Let’s Rescue Nuance

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Frazetta painting of the climax of Robert E Howard’s ‘Black Colossus’ where the capable princess regent of Khoraja is saved from the clutches of the evil cult leader and wizard by Conan.

The old internet of niche interests and experimental news outreach has given way to a mob of braying basics all hoping for reinforcement of their pre-existing beliefs. The old media such as cable news strives for relevance by salacious fearmongering, as it has since the dawn of Fox News in the late 90s. Conspiracy theorists, scolding virtue signalers, racist movements, and religious fanatics flourish as never before. Meanwhile, the people whose failures have largely created these problems, the complacent defenders of the status quo, squeal for ‘nuance’ and a return of the experts to save them from the populist menace.

But as has often been remarked upon both by me and by others is that the great defenders of expertise are often rubes and faith based prognosticators themselves. In a kind of ‘trident theory’, the center, as much or perhaps even more than the far left and far right, has debased discourse and knowledge in order to prop up a faltering ideological project. They have done this by making a mockery of the term ‘nuance’ by equating it with assuming the present ruling classes and objectives are empirical, non-ideological, and fundamentally sensible. Meanwhile, growing wealth gaps increase global instability, the neoliberal order contracts along with the influence of its primary patron powers, and the planet cooks.

But none of this is to justify the shrieking palace of wokescold moralists and reflexive contrarians on the left or the pathology-driven zenophobic revanchism of the right. No movement of any stripe can possibly provide workable solutions if it rejects nuance. It is therefore imperative to rescue nuance and expertise from its hostage takers in the center as well as its detractors on the various wings. An intellectual campaign against The Trident of Ignorance is necessary.

Even only focusing on the main theme of this blog, that of foreign policy, we see a media climate where to be questioning of Democrats is to be pro-Putin, where to be against Trump is to be pro-Clinton, where a person is not allowed to be both against the Taliban’s return to power and against the United States permanently occupying Afghanistan. People on the left who (rightly) critique the mainstream of American foreign policy degenerate into lazy anti-Americanism and even pro-Russian narratives. People on the right (and increasingly, center) who castigate nations like Russia and China give a free pass towards western nations who engage in the same behavior. No one seems to get the realist position that in an anarchic international world there is no morality but only successful and unsuccessful strategy (my default position).

Liberals say they are pro-refugee but also often support the very policies that create refugees in the first place. Conservatives are against more refugees coming to their country but blame the people migrating rather than their own country’s actions. Centrists, the most heinous on this issue, seem to directly support both creating refugees abroad through sanctions and bombings, taking the migrants in, and then turning against them once the issue starts empowering the right. See Macron’s dismal present performance in France for what an alternate history Clinton administration would look like in America right now. Meeting people with non-nuanced views halfway neither holds off the worst or mitigates the sides, it exacerbates the problem for everyone. True nuance is to think outside The Trident of Ignorance for a workable but also comprehensive changes to overhaul failed policies. It has no time for tepid band aid solutions.

The nuanced thinkers of the left, such as Angela Nagle, Amber A’Lee Frost, and others are castigated for putting results and big picture issues above moralistic showmanship. It is heresy for leftists to make a case against blanket open borders despite very real structural concerns that could cause. The nuanced thinkers of the conservatives, Andrew Bacevich, John Gray, etc, are effectively exiled from their anti-intellectual dominated home bases and have gone rogue. People of all sides scream at those who dare to appear on ideologically non-adjacent media outlets as if getting ones message across to those of different persuasions was a bad thing and some kind of betrayal of purity. If a thoughtful writing of someone is posted the first reaction from a purist as criticism will almost never be substantive but rather this person is for/against [unrelated issue], as if not being part of an insular monoculture is an ideal to be strived for and gives one credibility. This is cult behavior. But when so much of discourse is held hostage by various cults how do you deprogram so many?

This anti-intellectual culture cries out to be corrected by experts. And not the tired neoliberal consensus experts who are so dangerously mired in out of date groupthink. One’s analysis of the war in the Ukraine needs to be neither pro or anti American, Russian, Ukranian, or whoever. To recognize one countries’ policy failures need not be assumed to be support of a rival nation. To be opposed to the puritanism of the Pence right does not make one a supporter of the Cancelkin left, nor the inverse of being opposed to wokescolds should mean sympathy with their psychological equivalents in the evangelical movement. And to be opposed to both does not mean that one is in the center, where all critical thought apparently goes to die in the Twenty First Century.

On issues of policy, just as in issues of day to day social interaction, ones world view should first come from a synthesis of case studies rather than trying to shoe horn everything into one grand universal theory. We all make decisions based on experience and inclination. We all can’t get along because invariably many people have divergent interests from each other. This seems obvious, but I think cultures in the Anglosphere, Scandinavia, and the Middle East particularly struggle with this. These are the regions which have been afflicted in (relatively) recent history with virulent religious reformist movements who elevated blind faith over reason and a nebulous concept of righteous salvation over civic duty. The political became performance and thus performance was the height of the political in the minds of the ignorant go-getters. The most dangerous people became not the entirely ignorant and apathetic, but those with just enough engagement with the world to pretend authority but who lacked the critical faculties for actual complexity of thought. From the Wahhabist movement and the Reformation on through the racial purity and social justice circles of today, much of discourse remains hijacked by what is in effect Alt-Protestants. If current trends continue I would not be surprised if it becomes increasingly difficult to have intelligent conversations with anyone in these parts of the world.

Nowhere is this attitude of complacent privilege more obvious than in ‘no platforming’ speakers you disagree with. I will uphold anyone’s right to protest those they do not like, but not their right to remove them from public speaking in the first place. The fact that so much of this occurs in universities is of no surprise. As the university has moved more and more to privatized cash-for-diploma neoliberal models, the only way for young people to assert their vanishing modicum of power is to be aggrieved consumers who, like a suburban mom in a retail store, ‘need to speak to the manager.’ This culture also dominates as a form of memetic brainrot in much of social media.

