Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Essay in Several Parts: On America, Refugees, Terrorism, and Totalitarianism with Introductory Vignettes: Part Four

This is the third in a series of vignettes, an element in an essay in several parts.  Each part will have a brief introduction - a framing device, I suppose, in which I use an incident in American history, and the words of an American political thinker, to set up the episode.  The essay is about several things which, at this moment in history, need to be addressed collectively.  I hope to give its readers something to think about and, of course, a means to deal with a complex set of issues in a way that is humane, rational, just, empathetic, realistic, and moral.  If you'd like to read earlier parts, the first vignette be found here, the second here, and the third here

William Henry Harrison's Meeting with Tecumseh in 1810.
From Edward Eggleston's (1889) A First Book in American History
There is a concept which haunts American history.  It is called Manifest Destiny.  The idea is a simple one, really.  Our ancestors, actual or intellectual, to a large extent believed that the American republic was destined to create a continent-wide democratic-republican empire.  This empire would displace the native American polities, hundreds of them, as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of our destiny.  The proof that we were right was to be found in our continuous success at defeating these native American peoples, steadily depopulating them, obliterating their religious and cultural traditions, and isolating them into marginal areas. 

This is genocide.  And our ancestors, actual or intellectual, believed it was not merely morally acceptable, but inevitable and glorious.  It was a crusade.  

I am an American.  I'm proud to be an American.  I am also profoundly ashamed of this element of our history and I'm damned and determined not to be held as culpable for it as I hold my ancestors to be.  

Because I'm not just an American.  I'm a human. 


IV. War, Terrorism, Law, and Jihad

There is an elephant in the room and its name is jihad

Before we discuss jihad, however, I want to lay some groundwork. 

Here I will be principally discussing jihad as warfare. This in and of itself might lead to a bit of a tussle among intellectuals. Jihad, literally speaking, is probably translated as struggle or striving.  There is a lot of debate about what this means – some scholars, Islamic and non-Islamic differentiate between the internal struggle and the external struggle, the striving for domination of evil and expression of God’s peace and order inside one’s self and the same externally, as a form of political-military expansion of God’s peace and order over peoples deprived of it. 

It isn’t one or the other, mind you, but both.  When reading Quran it is easy to see jihad used in both of these fashions.  It isn’t contradictory, it is simply the use of a concept in multiple ways – like when Westerners have used crusade as both an allegorical and literal concept.  If you can accept one tradition you can accept the other – outrage to the antithesis is posturing and nonsense. 

Now.  Here is where it becomes sticky. 

The tendency of many authors at this point is to paint with a very broad brush – Islam is a religion of peace or Islam is a religion of war.  Neither of these is wholly correct or incorrect.  Equally, of course, these labels could be applied to nearly all religious traditions, particularly those which have been organized formally.  Read of about the conquest of Canaan in the Hebraic Bible and of the monstrosities of the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible.  Consider the wars and violence carried out by people of the Jewish faith against non-believers during the periods of the judges and the kingdoms, and of Christians during the medieval and modern eras in the names of their respective faiths.  Now consider the beautiful things they have done, the kindnesses levied, the support for the poor, the weak, the injured, the hopeless, the sick, the immense good they have brought to the world. 

The simple truth is that trying to easily pigeonhole religions that have existed for thousands of years and included millions or billions of people in many political contexts and holding often wildly variant ideological, philosophical, theological, and geopolitical leanings is tempting but, equally, foolish. 

Read the Quran.  Yes, it does in places legitimate the use of violence for the spread of the Islamic faith, particularly against polytheists and in the instance that lands once brought under the control of the faith have fallen outside of its control.  It also, however, asserts that there shall be no compulsion in religion.  In the same sense the Islamic world spread with incredible speed through the jihads of the first century of the faith (principally the 7th Century CE) – wars with the explicit intent to spread the faith.  It should also be noted that when conquering people of other faiths the Islamic polities in almost every instance prior to the emergence of contemporary radical fundamentalist polities (with some notable exceptions) were incredibly tolerant of faiths and denominations other than their own – far more so, indeed, than Christian religious warriors during the Crusades, the Wars of Religion, the Reconquista, and the Iberian conquest of Latin America. 

I could go on and on with the comparisons but the truth is that organized religion is always – always – a mixed bag when considered with an adequate sense of scale. 

Problematic.  Problematic in every possible way. 

This isn’t enough, though.  It is important to put religious violence, Islamic and otherwise, into frameworks.  We need to at least be able to consider, sort it, taxonomize it, if we are to make statements about patterns that are useful and, equally, if we are to make philosophical statements.  So, here we go. 

First, I suggest that we remember that we are talking about political violence – that is to say violence (the compulsion, injury, or deprivation of life, liberty, and/or property) that is aimed at determining how values will be allocated – who will hold power, how they may acquire power, what they may do with said power, what institutions will they operate within the framework of, and so forth. 

Political violence, in other words, is a form of dispute resolution – a nasty and irregular form thereof, but a form of dispute resolution nonetheless.  We can see it as one of a few general types of dispute resolution: the use of existing institutions to resolve disputes, the adoption of mutually negotiated and contracted new institutions to resolve disputes, the use of nonviolent resistance to resolve disputes in conscious violation of existing institutions, and then the use of violence to resolve disputes, again in violation of existing institutions.

Political violence may be internally operative or interagency in form – it may be the product of actors or factions within a polity trying to effect change or external actors or factions or polities trying to do the same.  In terms of the modern nation-state this means that we can roughly classify all political violence as international, intranational (domestic), or transnational (bearing hallmarks of both international and intranational conflict). 

Political violence can come in a host of varieties but two are of particular interest here – terrorism and warfare.   Distinguishing between the two is, frankly difficult – both meet von Clausewitz’s standard, which is to say that both constitute a continuation of policy and politics by other means – that is to say means which are not, in and of themselves, political. 

When I was young and full of vinegar and hubris I wrote an essay – it was my honors thesis in college, actually – in which I attempted to define war as a Platonic concept and distinguish between the various sub-categorizations thereof using a similar means.  I was interested in having good, clear definitions that could then be a proper basis for further scientific, philosophic, and legalistic study and discussion.  The definition for war that I finally, after months of reading and thought, came up with was this:

War is mass violence with a political end or ends.

Generic?  Sure.  Simple?  Definitely.  But there is a utility to it.  It is going to help us figure out some things. 

First, the term “mass” – I use it in the sense of Marxian political thought.  Mass refers to a large number of people, a faction (which might include a class in the Marxian sense) engaging in the violence.  That means lone wolf terrorists aren’t really terrorists at all.  They’re assholes.  They don’t represent a movement, even a horrific one.  They don’t represent a zeitgeist or a series of negotiated strategic, tactical, or ideological positions – even poorly developed ones.  No.  They represent themselves.  They are acting out, alienated, perhaps insane.  They are not warriors.  They are not even terrorists.  They are criminals and naught else. 

This also points to another truth – lone actors are not predictable in the same way groups are.  They cannot be infiltrated.  They do not have extensive networks.  They are reflections of selected political iconography and goals in society piece-mealed together.  The response to them of necessity is exclusively a domestic one – criminal investigation, mental health, tactical goods recordkeeping, and so forth. 

In dismissing the lone actors from consideration in our taxonomy something of utility is revealed.  When we distinguish between war and terrorism our principle distinguishing characteristic is simply this: war is considered legal, or at least an activity being carried out by entities that are conceivably legal actors, while terrorism is illegal and often, though not necessarily, is carried out illegal actors. 

Let me elaborate.  The way we think about war and terrorism today is really something like this:

Legal war: war that is deemed legal by its participants and/or the international system.

Illegal war: war that is deemed illegal by its participants and/or the international system.

Terrorism: political violence that is deemed illegal by the state participants/end-recipients thereof and/or the international system. 

Interesting, right?  What is further interesting is when we subcategorize terrorism:
State-Sponsored Terrorism: When terrorism is conducted by an actor regarded as an appropriate sovereign, which is to say a state, meaning that it has the right to use force under right conditions internally and externally. 

Non-State-Sponsored Terrorism: When terrorism is conducted by an illegitimate user of force, which is to say a non-state actor. 

All this necessitates a bit of unpacking.  You see, we live in a time when, after centuries of rather intense violence humanity has settled on a basic, somewhat tenuous, but ultimately essential principle: only states may use force (the right to deprive someone, in one or more ways, of their life, liberty, and/or property).  This monopoly of force gives the state the power to act as arbitrators of domestic and international conflict, alleviates the frequency and intensity of violence, and while being far from perfect has made our current world the most peaceful, stable, technologically advanced society in the history of humanity by leaps and bounds.  Already evolving by the early modern period as a notion as part of the emergence of secularism (remember this bit), modern bureaucracies, and the visible clearly in the work of the two thinkers properly acknowledged as the fathers of modern political science, Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, this concept is the most important definer of what constitutes legal or illegal violence.  The assumption that will develop is this – in modern polities, and modern interstate polities, only the state has the right to initiate political violence. Individuals have the right to use violence, but only insofar as they are rightly defending their life, liberty, and/or property from actors who are illegally assaulting them, and then only until the state intervenes on their behalf. 

