The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: June 2014 Page 1 of 2

Some Lessons of Meditation

I’ve meditated, on and off, for years.  The last couple months I meditated intensely.  Five hours a day average. as much as 10 hours a day on occasion.

Meditation has a “woo” reputation, an idea that it’s peaceful and serene and lovely.  Now maybe that’s where you’re aiming to get, but meditation is a tool, a process, and it is hard bloody work and often unpleasant.

In general, in meditation, you’re trying to detach from your thoughts.  To stop identifying with thoughts as yourself. You don’t exist because you think.  Your thoughts are witnessed by something that is close to you.

As you detach from your thoughts a few things become clear: most of what you think is repetitive.  You have a number of loops, a pile of triggers and you run through them incessantly. You think in cliches (for you); you think other people’s thoughts, and you rarely think anything you haven’t thought before.

What this means is that you don’t, actually, think very much. You have thoughts but they are almost entirely event and loop driven, and not under conscious control.  One reason, as you meditate, that you come to desire less thoughts is that you becoming achingly aware that most of what you think is tediously, boringly repetitive.

As your thoughts die down, you find out that many of them were defense mechanism. Absent thoughts to occupy it, your mind hones in your fears, your lusts, the stuff you fear the most; the stuff you desire but find shameful: all of that comes to the fore.  Sexually explicit imagery (this is common, not just me) with completely inappropriate objects, terrifying fears you had buried; hatreds you thought you had gotten over years ago; trauma that was only half healed.

Meditation gives you a good hard look at your mental habit and fixations, and you probably won’t like what you see.

Meditation is, thus, hard.  A friend of mine who is an enlightened guru of “recognized lineage” says that when people come to him, interested, he tells them to meditate for an hour a day for six months: the minimum requirement for the lifestyle.  Almost no one does.

The thing is that if you face what meditation brings up, go through it, and learn to not care or judge, it loses its powers.  The fears, the lusts, the hates pale, and rust and blow away.  The repetitive thoughts slow (and for some, go away completely), and if you engage in them, you tend to do so consciously, rather than unconsciously.

The fixations, the chatter, stops commanding you nearly so much.  You gain a certain amount of mental freedom: to think about what you want to think about, or nothing at all.  To truly put down the traumas of the past.  To look clearly at lusts and desires and decide to act on them or not, but not care much either way.

But it’s hard work, and it hurts, and that’s why most people don’t get very far with it.

Oh, there are types of meditation which avoid the hard work for a time: chant mantras, for example, and keep your mind constantly occupied, and you can avoid your demons.  But generally, still the mind, and your ring-fencing thoughts die away then your demons step through the gaps and face you with yourself.

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1) Israel is a settler state.

2) Israeli land was, mostly, taken from other people, by force.

3) Thus the vast majority of Israelis live on land taken by force from the indigs.

4) The “settlers”,are simply the leading edge of taking land and destroying homes, by force, from the indigs.

5) Israel is, also, a religious ethnic state where you only have the full rights of citizenship if you are of the correct religion.

If you are a believer in modern secular democracy, it is hard to see any solution for the Israel/Palestine issue which is not a single state solution.  Give everyone in Palestine full citizenship rights, including the right to vote.

It happened in South Africa. It may happen in Palestine.  If it doesn’t, the other routes out are uglier: full-on ethnic cleansing, or a loss by Israel of its “Jewish legal identity” in war (no, their nukes won’t protect them.)

America isnt’ going to be able or willing to support Israel’s colonial ambitions forever.

None of this is to say that Israel’s crimes are unique.  Conquering indigs and taking their land is old-hat. Those of us who live in North America are lucky—our genocide was long over before most of us were born, and much of it was done by germs.  We keep the few remaining indigs largely on reservations, where they live in squalid 3rd world conditions, far from the sight of their conquerers.  Israelis live right on top of those they are conquering, and have to become indifferent at best or monsters who regard Palestinians as sub-human at worst, in order to function.  After all, the Palestinians are still right there, in their face, daring to look like humans who some mother loved.

“The weak do what they must, the powerful what they will” – Thucydides.  And the Palestinians are weak.  And the Israelis are still (comparatively) strong.

They won’t be forever, however.  When they aren’t, they should worry that they will reap as they have sowed.

Have Sanction Threats Brought Russia to Heel?

Russia has ended its claim to a right to protect Russians in the Ukraine.  Putin has supported the cease-fire.  And America and Germany have continued to threaten Russia with sanctions if the rebels in the Eastern Ukraine don’t lay down their arms.

In related news, the Supreme Court ruled against Argentina on its debt default, stating they must pay investors who did not take the deal offered by Argentina to pay part of their debt, not the whole.