Perhaps in the age of mass information-and disinformation-Ibn Khaldun’s theory of the rise and fall of ruling elites also applied to intellectual discourse. The solution to a decadent and complacent dominant elite is not to abolish elites (and up with Twitter call out culture mobs), but rather replace them by ones with new vigor forged on the periphery away from the sapping group think of the core-but that are still able to not be so niche or exclusive as to prevent them from taking and influencing that core. In an age where technology ensures the mass democratization of discourse, its time for a new set of experts to assert themselves. These will be the people who truly understand nuance and the only ones who can rescue it from its currently moribund state. It becomes necessary for us to create a culture where more people who meet this criteria will thrive. I am increasingly certain this cannot happen under neoliberalism, and know that it certainly never will happen through the endless screeching of the Alt-Protestant mob that dominates discourse today.

Seven Types of Atheism: A Book Review

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Seven Types of Atheism, by John N. Gray is a book I have been meaning to get my hands on for a few months now. Gray is my favorite living philosopher for a number of reasons, mostly related to his ability to critique most of the currents in European political thought from a kind of Taoist-Antihumanist position. He is an atheist but not a progressive or believer in the power of humanity. Though on contemporary politics we are extremely different, him going for Burkean conservative secularism and me for a kind of regionally adjusted geopolitical realism that ers on the side of hard left due to ecological concerns and the current failings of our contemporary ruling classes, but we come from the same place…that history is not a teleology, it has no predetermined end point nor a guiding overall ideology-and that attempts to impose a universal moral ideology is a horrific mistake. Rather, history is a cyclic process of constant crisis management and adaptation which knows no clear cut answers that work in every location or time period. He ends up more on the managed decline side of things-where I used to be I might add-though I now end up more on the ‘seize the moment to start a new cycle lest you be dragged down further’ side, but it is the kind of disagreement on big issues that reasonable people can have.

The reason I came to Gray was due to a recommendation from someone I knew who said that my attempts to articulate my own general position towards political theory sounded like his. I read Straw Dogs shortly after that, and since have gone on to read all his major works. I enjoy and learn from all of them, if not to equal extents. Straw Dogs and above all Black Mass I would contend remain his top works. Though I have moved in many ways in a different direction since, Gray was still the pivot point of my turn away from much of mainstream liberalism.

If anyone has been following his output recently, nothing in ‘7 Types of Atheism’ may necessarily surprise you. In the past 5 or so years he has written numerous criticisms of the myopia of seeing atheism as a purely progressive and humanistic endeavor for the patrician bourgeois of the western world’s developed nations. He not only does this to critique New Atheists, who he rightly scorns as charlatans and entertainers, but also to return awareness of the rich diversity of atheist thought which is not reflected by many contemporary trends. He is especially interested in non-liberal incarnations of the atheist world view, both ones he clearly dislikes as well as ones he respects. ‘7 Types’ is in effect the ultimate coda to these various positions he has scoped out over time. He starts with the New Atheists and Secular Humanists, and his largely negative views of them, then continues on to a mid-tier of various types (scientism, misotheism, etc) which he doesn’t like much either but sees at least some things worth engaging in. He then ends with what is clearly his favorite grouping, the ‘Atheists Without Progress’, and the ‘Mystical Atheists’ (Santayana and Conrad in the first and Shopenhauer and similar thinkers in the second).

I personally have never engaged much with Santayana, though I probably should considering there is a lot of overlap with my interests, but I certainly define myself in this ‘atheist without progress’ category. The impersonal and directionless nature of the cosmos is not what we make of it, as postmodernists and existentialists might claim, but rather simply a fact. The natural world is a material world, and a material world is stuff and energy. Our ability to control our responses to this are just as much slaves to nature as the other animals-even if we have perfected the art of deluding ourselves otherwise. It is not *all* for the worst of course, it gave us art and music after all. Its neither bad nor good because nothing is, the cosmos has no morality and this is fine.

Rather than go through each case study or argument piece by piece, I think it would be perfectly succinct to simply state the best and worst part of the book as I found them.

The best part of the book is that in many ways it serves as a slap in the face to the many Christians who have recently been drawn to Gray because of his savage critiques of New Atheists and Stephen Pinker type euphoria. Gray had developed a bit of a weird fan base that kind of missed the part where his critique of many contemporary atheists was precisely that they were too Christian and behaved as if they were the inheritors of all that baggage. The faith in progress, of human perfection, of a linear path going towards an end goal in history, of good and evil being repackaged as reason and unreason, it was all a very Christian form of atheism. Gray is more in line with the pagan thinkers of old, being fatalistic and skeptical of attempts to seek an artificial ideological improvement for the human race at large rather than localized and contextualized harm reduction. Universalism, outside of the big rules of hard science, is simply a method of moral posturing that heightens rather than reduces tensions and whose only benefit is as a psychological palliative for those who wield it. By re-centering his opposition to the monotheist world view as the core of his critique of many types of atheisms, Gray is reminding (intentionally or not) the faithful of Abraham that they created this mess in the first place. Perhaps if there were eight types of atheism I could consider myself a ‘pagan atheist’, or one who denies the reality of the gods but sees the use in the world view of personified natural forces for festivals and community building. But the point remains that Gray is reminding us of the origin of many of the bad ideas we struggle with, secular or religious, are monotheistic in nature-and stem from a religion that unlike most makes specific factual claims it cannot back up (a la the Resurrection of Jesus).

The worst part of the book to me is a general critique I have developed of Gray in the past few years: I do not think it realistic that many humans could become a kind of apathetic renunciate.  We are an action species by and large. To reject the idea that we are reasonable means accepting the fact that we will take action regardless of being able to see the pointlessness of much of it in the long run. We still have short term goals after all, which are far more immediate. There are people who renunciate, of course, but the realistic observation is that such people never become powerful, and powerful people count for much more. That means, if you like them you have to actively support them, and if you do not you should oppose them. Humanities’ ‘warring interests’ that Gray accurately points out are more likely to lead to a call of arms than a peaceful withdrawal. Since I believe individualism as politics to be a waste of time, one can only take such views from a deeply personal perspective-and even then this only applies to some people. I myself may want one day to live in remote A-frame cabin in Southeast Alaska’s temperate rainforest, but before that point I want to uphold my friends and revel in the misery of my enemies. You can only get things done by building communities, and all communities need foes and challenges to provide that extra glue of solidarity. I can always renunciate when I am old if I want to, and if I’m dead before then I already, in effect, have.

