Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
They Said It:
Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore.
What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man,” 1734.
THE GREAT UNRAVELING? WHO DIDN’T KNOW?
The past couple of weeks have been absolutely excruciating from the point of view of political analysts/geo-political prognosticators, such as we purport to be. It’s not that there aren’t stories about which to write and predictions to make. Indeed, there are dozens of them. The problem is that most of those stories are already being covered in excruciating detail by the more mainstream news services. Moreover, most of them are being covered in much the same way that we would cover them. Everyone knows, for example, about the Islamic State. Everyone knows that Obama is, however reluctantly, going to war against these global bad actors. Everyone knows that no one, anywhere has any confidence whatsoever that Obama will do any more than the bare minimum in prosecuting this war. Allies are reluctant to join the effort. Enemies find the whole thing somewhat less than threatening. And the American people have little expectation that this will be the first war that their country wins in almost seven decades.
Much the same, of course, can be said about Russia. Everyone knows that Russia can do whatever it wants to do and that Obama will do nothing about it. Shoot down a plane? No big deal. Annex sovereign territory? You really shouldn’t do that, but what the hell. Invade your neighbors and threaten the entirety of Europe? Careful, Big Fella! You may get a tersely worded note! Beyond that . . . nothing; not a word. Everyone knows it. No one is surprised by it. That’s just the way it is, the way everyone, everywhere has come to expect these sorts of things to play out in this land of hope and plenty.
Matters are made worse, from our perspective at least, by the fact that all of the various and sundry issues roiling the world today are, at their heart, old and tired stories. They are matters that we have covered time and again over the span of the last five-plus years.
Consider that Barack Obama declared last week that his war against Islam was neither a war nor directed at Islam. The Islamic State, he averred, is simply NOT Islamic – despite the word “I-S-L-A-M-I-C” appearing right there in its name. His National Security Advisor, his State Department Spokesman, and his Secretary of State all told the world that in spite of the fact that war was to be waged on the Islamic State, there was no “war” against the Islamic State. “What we are doing,” John Kerry announced, “is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation. It’s going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.” He later corrected himself, lamenting that there is “a kind of tortured debate going on about terminology.”
It is no surprise, of course, to anyone that Kerry has the story precisely backward. All of this is the fruit not only of a “tortured debate” on the part of administration critics, but of a tortured abuse of the language by a post-modern president and his benighted and obsequious lackeys. In their world, language is power. He who controls language accrues power. And he who accrues power controls the outcomes. Therefore, real is unreal, truth is subjective, and words mean only what there speaker intends them to mean. All of which gives us pause about the intentions, nature, and likely outcome of Barack Obama’s not-war against the not-Islamic State.
But then, if you’ve read almost anything we’ve written since January 2007, you know this already. Obama is a post-modernist extraordinaire. Who didn’t know?
So what is there to say? Moreover what is there to say about the future and about the issues that might affect global markets? Or, more accurately, what is there to say that hasn’t already been said and, because of this, hasn’t already been factored into most geo-political models – or at least should have been factored in to your geopolitical models?
Consider, if you will, the following, which was written early this week by Roger Cohen, a foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times:
It was the time of unraveling. Long afterward, in the ruins, people asked: How could it happen?
It was a time of beheadings. With a left-handed sawing motion, against a desert backdrop, in bright sunlight, a Muslim with a British accent cut off the heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker . . .
It was a time of aggression. The leader of the largest nation on earth pronounced his country encircled, even humiliated. He annexed part of a neighboring country, the first such act in Europe since 1945, and stirred up a war on further land he coveted. His surrogates shot down a civilian passenger plane. The victims, many of them Europeans, were left to rot in the sun for days. . . .