Things seem simple for a time.  As long as a state in its capacity as a state is using violence it is legal, war being merely a condition of open and intensive, extensive violence rather than hidden, low-level violence.  Anyone else using violence is doing so illegally, unless they are doing so in self-defense.  Peachy.

The problem is that rather quickly in the modern era certain things become problematic.  First, there emerges a sense that states sometimes use violence in ways that violate generally held norms and moral conventions – that is to say in acting apparently legally they are committing acts both intolerable and unacceptable.  As the logic of the social contract emerges and matures the general assumption is that sometimes, just sometimes, it is morally justifiable to rebel against one’s state – effectively to develop an anti-state that will replace a ruling regime upon the successful completion of a war.  Philosophically speaking these rebellions are justified when a state either oversteps its rights vis-à-vis the society it governs or fails to protect said society.  Legalistically rebellion was, and remains, problematic – the ultimate decided of whether a rebellion was legal all too often seems to be one of if the rebels won, then yes; if the rebels lost, than no. 

There is a bit of utility to that, of course – winning infers a significant level of public support, or at least a lack of active public hostility adequate to destabilize a young polity – but frankly this remains a tough nut to crack. 

Secondly, it became clear that some states were more aggressive and bellicose than others – they were more prone to use violence than other states as a mechanism for achieving internal policy change or enacting foreign policy goals.  This includes not merely extortions and threats, or even wars of aggression, but imperialistic wars, wars specifically aimed to deprive one state of its statehood.  Gradually, and it was very, very gradual, the international system evolved in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  This system steadily ceded more and more power to determine when interstate violence was legitimate or not from the states to the international system, eventually in the form of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) that, effectively, constitute social contracts between states and are modeled on a variety of early modern sources – including the American Articles of Confederation (compare it to the United Nations – you’ll be surprised) and Immanuel Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace: APhilosophical Sketch.”

The upshot is this – after the disastrous series of world wars that wreak havoc on humanity through the whole course of the modern era, culminating in the First and Second World Wars (the world wars so devastating that historians ultimately abandoned any other attempt to classify them) and the emergence of a potential Third World War (which, had it occurred or should it occur would have or will likely include thermonuclear, biological, and chemical weapons on such a scale that the question of humanity surviving is largely academic and the question of life of any kind surviving nearly so) the states grudgingly, imperfectly, and nonetheless revolutionarily conceded a point – states should not have an absolute right to determine when they should or should not exercise their right to violence at the interstate scale. 

The model they turned to was simple – it was the same that had been used for the individuals that constituted states.  States were naturally and inalterably legitimate in defending themselves from attack and, equally, in defending their allies and weaker states from illegal attacks.  But in order to legally initiate a war against a state that had not attacked them first and illegally they needed permission from the global community – permission granted in the form of a United Nations sanction, and more specifically in a permission from the United Nations Security Council.

Furthermore, it became clear that states could and do sometimes engage in violent acts which are essentially immoral against populations under their control.  These acts have become regarded, if we wish to use a catch-all phrase, as crimes against humanity.  In the instance a state is carrying out such a crime it becomes legitimate for factions within a society to rebel against their state.

This actually makes things clearer but also more complicated.  We can regard political violence as legal or illegal according to these terms rather simply, but war and terrorism as terms are simply inadequate to capture all of the varieties of political violence.  At minimum we need to include politicide, that is to say the killing, forced removal, de-politicization, and so forth of an entire faction of a society.  The most infamous variety of politicide is of course genocide, a term coined by Raphael Lempkin to describe the Armenian and Jewish genocides of the early the early 20th Century. 

Terrorism is also problematic in that it is not simply illegal political violence but it is, as I’ve noted earlier, sometimes difficult to distinguish from irregular or guerilla forms of warfare.  All of these hinge on using emotions to amplify effect, all of them call for the attacking of soft targets, and all of them are favored in asymmetric strategic and tactical circumstances – even state-sponsored terrorism is largely a response to the geopolitical or ideological imperatives driving a relatively weak power in a system dominated by great powers or even superpowers. 

This leads us back, finally, to our discussion of jihad.  When conceptualized as form of political violence it does not neatly fit into these categories – this shouldn’t surprise us as it, like the concept of the crusade, evolved as a concept long before state monopoly of force, international law, and the like emerged as talking points of political philosophy.  How then do we classify it?  I would argue that we need to consider the major philosophies or doctrines of war that are possible and determine when and if jihad can be attached to these concepts. 

This is still problematic.  Doctrines of war don’t easily mesh with our distinction of terrorism from warfare – unless, that is, we assume, grudgingly perhaps, that in the eyes of participants in terrorism they perceive their actions as always analogous to guerrilla warfare.  If we make this assumption than we can squeeze all forms of jihadi into a single intellectual framework – probably. 

I’d argue that there are four fundamental ways in which we can approach the ethics of warfare, at least in the sense of when is warfare legitimate to begin, which itself informs what means might therefore justifiably be employed:

Nihilistic Doctrine:  Put simply we live in a world in which competition is a manifestly truth and in which the only clear governing determinant of success, cultural, political, economic, and social, in the long-term is relative strength in conflict.  The only necessary justification for warfare is the pursuit of power.  Imperialistic.

Crusader Doctrine:  This doctrine is essentially based upon faith – the belief that revealed truths have asserted the moral superiority of one religion, ideology, people, culture, etc. over others and that this relative superiority legitimates the conquest and forced conversion (institutionally and/or personally) of other polities (often couched as “liberation”), the obliteration and replacement of other polities, or some combination thereof.  Victories are generally taken of confirmation of beliefs.  Imperialistic.

Humanitarian Doctrine: When states are regarded as committing crimes against humanity and/or states are undergoing regime failure and effective Hobbesian anarchy then it may be argued that intervention in the affairs of a state by external states and actors is legitimate or even morally necessary, implying a universal human social contract and the existence of universal human rights which are not couched in any particular religious or ideological precepts.   Not intentionally imperialistic, but imperialism may be an unintended (or secret) end result. 

Just War Doctrine: The argument that violence as a means of resolving conflict is always morally problematic and that it should be principally reserved to instances of self-defense or defense of those immorally and/or illegally attacked by others.  Hobbesian-Kantian in intellectual terms, implies universal human rights of a minimalistic type which are not couched in any particular religious or ideological precepts.  Least opportunity of imperialism.  When domestic-only effectively becomes a restatement of Locke’s philosophy of regime change.

So. A few points are clear.  First, jihad is incommensurate with nihilistic approaches to the philosophy of war.  Secondly, when jihad is mapped onto humanitarian or just war concerns, which it often has been and will continue to be, just as other philosophies and religious approaches will map their ends onto these philosophies.  Third, when jihad follows the crusader doctrine it does not mesh with contemporary, modern, internationalist, universalist approach to politics – it is not unusual in this regard – neither do premodern Christian crusader, pseudoscientific social Darwinist, post-modern Stalinist or fascist approaches, or a host of other approaches. 

So, when is jihad to be condemned?  If we believe that that contemporary global justice and stability hinges on the contemporary universal acceptance of just war doctrine with the potential of limited application of humanitarian doctrine when applied by fully universalistic institutions then the assumption must be that ANY religious or ideological faction refuses to accept the compromise position of the current systemic agreement it constitutes a threat, including jihad and jihadi.

Here is the kicker.  Under the just war doctrine we are largely self-restrained to attacking such radical jihadi (as well as their analogs in other ideological and religious traditions) only in response to their prior attacks on us or others. 

This has an advantage, actually.  Such self-restraint, if actually held to, lends just war doctrinaires a clear emotional utility – it is hard to hate the self-defenders, easy to hate those who attack sure of their ideological correctness.  That means the gains of just war doctrinaires are more likely to be enduring than those of crusader doctrinaires.

As for humanitarian interventions – well, that remains to be discussed. 