Since Gray used numerous fictional authors to help illustrate his largely non fictional point I believe it is only fair if I do the same to summarize this one respectful disagreement I have with his work. Robert E Howard, creator of Conan, Kull, and arguably the entire sword and sorcery subgenre, was someone who shared my view that history is cyclic, civilizations decay after apogee, and the future is barbaric-just as the barbarians one day will be the civilizational apogee before they collapse in turn. This view came, like mine, not from theory or philosophy but from years of a rigorous study of world history. There are enough of such people who would say the following: ‘But not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood,’ that walk this Earth. And even more of us who are not like that for the most part but have just enough appreciation of the ups and downs of irrational humanity as to have a little bit of that storm in them. For now, this is where I consider myself to be.

Or to take it from the mouth of Howard’s most iconic character:

‘I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.’

 

The Hip Old Fogeys and the Fear of Realism

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Back when I was firmly ensconced inside academia it seemed apparent to me that there was a certain cadre of social science professors-as well as their acolyte grad students-who were still under the delusion that they lived in 1990, and that 1990 was the future. They were, of course, postmodernists. Now, I know I have delved multiple times before into why I find that ideology anti-intellectual and useless for anyone taking the (correct) position of materialism so I am not going to go back into that here. But what I wish to deal with more specifically is the last gasp critiques of this dying old guard that refuses to admit it is yesterday’s fad.

I was sent, jokingly, a link to this which galvanized my idea to write a reaction. I am not interested in picking on these three academics specifically however, but rather the general trend of certain (usually boomer, or if younger, hipster) academics and their closest students to insist that they are still the cutting edge and critical observation. If you take a look through the list of positions held by Theory Revolt on how history is taught at the university level you can see in their own worlds what they are all about. Largely, they are opposed to a stodgy fusty old man and High Tory kind of historical instruction that defers to authority and source material and insists on universal truth. They wish for more theory to counteract a bland spreadsheet of dates and facts with little interpretation. Well, I agree with that.

The problem is that the widespread teaching of this kind of history is long since banished to the margins of most academia (outside of DC in polisci and economics in general, of course.  I am sure I have ranted about this before). The other problem is that to replace it with ‘critical theory’ (a nebulous term that implies critical thought but functionally and largely just means relativizing everything into subjectivity and attaching the milquetoast label of ‘problematic’ to everything) would be to update history courses from 1960 into the far off future of 1990. Theory Revolt is proposing nothing new as a solution to a problem that ceased being a problem around the time I was born. To be honest, this ‘revolt’ cannot be against the academic establishment: because for the most part these critical theorists *are* the academic establishment in the humanities.

Furthermore, this is reflective of a class of scholars who would rather ‘queer’ specific niche aspects of history than, say, write a large and comprehensive history of alternate sexualities. But I happen to know of a big-picture book that has done more for the subject that a million woke lit crits and film reviews about how things are portrayed in fiction. And that brings us to the other problem these academics have inflicted on us: fiction is now held as just as reliable a form of knowledge as nonfiction. Now as any cursory perusal through this blog can show, I do not write fiction off as a tool of analysis and fun for atypical nonfiction and theoretical topics. But it is no panacea on its own. I cannot help but think that the postmodern infiltration of all of the recent humanities topics has contributed to the unfortunate trend of many (usually) mainstream liberals and neoliberals to have meltdowns when real life does not conform to a Hollywood/Harry Potter/West Wing fantasy narrative about history as a progressive teleology where people like them are the heroes.

One of the habits of these types in the field is to become incredibly niche in their interests so that they are the only expert in an entire university or even country. That way they can all pretend they cannot speak with any authority on their colleagues’ research and thus that no one can be professionally challenged. A mutual non-aggression pact. Though stultifying, this hardly effects the students. It does, however, discourage the learning of big picture issues and cross-disciplinary topics. As a History undergrad/ International Relations postgrad crossover working on a doctoral thesis that was both of those majors at once, I made it a mission of mine to encourage cross disciplinary study and events as part of a group I was in. We successfully brought together scholars from History, Literature, Politics, Psychology, Anthropology, and the like from around the world to meet each other and think of joint projects. This is work that helped cross-pollinate ideas and contacts. It is also something I never saw the people on the deep end of critical/postmodern theory ever do…unless, that is, that it was around a topic that would guarantee that everyone in attendance was also of a similar ideological background. We had no such scruples in our group, and lively discussions that resulted from this were much more enlightening.

One of the positive things that postmodernism gave us, before it went off the rails, was a greater emphasis on scrutinizing the purpose and ideology behind primary sources. They did not invent this, of course, but helped to popularize it. The thing is that good historians already did this, and now there are more historians of all calibers who do. But they do it across the board. Marxist historians, realist historians, geopolitical historians like myself. We all do it. The foundational work of the Post Cold War era was not Derrida or Butler, but Diamond. It was the re-entry of physical space that jump-started humanities disciplines left moribund and uninteresting to most people by decades playing in the ashes of a postmodern apocalypse.

Lest you fear I am only now updating the curriculum to 1998 or 2005, let me assure you Diamond was only the start. Speculative Realism is a school of philosophy that has been doing its thing since 2008 and through the present. While still primordial, the normally dry but practical naivete of analytic philosophy and sterile introspection of continental philosophy have been both left in the dust by thinkers like Meillassoux, Harman, Brassier, and others who have taken the critical thinking of the continental and paired it with a commitment to removing the anthropocentrism of that school of thought by returning to a real world that (obviously) exists outside of our feelings about it. In other words, social science creationism is out, philosophy’s reconciliation with real life begins anew. This is the actual cutting edge of philosophy and hopefully soon theory as well in today’s world, not the stodgy old fogeyism of the Me Generation. After all, we live in a world of obvious and undeniable environmental deterioration. As if the greater world around us was not enough to wake us up from decades of prosperity induced solipsism, everything that has happened since the Great Recession has really just reminded the world around us that politics (and therefore useful theory) must be rooted in the physical as the core of all things political is the struggle for the allocation and distribution of resources. Full stop. Only the physical can confront the physical. The challenges of the anthropocene will either consume us or be alleviated by new technology.  Anything else is in effect theology, and that is a waste of time for issues of import in the here and now.