It was a time of weakness. The most powerful nation on earth was tired of far-flung wars, its will and treasury depleted by absence of victory. An ungrateful world could damn well police itself. The nation had bridges to build and education systems to fix. Civil wars between Arabs could fester. Enemies might even kill other enemies, a low-cost gain. Middle Eastern borders could fade; they were artificial colonial lines on a map. Shiite could battle Sunni, and Sunni Shiite, there was no stopping them. Like Europe’s decades-long religious wars, these wars had to run their course. The nation’s leader mockingly derided his own “wan, diffident, professorial“ approach to the world, implying he was none of these things, even if he gave that appearance. He set objectives for which he had no plan. He made commitments he did not keep. . . .
It was a time of hatred. Anti-Semitic slogans were heard in the land that invented industrialized mass murder for Europe’s Jews. Frightened European Jews removed mezuzahs from their homes. . . . The fabric of society frayed. Democracy looked quaint or outmoded beside new authoritarianisms.
Until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.
The title of this Cohen column is, naturally, “The Great Unraveling.” And certainly Cohen tells an interesting story – one worth keeping in mind as the global political climate deteriorates.
Interestingly, though, Cohen’s bit reminded us of a piece that we wrote called “The Unraveling Begins in Ernest.” That piece was primarily about anti-Semitism and its usefulness as a harbinger, i.e., the proverbial canary in the coal mine, if you will. But it also touched on the travails of Russia and China, mentioned the notion that democracy looks passé next to the quasi-capitalist-totalitarian governments, and also covered the general global lack of preparedness for the “chaos” that will come next.
For the record, we wrote that piece more than four years ago (May 11, 2010), which is to say that the world has been falling apart for quite a while now. The Middle East has been on the verge of explosion for years. Europe has been on its way to oblivion for decades. China and Russia have been threatening global peace for as long as anyone can remember. None of this is “news,” in other words.
Does this mean that we think Cohen is full of beans; that we think that these things don’t matter, or won’t affect the world in important ways? Well . . . no. We think that all of the things he mentions matter a great deal. Indeed, we think that some or all of them have the potential to disrupt global politics and global markets significantly – although we must note that Cohen, who is generally considered something of an apologist for the Mad Mullahs, ignores the Iranian regime’s prospective nukes, which still constitute the most significant and most disruptive force in the Middle East today. But beyond that, we generally agree that there is a civilizational unraveling underway. And we will all but certainly write about this unraveling several times over the next few weeks and months.
But none of this should come as a surprise to anyone, except perhaps reporters and columnists for the New York Times.
The attacks of 9/11 were devastating. No one with any sense could possibly argue otherwise. And it shocked a lot of folks. But it should not have come as a surprise. The World Trade Center had been hit the first time eight years earlier. American embassies in Africa had been bombed. The USS Cole had been attacked. Numerous counter-terrorism experts said it was just a matter of time before someone hit the homeland. We knew many of them personally and quoted them routinely in these pages.
The problem is that no one listened to us. No one listened to the experts. No one thought it was worth planning for or trying to prevent. Bill Clinton had the opportunity to kill bin Laden. He had the opportunity to capture bin Laden. He had the opportunity to do a great deal against Islamist terrorism. But he chose not to, largely because it seemed like such a strange issue about which to get upset. It was a matter for crackpots, conspiracy theorists, and Islamo-phobes. It wasn’t something to which normal people gave much thought. Until it happened, that is, at which point Bill sent his erstwhile National Security Adviser to pirate evidence of his negligence out of the National Archives stuffed in his socks (http://thepoliticalforum.com/the-day-after/).
Could we be caught off guard like that again? Well…yes and no. Certainly, a betting person would have to put the odds heavily in favor of another successful attack at some point in time. Eventually the bad guys will find someone who can light his own shoes, or blow up his undies, or doesn’t forget to turn the propane on. And then Americans will die, in their homeland, at the hands of a foreign enemy.
Of course, when it does happen (and we think it is a matter of “when” not “if) then everyone will be run around shouting “I told you so,” and pointing fingers like children in a playground. In short, it won’t be a surprise next time. Indeed, everyone supposes that there will be a next time, but no one really knows when. All of which means that the country will be better prepared than it was 13 years ago, at least emotionally. And that will mitigate the impact somewhat.