To be continued.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

An Essay in Several Parts: On America, Refugees, Terrorism, and Totalitarianism with Introductory Vignettes: Part Three

This is the third in a series of vignettes, an element in an essay in several parts.  Each part will have a brief introduction - a framing device, I suppose, in which I use an incident in American history, and the words of an American political thinker, to set up the episode.  The essay is about several things which, at this moment in history, need to be addressed collectively.  I hope to give its readers something to think about and, of course, a means to deal with a complex set of issues in a way that is humane, rational, just, empathetic, realistic, and moral.  If you'd like to read earlier parts, the first vignette be found here, or the second here


"The Capture of King Phillip's Fort" from Harper's Weekly, 1857
A scene from the bloodiest, in relative terms, war in American history,
King Phillip's War (1675-1678)
I am fascinated by the experiences of early European and African settlers of North America and their interactions with native Americans - sometimes this is uplifting, other times it is entirely disquieting.  
A pattern is emergent, however, whether we are speaking of colonists in Virginia or New England, the mid-Atlantic or the southern colonies.  Inevitably there would come a time where some individual native American, or group of native Americans, would engage in some form of violence against some group of colonists.  Perhaps the violence would be theft, perhaps it would be more horrible, a kidnapping or a murder.  Ultimately the details would matter little - the colonists would split between those who wished to pursue diplomatic means of redress and those who sought more problematic means of atonement - the kind generally lumped under "an eye for an eye." 

The result would be a war, multinational in the sense that the English diplomatic factions would at some point lose control of the situation.  Perhaps there would be a rebellion, perhaps it would merely be the emergence of poorly trained or even unofficial militias, but regardless the hawkish element of the colonists would strike out.  Typically, though, these were no sociologists - to many of the colonists the native American peoples weren't peoples at all - they were one people, the Indians, and efforts to distinguish amongst them, to isolate the actual offenders from the whole range of possibilities, was simply an unnecessary subtlety.  The result would be inevitably attacks not only only "guilty" parties (which sometimes included far more innocent, non-participants than one would consider appropriate by modern standards) but against wholly innocent, or even allied, native American polities as well.  The geopolitics would be shaken and for months or years vicious, vengeance-obsessed parties would slug at one-another over and over, devastating one another's populations, economies, infrastructure, and long-term ability to work with one another.  

How much completely unnecessary bloodshed might have been saved had the colonists trusted to the longer, slower, more frustrating, but also less devastating methods of inquiry and diplomacy, if the uneducated had been convinced to regard native Americans as being as varied in political, economic, and social form and quality as European and African polities? 


III. Islam, Radicalism, and Ideology

In recent years a particular faction, or more accurately set of factions with sufficiently similar ideological goals and policy similarities as to render them effectively so in the eyes of non-members, has become a near obsession of my countrymen.  These are the radical religious fundamentalist members (which constitute a rather small part) of the Salafi and Wahabi factions of the Hanbali school of the Sunni sect. 

Read that last sentence again.  Now a third time. 

Americans are not scared of Muslims.  They just think they are. In fact they are scared of a faction of a faction of two small factions of a school of jurisprudence of one sect of Islam.  Knowing nothing else this should immediately put some things into perspective.  

Where to start, though, to fill in the blanks?  There is much to say on the subject.  Perhaps by actually explaining the Islamic faith, insofar as a forum like this is able.  

See, first off, there are Muslims, members of the Islamic faith.  Islam is an Arabic word translating essentially as submission to God. It is an Abrahamic monotheistic faith, sharing a common intellectual and theological basis with a variety of other faiths – Bábism, Baha’i, Christiantiy, Druzism, Judaism, Mandaeism, and Rastafarianism.   It also shares attributes with the monotheistic, but not Abrahamic, faiths of Zoroastrianism, which is regarded as a “faith of the book,” and Sikhism, which some theologians believe emerged as an effort to resolve the differences between Islam and Hinduism.  Muslims believe that they are essentially of the same faith as other monotheists, but that earlier revelations of the word of God had been corrupted over time – in order to correct this God sent an angelic messenger to the Prophet Muhammad, last in a long line of prophets, to receive God’s word in an uncorrupt form – the angel recited it to Muhammad and Muhammad in turn recited it word for word to his people who eventually would write it down, again word for word and always (at least in theory) in the same classical Arabic.  This corrected, pure version is known as the Quran – literally recitation.

Trying to summarize an entire faith, particularly one with a long history of philosophical, legal, and theological debate and schism such as Islam, is honestly a daunting task – to understand Islam it is worth taking the time to read the Quran and several books on the subject (at the end of this essay I’ll include a bibliography of works I recommend).  Nonetheless, we need at least some ground work – let me see what I can do.

At the core of Islam are five essential tenets – these are generally known as the five pillars of Islam.   First among these is shahada – the testimony.  In essence it is merely the statement that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.  In essence it is only the first part of this, the assertion that there is no god but God, that is essential for being regarded as a person of the book and a proper monotheist, but the latter is a testimony that one accepts the Quranic version of monotheism and with it the Islamic interpretation of the word and law of God. 

Secondly is salat – this is the requirement that all faithful Muslims pray five times daily.  Ideally this prayer follows a particular pattern – the Muslim washes before prayer, uses a particular set of ritual positions that indicate submission towards God, and faces towards the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.  Ideally this is also done in a mosque, which is marked with niches to indicate the appropriate direction of prayer.  That said, key is prayer in good faith - there will be times in the life of all Muslims with one or more of these options is not available (for instance if a Muslim is in space on a space station traveling thousands of miles an hour how does one bow or face Mecca in a literal since?) and in the instances there is no penalty for errors in the sight of God. 

Third is zakat.  This is the act of giving alms to the needy and is ultimately calculated through some rather complicated accounting principles – think of it like a formalized religious income tax system operated by ones religious community in secular states and religious but non-Muslim states or by the government in states with an official religion of Islam.

Fourth is sawm, the act of fasting.  Fasting may be done by a Muslim as an act of asceticism, or it may done as an act of repentance and contrition, but it is most uniformly conducted during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims are required to fast between dawn and dusk.  That said, for those who fasting might constitute or complicate a medical or health problem (the very young or old, those with diabetes, pregnant women, those in a time of war during a period of imminent threat, travelers, and so on) the sawm may be delayed or even omitted.

Fifth is hajj.  This is ultimately a pilgrimage to the holiest city in Islam, Mecca.  Like most ritual pilgrimages this is a highly ceremonial experience, intended to unify the members of the Muslim community matter there language, home, gender, political standing, or economic class.  It is to be undertaken by all Muslims who are able at some point in their lifetime.  There are other holy sites in Islam, of course, with their own pilgrimages associated with them, but none are universally required, as is the hajj – the nearest in importance being Jerusalem – and many Muslims of different sects and traditions disagree on what appropriate pilgrimage sites are. 

There are other tenets of Islam which are particularly significant within the context of this essay – that isn’t to say these are the only relevant elements, by any means, but in the interest in of time I’ve made a few selections.

First, Islam has a missionary character – like Christianity and Buddhism Islam actively seeks to convert non-believers into believers.  At times this has been accomplished through warfare at others through theological debate and conversionary efforts.  In this it is no different than the other missionary faiths, but this is important because, like them, it has a sense of expansionism, a sense that there is a real meaning to increasing the membership of the faith since this correlates with the fundamental conception of what is good in human life. 

Secondly, until very recently Islam had no tradition of separation of church and state or of secularism.   Consider: in the West the separation of religious and secular authority into two different spheres of sovereignty largely emerged from the fact that the classical Roman Empire collapsed but the Roman Catholic Church did not – indeed, the latter would thrive in the ruins of the old universal state and, when new medieval polities would emerge the Church clung fiercely to its political independence.  The upshot was centuries of coexistence of the state and the church as, effectively, co-sovereigns – the former temporal and geographically limited, the latter spiritual and universal. 

Islam has no similar tradition – while there are many sources of scholarship, leadership, and so forth in the Islamic tradition there is no historical singular authority that was in a condition of struggle with states.  The closest analog would be the caliphate, but this was always essentially a political and spiritual title – the political responsibility for guaranteeing such elements of Islam as necessitated state oversight and enforcement was present in the caliph, who was also head of a polity that had some claim to universalism (even when this was not the case in truth). 

Furthermore, the concept of secularism emerged out of the uniquely Western experience of the wars of religion that began with the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation (or Reformation, depending on which historian you’re speaking with) and continued until for centuries after.  These war, which were both international and intranational, were astoundingly devastating in terms of cultural heritage, infrastructure, and most horrifically, human lives. Entire nations were devastated out of religious intolerance and something gradually became clear to the early modern West – religious wars threatened to destroy everything.  Gradually new international institutions emerged, such as the principle of cuis region, eius religio, but also powerful pressures for legally mandated toleration.  The most dramatic expression of this came in the late 18th Century in the newly independent United States where first several states and later the entire Union guaranteed freedom of religious conscience, speech, and practice, banned all religious tests for the exercise of political rights, and instituted the first secular political institutions – that is to say a clear, definitive, and permanent separation of public institutions from private institutions, including religious institutions.

