a blue state, is seen as unacceptable by a large swathe of Tea-Party Republicans. These Republican populists want a “not-Romney” to provide the rhetorical passion they desperately crave during this time of economic recession and social upheaval.

So in quick succession the candidates who were meant to save the Republican party have been Representative Michele Bachmann – who briefly led the pack after winning the Iowa Ames straw poll, Rick Perry – whose pitiful public appearances and soft stance on immigration have weakened his inherent Texas-sized appeal, Herman Cain – who still polls in the top tier despite several sexual harassment allegations, and now former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich – who has soared ahead of Romney and Cain in the past week. In all these cases, none of these other candidates have managed to match Romney on providing coherent policy and substance, yet they still have a massive appeal to the Republican base.

Will Newt Gingrich manage to stay at the top or will he too be replaced by a new “not-Romney”? Perhaps for a few weeks but he too will eventually be superseded by someone else who will by Super Tuesday (the day in February or March when the most states hold primary elections) be replaced by Romney.

Why? There is a fundamental divide between traditional Republican moneyed interests and establishment figures who see Romney as their candidate, and the populist masses who latch on, unenthusiastically, to whoever has the most strident rhetoric. Due to the enormous cost of campaigns in the USA, Romney with the support of power-brokers who see him as their best bet against Obama will have the guaranteed money, exposure, and campaign infrastructure to capture the remaining doubting Republicans.