By all means let’s have a theory revolt. But let it be against all types of fogeyisms, Tory or Woke. Realism is necessary and coming back, but it won’t be doing so uncritically. And a vital part of that is making a world where academics are uncomfortable and can be wrong. Because that is how we grow.

 

 

 

Ibn Khladun: An Intellectual Biography-a Review

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I mention Khaldun enough so it is about time I review a book about him.

I have to admit, Robert Irwin’s ‘Ibn Khladun: An Intellectual Biography’ did not immediately meet with my approval. One of his earliest statements is that the great historian’s views of the cycles of nomadic Bedouins coming and going in power in North Africa is not applicable to many other places on Earth. I disagree entirely-with the added proviso that as long as one is aware of the local histories in detail-and I myself came to Ibn Khaldun through matching his thinking up with my first historic love: the Turko-Mongolian world. Though the author later quantifies that to some degree. But I would add also that Khaldun’s thought does in fact become more universally applicable to the cycles of history if one looks for the equivalent of nomads in these settings-potentially powerful outsider groups with strong in-group cohesion. A society with no nomads still has the underclass, highly traveled professional workers, diplomats and mercenary generals for hire as was common in Enlightenment Europe, privateers and upstart naval powers, and the like. One could, and in fact I feel like perhaps later I should, write the history of naval power from a Khaldunian perspective. All show the upstart but well organized outsider taking over the decadent wealth which often was not made by its present adherents but rather inherited by them, setting up their new, more youthful, and vibrant regime in its place or at its expense, and then succumbing, with the passing of generations, to the same maladies of their former foes and who are in turn replaced by new upstarts on their own periphery. So did it go with Venice, Spain and Portugal to the Dutch and then the British and then the Americans. So will it be again.

But this criticism aside, the overview Irwin gives us of both Khaldun’s career and the life his works have taken on since his death are both critical and laudatory, and put the man in context. As a thinker who is often projected by moderns to be one of them, it is important to see his historic context and actual views (including now laughable ones about sorcery and supernaturalism) restored to discussion of his record. Additionally, Irwin retains enough detachment to be able to postulate about the normal human foibles that Ibn Khaldun suffers from. He also retains a very even overview of later thinkers, both modern and not, who interpreted the thinker for their own ends. Most interestingly was his apparent growing popularity in the Ottoman governing and thinking classes that showed they were far more aware of the potential of their decline than most empires at their height are. I am very tempted to think that the nomadic Turkic background of the state contributed to this self-awareness and critical openness. It was also interesting having his time in the Mamluk Sultanate covered, as it was both a government that reflected some knowledge of the need to keep the ruling class recharged with fresh blood (Mamluks were imported Turko/Circassian/Balkan slaves who had been raised as nomadic cavalry who were then drawn into the military of Egypt under Sultans also descended from such stock) but also one which by Khaldun’s time was starting to degenerate even despite this caution.

Still, all things political being either in a state of rising and falling-with falling more commonplace-one can say that the Mamluks were in fact enormously successful compared to most of their contemporaries as well as a rare medieval state that could long term sustain being both an art patron and a vigorous military power. And its fall had more to do with the technological changes elsewhere invalidating the nomadic cavalry focused military than internal factors when the chips were down. Firearms matter and it was the Ottomans who jumped on that wagon first as a way to organize the core of their armies.

The best part of Irwin’s work, however, is in recognizing the pessimism of Ibn Khaldun. Here was a man born and raised in 14th Century North Africa who all around him saw signs of ruins of richer and more powerful civilizations long dead in the past. If Carthage and the Almohads could fall, why not the Hasfids who he worked for? Why not everyone else until the end of time? Though nomadic regime change could bring in fresh blood for a time, it would only be for a limited amount of it. Meanwhile, the Sahara grew and prestige of the region shrunk. This was the core of Ibn Khaldun’s work…work that would go on to influence such fiction greats as Asimov’s Foundation and Herbert’s Dune. And in a remarkable in-person meeting years after most of his writings, Ibn Khaldun would meet Emir Timur outside of Damascus during the very siege that the Turkic conqueror was conducting, and in so doing get to see the only example of rising in his lifetime and discuss theories of history with him-an academic case study made real in the flesh.

Would all us scholars be so lucky.

Navigating the Beringian Age of Geopolitics

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I have written numerous Eurasia geopolitics articles, North America articles, and a South American article on here so far. It was my plan to do Africa next, but instead it seems first comes one which is both Eurasia and North America together. Go figure.

Eurasia is what is often referred to as ‘The World Island’ in classical geopolitics. The closest thing our present geological era has to a supercontinent. For much of history land power was easier and cheaper to wield than sea power-though obviously this has changed since-and Eurasia, being directly connected to humanity’s birthplace of Africa and the birthplace of both agriculture and animal domestication was the location of the strongest and most technologically advanced states. Up until the rise of the United States this was almost always true, with a one off in Carthage, a possible economic Malian interlude in the Middle Ages, and Egypt really being the only periodic exception (and even then just barely as it straddled two continents). Having the majority of Earth’s population and societies, Eurasia was the natural laboratory of state formation and warfare innovation, especially connected as it was with other parts of its own massive expanse due to a plethora of natural harbors an an ‘inland sea’ of sorts in the grasslands of the Eurasian steppe that stretch from Hungary to Manchuria.

The first geopolitical thinkers to really get into this World-Island thesis were people like Halford Mackinder, who came of prominence in a time when the British were still top dogs but knew their time was running out due to the rapid rise of German, Russian, and American power. He was the first to postulate that the rapid industrialization of these powers and the expansion of their railroad networks would return the logistical and military initiative to land powers for the first time since the decline of the steppe nomads who had once been the qualitatively dominant military force in world history. It would become a British obsession, soon to be inherited also by the Americans, French, and Japanese as well, to hinder any one power from exerting this level of dominance over Eurasia, the continent-of-continents. The French would use alliances and dominance of Africa to attempt to be a secondary player in this game, the Japanese would attempt to carve out their own exclusive sphere, and the Americans would use their fortunate geography to sit around, sabotage everyone else from a distance, and then come roaring in with economic power and naval power. Russia, the second place player, had become the Eurasian colossus always feared in the form of the Soviet Union. But a rising China and a hostile Western Europe and Japan kept it safely in check and America secure. Eurasia was still too big and too diverse to become someone’s private world-island. Even in the face of the power and prestige of the largest an most mobile army the world had yet to see.