Islam, on the other hand, was a far more tolerant faith for most of its history.  That’s not to say it didn’t have its nasty moments – anytime you have millions of people doing or believing anything bad things will occur.   But there is simply no question that Islam never experienced the sort of reckless violence of Muslim against Muslim that Christianity experienced until it had been deeply influenced by Western thought and political imperialism (I know, right?).  What that has meant is that efforts to secularize Islam are all, in historical terms, comparatively new, really only beginning with the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of Turkey and Arab nationalism. 

There is one more really essential element to Islam that warrants some discussion – that is the fact that Islam is ardently, adamantly, clearly a faith in opposition of theological innovation.  What does this really mean?  Well, the Quran clearly forbids the generation of new principles and tenets of faith – Muhammad’s role on this earth was, definitively, to correct the errors made in interpretation and reinterpretation of the scripture as given through previous prophets by God.  This is why, ideally, the Quran is not translated, this is why Islam is friendly or even protective (in most historical iterations) of older monotheist faiths but is frequently hostile towards newer faiths, and this is why things have often gotten rather – hmmm – hostile when one sect or school of Islam has accused other schools or sects of this charge.  In functional terms it is seen as a violation of the shahada, the most essential of tenets – if Muhammad is the last prophet, and gave us precisely the word of God, then to innovate is to undercut the very meaning of Islam and, indeed, the will of God on earth, effectively putting a false God at the core of the faith. 

Sects of Islam

Like all world religious Islam has numerous subdivisions which, functionally speaking, are important for outsiders in that they constitute distinct behavioral cues.  Christianity has at least three of these surviving today, depending on who you ask – Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism.  Islam, on the other hand, also has three key divisions - Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi Islam. 

The origins of the first two of these lay in the distant past – with the death of Muhammad a schism emerged between those who believed he had not appointed a successor and those who believed that, in fact, he had – his son-in-law Ali.  The former believed then that the community of Islam had the right to appoint a successor caliph and all succeeding caliphs, the latter that Ali was inappropriately passed over and that Ali and his descendants were the rightful heirs of the caliphates, as only God could appoint a caliph.  This led to a series of wars and a distinct division in practice between the sects – the coming to be dominated by a scholarly Imamate and a messianic belief in the return of the occluded Mahdi, the former coming to invest local and jurisprudential interpretation of the Quran as well as the traditions of Muhammad and his immediate family and followers with particular significance.  Both would become internally fractured overtime, however, as disagreements emerged, though generally there is a higher degree of toleration amongst factions within sects than between sects – at least historically.  As for Sufi Islam, Sufism includes any form of Islam which emphasizes in particular mysticism – conscious effort through practice, prayer, or meditation, to come into direct and real contact with the divine and are divisible principally in terms of their means of doing so.

Jurisprudential Schools

Islam, as a faith in which there was no clear, premodern division of temporal and spiritual governance, has evolved an extensive religio-political legal tradition.  This tradition is not without its internal divisions, however.  Indeed, within each of the major sects there are several traditions, each of which vary in particular in terms of the sources of law and the mechanisms by which judges and scholars are proper in using to interpret said law.  To try to go into an extensive discussion of these here would be, frankly, ungainly – that said there are four major schools of Sunni jurisprudence, the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’I, and Hanbali.  It is the fourth of these schools which is going to be important to our discussion here, so let’s explore that. 

There are a number of ways in which the different schools have argued that jurisprudential scholars can deduce rulings and principles of law.  Key among these is the explicit statement of right and wrong in the Quran, followed by the hadith (the sayings and traditions of Muhammad himself), as further the sayings and traditions of the family and friends of Muhammad. Sometimes the schools also will allow jurisprudential analogy or interpretation based on the whole of the law, while at other times they will allow the general consensus of the community to describe propriety (based on the assertion that never could the whole of the community be corrupted together by Muhammad). 

The Hanbali school, however, rejects all of these save dependence on the holy writings of the faith, especially in the form of the Quran and hadith – it is a strict and self-limiting, quite literalist, and an attempt to consciously avoid judicial or communal innovation and, thereby, preserve the true faith.  In this sense it is a fundamentalist school – fundamentalism simply being a sociological term for any movement which attempts to return an institution, society, or tradition to its alleged proper form by limiting it to only its the most essential elements, those fundamental to the tradition and demonstrable in the earliest writings and traditions. 

It is from the Hanbali school that two offshoots emerged in the modern period, in part in reaction to the emergence of Western modernity and its inroads into the Islamic world.  These are the Wahahabi and Salafi factions.  The former emerged in the Najd (part of modern Saudi Arabia) during the 18th Century, specifically as an ultraorthodox Hanbali approach to Islam that emphasized the purging of any practices, shrines, cults, and so forth – it is, in other words, explicitly fundamentalist and radical in its ends and it achieved significant political influence and protection through its ongoing alliance, as a faction, with the Saud family.  Salafism, on the other hand, is much newer, emerging only in the 20th Century, though again in Saudi Arabia.  In frank terms the Salafi movement, though attempting to assert its distinctiveness from Wahabism, nonetheless is deeply influenced by it, arguably to the point where in functional terms the differences are almost unnoticeable.  Probably the most important of these is that Salafi regard themselves as methodologically distinct and derivable from any of the four major jurisprudential schools, though in practice their jurisprudence tends to resemble ultraorthodox Hanbali.  Furthermore, while there is an emphasis on exactly the same sources as Wahabi scholars, Salafi scholars tend to emphasize the elite community judgments of the religio-intellectual elite, leading to greater top down dominance.   

It is upon these two factions, deeply influenced by one school, itself the smallest of the four major jurisprudential traditions of only one of the major sects of Islam that most of the concerns of the United States and its allies rest.  Indeed, in truth, it isn’t the whole of these factions – after all, the majority of Wahabi and Salafi are quietist or politically disinterested, or even are allies of the Western polities (e.g. the political elites of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates).  Yet, clearly there is a radicalized, intensely aggressive, intensely anti-American and anti-Western vein of actors coming from these factions – this requires comment. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

An Essay in Several Parts: On America, Refugees, Terrorism, and Totalitarianism with Introductory Vignettes: Part Two

This is the second in a series of vignettes, an element in an essay in several parts.  Each part will have a brief introduction - a framing device, I suppose, in which I use an incident in American history, and the words of an American political thinker, to set up the episode.  The essay is about several things which, at this moment in history, need to be addressed collectively.  I hope to give its readers something to think about and, of course, a means to deal with a complex set of issues in a way that is humane, rational, just, empathetic, realistic, and moral.  If you'd like to read the first vignette, you can find it here.  

Photo by Alan Dooley (2005) A Texas Army National Guard Blackhawk black
attempts to repair a levy breach in the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans

Not so long ago there was a hurricane.  It had a name - Katrina.  

Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, breaking dikes and devastating cities. She killed nearly 2000 people, caused nearly $108 billion in damage, resulted in the global embarrassment of the United States, and destroyed large parts of what might be America's most unique city. The area still has not recovered.  

Many people ask, why were the seawalls and dikes not higher, stronger?  The answer is simple - it would have cost too much money.  

This is not the right question, frankly.  The right question comes after that - what else what we might have done to alleviate the effects of the hurricane, both during and after?  What things that would have cost less money?  Could we have taken steps to move or simply, in the first instance, build human settlements to reflect natural geographic flooding boundaries?  Yes.  Could we have done to ensure emergency response systems were more robust, that communication between authorities and citizens was more clear, trusted, and less confrontational?  Yes.  Could our emergency response system at every level, local, county, state, and federal have been far better equipped?  Yes.  Could we have adopted foreign policies that kept our national guard and reserve in our borders, which is where militia have always been intended to serve (and have done so wonderfully in the past, even as they have adapted at times to problematic new roles overseas)?  Yes.  

We could have done all these things and the effect of Katrina would have been lessened, the hurt smaller and the response more effective.  

But we didn't.  

There will always be hurricanes.  We will never stop them.  This is a fact. 


II. Dealing with Terrorism from a Place of Honesty

This part will require some toughness.  Breath deep.  

Before going any further it is essential to bear in mind that no one, individually or collectively, is safe.  You are in danger from the moment of your birth to the moment you die.  You live in a world of constant danger and threat.  You and everyone you love will die and, frankly, there is a decent possibility that it will hurt and be frightening.  This is not meant to comfort you.  It is meant to liberate you. 

You see, if we give into the illusion of safety we can imagine safety as a goal, an endpoint that is somehow achievable – if I just do or buy or sacrifice this, that, and the other, I will be safe.  This is not true.  Of course you can make yourself safer and you have a clear right to demand a government that takes rational steps to defend your life, your liberty, and your property.  But no government on earth can make you wholly safe from anything, including and particularly terrorism. 

