War in Context currently serves as an archive, chronicling post-9/11 news, analysis, and commentary from 2002 until 2018.
At my new website, Attention to the Unseen (which I launched in February, 2018), I look at the world through a wider lens.
Along with reports on current affairs, there are articles on our distant past, precarious future, and the conditions supporting or threatening life on Earth.
Together with this daily collection of articles, I usually include some music both for the enjoyment of anyone who shares my tastes and as a reminder that in spite of our destructive actions, we are still creatures with unparalleled creative powers.
Whether we can collectively figure out how to make the best use of these gifts before we wreck the planet, remains to be see.
A few years ago, there was some legitimacy to the claim that some supporters of Israel were cynically engaged in hasbara when they conflated criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
In 2009, the Israeli filmmaker, Yoav Shamir, released his documentary, Defamation, in which he exposed the efforts of organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League in the U.S., to amplify concerns over antisemitism where evidence of its actual extent was commonly being overstated.
Ten years later, if Shamir was to revisit the same issue, he would be forced to tell a very different story.
There are multiple strands to the growth of anti-Jewish hatred, but the one that afflicts the Labour Party can surely be traced above all to the popularization of the so-called pro-Palestinian movement.
I say “so-called” because what was long a political movement supporting the self-determination of a population living under military occupation, has in recent years metastasized by becoming, at least for some of its non-Palestinian supporters, less pro-Palestinian and more anti-Israeli. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]
If someone wanted to create a parody of cable news, it would be hard to satirize the form more effectively than to cast Wolf Blitzer as the lead character in a goofy show called The Situation Room, where all news all the time is breaking news.
The irony of the fact that CNN’s news show of that name is, on the contrary, meant to be taken seriously, is that it does indeed capture the zeitgeist of the news media environment in which we now live — an environment, driven largely by social media, that maximizes the value of the nowness of news while eviscerating the value of its content.
Nigel Oakes, the founder of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, once described his work in this way: “We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler. We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.”
As an Old Etonian, his ties to royalty, the aristocracy, and the rich and famous, seemed to foster (at least in his own mind) the notion that he had the skills and connections required for shaping global events.
But as Claudio Gatti noted while Donald Trump took office, Oakes’ primary business skill seems to have been identical to Trump’s: the art of self-promotion.
Oakes’ bio in the SCL webpage says that he “was educated at Eton College and UCL, where he studied Psychology”, although according to a 2008 letter the University College London sent to David Miller, a UK sociologist who studies propaganda, there were no records of him ever studying there.
At an all-hands meeting for Facebook employees at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park on Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg didn’t show up. Fielding questions for just 30 minutes was the company’s deputy general counsel, Paul Grewal. In its dealings with Cambridge Analytica, Facebook had not acted improperly, he insisted. But as Bloomberg Businessweek reports:
One employee asked the same question twice: Even if Facebook played by its own rules, and the developer followed policies at the time, did the company ever consider the ethics of what it was doing with user data? Grewal didn’t answer directly.
“The San people of the Kalahari desert are the last tribe on Earth to use what some believe to be the most ancient hunting technique of all: the persistence hunt; they run down their prey,” says David Attenborough:
“The hunter pays tribute to his quarry’s courage and strength. With ceremonial gestures that ensure that its spirit returns to the desert sands from which it came. While it was alive, he lived and breathed with it and felt its every movement in his own body, and at the moment of its death, he shared its pain. He rubs its saliva into his own legs to relieve the agony of his own burning muscles, and he gives thanks for the life he has taken so that he may sustain the lives of his family waiting for him back in their settlement.”
Louis Liebenberg, author of The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science, argues that the rational skills required by the ancient tracker provided the basis of scientific reasoning.
The first creative science, practiced by possibly some of the earliest members of Homo sapiens who had modern brains and intellects, may have been the tracking of game animals…
Vladimir Putin has long understood that Russia can easily exploit the cynicism that permeates political perceptions across the West.