But this very falling of the dice called into question the Eurasian presumption. It was a North America, dominated by one power which also in turn dominated South America, that became the first truly global maritime power. As I wrote about on here previously, this leads to many factors to reconsider the concept of the ‘world island’: be it the very concept itself or which continent it might be. I argued that North America makes a better case if the concept is to be used.

What is clear, however, is that great power rivalry in the near future will more heavily involve North America and Eurasia as the central poles of alliance networks. This does not mean that major conflicts and powers will not arise elsewhere, but for the time being the changes that will matter most will happen on these two land masses. Their past interactions have already had a massive import on the world we live in causing spillovers across the planet, even pre-dating modern humanity when a more Eurasia-connected North America wreaked disproportionate devastation on South America.

There is nothing mystical or obscure about this. These are the continents with the largest East-West widths which enable an easier and more rapid spread of flora and fauna within climate zones, something that quite possibly helps the spread of human technology and infrastructure as well. Both have long productive coastlines, vast stretches hospitable to life but also diverse in biome, and connecting interior highways of grasslands and big navigable rivers. Due to the movement of plate tectonics and shifting sea depths due to ice ages, both continents would periodically compete and exchange life forms in evolution in more recent history than many other continental collisions. For most of history Eurasia was clearly the place to be for humans maximizing their power. The horse, a North American creature originally, would die out there before being reintroduced by the Spanish but thrive in Eurasia. Eurasia was bigger, most diverse, more connected with other places. It had the good fortune to have a larger span of dray-maritime real estate for agriculture and the most animals situated for domestication. North America lacked this critical large pack beast advantage. It was also, of course, settled by humanity significantly later than Eurasia was due to simple reason of location and distance from Africa.

The human version of the Great American Interchange would begin in 1492, though the uneven nature of it would not be apparent until the fall of the Aztec Empire to the Spanish decades later. Spanish iron, gunpowder, pack animals, and sea power would be decisive despite the fact that North America had on average even larger cities than Europe in Mesoamerica and just as-if not more diverse-agricultural crops and practices. Despite their late comparative peopling and isolation, Mesoamerica (and the Andes) had numerous inventions and highly advanced urban planning, irrigation systems, and in the Aztec and Mayan worlds specifically, written bureaucracies.

The technological disparity forged in the furnace of Eurasian state formation was an obvious advantage to the invaders, but it was not the most important one. Technology can be adopted and copied. The Spanish were few and far from home. It was the pathogens they brought from their long contact with pack animals that were truly decisive. The labor saving animals may have jump-started resource collection and travel, but for the point of the Columbian Exchange, the most important part was the diseases the Eurasians had partial immunity to that the Native Americans did not. On reading in this topic I have seen estimates of death rates due to disease anywhere from 80%-95%. It remains an open issue, but this was a far deadlier outbreak of pestilence for the western hemisphere than the Bubonic Plague ever had been in Eurasia. It also led to ridiculous myths about Native Americans being backward as many of their societies had been fatally weakened if not outright destroyed before they had ever even been seen by the newcomers. The western hemisphere had become a post-apocalyptic tableau of societal collapse. Spain had the keys to be the pre-eminent world power, the only country in that era that realistically could have equaled or surpassed Ming China.

And yet the technology was still too young. Spain squandered its gains by using pillaged gold in galleon convoys to basically drive up inflation. Its infrastructure would remain largely feudal at home and in the colonies. Meanwhile, piracy on the high seas of these easy Spanish pickings by British, French, and Dutch privateers would in fact end up benefiting those countries more at Spain’s expense. The cauldron of Eurasian competition was offshore to the oceans and outside of Europe, relocating to the Americas. By having to hack out self-sustaining colonies out of the blue these more northerly powers would end up getting more of the benefit from the new world with tobacco, cotton, furs, and timber. Native Americans north of Mesoamerica were less ‘advanced’ and lesser in numbers than those further south, but this in fact made them far more difficult to conquer. They were mobile, more open to adaptation in war, and could not be simply overrun by a specific region or city. Plus, they now had competeing powers to play off each other for weapons, horses, and supplies. For about a century, from the mid 17th to mid 18th Century, the Natives of North America would in fact be equal partners in the great power rivalry that dominated the continent. Either way, the Spanish unipolar moment in the hemisphere (and thus the potential of bringing that power home as well) was over. Even without the arrival of the new European powers, the Pueblo Indians and the Comanche had already rolled back the Spanish frontier in the north, and the Mapuche had stopped it in the southern cone of South America.

In many ways the European nations could only thrive in North America if the natives were fighting each other. But many of the natives gained when European fought as well. The Iroquois would destroy their long tong rivals, the Huron, and then go on to roll back Quebec’s frontier with their musket-armed forces. Hudson’s bay firearms-for-fur trading would empower the Blackfoot to heights previously unheard of for them, and the previously mentioned Comanche basically ran their own horseback empire in the southwest for a century at Spanish expense. This was a multipolar world. Then British naval power took Quebec and expelled the French from the continent. A defensive Spain could only play catch up as British goods and settlers flooded the continent. Unipolar domination of the Western Hemisphere, an explicit goal of William Pitt the Elder, then Prime Minister, once again looked in sight with London-rather than Madrid-its true heir. Demographics had now tipped in favor of the settlers. Europeans outnumbered Native Americans in their own continent. Despite the partial rolling back of the frontier in Pontiac’s War, Native solidarity could not survive the American Revolution and the subsequent Northwest War where the US army was born after its largest ever battlefield defeat at the hands of the Shawnee, Miami, and Lenape-but critically from the geopolitical (if not cultural) perspective, neither did Britain’s North American empire. The first independent country of the colonial era had arisen in the Americas, it would soon be followed by many others. Events in Europe were about to give the Americas a big break.

