Of Cecil the Lion, Dentists and the Brothers Koch

My friend Jon Haidt’s work on the moral foundations of different political views started, I recall, with his work on disgust. This week’s news gave me some personal insight into this feeling that I thought I largely lacked. Having worked as a hospital orderly back in the day, I thought nothing much disgusted me given what I had seen during operations or after road accidents.

But then Cecil the Lion story hit and I realized for the first time, that this action of buying the right to kill and butcher a fine lion by a bloody dentist, disgusted me at a deep level. Though it was no doubt, as others have pointed out, very far from the worst crime of the week it hit home in a very visceral way: “ah this is disgust” I realized.

But then I started reading Daniel Schuman’s interesting, fair, insightful and even sympathetic biography of the Koch Brothers, “Sons of Wichita”. And I found the way this family is, disgusting. Here are three brothers who inherited a fair amount of money and great technical talent they have used to amass much bigger business and personal wealth. And for ideological libertarian reasons, they are now using this wealth to try to destroy the safety nets that provide income in old age, medical care in old age and poverty, unemployment insurance and the whole range of programs that mean the difference between security and anxiety, life and death for millions of Americans. Sociopathically…reckless, indifferent to others pain and manipulative to tick three criteria for sociopaths.

And knowing this destruction isn’t likely to win democratic approval in elections, they are using their wealth to corrupt the whole political system to achieve their sociopathic ends. Buying Presidential candidates willing to carry out their evil bloody project. So like the Cecil killing dentist, the Brothers Koch disgust me at a deep visceral level, and I am not sure I can finish reading the book, though I guess I should to better know our enemy. And so yes the Brothers Koch make me puke. As does Cecil’s killer…

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The Inglorious Few

In high school I studied history and was amazed I suppose at this 10,000 year catalogue of human folly.

Then briefly I discovered economics and thought markets were rational. That lasted about a year, until I studied economic history (which I commend) and which is just another catalogue of economic folly, that Daniel Kahneman and others have more recently helped explain. I went through various approaches: Marxist, therapeutic, personal construct, psychology, and more recently neuroscience, and none of them really explained the sheer scale of human folly. And in the corporate world I experienced its growing spread once stock options and short termism took hold and value add activity became replaced by short term quarterly results spin.

But I guess none of this prepared me for the current level of folly where a free market fundamentalist ideology has been hi-jacked by special corporate interests and used to take over the government in many countries. This corporatism uses our growing knowledge of human psychology tested in the ad world to spin delusions about reality and control us. But it is done for such kamikaze, planet- destroying sociopathic reasons that it represents a new level of human folly. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: never in the course of human history have so many been duped by so few for so little purpose.

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Top Ten Conflict Tips: Sun Tzu (544BCE-496BCE Traditional Dates)

Long overdue for one of our Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers, here’s Sun Tzu’s: Why is it that President Bush 2 and Donald Rumsfeld do not come to mind when reading this?

  1. If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.
  2. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
  3. Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.
  4. The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.
  5. There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.
  6. In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good.
  7. Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.
  8. Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is foreknowledge.
  9. The enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution.
  10. All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Tzu

A statue of Sun Tzu

Posted in Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Philosophy of Conflict, Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers, Ways to handle conflict | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Obama Reads Iran Better than His Critics: Edward Luce


An excellent analysis of the Iran Nuclear deal by someone whose views I always respect, writing in the UK Financial Times

Why Obama grasps Iran better than his critics

Those whom the gods will destroy they first make mad. Critics of Barack Obama’s Iran deal have been giving a good impression of having lost the plot. An Israeli cabinet minister described it as “one of the darkest days in world history”. Republicans liken Mr Obama to Neville Chamberlain. All agree that a deal that removes about two-thirds of Iran’s nuclear capability and freezes the rest will somehow hasten the day it has the bomb. In the next two months, before Capitol Hill votes on it, we will hear a lot more such bombast. It comes down to whether Congress believes Iran is capable of acting rationally or whether it is a uniquely malevolent country that has outfoxed America and its partners in the negotiating chamber.

The chances are that Mr Obama’s deal will prevail. He needs the veto-proof support of just a third of each chamber — 34 senators and 145 in the House of Representatives. Even then, however, it is no sure bet. In the next 60 days it will face the onslaught of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and every Republican presidential hopeful. In addition to viewing Iran in an apocalyptic light, each has further motives for wishing to sink the deal.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the logic is simple. Iran is Saudi Arabia’s chief competitor that claims to speak for the region’s Shia minority, a large chunk of which lives in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich east. In a sectarian zero-sum game, anything that boosts Iran is bad.

Israel’s opposition is also straightforward. As the region’s only nuclear weapons state — albeit an undeclared one — it wants to keep its monopoly. The fact that the deal would set back Iran’s breakout capacity from two months to a year is false comfort, say the Israelis. By bringing a pariah state in from the cold, it will perversely raise the chances Iran eventually goes nuclear.

Finally, Republicans see Mr Obama as a feckless president who is jeopardising US power simply by talking to a terrorist state. The quality of the deal is irrelevant. Nothing short of regime change will do. Some of these motives overlap. For example, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, shares the Republican party’s personal animus towards Mr Obama. What unites them is a refusal to see Iran as capable of change.

Mr Obama has taken the opposite tack. A realistic negotiator puts himself into his adversary’s shoes. The starting point on Iran is that its desire to go nuclear is entirely rational. US-led coalitions have invaded two of Iran’s direct neighbours, Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 15 years. American troops are still there. As a rule, the US does not invade countries that have nuclear weapons. Moreover, the US labelled Iran part of the “axis of evil” in 2002, at a time when Tehran wanted to help the US in Afghanistan, where they shared enmity with the Taliban (as they still do). Mohammad Khatami, the moderate cleric who was then Iran’s president, had also signalled a nuclear deal was possible. Had President George W Bush responded, a far better one would have been available. Instead, he branded Iran evil. Unsurprisingly, Tehran stepped up its clandestine efforts.