These are related because of the payment system: Argentina can’t pay one set of investors (those who took the deal) except by using the payment system, which runs through New York. So they either default on everyone, or they have to pay the hold-outs.  But if they pay the hold-outs, those who took the deal will have been screwed, and Argentina’s sovereignty will be a joke.

As long as the US in particular, and the West in general controls the world payment system, they can inflict crippling sanctions on any country they choose.

Russia and China, and the BRIICS in general have made a huge mistake in not setting up their own, alternate payment system.  The Chinese have taken steps, but only steps.  Until there is an alternate payment system, no country except the US is truly sovereign.

Of course Putin may be playing for time, and he may still get what he wants: a federalized Ukraine (though, clearly, the Ukraine won’t join his customs union.)  And as IMF and EU austerity destroys the Ukraine, Russia may have another chance to pull the Ukraine back into its sphere.

Likewise, I imagine the Russians have learned this lesson: that they are not sovereign, and that they must arrange an independent payments system.


Stirling Newberry on Post-America

Stirling is writing again, and this is an important, though very long piece, touching on ancient history, dating of events, climate change and much more.

This is an age of post-. We talk of ourselves in terms of our weights from the past, and in terms that show we are not really after a cataclysmic change, but, instead, before one. People look back most when there is a large stretch of years that seem to imply an order to the world, and a stability. Our present is defined not by what we hope for, but by how we justify a position of wealth and privilege which we are no longer earning, but are determined to keep. At the same time, what we are post- is a rent, and the burden of that rent is strangling us, as a polity, as a society, as a country, and as humanity in general. The cost of the privilege, feels heavier, than the lift it provides.
Go, read.

Matters of Character

Over the past year I’ve written a large number of pieces on ideology, and quite a few have been about character: how it is created by experience, and how specific types of character (like sociopathy) are selected for amongst our leadership classes.

Let’s parse this out:

1) Character (personality), determines how people act.

2) While part of character is clearly genetic, much of it forms out of our experiences. Different experiences create different types of character. As a simple thought exercise, you would be a very different person if you had been born five hundred years ago in, say, Central Africa, than you are today.

3) As children, our primary experience is of school. We are a very schooled society, with the upper classes starting school at age 5 or so, and continuing into their mid twenties. Twenty years of schooling is not uncommon.  Fifteen to sixteen is completely normal.

4) This schooling takes place when we are forming much of our character, when we are most susceptible to having our character changed.

5) In addition to this, we are influenced by media of various kinds (including books), our parents, and our peer group.

6) Different time periods form different characters, as do different nations, because people born in those times and places have different experiences. The more synchronized events are, as Newberry has noted, the stronger this is.  In a mass media society, with relatively fast technological and social change, it makes sense to speak of generations. The character of people born 20 or 30 years apart in modern societies will be different, and within cohorts similar experiences will tend to create somewhat similar patterns of character.

7) Society is nothing except people and their creations and interactions over time. Walk around an old neighbourhood one day, and look at the buildings, the road, the trees and think about all the people who made everything you see, and all the people behind those people. Read the laws, and know that people made those, and enforce those.

8 ) Because society is just people, past and present, the nature of society is formed by our character.

9) If we want a different society, we must deal with matters of character.

10) Because we should be leery of engaging in eugenics, for reasons which should be obvious, changing society involves changing character through changing our lived experiences.

11) Everyone’s character matters, but some people’s character matters more than others. The more power someone has, whether that power comes from political position, charisma, force, or money, the more their character matters.

12) Leaders inform the character of people. People tend to act up, or down, to their leadership.

13) Money is permission. The more money you have, the more you get to decide what other people do. This can be directly through hiring them, or indirectly by buying the products of other people’s time. As the market society has spread to more and more of our lives, what we do is what gets paid for.

14) Who we give money to, and be clear that what banks, government and financial institutions do is decide who gets money, and what they get to spend it on, determines much of the lived experience of adults, and indeed of children outside school, and with the rise of for-profit schooling, inside school.

15) Money positions are of three main types. Elected (taxes); officers (CEOs and so on who control a lot of money that isn’t theirs); actually rich (the money is their own).

16) In all three cases who gets that money is a social choice. Billionaires are a social choice, created by government policy including tax policy, and the entire structure of how profits are booked. Multi-millionaire CEOs are a social choice, created by tax and other laws as well as social norms. And politicians are a social choice, especially in a democracy, but even in autocracies, though in such societies few people’s active and passive consent is needed.

17) If we select for positions of power, whether monetary, political, or charismatic, people whose character is such that they do not insist on good outcomes for the majority of people, then those outcomes will occur only by chance, if the happenstance of technology and environment aligns in what amounts to random fashion. Having not been planned, having not been understood, any such prosperity and freedom will not last.