Think of it like this - you cannot build a wall tall or thick enough to hold back the sea forever, against its every possible storm.  With each iteration, each growth in height and width, the wall becomes increasingly unwieldy, expensive to add to and maintain and prevent from becoming a danger in and of itself.  With each iteration the wall becomes ever more an end unto itself, a distraction from other threats and from expenditures on quality of life, a drain of time and energy.  And yes, with each improvement it has the potential of preventing another disaster.  If it has no flaws, which it will.  If the disaster is not too great, which will happen.  If the disaster predicted is the one that occurs, which will not always be the case.  If we can afford to maintain it, which we will not always be able to.  

The question then is one of diminishing returns – when does doing or buying or sacrificing something stop making sense? When is the outlay of things I might use to make myself and those I love happier and more content, or to serve some communal end, to the end of security stop being useful? 

The response of the strategist must be this - do not put all your eggs into one basket.  Develop overlapping strategies that leave you able to best respond to situational changes, predicted or unpredicted. Build walls, by all means, but keep them reasonable.  But take other steps that will allow you to compensate for damage or the loss of the wall, to adapt to it.  If you bankrupt yourself on a wall that is, inevitably, imperfect, what will you have left to respond to its failure with?  

In the case of terrorism, as a human behavioral phenomenon, this becomes even more problematic - we are speaking not of inhuman physical forces, but complex, rational beings with different gifts, skills, perspectives, biases, experiences, geopolitical realities, and so forth.  Not putting all of our eggs in one basket is not merely a question defensive infrastructure, social and physical, nor is it as simple as a complex series of overlapping solutions. It is also possible, indeed, necessary, to generate circumstances in which the threat, terrorists and potential terrorists themselves rather than an impersonal, pretend force called "terrorism," actually make the choice not to engage in terrorism.  

There is only one clear cure, if we want to call it that, for terrorism.  Terrorism is violence begat by violence – desperate, broken, angry people recruited and trained and given purpose in an effort to deal with a world in which they feel they have no stake.  Violence, in the form of police and military action, can temporarily disrupt terrorism and, frankly, is a necessary part of dealing with it, but such violence is merely a pruning procedure.  Rather, the only clear permanent solution to terrorism is to establish people in a place that has a fair, uncorrupt government with a well-functioning legal system, to give them a basic level of economic development with ongoing hope of further growth and decent access to global markets, political-economic-social equality in which men and women are given equal rights and, essentially, women have access to loans and reproductive health services, and education of a quality to make students meaningful competitors for international competition.  Once these are well established, the development of stable democratic-republics embedded in the system of intergovernmental organizations can help stabilize and accentuate these gains.   

It should be noted - this will sometimes mean the careful and precise use of military force.  This force should be multinational, should obey the laws of war even to the detriment of the participants - it is only by winning in a condition of generating minimum hate that force has real long-term utility as a peace-generating tool.  And our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, not to mention our intelligence assets, American and of our allies, are effective and capable, but they need the support of governments willing to finish the job once completed. Read or watch Charlie Wilson's War if you need a clear, easily digestable example - force applied but not capitalized often constitutes mere wasted resources, if not detrimental actions.  

Let me be frank - this will not prevent the emergence of all terrorists.  Terrorists and their equivalents are not going anywhere - they will emerge and reemerge over and over again in the future. They will frighten us and sometimes succeed in hurting and killing some of us.  But such an agenda will make make their recruitment more difficult, their organizations less common, and their acts less frequent.  

Let me be yet more frank – by helping underdeveloped and corrupt polities become better places we, the developed world, will make bad people rich and other bad people powerful.   Every political system has had and will continue to have parasites, free-loaders who manipulate public systems in order to gain private and personal advantage.  This justifies vigilance and cooperation between polities – it does not justify dismissal outright. 

Finally, we in the powerful, stable, developed states, the rich and disproportionately blessed nations, bear some of the blame.  No.  We did not “cause” terrorism in a direct sense.  But we have long benefited from exploitative political, military, and economic relations with the underdeveloped nations that, frankly, have made many people angry at us – and rightly so, since as democracies most of our nations by definition collectivize both success and error.  Now, let it be said, the non-Western world was particularly devastated by a very few states and, in the case of the greater Islamic world, friction is largely the product of four imperial powers machinations between the late 18th and mid-20th Centuries – Britain, France, Russia, and China.  Yet the United States has some part in this too – look at the regimes the US has supported (e.g. the Shah in Iran) and overthrown(e.g. the reformist anti-Shah Iranian state), the forces we’ve unleashed (particularly in our training of asymmetric fighters in the Soviet-Afghan war), and the problematic choices we’ve made strategically (e.g. the Second Iraqi-American War).  Throw in our tendency to look the other way on issues involving Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia and there is a nice recipe for some understandable grassroots distaste. 

This isn’t an indictment of the West or the United States.  Rather it is an observation – there are historical forces our people are in part responsible for, some of these involved not merely from conflicting interests but fundamentally immoral choices, and – and this is important – we can do better, pursuing more consistent political goals with more uniform support of our political, economic, and social values, insisting on meaningful upholding of international development programs and the support of universal human rights, and greater transparency. 

This is harder in the short-term – riskier, maybe even costlier.  But it also the closest thing we have to a long-term “solution.” Be just.  Make people less desperate.  Model good government.  Protect, educate, and empower people who will go on to tell their children and friends “yes – the Americans are good people.” 

But even then, even under those circumstances, there will be terrorism. I know this because even my people, the Americans, engage in terrorism – usually, it should be noted, against other Americans.  

To conclude, it needs to be said - terrorists are political actors.  They aim to generate fear in order to cause others to change their policies.  When we undermine our fundamental values - values of democracy, republicanism, individual liberty, privacy, public transparency, rule of law, humanity, and charity - in an effort to appease terrorists we have failed, we have lost.  Equally, though, when we sacrifice these things in an effort to stop terrorists we have gone too far.  The returns have diminished too much.  We have failed.  We have lost.  

An Essay in Several Parts: On America, Refugees, Terrorism, and Totalitarianism with Introductory Vignettes: Part One

This is an essay in several parts.  Each part will have a brief introduction - a framing device, I suppose, in which I use an incident in American history, and the words of an American political thinker, to set up the episode.  The essay is about several things which, at this moment in history, need to be addressed collectively.  I hope to give its readers something to think about and, of course, a means to deal with a complex set of issues in a way that is humane, rational, just, empathetic, realistic, and moral.

General Marion -  from James Dabney McCabe's  (1876)
The Centennial Book of American Biography as provided by Wikimedia

To begin with I'd like to talk about the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion.  Marion was an irregular in the American Revolution, using small, carefully planned raids to sap resources and men from the British army and loyalists, including freed slaves who supported the British in exchange for their emancipation.  Marion targeted infrastructure and officers, aiming to sow chaos, undermine supply lines, and generate fear among collaborators and potential collaborators that would remove local knowledge, insofar as possible, from the hands of the British.  His methods were well tested - he had learned many of them during the wars between the Cherokee people and the people of South Carolina years earlier, wars in which the South Carolina irregulars learned to fight in ways radically different than those used in Europe at the time - including using strategies of wholesale destruction of both villages and food caches that the Cherokee relied upon, rather than outright confrontation.  In both cases Marion's efforts were effective.  

Now, when I was a kid I remember being taught by television and history teachers that the British were just rubes in the Revolution - their soldiers stood in straight lines and wore brightly colored garments and avoided targeting enemy officers.  The Americans, far more sly and clever, engaged in strategies whenever possible that violated the "gentlemanly" rules of war and that is why we won.  But I'm older now, and better read, and a helluva' lot more reflective and I have to ask myself a few questions.  First, is the total no holds barred, irregular approach to warfare really better than genteel, formalized war?  I ask not in terms of its strategic utility (though it did take us a helluva' long time to beat those redcoats. . . ) but in terms of ethics and long-term implications for societies dealing with wars.  Second, why didn't the British use asymmetric warfare themselves?  They were acquainted with it - hell, many of the British were simply loyalist Americans, and many of those had fought in the same conflicts as the pro-revolution Americans, not to mention irregular wars in Scotland, Ireland, and so forth.  Sure - the linear march had some utility - discipline to victory and all that - but isn't it possible that the British officers refused to use every strategy and tactic at their disposal not because they were ignorant, but because it was morally unwise and/or because it would only generate ill will which would complicate relations between the Britons and the Americans no matter the outcome of the war?  

Honestly, I have complex feelings about it - I can just as easily imagine myself an outraged Loyalist as I can a snickering (if mosquito-riddled), swamp-abiding Yankee.  No matter, I suppose - but still, a good place to start our minds when addressing the first of part of this essay.