Napoleon upsetting Europe’s apple cart turned out to be the most important thing. Haiti would be the next country to fight for and gain independence. With Spain reeling from French occupation, its colonies in Central and South America would soon follow. Kicked out of North America south of Canada (aside from Caribbean Isles and Guyanas of course) and much more into India these days anyway, the British would pull a 180 degree turn after the stalemate of the War of 1812 and thoroughly support the independence of Spain’s former colonies in order to keep them out too and open the markets of these new countries to British goods. It was in this world that North America’s first diplomatic counter-blow to the dominance of Eurasian-based states would come: The Monroe Doctrine.

monroe

At the time of its formulation in the early Victorian era the United States most certainly did not have the power to enforce the claim of the doctrine, which was to oppose European re-colonization or re-establishment of spheres of influence over their former territories. Britain or France could have swept the American navy aside had they so chosen. But now Britain was the secret enforcer behind the American declaration. They weren’t going to take Latin America directly for themselves, so they would make damn sure no one else did, either. After the US-Mexico War it was obvious the U.S. was growing in power to one day enforce it on its own, however.

The doctrine had only one failure, the American Civil War. With the one great power of the western hemisphere divided against itself in a death struggle, and the secondary power of the region (Brazil) involved in a surprisingly costly war with a delusionally expansionistic Paraguay and without much of a navy, France moved in to establish a proxy-state in a weakened Mexico. Though the Mexicans would hold their own under Benito Juarez, the French would not be evicted fully until the American Civil War was over and the US army was redeployed on the border to threaten them and ship weapons directly to the Mexican forces.

The Civil War made a federation of squabbling pseudo republics into a proper nation. This nation was the empire of the west in all but name. With growing modern naval power and a final bookend of sweeping Spain from its remnants in 1898, the last vestiges of the old order had been relegated to a few isolated enclaves and Canada, itself already beginning the process of unofficially turning south. The worlds biggest economy and industrial producer now lay there, after all. Available resources and land along the wide continent were fueling a growth in power rapid beyond any previous one in recent history.

In this light of viewing the poles of conflict as geographic, it was now time for the power or North America to come to benefit from the misfortune of Eurasia. This time it would be neither disease nor technology but Eurasia’s multitude of great powers that would spell the reversal of the location of the world-island. From a large and removed scale much as multiple conflicts could be viewed as different phases in one grand struggle for mastery in America (Piracy and the Beaver Wars in the late 17th Century through the Mexican-US War), so too would the rise of new and fall of old powers in Eurasia set up a struggle for master in Eurasia which would last from 1902-1945 (the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Russo-Japanese War, First World War, Russian Civil War, Turkish War of Independence, The Second World War). Britain sought to sure up its declining position by breaking its ‘splendid isolation’ and joining with Japan. Japan put the brakes on Russian expansion in southern Manchuria and its eventual dream target, Korea, eventually taking these things for itself and starting its own growth as a new power. This made Germany more a threat to the maritime alliance than Russia and made Russia more bellicose in its European objectives towards German allies. France, already in danger of being eclipsed, linked with with Russia and Britain to stave off this threat. The dying old empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans would hitch a ride on German power in order to reverse their decline and ensure survival. They would end up the biggest losers of all in eventual Allied victory.

The United States played an important, but not decisive role in the First World War, but it was clearly now one of the big players at the global level. Though on the surface it seemed France and Britain had gained much from the conflict, the gains were of little long term value and their overall global position had actually been weakened. The British solider and poet Siegfried Sassoon ruminated that the only nations to gain from the war he fought in was the United States and Japan. Indeed, there were now three established naval powers by treaty, Britain, the USA, and Japan. Britain was part of a triumvirate that couldn’t get along. So much for ruling the waves. Not only that, but the Russians and Turks both, whose empires had utterly collapsed in the war, successfully fought to expel Allied backed foreign intervention in their lands leading to near immediate revisions of the postwar settlements made at their expense. Turkey would become an independent republic and the Soviet Union would reclaim most of the Tsar’s collapsed domains. Both would make rapid gains in development and education that would outstrip their less fortunate semi-colonized neighbors. More importantly, until WWII, they would be tacitly allied with each for precisely this end. The first tremors of independence movements started to rock India and Ireland. The colonial powers were living on borrowed time. Japan, having yet to experience a reverse outside of the Siberian Intervention, largely continued forward with that previous era’s policies of expansion, however, putting on a collision course with the United States.

World War II would settle Eurasia’s issue. Despite the ‘Great Game’ beginning due to fears of Russian domination, that would be exactly the outcome of all of this. Russian and American domination, that is. For all the death, destruction and misery The Second World War would cause a majority of the planet and especially the eastern and western edges of Eurasia itself, The Axis Revolt, as it could be termed, served much like the American Civil War only to delay the inevitable at great cost. In fact, it aided what was coming. The Soviets broke Germany, the Americans broke the Japanese, and each fought the other Axis powers at some time or another victoriously. But before this outcome it is relevant to note that the Germans had also now broken the French, and the Japanese had broken the British. There were only two powers. The Soviet Eurasian Heartland and the United States Western Hemisphere Dominion. The world was getting smaller due to technology, but the powers only got larger. When Britain and France tried to re-insert themselves as decisive actors in the great power game with the Suez Crisis, they found only embarrassment as the Russians threatened them and the Americans scolded them and offered no support.

But despite the one sided history in Eurasia’s favor, the Cold War would show that North America finally had the leg up. Naval power did still rule over land power despite Mackinder’s fears. Eurasia was too multi-polar and divided and it was harder for the USSR to export power when their Chinese proteges (now having replaced Japan to regain their traditional place as East Asia’s most strategically relevant country) could turn to their own interests once they were strong enough to stand up to a domineering partner. There was not, yet, an equivalent of this in the America’s to complicate the United States’ position-though if there one day were it would most likely be Brazil.