The use of the Soviet chemical weapon, Novichok, in close proximity to the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, hardly seems coincidental. It accomplished two things:
1. By deploying this agent so close to the lab, operatives could be fairly confident that British authorities with the required expertise would be able to positively identify the chemical, i.e. Russia’s calling card would be relatively easy to decipher.
2. Carrying out an attack so close to such a controversial facility would instantly provide fodder for conspiracy theories promoting the idea that Porton Down itself was the origin of the Novichok used in the attack. Russia did not hesitate to seed such speculation:
It is a crisis some scientists believe has similar proportions to climate change, but it gets much less coverage: Microbes are disappearing from our bodies.
You may have heard that trillions of microbes — bacteria, fungi, viruses, protists — live on every surface of your body as well as inside your mouth, other orifices and your gut. You may have also heard that these microbes make up the majority of your body’s cells.
But few are aware of how directly these microbes and their genes affect the functioning of our bodies. The human genome found in the nuclei of our cells contains roughly 20,000 genes, but the microbiome — the sum total of genetic material in the microorganisms that live in and on us — contains as many as 20 million genes, all of which are directly or indirectly interacting with and at times even controlling our genes.
Our microbial genes are critical to the regulation of our metabolism, to the ability of our immune system to fight off infection and to the production of the neurotransmitters that power our brain and nervous system. The microbiome, just like our nuclear genome, is heritable. The majority of microbes are transferred from mother to child during childbirth, in a chain of transmission that reaches back to the earliest animals that evolved — which happen to have been microbes.
Frans de Waal asks: are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?
Just as attitudes of superiority within segments of human culture are often expressions of ignorance, humans collectively — especially when subject to the dislocating effects of technological dependence — tend to underestimate the levels of awareness and cognitive skills of creatures who live mostly outside our sight. This tendency translates into presuppositions that need to be challenged by what de Waal calls his “cognitive ripple rule”:
Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought.
Whereas we once thought of humans as having unique capabilities in learning and the use of tools, we now know these attributes place us in a set of species that also includes bees. Our prior assumptions about seemingly robotic behavior in such creatures turns out to have been an expression of our own anthropocentric prejudices. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]
One of the defining characteristics of life is movement, be that in the form of locomotion or simply growth.
What is inanimate is not alive and yet humans, through the use of technology, are constantly seeking ways to reduce the need to move our own limbs.
We have set ourselves on a trajectory that, if taken to its logical conclusion, will eliminate our need to possess a fully functioning body as we reduce ourselves to a corpse-like condition sustained by a multiplicity of devices. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]
How fascism is coming to America: It’s happening when people decide the ideal society is one where everyone thinks the same way. And it’s happening when people who know better, kowtow to the dictates of social media instead of doing the right thing.
I didn’t know the New York Times hired Quinn Norton until I saw news they’d parted ways. Without question, this is a greater loss to the Times and its readers, than it is to Norton — although there’s no doubt it must be a major disruption to her life and that of her family.
The irony of the situation, representative of this perverse cultural moment, is that the people most likely to take satisfaction in this turn of events probably neither read the Times nor previously had heard of Norton.
These would be the folks who take pride in their own ideological purity while failing to see that ideological purity — whatever the ideology — is a really form of fascism.
Anyone who in thought and action marches in lockstep with others and who attaches supreme value to their allegiance to a cause (however noble that cause might appear), has crossed a threshold qualitatively no different from that crossed by every German who once declared: Heil Hilter!
It doesn’t matter what the cause is. The choice of surrendering to some kind of external ideological authority has the same effect irrespective of the ideology: it makes the individual’s conscience and capacity to make independent judgments subordinate to what that individual has designated as a higher authority. It is a form of subservience that corrodes the foundations of an open society. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]
The creation of the moving image represents a technical advance in the arts comparable with the invention of the steam engine during the industrial revolution.
The transition from static to moving imagery was a watershed event in human history, through which people discovered a new way of capturing the visible world — or so it seemed.
It turns out, however, that long before the advent of civilization, our Paleolithic forebears figured out that movement seen in living creatures around them could, by cunning means, be captured in crafted illusions of movement.