18) If society is just us, and is a matter of our character combined with environment and technology, then we must consciously choose what we want our character to be. If we look at how we raise children and see that it is not creating the sort of people required for a happy, free, healthy, and prosperous society, then we need to change how we rear children. This is a social decision, not an individual one: we can choose a different type of learning (not necessarily schooling), we can choose a different type of media, we can choose to encourage different types of parenting (parenting styles have changed massively over the last 100 years, more than once).

19) We can also change how we select our leaders, both political and economic, to whom we give money, and for what purpose. We already do: Who makes money is a social choice, embedded in our tax code, laws (like “IP”), and monetary system. We can make other choices and create a system where people make money because they do good, not because they do evil (see “bankers”).

20) We can change our adult experience of the world, and when we change how goods and services are distributed (note that I did not use the word “money”), we will change our experience of the world, and in so doing we will change our character.

21) We can do so even if our current character is flawed. The politicians who ended Jim Crow were themselves mostly racists. They were racists who knew that racism was wrong. It is possible to look at one’s own character and know that it is simply a product of experience: to say “I am racist and sexist but I still know that is wrong.” It is possible to be involved in corruption (Kennedy Sr., the first SEC chairman) and decide to help clean it up, to end it. It is possible to have all the accoutrements of privilege (FDR) and turn around and change society mostly for the better.

We are all products of our time and place. We are all products of our parents and our experiences; millions of small events which shaped our character, for good, for ill, for kicks.

All of us (except maybe a few enlightened sages).

The full realization of how shaped we are is one of the watersheds of any voyage worth having. If you cannot look at yourself, and see how shaped you were, then you are trapped by those experiences, an even more limited and finite being than  you need to be.

Once, however, you see the shaping, feel it, know it, and acknowledge it, then you are not free, but you have the potential to be more free, to change what you are and who you are, both individually, and as a group.

Character matters. It is destiny. Change your character, change your destiny. Change the character of nations; change their destiny.

Change the character of humanity; change our destiny.

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Developments in Iraq

1) An official says that three-quarters of the largest refinery in Iraq, in Baiji, has fallen to ISIS.  Maliki claims otherwise.  I’ll believe Maliki when there’s independent confirmation.

2) The Kurds have moved some troops into ISIS’s way.  How committed they are to defending Baghdad remains to be seen.  It’s unclear if they will.  The talk I constantly hear from Iraqi Shia is how they want to gt revenge against the Kurds for cooperating with the Americans.  So—do they help in hopes of ratcheting down the enmity, or do they say “not our problem, given we know you hate us?”  Personally, if were them I’d have a chat with Al-Sistani, along the lines of “if we do, we will you use your influence to make sure we do get credit?”

3) Iran has said that they will intervene to stop destruction of Shia holy sites.

4) Saudi Arabia has warned that “outside powers” (aka, Iran) should not intervene.  After all, ISIS are their proxies.

The problem here, to my mind, is that the status quo has to end even if ISIS is defeated (and I don’t expect it to be allowed to take Baghdad.)  By which I mean, Maliki has to go.  He couldn’t create an army which would fight, and that disqualifies him from his job even leaving aside his other failures.  Perhaps Iraq should just be split up into three areas.  Perhaps a new unit government should be created. I don’t, frankly, know.  I don’t know enough about Iraq’s internal politics.  What I do know, though, is that the current government is a failure.

(Edit: 5) It seems the US official policy is now that they won’t help unless Maliki steps down.  I am amused.)

Military Effectiveness: ISIS, Taliban, Hezbollah

I think it’s worth emphasizing that what we’ve seen over the past 30 years is a revolution in military affairs.  New model militaries have arisen which are capable of fighting Western armies to a draw in irregular warfare, or even defeating them on the battlefield (Hezbollah v. Israel.)  It’s not that guerrilla warfare wasn’t effective before (ask the Americans in Vietnam), it’s how stunningly cheap it has become and how brutally effective at area denial and attrition warfare.

People completely underestimate the importance of the IED.  With IEDs the cost for occupation soars, and entire areas of a country can be  made no-go zones except for large groups of troops.

But just as bad is the cost-effectiveness.  Western militaries are brutally costly.  Islamic “militias” are cheap.  The Taliban runs on blackmail and drugs, ISIS runs, to a large extent, on donations from rich Muslims along with some state support.  These armies cost peanuts compared to the US or British or Israeli military.  Nothing.  And they are capable, at the least, of tying down Western militaries for years, bleeding them white and eventually winning.  Hezbollah is capable of defeating, in battle, what was (before Hezbollah proved otherwise) widely considered one of the most effective militaries in the world.