It was with deftness and skill that Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger saw that world that was coming out of a simple binary. The Cold War was a power struggle, in my opinion, and the ideology that marked so much of it on both sides was largely intellectual cover for competition in the ripe proxy combat ground of the third world and newly independent former colonies. Both feared the world hegemonic goals of the other. Mix and match any number of socio-economic models with globe-spanning powers that big and strong and you would have a rivalry no matter what. So it was that two pre-eminent wingnut cold warriors of their respected countries created the conditions for bringing China in as a third pole to the rivalry, one that would send the Soviets into a conniption and, in the end, fatal death spiral of defense spending. It was this, in my opinion, that decided the Cold War more than any of Reagan’s policies, which largely took effect when the terminal decline was already taking place in Moscow. But it is worth noting that in the 60s and 70s the growth of the Soviet economy and tech sectors made many people, Kissinger included, convinced that the future was theirs more than the USA’s. China sold the new alliance to its people with much the same thinking as rhetoric. ‘The Americans will decline, the Russians are more the threat.’ In geopolitics the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Cold Warriors of the smarter varieties could see that their societies were no different from others with interests like when the Catholic French supported the Protestants in the 30 Years War against their fellow Catholics in Hapsburg Austria. Its the traditional cost benefit calculation of Cardinal Richelieu.

nixon and me

With the breakup of the USSR this proved to be the opposite. Or, more accurately, the USSR declined *first*. The United States did not gain in power in the post-Cold War era so much as have all checks on its preexisting power removed. Now Washington would call the shots directly in Eurasia in places never before imagined. China had ways to go at that point to replace Russia as the bipolar competitor, but by now its safe to say it may well reach that point in my life time. But much like how the USSR could alienate China, so too could China alienate India, or one day even Russia.

This brings us to the present, and many topics I have and will go over again and have before in other entries. So, to go full circle, the fate of geopolitics in the foreseeable future relies on events in North America and Eurasia and their interaction with each other. Right now, North America still holds an advantage, though having foolishly driven Russia into China’s arms by its own hubris, (thus counteracting Brzezinski’s grand strategic advice) its an advantage rapidly being squandered. Meanwhile, China’s One Belt One Road initiative resembles another attempt to create the internal ‘world island’ where a dominant power in Eurasia is safe from the sea-power of its foes. Having learned many lessons from Soviet and, increasingly, American failure, a concerted buildup of this inland international interior could end up being a challenge the USSR never was. Or not. Eurasia’s multipolar and divided nature still counts against it and India seems to be solidly orienting towards the oceanic world for obvious geographic reasons. Still, there is nothing so complacent as assuming the present state of sovereign nations is in any way permanent. That never has been true in the past.

Something that I could see if things changed more drastically is a Beringian World. In a Beringian World, the geopolitical alliances that matter most are a dominant power or alliance network in one continent being opposed in its own hemisphere by a defensive coalition backed by the dominant power of the other continent, which in turn is opposed by its own local coalition backed by the dominant power of the other continent. What this might look like with the present international states would be a China-backed Brazil or even Mexico (though that is less likely I think) or collection of South American states under Chinese partnership which in turn is reciprocated by a US-backed India or even eventually Russia. If China and Russia somehow stay friends permanently, this will be manifest in bringing Japan, Indonesia, and India closer together, a project which, arguably, is already underway in those countries.

Should China experience a decline or a shocking sudden state failure, however, this may reverse. If Japan and India are close together they might take up the mantle of Latin America’s revisionist states and the US will have to find no friends to balance against them. This is, of course, all very long term and hypothetical.

The point is, once Eurasian countries divided up North (and South) America for their spoils. Then North America rode a wave of Eurasia dividing itself up to become the center of political power. But now the technological disparities have largely gone from between them and the world continues to shrink bringing both new allies and new enemies. In a future Beringian World the geopolitical center of gravity might be split between both continents, which will, strategically speaking, come together as part of the same world in a way not seen since the seas were low and the Bering Strait open, when wild canines left the Americas to colonize and independently evolve all over the world.

Of course, some new exclusive resource revolutionizing technology could always finally through the ball to another region. You never know.

In the more near future don’t be surprised if you see another Nixon-goes-to-China moment except more likely with another power being the recipient of the visit and no one as smart as Nixon to do the visiting. If you see it, I encourage you to follow it as it flies away, it will be relevant if it fails or succeeds.

 

International Flexibility Theory: A Proposal

Academia, government, the corporate world. They all like to have neat little theories with neat little acronyms averaging out to around three letters. Sometimes these are helpful classifications and sometimes not. Often, they seek to bring order to a chaotic world by creating an archetype for specialization.

When it comes to international affairs, we certainly have our own list of such categories. As with the other fields, some are actually useful and simplify things, and others fail in this regard. Not enough, however, accurately reflect the level of division and divergence which really are some of the biggest features of the international landscape.

I would like to introduce what I think (and hope) is an original contribution to the field: International Flexibility Theory-henceforth for simplicity’s sake to be referred to as ‘IFT’. IFT is not to be considered as an entire comprehensive theory of international relations, nor is it necessarily attached to any previously established school of thought. It is, rather, a kind of strategic observation which could be added to a variety of topics. Its very nature, however, probably jives with some topics and backgrounds better than others.

The key point of IFT is a very simple one: (1.) The ability of a state to rapidly change for pragmatic purposes, and thus re-mold its core values, the better the international performance of that state. Building off of that idea, we can follow up with (2.) the more flexibility a country has in its internal structure, the more flexibility it will have in its foreign relations. To put the negative side of it simply, if the core value of a state is survival, be it of the governing class (regime) or of the geographic entity, the sweet seductions of retrenchment or ideological uniformity are a false siren song luring the ship of state to be dashed upon the rocks. This means that the governing class cannot be allowed to grow complacent, be it with their own civic ideology or that of one being internationally faddish. (3.) Since the contexts of different states, (historical, geographic, political, etc) are obviously dissimilar, the lack of uniformity and divergence as different states compete against each other by following different paths is actually internationally useful for the political scientist, as it means that observation of this creation of new models may contribute new ideas of governance or diplomacy to those who otherwise would not experience them. Since the context of each countries’ or alliance network’s existence cannot be replicated, it goes without saying that any new ideas which one might want to adopt must be re-tooled to a new context-but to accept that there is no universal political model still opens the door for more creativity for the theorist and practitioner alike as well as the innovator learning from the experiences of others.

None of these points may seem particularly insightful or new, and in fact they are not on their own. But in an era of the contested breakdown of the grand alliance of global capitalism, liberalism, and humanism-after they themselves outlived international socialism, and both had replaced Victorian colonialism and made significant inroads at the expense of divine right monarchies, it seems important to remind scholars and policy makers alike of the deficiencies of a universalist approach to international political theory.