Archaeologists think this spinning disc might be a children’s toy! It’s at least 14,000 years old. When you spin it, the two sides make it look like the deer is running. Delightful! #archaeologypic.twitter.com/Mby4b1lvBc
Technology is generally thought of as extending human capabilities by facilitating everyday actions more easily or allowing us to do things that would otherwise be impossible.
From this expansive perspective, technological advance has become synonymous with human progress. Conversely, the less technology populations possess, the more they are viewed as developing or even less evolved.
What these views mask are the multiplicity of ways in which technology feeds human regression.
The regressive mechanism built into technology in most of its manifestations is its propensity to externalize human skills.
If there’s something a person can do but a machine can do with greater economy, then the human skill soon becomes redundant. Having become redundant, it falls into disuse and soon atrophies.
The white supremacists who chant “blood and soil” (borrowing this phrase from the Nazis’ Blut und Boden) think white-skinned people have a special claim to the lands of Europe and North America.
This is an arrogant and ignorant belief to hold on this side of the Atlantic where every white person has immigrant ancestry originating from Europe, but European whiteness in terms of origin (not superiority) is a less controversial notion. That is to say, even among those of us who support the development and protection of inclusive, racially diverse societies, it’s generally believed that prior the modern era of mass migration, European societies were overwhelmingly white because, to put it crudely, Europe is where white people come from.
Roger Cohen writes: The Trump Administration has put out its new national security strategy. This is a farce. On any one issue, President Trump and his team have several contradictory positions. That’s what happens when your priority as president is to use foreign policy to throw red meat to your base while other cabinet members are scrambling to stop Armageddon.
“It’s impossible to know what the United States position is on any number of subjects,” a European ambassador told me last week. “We could go sleepwalking into a war.”
Let’s start with North Korea, whose small but growing nuclear arsenal is overseen by Kim Jong-un, a leader as volatile as Trump. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump Administration’s policy toward North Korea is “really quite clear.” He said, “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition.”
That was Tuesday at the Atlantic Council. By Friday, at the United Nations, Tillerson was setting conditions.
North Korea must cease “threatening behavior” before talks can begin; it must “earn its way back to the table;” and pressure will “continue until denuclearization is achieved.”
Denuclearization is not going to happen in the real world. If that’s the condition, there will be no talks. As for Trump, he has said Tillerson is “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” He has warned that the United States is “locked and loaded.” He has never embraced talks without preconditions, favored by France, Britain and sometimes Tillerson.
Clear enough already?
Oh, I should add that Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, was not present when Tillerson spoke. Great optics there: Haley and Tillerson are known to be at loggerheads, with the secretary of state (regarded by some as a dead man walking) suspecting Haley wants to succeed him.
Now, effective pressure on North Korea has three components: China, China and China. Trump’s new national security strategy identifies China as “a strategic competitor.” It suggests the United States will get tough on Chinese “cheating or economic aggression.”
Great timing there: Trump is asking President Xi Jinping to cut off crude oil exports to North Korea as his “strategy” lambasts China. Our president believes everyone will do his bidding because he says so. Hello! You want a favor? You don’t double down on confrontation. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: China is the world’s No. 1 polluter. It burns more coal than the rest of the world combined. It produces more than a quarter of the world’s human-caused global warming gases, nearly as much as North America and Europe put together.
On Tuesday, the country set out to claim another title that reflects its ambitions to change all that: keeper of the world’s largest financial market devoted to cleaning up the air.
China released plans on Tuesday to start a giant market to trade credits for the right to emit planet-warming greenhouse gases. The nationwide market would initially cover only China’s vast, state-dominated power generation sector, which produced almost half of the country’s emissions from the burning of fossil fuels last year.
The long-awaited announcement could give global efforts to combat climate change a boost after President Trump signaled this year that the United States would back away from Obama-era promises to curb emissions. It could also serve as a big — though ultimately government-controlled — laboratory for such carbon markets, after earlier efforts in Europe and at the local level in China stumbled.
“China’s move to create the world’s largest carbon market is yet another powerful sign that a global sustainability revolution is underway,” Al Gore, the former vice president and a prominent voice in reducing climate change, said in a statement. [Continue reading…]