Second, Iran’s decision to mothball its nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic relief is also rational. It is unlikely to give up on it lightly. It followed a decade’s worth of US-led sanctions that has brought the country’s economy to its knees. The regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader, clearly thinks it will help its chances of survival.

It is possible, as Mr Obama’s critics predict, that Iran will spend much of the estimated $100bn in unfrozen assets on regional proxies — Hizbollah at the forefront. So what? Compared to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) and its mimics, Hizbollah is a restrained actor. Its theology is absolutist and it has carried out terrorist attacks. But it is not a death cult. In a world of bad choices, boosting Hizbollah’s clout is an acceptable price to pay for a deal that delays — and possibly dispels — the spectre of a Middle East nuclear arms race.

In depth

Iran under Rouhani

'Iran after Rouhani' in depth

After nearly a decade of isolation Iran has agreed a breakthrough deal with six world powers to wind back the country’s progress towards building a nuclear bomb in exchange for a sweeping reversal of international economic sanctions

Further reading

None of this cuts much ice with Mr Obama’s critics. Yet his detractors offer no realistic alternatives. Many Republican candidates are promising to rescind the Iran deal on “day one” of their presidency. Diplomatic norms prevent Mr Obama from pointing out that Iran is a more promising candidate for peaceful change than Saudi Arabia. Unlike that country, Iran has a quasi-democracy. About half of its university graduates are female. There are competing power centres within Iran’s theological regime. Prospects for further relaxation are easy to imagine. By contrast, the House of Saud rests on brittle foundations. Who dares guess what would come after it? Iran is a natural counterbalance to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi theocracy. As a non-Arab country, it is incapable of dominating the Middle East. There is also the small matter of how to defeat Isis. Without Iran’s help, the US would be in far worse straits.

There are moments when US presidents take risks that alter the world as we know it. Ronald Reagan’s friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev is one instance. Richard Nixon’s opening to China is another. Mr Obama’s deal with Iran is almost as breathtaking in its scope.

It is quite possible that it will fail. But if it unravels it should be because of Iran, not Congress. It would be a self-inflicted defeat for the US to torpedo its most significant act of diplomacy in a generation.


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How to Live: A Life of Montaigne (1533-92) by Sarah Bakewell

My favorite biography is probably Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne (1533-92) in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer”

Her 20 Chapter headings/answers are illustrative of the book: 1) Don’t worry about death 2) Pay attention 3) Be born 4) Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow witted 5) Survive love and loss 6) Use little tricks 7) Question everything 8) Keep a private room behind the shop 9) Be convivial: live with others 10) Wake up from the sleep of habit 11) Live temperately 12) Guard your humanity 13) Do something no one has done before 14) See the world 15) Do a good job, but not too good a job 16) Philosophize only by accident 17) Reflect on everything; regret nothing 18) Give up control 19) Be ordinary and imperfect 20) Let life be its own answer.

But of course don’t do justice to it. I am reading it for the third time. :)


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Fight, Flight, Freeze or Grow? David Whyte on Run!

I like the work of the British poet David Whyte, especially his book The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul at Work. Here is another piece on a key issue in conflict: when to run away:


is what most human beings would like to do a great deal of the time. It is the flight part of the fight or flight deeply in our bodies and our past, it is our protection, an evolutionary momentum and a biological memory deep in the human body that allowed our ancestors to survive to another day and bequeath to us, generations later, this day.

To want to run away is an essence of being human, it transforms any staying through the transfigurations of choice. To think about fleeing from circumstances, from a marriage, a relationship or from a work is part of the conversation itself and helps us understand the true distilled nature of our own reluctance. Strangely, we are perhaps most fully incarnated as humans, when part of us does not want to be here, or doesn’t know how to be here. Presence is only fully understood and realized through fully understanding our reluctance to show up. To understand the part of us that wants nothing to do with the full necessities of work, of relationship of doing what is necessary, is to learn humility, to cultivate self-compassion and to sharpen that sense of humor essential to a merciful perspective of both a self and another.

Wanting to run is necessary; actual running can save our lives at crucial times, but it can also be extremely dangerous and unwise, especially in the presence of animals that are bigger faster and more agile than we are; especially when the very act of running triggers an aggressive predatory response, or when running exiles us from the very circumstances that were about to mature and cultivate our character. In the wild, the best response to dangerous circumstances is often not to run but to assume a profoundly attentive identity, to pay attention to what seems to threaten and in that attention, not to assume the identity of the victim.

We decide not to run not only because there are many who would be left behind who cannot run as fast as we can, but also because in turning to the source of the fear we have the possibility of finding a different way forward, a larger good, through circumstances, rather than away from them in some supposedly safe area where threats no longer occur. We know intuitively that most of the time, we should not run, we should stay and look for a different way forward, despite the evolutionary necessity. Rarely is it good to run, but we are wiser, more present, more mature, more understanding when, we realize we can never flee from the need to run away.

©2015 David Whyte
The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words



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The Delicate Flowers of the US Gun Lobby


Meanwhile in the real world more Americans have been killed by guns and their use in homicides, suicides, accidents,  domestic violence than in all the wars in American history. And a gun owner has 22 times more probability of losing themselves or a family member to gun use than of using a gun to protect themselves from attack by a stranger.

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