I. What is terrorism? 

The simple truth is that terrorism is difficult to define both clearly and elegantly.  Nonetheless, I will try. 

First, terrorism is a form of violence.  In saying this I mean to say that all terrorism involves either the use of force or the threat of force, understanding that force is the destruction, removal, or injury of one’s life, liberty, or property. 

Second, terrorism is a political act.  Terrorism is in every case a means to an ends, an attempt to bring the behavior and/or thinking of others into accord with one’s own, generally with the intent of taking, bestowing, and otherwise allocating honor, wealth, or power.  This also has another implication, at least to my mind – terrorism is a collective activity, carried out by groups for groups.  The lone wolf terrorist, as they are sometimes called, is no terrorist – they are simply criminals. 

Third, terrorism is a criminal act.  By criminal I mean to say that it is an act carried out in conscious violation of the orthodox legal order of a political system – at present this can mean, ultimately, two things.  First, a terrorist act can be criminal in that it violates the law of a particular state.  Secondly, a terrorist act can be criminal in that it violates the law of the international political order – as such terrorism may be state-sponsored, though this need not necessarily be the case.

Fourth, terrorism is a response to power asymmetries – when one actor, the terrorizing party, chooses a strategy of terrorism it is always in response to the fact that the terrorizing party is exponentially weaker than their opposition.  As a product war, particularly war that would be regarded as legal within in the modern international framework as defined by the Geneva Conventions and theirProtocols, is a non-viable option. 

This leads into terrorism’s fifth element – it is an emotional and propagandistic activity.  Terrorists understand human rationality as malleable and less definitively formed than we usually imagine it.  Typically rationality is understood as having only two essential elements.  First, humans rank and order their preferences, roughly and imperfectly granted, developing a sort of tally of things they would like to achieve or get and things they desire to avoid.  They then analyze these ends, focusing in particular on those things which they particularly wish for or to avoid, at least initially, by considering the costs, benefits, and risks associated with particular strategies they might employ in the pursuit of these ends.  This allows them to discard certain ends as non-viable and to choose the strategies most likely to result in the maximization of benefits and minimizations of costs and risks.   The problem is that this is inadequate – humans are not mere computers.  For instance, often we employ short-hands, psychological shortcuts intended to allow us to solve problems that apparently require little thought quickly – this means of course that, in fact, we’re not engaging problems rationally but habitually in such moments.  Furthermore, our interpretation of the apparent value of an end, as well as the costs, benefits, and risks associated with pursuing that end, may be altered by emotion.  Machiavelli wrote generally about this, describing how love, fear and hate radically alter the probability of different people pursuing particular ends by particular means.  Terrorism exploits this truth – it attempts to generate fear in particular, targeted ways that cause enemies to react predictably and self-injuriously.

This is important.  Terrorism is almost never used when the violence itself could constitute an existential threat to the political institutions it is aimed against – however it may be used to cause those self-same polities to succumb to self-destructive behaviors.  Put simply, a mosquito cannot kill an elephant – but if a mosquito bites an elephant and the elephant, in a panic, runs off a cliff, the mosquito achieves the same outcome, though the elephant itself was its own executioner. 

Sixth, terrorism is not easy to distinguish from guerrilla warfare in every case.  Both are asymmetric forms of violence.  It is probably best to understand political violence as existing on a continuum with traditional formal warfare at one end, terrorism on the other, and guerrilla warfare laying somewhere in between.  Alternatively, it is arguably that the difference is largely one of perspective – as the old saying goes, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. 

Continued in Part II - available here

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

An Open Letter to Appalachian Electric Power

Mr. George Porter
AEP Project Outreach Specialist

Dear Sir:

I write this letter in regards to the proposed Abingdon/Washington County Area improvements project currently under consideration by the Appalachian Electric Power (AEP) and such governmental authorities with the regulatory power to approve, amend, or deny such a project, including all local authorities and the Virginia State Corporation Commission – I do so as both a patron of AEP and as a concerned citizen of greater Abingdon and Washington County, Virginia.

As I understand it, from both media reports and the AEP website, there are multiple corridors proposed for a new substation and approximately eleven miles of high-voltage line (either using monopole or H-frame structures), elevated to 95 feet with 100-foot right-of-ways. The proposed paths for the lines, as I gather, involve to fundamental elements.  The first will connect the Abingdon substation to the new substation, to be located on Vance’s mill, dissecting north-to-south across western Abingdon through an area with substantial commercial development as well as of low- and middle-income housing.  The lines will then sharply veer east, running parallel with the Abingdon but outside of the town’s borders, roughly parallel to Watauga Road either north or south thereof.  The line will continue along this path until, somewhere around the point where Watauga runs into highway 58 it veers, in some proposals abruptly, in others lazily, to the Arrowhead Substation. 

I am not a luddite: I do not cry “not in my backyard” at the drop of a hat, nor do I oppose the development and building of necessary physical infrastructure, including electrical infrastructure – I am the son of a civil engineer and a political scientist with formal education in geography, and as such I value efforts to maintain and improve our infrastructure – infrastructure is, after the provision of security, fair justice, and education, the most important of bases for political-economic success.  I, however, oppose this particular plan, at least as proposed. 

My concerns hinge on three principle points. 

First, the plan is clearly designed to avoid the Town of Abingdon’s planning authority insofar as is feasible – this is done by avoiding historically significant areas, which is admirable, but also areas in which there would be a line-of-sight of residents in upper-class neighborhoods.  Less affluent Abingdonians, however, have no such protection. Similarly, line-of-sight becomes an issue with rural Washington County residents – the Watagua Road area is principally made of small neighborhoods, mostly middle-class, and farms.  I note that it is possible that by following the most southerly of the routes the lines would largely avoid line of sight for the wealthiest residents of the road, though it would remain in the line-of-sight for most modest residences.  Line-of-sight is not a meaningless concern – land values will unquestionably be affected for residents in these areas and, if the proposed plans are put into place a large portion, if not all, of the burden of line-of-sight devaluation will be put upon the backs of lower- and middle-income home owners.

Secondly, the proposal intersects with Creeper Trail.  The Creeper Trail is an essential part of the local economy of Abingdon-Damascus area – it draws hikers and campers from across the United States and around the world to our area and, along with the Barter Theater, constitutes Abingdon’s most essential tourist draw.  Any activity which devalues the trail, even slightly, constitutes a potential cost and risk.  The Trail is a non-renewable resource – once we injure it, and its reputation as one of the finest trails in Appalachia, if not the country, it is unlikely recover from the blow. 

Third, I question whether path of the infrastructure is remotely ideal – were the line to cut to the north and east of the town and then to the Arrowhead Substation it could skirt the Johnson Memorial campus and then follow a number of paths that are, if not shorter, than at least affect line-of-sight values of residences far less, not to mention entirely avoiding the potential injury to the Creeper Trail and its aesthetic value.  Alternatively, there remains what might be deemed the best of all solutions, even if it is, in the near future, a more expensive one – underground placement of the high-voltage lines, avoiding both of these problems and entirely resolving bad-weather related complications.   

I believe that infrastructure improvements that benefit both private interests and the general public are achievable without injury to the private interests of hard-working men and women, or of the public interests of the Abingdon and Washington County communities of which Appalachian Electric Power a contributing member.   As such, I ask that AEP reconsider their proposal, and that should they press their proposal that any and all responsible governmental authorities should reject it until it should be so amended, and call upon my fellow residents and citizens to do the very same. 

Most sincerely,

Eric Drummond Smith, PhD
Abingdon, Virginia 24211


Editors of The Bristol Herald-Courier, The Johnson City Press, and The Kingsport Times-News,
Clerk of the Virginia State Corporation Commission
The Planning Commission of Washington County, Virginia
The Joint Utilities Committee of Washington County, Virginia
The Joint Economic Development Committee of Washington County, Virginia
The Washington County Department of Community Development and Planning
Mayor, Vice-Mayor, Town Manager, and City Council of the Town of Abingdon
The Planning, Tourism, and Parks & Recreation Departments of the Town of Abingdon
The Virginia Creeper Trail Advisory Board
The Mount Rogers Planning District Commission
The Town of Abingdon Tourism Advisory Commission
The Town of Abingdon Recreation Advisory Committee
The Town of Abingdon Planning Commission
The Town of Abingdon Go Green Committee
The Town of Abingdon Fairview Committee

The Washington County Chamber of Commerce 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Liberal Arts, Tenure, and Tuition: A Professor Writes Honestly About Higher Education and its Critics

The Academy
[From the Three Stooges' 1938 Violent is the Word for Curly]

This is a draft of something I've been playing with - I've submitted to a publication and am waiting to hear back, but you know me - I hate to keep anything from the good people of the world wide web.  So, with my compliments, read on.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

My name is Eric Drummond Smith, PhD.  Please, spell it right in the hate mail.
I write because, in recent months, if not years, the tenor of public discussion in the United States of academics in general and higher academics in particular has becoming increasingly mired in factionalism and misunderstanding.   I worry about this for many reasons – not merely that an unenlightened, poorly-educated population is unfit to engage in liberal politics, economics, and society (which is to say democratic-republicanism, capitalism, and free speech, religion, and assembly), though that is a real concern in and of itself.  I worry because I am a professor and it is my profession and I consider my duty to defend and improve the academic system as I am able.  Call it my factional bias, I suppose.