It has become common place enough to seem trite to cite the utter failure of ‘The End of History’ type theories. The fact is, outside of triangulating centrists and the New York Time’s op-ed page, no one really believes in these things anymore. But among certain influential chattering classes, some scaled down (and often militarized) version of this neoliberal fantasy is still validated. Furthermore, once we acknowledge that it is precisely this order (or its remnants) which has held strategists back from really engaging in civic flexibility (as stipulated in IFT) it becomes relevant to observe that whatever one makes of the recent upswing in nativism (I am, personally, not a fan) it holds the advantage of being more beholden to local circumstances, and more willing to diverge rather than being a movement with global pretentions. The common insult ‘globalist’ used by people of today’s right actually speaks a grain of truth, if sloppily applied.

To build off of that example, the liberal order itself came to defeat the socialist alternative not based off of ideological or economic superiority, but rather, according to IFT, because it was more flexible to adaptation than its primary competition. The political and economic systems of what was called the Free World were actually extremely divergent from one other, their common interest largely being either geopolitical opposition to the expansion of the USSR’s power or local opposition to the spread of communism in the near abroad. It really was an alliance of convenience, and only when things were clearly swinging in the direction of the United States did it start to become a proper ideological and international project. Compared to the explicitly international objectives of the socialist bloc, this gave a flexibility advantage to the goals of the alliance. Meanwhile, in the socialist bloc, the attempt to hold it together (under Moscow’s thumb) as a cohesive and more uniform alliance exacerbated the Sino-Soviet Split and the alienation of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia itself, most famous today for its messy breakup (I would add as an aside, inevitable since 1919 and hardly reflective of Tito’s government or even the Cold War) then went its own unorthodox way and succeeded, despite its many handicaps and being one of the most devastated states of World War 2, to make impressive gains in development and diplomacy. Cuba also, more isolated by geography than anything else, entered a path that kept its model sustainable long after the end of the Cold War.

Going back to even further, the vast material supremacy of the Allies over the Axis was in part due to their more sprawling societies. Sure, someone like myself can say that the root of this is in geopolitical security, but geopolitical security can still make a state stable enough to handle dynamic pressures others cannot. The highly centralized ethnocentrism of the Axis, coupled with a single minded desire to upend the power of competitive states, made a brought coalition against them inevitable, not to mention fascism’s predilection for romantic ideals and smug sense of superiority for certain ethnic groups could be argued to have negatively affected strategic decision making from Barbarossa to Pearl Harbor. Such appeals to nativism and supremacy themselves become a rigid doctrine where people are too proud to admit error or a fate to be surpassed by another state. Pride and self-flattery are always the enemies of IFT. So too is triumphalism, as it exacerbates the dismissal of change and learning from the experience of others.

This is not a new idea. More of an experimental approach I want to throw out there and see where it goes as it evolves. In the future I would like to do a vigorous historical study covering many more eras and locations and see if a general trend emerges as theorized here. From what I know of history, I can already think of countless examples where the flexible power or group of powers had an innate advantage specifically because they were more open to change than their competition, and more willing to accept divergence from whatever their idea of the ‘norm’ was. From the Franco-Ottoman Alliance in the 17th Century to the Meiji Restoration of the 19th, it is societies willing and able to question their own status quos who have held the adaptable advantage over those who do not when competing in the anarchic inter-state system.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, a review

Roy Scranton wrote this large pamphlet/small book to address what he saw as the act of a civilization not yet coping with its own ending. Not to say human extinction, but that it now seems most likely that, barring a technological miracle, the delicate economic and geopolitical forces underpinning the present lifestyle and assumptions of the developed world-as well as the environmental factors of the entire world at large-are coming to an end. And most people are in denial about it.

To quote from early on:

‘Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our collective fantasies of perpetual growth, constant innovation, and endless energy, just as the reality of individual mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.

The greatest challenge of the anthropocene isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, whether we should put up sea walls to protect Manhattan, or when we should abandon Miami. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, turning off the air conditioning, or signing a treaty. The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humanity, to our new reality.’

Since I am of the materialism or GTFO school I disagree on prioritizing the philosophical question over that of the sea walls and the potential for conflict. That being said, this is a very valid question to grapple with.

Personally, though I feel like a downgrade of living standards and a rise of conflict are now inevitable due to environmental factors already under way, it would be unwise to underestimate technological innovation for future energy. Though one must be aware that vested financial interests in various old school companies will do everything they can to sabotage such a move through lobbying, and so don’t bet on public funding in any country that allows such political activity.

I found the prose and call to contemplate in this book extremely evocative and probably worth most people’s time. Though if you are already pretty versed in this and/or the growing new (finally, a good new school of philosophy!) of Speculative Realism-also called Speculative Materialism or Object Oriented Philosophy- you will hardly learn anything new. But this issue, of us as a species learning to deal with the consequences of forces we have unleashed-forces now as intrinsically a part of nature as non-man made plants and animals, is one which is desperately needed in an idealistic age overrun by anthropocentric and often non-material ideologies such as liberalism, constructivism, religious fundamentalism, and postmodernism.

The fault I find in this interesting text is its call for a new humanism. Personally, I find humanism itself to bear much of the brunt of our recent delusions and faith in ourselves and ability to consciously dominate nature. But I feel that my thoughts on the much vaunted factor of consciousness are long enough and touching upon issues out of scope with the topic of this post to talk about here. Needless to say, a future post on the topic could very well be in the making. What matters now is humanity dealing with a faceless enemy of its own making which is not human. The ultimate Frankenstein fear story where instead of a cobbled together re-animated corpse we must now recon, like with the early Godzilla movies, with something truly massive and awakened by us.

I will close with another quote I quite liked from near the end. ‘…Global Warming offers no apprehensible foe. That hasn’t stopped people from trying to find one. The Flood Wall Street protesters say the enemy is American corporations. Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete and Nauru’s Baron Waqa say the problem is the United States and Great Britain. Shell Oil and the Environmental Defense Fund seem to think it’s intractable UN bureaucracy that is holding us up. Barack Obama has implied its China. Tea Party Republicans would blame Obama, I’m sure, if they actually admitted that global warming is happening and caused by human activity. Meanwhile, NPR listening liberals want to believe that Tea Party republicans are responsible, so they can frame the problem as one amenable to solution by moral education and enlightened consumerism, as if it were all a matter of convincing people to eat more kale and drive electric cars…The enemy isn’t out there somewhere-the enemy is ourselves. Not as individuals, but as a collective. A system. A hive.’