As you listen to, watch, and read all of the gloom and doom, stop for a minute and think about how these things tend to play out in the real world. Think about the great crises of the last several years. 9/11, as we said, was shocking. Likewise, the collapse of the brokerage house/investment bank for whom we used to work (and which shall remain nameless here….) was surprising. No one seriously thought that could happen either. They’d been in business for 150 years, after all. And they’d seen worse times. So when the collapse did happen, no one was ready for it, and the whole mess set off a financial panic that roiled the global credit markets, changed the course of the American presidential election, and set the stage for a serious global economic downturn.
Beyond that . . . well . . . there was that time that . . . ummm . . . well . . . .
Get it? The truth is that except for those two events, there really has been no world-altering single “event” over the course of the last two presidencies. You see, as it turns out, real, bona fide crises – REAL unravelings – are rather few and far between.
More to the point, they are almost always entirely unpredictable.
If they weren’t, then they wouldn’t be so devastating when they happen.
By now – a full seven years after its publication – everyone is familiar either with Nassem Nicholas Taleb’s book or, at the very least, with the concept he introduced into the cultural lexicon, “the Black Swan.” As Taleb himself put it:
Before the discovery of Australia, people in the old world were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.
I push one step beyond this philosophical-logical question into an empirical reality, and one that has obsessed me since childhood. What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.
Ever since we left the Pleistocene, some ten millennia ago, the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated, while ordinary events, the ones we study and discuss and try to predict from reading the newspapers, have become increasingly inconsequential.
Most of the time, when people discuss the “black swans” they focus on two of these three conditions: high impact and low probability. This is understandable. But it is the other one, the one positing unpredictability that is most critical, we think.
When we first discussed Taleb’s book four years ago, we quibbled with him about the true unpredictability of some of the black swan events he cited. Many, we argued, were entirely predictable; were, in fact, predicted. They may not have been predicted on a wide-scale, but someone at least had the foresight to see them coming.
And as we conceded, all of that was probably Taleb’s point, i.e. “even when these Black Swan events are identified, they are dismissed because they don’t fit the standard and accepted models of risk management and are rightly, though dismissively, understood for what they are, outliers.”
What does all of this mean? And why do we bring it up today? Well, for a couple of reasons.
For starters, none of the issues that occupy the likes of Roger Cohen these days are outliers. Cohen and his friends at the New York Times may only have stumbled upon these realities recently, which may explain why they think they’ve discovered something previously undiscovered, but that’s utter BS. Everything that panics Cohen today is something that some others of us have been discussing for years. That Cohen et al. are only stumbling upon it now is a testament to their obtuseness, not the increase in the threat.
In a post on Cohen’s essay, the conservative author and blogress Elizabeth Scalia, i.e. “The Anchoress,” calls the column an “exquisitely written dose of reality.” She then defends that characterization as follows:
The troubles briefly enumerated in this sobering op-ed are only the most obvious issues. They are the pebble tossed into the pond, rippling outward in ever-widening circles — expanding to include a unique “time” of global crisis: governments failing at every level, everywhere; churches are divided, their freedoms challenged; citizens are distracted, dissatisfied and distrustful, their election mechanisms in doubt; schools are losing sight of the primary mission of education; families are deconstructed and the whole concept ripe for dissolution; respect for human dignity is doled out in qualified measures; there is a lack of privacy; a lack of time to think, to process and to incarnate; a lack of silence.
That’s fair, we suppose. But then, as we noted earlier, none of even these “ever-widening circles” should be a surprise to anyone who has been truly paying attention. That they surprise the New York Times set is, again, proof of their general disconnection from reality. NONE of this is new. It’s all been noted by more trenchant observers (AHEM!) for some time.
Relatedly, if none of this is particularly surprising, then none of it is likely to change the course of the world in an identifiable way. Or at least none of it is likely to have a “black swan” impact. Remember, black swans are outliers. The collapse of the global community may have been an outlier five years ago, but today, it’s slowly but surely becoming conventional wisdom, even on the editorial page of the New York Times.