Why do we teach the liberal arts and sciences? 

There is more questioning, by political and business leaders, of the modern corpus of higher education than in decades, if not centuries.  Increasingly there are calls to make the educational process shorter, more uniform in its output, and more specifically technical in its content.  The enshrinement of efficiency and economy, of statistically measurable outcomes, and of technique-over-liberal arts is rampant, the emphasis on outcome over process bordering on insane.  I have heard calls for a two-year baccalaureate that totally lacks non-technical courses, rejecting them as both a waste of time and as ideologically biasing students into becoming more “liberal.” 
                The truth of the matter is more complicated (surprising no one who actually thinks for a moment).  Higher education is aimed, yes, at teaching a technique or profession, the means for a student, upon graduating, to begin their further advancement in a career.  But it has other aims as well.
                First, it is to make students better prepared to be elites.  If you have already shouted, “elitist” at the top of your lungs, possibly in a crowded coffee shop, I suppose you’re right.  But not in the way that you think.  Higher education gives students powerful tools – we make priests, preachers, rabbis, imams, artists, journalists, and rhetoricians who can sway the mind and heart, scientists and engineers and medical practitioners who hold in their hands the stuff of creation and destruction, and businessmen, bureaucrats, military men and women, and political elites who control the majority of the world’s wealth and power.  We are preparing the powerful to be powerful, those who will control not just their destiny but those of tens, hundreds, thousands, millions, or even billions of people.   There are of course exceptions, but these have been the exception for a long time and are becoming more, rather than less, exceptional. 
                The technique is part of this – it is the beating source of power for these elites.  But it isn’t enough – we want elites who are not just self-interested, but also elites who are able to make moral decisions about more than just their own interests.  Humans live in societies – complex, interdependent systems of people doing many different things.  If we only can usefully speak or value things or beliefs in our tiny niche of knowledge and expertise then we are unable to make ethical and practically intelligent decisions in our purchases, our political activities, and our social lives.  We have relegated ourselves to being the most advanced of domesticated animals – skilled, capable, useful, and doing whatever we are told, no matter the moral or political or economic consequences to others. 
                Liberal arts and sciences, however, liberate the human mind – they free human beings to think outside of their area of expertise, to feel confident in intellectually challenging and diverse environments.  They free the human to be political, to be able to engage in artistic, social, and ethical debates, and to lose with grace.  Do the liberal arts make us liberal?  Yes.  In the classical sense, that is – liberal arts make people more rational, better at tolerating difference, better at adapting to change, better at weighing the interests of people in factions other than their own.  In other words, they make us better capitalists and better members of a democratic-republic. 
The trade-off?  Liberal arts cost more time and money to acquire – probably the only valid concern.  Further, they also make society less efficient – those liberally educated, whether they are progressive liberals or conservative liberals being of no matter, question our elites, traditional and contemporary, and that makes them weaker, less able to make decisions quickly and without oversight. 
Hmm.  Maybe the opponents are elitists too, just not the kind the make a free and fair society work.

What do professors actually do and why do they have tenure?

The professorate evolved from the same forces that created modern lawyers, medical doctors, and the religious pastorates.  The Western civilization, as the Middle Ages progressed, once more began to have enough wealth to be able to afford specialization, and enough political, economic, and social complexity to require it.  Gradually this led to the establishment of highly ceremonialized centers of education – schools which aimed not merely to teach how to read, write, engage in math, and learn some professional skill (though they did all of these), but which aimed to produce the leadership of a Medieval society, scholars who were both experts in their fields and had a real sense of the broader universe, both human and natural, in which we find ourselves as a species.  Some of these became the first “professionals,” that is to say those who practice their profession – lawyers with purple bars on their arms, medical doctors with green bars on their arms, and priests and pastors with black bars on their arms. 
                Some of these folk, however, adopted blue bars on their arms – the traditional color of philosophers in the Western tradition all the way back to classical Greece.  Philosophy, literally the love of wisdom, encompassed all the disciplines of human learning – arts, sciences, humanities, you name it, and philosophers had two fundamental aims.  First, they sought to advance human knowledge – to test knowledge claims that already existed and to attempt to push the boundaries further than not only contemporary, Medieval philosophical knowledge, but beyond that even of the classical philosophers.   The other aim was to teach students – to convey knowledge already learned and to impart the skills necessary to for them to become a new generation of professionals or, should they decide to become philosophers themselves, to become a new generation of professors. 
                This is why that much reviled (today, at least) institution known as “tenure” came into being.  The expansion of knowledge and the imparting of that knowledge to new people, people frequently destined to become the elites of the next generation, is dangerous.  It is controversial.  Professors teach their students to question things and then to act on those questions.  Professors teach their students skills aimed specifically at empowering them politically and economically, from rhetoric to mathematics.  Professors teach their students that they have been misled by previous generations, sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidently, and that they are morally obliged to attempt to investigate the world with the very real possibility of demonstrating that their own parents, leaders, and mentors (including the professors themselves, it should be noted) are wrong.  Professors go so far as teaching students not only the skills to be practically adaptable to a complex world, but also ethically adaptable, able to confidently address moral issues that are personal, political, theological, and everything in between.  Professors are incendiary and they are dangerous.  But they are also necessary – imagine attempting to run a modern society, even centuries ago, without a class, small, but furiously busy, doing what professors do.  Degeneration in the quality of economic, political, moral, and social decisions would begin within a year or two.  And professors knew it and know it.  We are valuable – not more valuable than anyone else, but possibly more difficult to replace.  Consider – the majority of my friends from high school graduated from high school and then pursued a job based on the skills they acquired there alone.  Fair enough, of course, but a significant number pursued additional education – sometimes one or a few years of technical education that made them highly skilled craftsmen, sometimes a year or two of higher education towards an associate’s degree that imparted some key liberal arts concepts but was still largely profession-oriented.   A smaller number pursed a bachelor’s education – generally four years of additional education with significant emphasis on liberal arts and intensive study in one or two major fields.  A very small number of my high school classmates delayed “real life” yet further, pursuing a master’s education, another year and a half to two years of school to firmly establish their professional expertise.  A smaller group yet pursued law degrees, called in the United States a juris doctorate but really something between a traditional master’s and doctoral education – coming in at three years (and not a terminal degree – there are yet more advanced law degrees which are generally only pursued by those going into particular complex fields of law or, more likely, planning to become professors of law). 
                So far we’re at seven years of additional schooling past the majority of my peers I grew up with – schooling that doesn’t make them better people, but does make them rarer and harder to replace. 
                Now let’s look at the professorate. There is a lot of variation in what it takes to get a doctoral education (the doctor of philosophy being one, but not the only, truly terminal degree, but the one I know the most about since I have PhD written after my name).  In my case my higher educational career was – well, a little more intense.  Four years for a bachelor’s degree with a triple major, followed by two years for a master’s degree in an interdisciplinary field, followed in turn by six additional years of doctoral work which really had three distinct stages – three and a half years of classes, comprehensive exam preparation and completion (I wrote around 120 pages in two weeks to prove I had learned what I’d already been graded on, if you’re curious), and then the remainder spent on a gigantic, ponderous original piece of research called, simply, the dissertation – under the oversight (sometimes wonderful, sometimes painful) of four different bosses – er – committee members.
My aim is not to brag, it is to explain what professors go through.  During my education I was financially barely getting by – no insurance for years, my labor as a teacher or research assistant paying less per hour, in practical terms, than minimum wage, my waist expanding from too much time in libraries and eating ramen.  I was stressed out constantly – perpetually exhausted (the peak being the four days without sleep during comprehensive exams – yes, I did hear voices and yes, I told them to leave me alone unless they were going to help me find sources).  It was incredibly hard and I did give up my wage-earning potential for, well, a decade, to get to go, but it was also invigorating.  And I knew it would lead to a life I wanted to live. 
So.  Here is the thing – it is hard to become qualified to be a professor.  Becoming a tenured professor is another thing altogether.  Our job interviews are one to three days long each.  If you get the job as a tenure-track, normally after one to three years as a fellow or one-year appointment or adjunct professor, then it is four to six years of work till tenure, six years of proving you are supposed to be in the “ivory tower” before you’re considered for tenure. 
Is tenure job security?  You’re damn right it is.  Because there has to be some reason to put ourselves through the ringer. 
But tenure is more than that.  It is a protection of the professor’s role as a muckraker, a trouble-maker, an intellectual corruptor of the youth.  Earlier I said a huge part of what a professor’s job was lay in seeking truth and empowering those who are young to pursue it themselves.  Further, I said that this made enemies of a lot of people – those who have a vested interest in remaining unchallenged and unquestioned, not to mention those people who are frightened unduly at that more unpleasant of universal truths – that we know far less than we think we know. 
                To do this the professorate, perhaps more than any other element of society, needs freedom of speech, action, and assembly in the face of a world that wants to pull the rug from under the professorate or, even worse, to coopt us into teaching only technique and particular ideological lines, making the professorate, with its vast intellectual diversity, into technical manuals and propaganda organs.  We need the right to fight each other, to debate and discussion, to open minds and introduce controversy, and to scream bloody murder at the orthodox and the established just as much as we scream it at one another.  Tenure is a way of protecting that right – of guaranteeing professors – who don’t have that much money and don’t have that much power and don’t have a vast population base – feel safe enough to do their jobs and keep our civilization in a state of enlightened discourse and growth.
                When people advocate getting rid of tenure, sometimes it is because they think professors aren’t doing their job – I want to tell you that yes, frankly, some professors don’t do their job.   And some mechanics, lawyers, politicians, and sheepherders don’t do their jobs either.  Do professors lose their jobs?  Yes – if they don’t fulfill their responsibilities.  But do they lose their job for engaging in free speech?  Not if tenure is working properly.  Should math professors be talking about Marxism in class?  Nope.  Should political scientists?  Absolutely.  Should either be allowed to be Marxist outside of class, and lead discussions, debates, and political action, if they so see fit outside of class?  Again, absolutely.
                It is in this context that the critical third job responsibility of professors emerges.  Yes, we are teachers.  Yes, we are researchers. But further, we are also administrators – we run the academic elements of our colleges and universities, by and large.  Why?  Simple.  We’re the only people who know how to and, of equal importance, we’re the only people whose factional bias is guaranteed in almost every instance to seek to preserve academic freedom for the professorate and its students.  When a professor seeks to support those who oppose tenure and academic freedom it is because they have decided some other factional interest matters more than the one they allegedly have dedicated their lives to, the act of professing.  That is a simple, basic truth. 
                So, when people call for professors to do more work, realize this – sure, there are lazy professors.  But most of us are working our asses off.  Professors are teachers, researchers, and administrators.  We speak to public forums, testify in courts, advise in investigations, get interviewed by journalists, conference, publish, mentor our students and evaluate their progress so that when a recommendation or transcript says they know something you can damn well be certain they do.  Shrink our course load or, better yet, our class-sizes, and we’re better at all these things.  Make us teach more and more classes that are ever larger and more distancing from our students and we are worse at them.  Replace us with adjuncts or teaching assistants and you get people with less expertise teaching while also ripping those same people off, generally giving them no benefits and scab-level pay. 