Next we have the “won’t take casualties” issue.  Americans just cannot get this, nor can most Western countries. If you are occupation troops, your lives do not come first.  It is better to lose a few troops than kill innocent people in tribal societies. You kill one innocent, and a whole pile of people now hate your guts. Even if they don’t do anything personally, the provide the support the insurgents need to operate.

It is also true that in many military operations the willingness to take losses makes you more effective. Again, Americans just do not get this.  They’re all focused on “making the other guy die for his country.”  It doesn’t always work like that.

The rise of blanket surveillance is a direct response to the last fifteen years.  It also is working less and less well.  ISIS just does not use phones or the internet.  Hezbollah built its own comm network to avoid interception.  This issue is one that solves itself very quickly: people who use phone or the internet get dead.

This has led, most particularly in the case of Hezbollah, to the rise of the secret state: where members of Hezbollah’s military don’t even tell their family members.  If Israel doesn’t know you’re in the military, they can’t assassinate you. More importantly, they can’t drop a bomb on your family and kill your kids, parents and wife.

The willingness to die is complimented by recruitment.  Americans keep thinking they can assassinate their way to victory.  They can’t.  In any actual effective organization, lower level people can fill the slot above them, and the slot above that.  A strong ideology, and strong doctrine means that leaders are replaceable.  Western leaders don’t believe that because as a class they are narcissists, who think that leaders are something super-special.  Almost no leaders are actually geniuses, for every Steve Jobs or Rommel, there are a hundred CEOS or Generals who are just effective drones.  They don’t matter.  Any reasonably bright person with a bit of experience could run their company or army corp just as well and almost certainly better.  (Canadian troops were amongst the most effective in WWI in part because they weren’t professionals. So they did what worked.)

Western societies are hard to run  precisely because we refuse to actually fix our problems.  Temporizing, “managing” is hard.  Fixing problems is a lot easier.  I know, again, that most people don’t believe this, because they don’t remember ever living in a country that actually tried to fix problems, and have never worked for a company that wasn’t dysfunctional, but it is so true.

So the West uses assassination and highly expensive troops who don’t want to die and extensive surveillance.  And the various Islamic militias, on budgets that aren’t even shoestring, survive and grow stronger.  They are evolving: getting smarter all the time.  They are Darwinian organizations: if you screw up, you die.

A military doctrine which is hundreds of times more expensive than its main competitor has problems.  In general, in military affairs, effectiveness is more important than efficiency.  But if your effectiveness doesn’t actually let you win, in the sense of making it so your enemies stop fighting, then efficiency will start to run against you.

The West is not unaware of this: drones are cheaper than planes, for example.  Ground combat robots, which the army is working on hard, may be effectively cheaper than troops, as well as having the advantage of requiring fewer troops, meaning less danger to the elites and more likely to fire in the case of a revolution.

Finally, I note again, that I do not expect drones and the new ground combat robots (about 10 years out) to remain tools of the powerful for all that long.  Competent technicians will be able to make home brew models fairly effectively and quickly.

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Many Sunnis are already returning to Mosul

It seems that ISIS has emptied the prisons (a popular move); removed concrete barricades (a gesture of confidence); and dropped the price of gasoline, cooking oil and other staples.

See, many Sunni Mosul residents felt that Maliki was oppressing them: that the troops were there to keep them down.

What people don’t get; what they refuse to get, is that people like ISIS believe and that matters.  Like the early Communists or Hebollah, they are far less corrupt that their opponents.  ISIS does what they think is right.  That includes things we don’t like, such as their treatment of women, but it means that they can be trusted more than their opponents.  The Taliban kept the peace, ended the drug trade and so on.

Napoleon said the moral was to the physical as ten is to one.  Only by immense application of power and money can the West keep people like the Taliban or ISIS in check.  The Taliban is winning in Afghanistan on a budget that is not even a rounding error on a single Pentagon appropriation.

We no longer offer a credible alternative which is ethical and which provides prosperity.  We don’t actually believe in democracy, or human rights, or equality for all people. Our actions say we don’t; our troops know we don’t.

We did, once.  Go find pictures of Afghanistan in the 60s. You’ll see women dressed like western women; you’ll read about colleges, you’ll see economic growth and hope.

A hegemonic ideology offers something to people that they can believe in.  We don’t: out western secular philosophy has failed the people of the Middle East and Africa (and large chunks of Asia) for decades now.

Of course many are transferring their loyalty to another hegemonic ideology.

(And note, again, that their armies are FAR cheaper to maintain than ours, and better able to actually maintain order in areas they control.  Only an overwhelming spending advantage allows us to “win”.  That should chill any smart statesman or military strategist to the core.)

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