Almost by definition, then, the collapse of the global order has, to some extent or another, been factored into global risk models. If Russia takes a crack at annexing Latvia, people will be upset, but no one will be shocked. If Putin cuts off the supply of natural gas to Poland, thereby plunging the European economies even further into recession, markets may pull back, but they certainly won’t be routed. If terrorists attack the United States, as long as they don’t actually hit the exchanges, the physical impact of the attacks on the American financial industry or on the economic well-being of the nation will be far less than was the impact of 9/11. Indeed, the impact might, theoretically, be negligible.
A third thing that this tells us is that anyone who is now trying to predict the unpredictable and to forecast the next “black swan” by analyzing the current events in the Middle East or Russia or even Africa, is all but certainly looking in the wrong place. The black swan will come from somewhere else. Perhaps it will come from Asia, where war between China and its neighbors now seems inevitable. Perhaps it will come from Canada, where conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to make his nation “more American” than America, thereby threatening to send shockwaves through the Anglosphere.
More likely, of course, the black swan will come from someplace and something that is not even registering on our radar these days. Likely it will start with something mundane, a bureaucratic snafu or a seemingly routine discovery. And only later – much later, after it’s too late to plan for it – will the event’s true nature and potential impact be recognized. Gaming black swans may be fun, but it’s also pretty pointless.
A final takeaway from all of this is a reminder of something that we too often forget, namely the fact that the world, such as it is, isn’t exactly a terrible place. Over the past several years we have written piece after piece after piece about the terrible troubles facing the world. One of our favorite contemporary writers and certainly the most oft quoted author in these pages, the inimitable Mark Steyn, is even more pessimistic than we are. The American president is weak and self-absorbed. The American economy is falling behind, stymied by regulation and an absurdly burdensome tax code. The American ruling class is ill-informed, ill-educated, self-seeking, and authoritarian. Chaos grows abroad. Unhappiness grows at home. Everywhere the doom and the gloom are ever growing. And yet . . .
True black swans, truly powerful, world-changing events remain rather infrequent. The world may be going to hell in a hand-basket, but it’s going rather slowly. And at the pace it’s going, there is both time for preparing and time for enjoying the ride a little bit. The twentieth century, for all its horrors, destruction, death, and tragedy, was also, in many ways, the highpoint of human social and economic development. And there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think that the twenty-first century will be any different.
The old order is collapsing. And a new order will arise to replace it. Such is the way of the world. Such has it always been.
We firmly believe that there are problems in this country and in this world that are serious, grave, and ultimately deadly. But we also believe that sometimes we – and countless others – can spend too much time focusing on them and not enough time focusing on the fact that most of these problems can, to some extent, be forecast and thus can be mitigated.
Roger Cohen, it seems, speaks for much of the liberal intelligentsia in acknowledging that suddenly the world is falling apart. We agree with everything, except the “suddenly” bit. There is nothing sudden about any of this. It has all be a long time coming. And if you’ve prepared for it, then it won’t be a shock, regardless of how disconcerting it may be. That, we think, is one of the key gifts of conservatism. If you know history; if you understand that there truly is nothing new under the sun; if you grant that all of man’s worries, problems, and antidotes have at least some precedent; if you believe in the concept of original sin and thus know that man is flawed, and that an earthly utopia can never be, then you know full well that permanence is an illusion, that moral “progress” is a fantasy, and that orders will crumble, producing chaos, and then, in time, order once again.
We are not suggesting complacency, mind you. And we are all but certain to be back in these pages again next week warning of the terrible tragedies to come. Just understand in the meantime that most of human activity is foreseeable, to some extent or another. And while it is important to worry about that which is foreseen, such worry is better directed at preparation than at prevention. In short, enjoy the white swans, as menacing and unreliable though they may appear. They, at least, can be anticipated.
Even by the likes of Roger Cohen.