So, what are the real problems in modern higher education?

Well, there is one in particular that dominates my attention – cost. 

I say there is one that dominates my attention not because it is the only problem, by the by – I am deeply concerned by the fact that drop-out rates are often so high and that a helluva’ lot of students can barely write in formal English by the time they get their degrees.  But by and large I think those are in part caused by things I’m not equipped to address (problems in the primary and secondary education system) or are caused by the high costs of college and university (more on that in a moment).  I also worry about substance abuse and violence of all kinds on campus, but I suspect that, in truth, they’re probably not much worse than what similar-aged men and women experience outside of a college experience, contrary to the finger-pointing and simple-answer-making (e.g. fraternities are the most evil thing in the universe).
                No, it is cost that dominates my attention.  The more expensive an education is, the more it becomes the exclusive purview of the already wealthy, powerful, and/or well-educated.  This matters a lot to me – I teach at a little college in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia where the majority of our students are first-generation – a combination of Appalachian coal miners’ kids, eastern Virginian inner city kids, and farmers’ kids from all over the state, principally. I want to make them powerful.  I want to make them wealthy.  I want to make them ethically educated enough to use that power and wealth properly.
                But as the costs of educations, both private and public, go up the consequences are observable and profound.  Fewer people are able to afford to attend higher education at all.  Others take a much longer time to finish their degrees, having to take far less than a full course load.  Fewer people are able to take advantage of the academic community – the constant, live-in-place intensity of life in an inquiring community, a place of art, music, theology, philosophy, science, and history not merely in the classroom but in the dormitories, the cafeteria, on the lawns and in extracurricular organizations.  Fewer people have the opportunity to develop deep relationships with their mentors and peers that will benefit them professionally and emotionally the rest of their lives, not to mention while undergoing the strains of their education.   And more and more students are working half-time, full-time, or over-time to afford college, meaning they’re getting less out of not only the college community, but the college classes, labs, studios, and libraries as well – put simply, they know less than they would otherwise when they graduate. 
                A high cost college education is a handicap, an impediment to the development of students, one that is particularly regressive, hurting those least able to endure being hurt, explicitly undermining the dream that is so often touted by America – that anyone willing to work hard can make good. 
                Here is the thing.  Colleges have a lot of money.  Not all colleges, and not all have equal amounts, but nothing to sniff at in all but the worst cases.  So, why the tuition inflation?  There are a few reasons. 
First, some schools see other schools’ tuitions increasing and, even though they have no financial need, have decided to raise theirs in tandem.  Why?  Prestige – the average person mistakenly thinks that the more something costs the better it is.  Plus, it gives these schools a powerful recruitment tool – oh, you got in?  Well, heck, let’s give you scholarships (which aren’t really scholarships, just disguised tuition wavers) so you can brag to people, making you more likely to attend our institution.  This is morally abhorrent, in my opinion – students from poorer backgrounds, especially those whose parents don’t have higher education degrees, are less likely to apply when they see the gross numbers, not knowing how the game is played, meaning schools are steadily, artificially increasing the average income of their students at the application stage.  Which, of course, some schools see as a win – after all, the more wealthy a student is the more likely they’ll graduate on time, helping the school’s statistics (all hail the rankings gods, etc.), the more likely they’ll be able to afford large donations as an alumnus, and the less financial aid they’ll actually require. 
Secondly, schools are spending too much money on things that aren’t particularly relevant to “school.”  Walk around your local college or university and check out the plaques and cornerstones of the beautiful architecture.  Now, do some basic math – what proportion of the facilities are academic?  What proportion are dorms or the cafeteria?  Those buildings, and those alone, are the only buildings that are required to make a college work, function, run.  Now, go look at a map of the same school 50 years ago.  You’ll probably be shocked at the difference – the proportion of academic and academic-support buildings then probably approached 100%; on some campuses today it is far less.  The biggest buildings, newest buildings, fanciest buildings, the ones with the least use in terms of proportion of students or frequency of use (I’m looking at you fancy football stadiums that are used five or six times a year, total)?  Those are the ones that are increasingly dominating the scene. 
Sure, most of these are built by donated money.  But what about the upkeep and utilities?  Thousands or millions a year per building.  If the building is academic, a lab or a theater or a studio or a library, most of us are fine with that.  If it is a gym just for athletes or a building just for sweet-talking rich alumni, well, that gets more problematic.
Finally, a far smaller proportion of the people who work in colleges and universities are actually doing academic things.  Where colleges used to have professors, a few deans, maybe a provost and a president, a few key administrators like the registrar, bursar, administrative assistants, and librarians, and then maintenance and janitorial staff, there are now vast staffs of counselors, advisors, analysts, vice-presidents, assistant deans, recruiting staff, financial aid staff, writing centers staff, special needs staff, public relations staff, development staff, legal staff, residence life and Greek life and student life staff, and a host of others whose job it is to analyze, babysit, or sell things.  This isn’t to say that some of this isn’t important – frankly I am a huge advocate of on-campus psychological counseling for students, for instance, but a lot of this reflects the Rolls Royce model of education – it is all about the extras, even when those extras actually, in the long-term, are more injurious than we might like because they are very expensive. 
Clearly, then, the only answer is to a great deal more discerning in our growth of services and facilities and, equally, to begin to ask donors to please consider donating to the establishment of cost-lowering ends rather than another expensive to maintain something-or-another with their name on it.  Hell, put up a plaque somewhere – that is all most donors really want anyway.


I hope this has given you some insight into the professorate, why we have a few of the institutions in higher education that we have, how of all the things causing problems in higher education none of them are less a problem than the higher education itself.  If you disagree, well, more is the better – after all, I’m a professor – I love a good debate.