Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Morning Reading -- September 3

Get bookmarks ready. 
Too many long reads this morning for one sitting. 
Lots to read & think about. Subjects all over the place. 

This puzzles together with my speculation that the president is playing for time with his gambit for Congressional approval.  Key word --> back-channel. 


Entertaining read. Not too long.
I was hooked by a reference to phrenology, recalling a conversation I had years ago with my grandmother. She was a daughter of the South, sent to college in Ohio by her father (who had lost any shot at hereditary wealth when he sold his Kentucky farm for Confederate money). I came across a reference to Blind Tom, a black savant, born into slavery, whose home was near Columbus, Georgia where we lived. My grandmother told me her father once saw Blind Tom while traveling by train. He was not performing, but her father met the man who was his master. With his permission he was allowed to feel Tom's head, looking for bumps or ridges across the skull that might indicate unusual development. Apparently none were reported but the story made a good anecdote.
So much for trivia.

Writers on the brain and the mind tend to divide into Spocks and Kirks, either embracing the idea that consciousness can be located in a web of brain tissue or debunking it. For the past decade, at least, the Spocks have been running the Enterprise: there are books on your brain and music, books on your brain and storytelling, books that tell you why your brain makes you want to join the Army, and books that explain why you wish that Bar Refaeli were in the barracks with you. The neurological turn has become what the “cultural” turn was a few decades ago: the all-purpose non-explanation explanation of everything. Thirty years ago, you could feel loftily significant by attaching the word “culture” to anything you wanted to inspect: we didn’t live in a violent country, we lived in a “culture of violence”; we didn’t have sharp political differences, we lived in a “culture of complaint”; and so on. In those days, Time, taking up the American pursuit of pleasure, praised Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism”; now Time has a cover story on happiness and asks whether we are “hardwired” to pursue it.
This link will be of interest to those following Egyptian developments. A committee has been appointed to draft yet another constitution for the next chapter of Egyptian political growth. Critics should be reminded that our own efforts at representative democracy were a famous failure with the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution (which has since had plenty of changes) was not contemporaneous with the Declaration of Independence but was ratified more than a decade later.

Zenobia is one of Egypt's smartest bloggers and political analysts. She was on the scene long before the Arab Spring. Her knowledge of the players is easy to see in her straightforward descriptions. The reader will not remember them all, but I reading her thumbnail sketches made me optimistic about what might happen next in Egypt.


Get ready for a paradigm shift. 
This next read is serious. 

If you want to understand what's happening in Syria ...
by digby

Please read this important post by James Fallows:

Many times I've mentioned the foreign-policy assessments of William R. Polk, at right, who first wrote for the Atlantic (about Iraq) during Dwight Eisenhower's administration, back in 1958, and served on the State Department's Policy Planning staff during the Kennedy years. He now has sent in a detailed analysis about Syria.

Polk wrote this just before President Obama switched from his go-it-alone policy and decided to seek Congressional approval for a Syrian strike. It remains relevant for the choices Congress, the public, and the president have to make. It is very long, but it is systematically laid out as a series of 13 questions, with answers. If you're in a rush, you could skip ahead to question #7, on the history and use of chemical weapons. But please consider the whole thing when you have the time to sit down for a real immersion in the implications of Congress's upcoming decision. It wouldn't hurt if Senators and Representatives read it too.
Read the whole thing here. It is the most cogent recitation and analysis of the Syrian crisis that I've seen. While my opposition to this intervention is rooted in global concerns which are unrelated to this set of circumstances, these particulars bolster my instincts and my fundamental skepticism about the wisdom of this action.

Here's just one interesting insight that should make us all step back and ask ourselves whether our long term interest might be better served by concentrating on a different issue that really does require American "intervention":
Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011. Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well. But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others crop failures reached 75%. And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”
The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population. Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq. Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive. 
Survival was the key issue. The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008, he warned that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had “stated publicly that [the] economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’” But, his appeal fell on deaf ears: the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.” (reported on November 26, 2008 in cable 08DAMASCUS847_a to Washington and “leaked” to Wikileaks ) 
Whether or not this was a wise decision, we now know that the Syrian government made the situation much worse by its next action. Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year. The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive. 
So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire. The spark was struck on March 15, 2011 when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them. Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives. The Assads, who had ruled the country since 1971, were not known for political openness or popular sensitivity. And their action backfired. Riots broke out all over the country, and as they did, the Assads attempted to quell them with military force. They failed to do so and, as outside help – money from the Gulf states and Muslim “freedom fighters” from the rest of the world – poured into the country, the government lost control of over 30% of the country’s rural areas and perhaps half of its population. By the spring of 2013, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), upwards of 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting, perhaps 2 million have lost their homes and upwards of 2 million have fled abroad. Additionally, vast amounts of infrastructure, virtually whole cities like Aleppo, have been destroyed.

If that doesn't sound like a premonition of many more crises to come, I don't know what does. Perhaps we should stop blowing things up for a little while and concentrate on being a global leader on the real existential crisis of our time: climate change. Tomahawk missiles aren't going to solve it, that's for sure.

I know it's long but please read this entire article. If you are persuaded, send it to your Representative, particularly if he or she is a progressive Democrat who is likely to be arm twisted by the Syria hawks in the Democratic leadership. It's vitally important that we break this cycle of military intervention to solve problems that can't be solved by military intervention. There are much bigger, long term challenges underlying all of this this that are papered over by America's status as the world's policeman and it's not serving any of us well.

It's not that the US has no leading role to play in the world. It's just that we are playing the wrong one.

I ask digby and Fallows forgiveness in advance for stealing this post entirely without parsing or indicating quotes. The subject in this case is more important than editorial protocol. I cannot overemphasize what they say: read what Polk wrote. I think he's correct. 

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