James McWilliams wrote an interesting but disappointing piece on exercise addiction last week. The piece shows how engrossing—and potentially damaging—the sport of running can be:
Potentially addicted runners will cheat family time to run, sneak in runs without telling people, design vacations around exercise opportunities, will (if injured) count the days since their last run like an alcoholic counts the days since his last drink, and forgo sex to run (we often joke that nobody spends a Saturday morning running 20 miles because they have a great sex life). It seems certain that, if these symptoms are in any way common, running addiction will become an official disorder in due time.
Yet, in conclusion, McWilliams decides that perhaps these obsessed runners aren’t wrong, or even disordered—rather, they’re in tune with the physicality enjoyed by “pre-industrial people,” our ancestors who would not have been as inactive as modern Americans. “What if the real addicts are those who seek to be sedentary,” he asks, “While the crazed athletes are the ones who are seeking the deeper wisdom and capacity of the human body?”
McWilliams has a point here. American’s desk-bound, inert lives are rather abnormal and harmful to the human body. New research shows that commuting alone can promote higher cholesterol, depression, anxiety, back pain, and sleep discomfort (among other symptoms). Also, as a runner, I can understand the benefits he describes: the feeling of being “at ease with the world,” the sense of accomplishment and renewed purpose with each mile.
But at the same time, the sort of exercise McWilliams advocates for—the constant 10-plus mile runs, sacrifice of time, family, and health—does not seem to foster true excellence. At least, it would not stand up to Aristotle’s concept of virtue, which functions as a mean between excess and defect. Aristotelian virtue does not consist in obsession to the point of bodily harm—he said a warrior who purposefully put himself in harm’s way was not courageous, but careless: he has fallen into the “excess” side of the equation, thus falling short of true virtue. Similarly, McWilliam’s crazed runner falls too much into excess to be truly virtuous.
Yet McWilliam’s runner is no stranger to us, whether we be runners or no. Most modern Americans feel compelled to develop an expertise—be it a career, hobby, or sport. The “specialist” or “expert” always receives greatest respect, while those who “dabble” in various trades or interests are less likely to garner acclaim. Indeed, in education, fields that teach breadth over depth are seeing less students and less interest. Take the humanities, or philosophy: as philosopher professor Rebecca Newberger Goldstein told the Atlantic, interest in philosophy has declined as students “want to get good jobs and get rich fast.” Money and renown goes to the specialists, not to the holistic scholars.
This isn’t meant to denigrate experts, professional athletes, and the like—most careers require a good depth of knowledge in a given subject. But it is important to consider whether we are practicing virtue in our trade, and whether we ought to “branch out” in order to become more healthy and well-rounded human beings. Perhaps the politician should pick up art (like Winston Churchill), the “foodie” should study literature, the economist should take dancing lessons. It isn’t that specialization is bad, so much as that specialization can often lead to obsession—and obsession leads to personal and societal disorder.
St. Augustine called such obsession a “disordered love.” The concept springs from his beautiful Confessions: disordered love seeks ultimate happiness in temporal, earthly objects or pursuits, “an action which engenders all kinds of pathologies in human behavior,” writes David K. Naugle.
“For wherever the soul of man may turn, unless it turns to you [God], it clasps sorrow to itself,” wrote Augustine. “Even though it clings to things of beauty, if their beauty is outside God and outside the soul, it only clings to sorrow.”
Running can be a thing of beauty. Waking early and jogging to a measured cadence, watching the sun illumine a dark sky, etching new trails in the soft earth—it’s an exhilarating, delightful sport. But if it’s all we cling to, we will ultimately become disillusioned, disordered, and unhappy—just as with any realm of love and interest. Much as I enjoy running, I never want this “thing of beauty” to become a disordered love.
Think that public libraries are dying out? Not so fast: the Pacific Standard’s Anna Clark believes that “the best-kept secret about America’s libraries is that they are wildly, deeply, and incontrovertibly popular. They are as actively used as ever, if not more.”
The American Library Association and Pew Research Center have the stats behind this claim: according to ALA, public libraries circulated 2.46 billion materials last year—the greatest amount in 10 years. Circulation for children’s materials increased by more than 28 percent, and 60.5 million children attended library-hosted programs. Pew Research Center confirmed these numbers: they found that 94 percent of 6,200 surveyed believed a public library improved quality of life. A full 81 percent said they prized libraries for the book access—not just for the free Internet.
Clark encouraged readers to take a stand for libraries, so that these bastions of culture and learning have the funds necessary to stay alive: “Again and again, libraries have been there for us,” she writes, “to the point of becoming almost an invisible part of the civic fabric … It’s our moment to stand up for our libraries: to count them as essential to civic life, and to make sure that those making funding decisions in our community know it.”
If book publishers’ latest scheme is successful, growing demand may remove any final worries for the fate of the library—or it may bring a severe blow to their business. The Atlantic Wire reports on the latest “trend,” or hopeful trend, for the book business: “…Book publishers are looking to make “binge-reading” a thing. Call it ‘a TV approach’ to publishing, as editors at St. Martin’s Press did to the The New York Times. While developers and companies looked for the ‘Netflix for Books,’ the real contribution of Netflix to the book publishing world has been its all-at-once rollout.”
This would mean “closing the gap between book releases”: releasing series over the course of a few months, rather than a year (or longer). This would enable fans to get hooked, and stay hooked. “With the speed that life is going these days, people don’t want to wait longer for a sequel,” Albuquerque bookseller Susan Wasson told the New York Times.
This scheme is an interesting study in venues and audiences. While Netflix may inspire the development, a book is different from a TV series, and a library different from an instant-watch website. With the caveat that writers’ style and quality should not suffer (due to the pressure of speed), it’s not a bad thing to release books in quick succession. It seems a wise and marketable scheme. But while all-at-once rollout may foster book buys, it may favor online sales over library or bookstore visits. If you want to buy the next book in your teen vampire series, will you wait for your local library to buy the latest copy—or will you grab the Kindle edition from Amazon? Netflix has drawn audiences away from the traditional television by offering endless hours of entertainment without the hassle. An onslaught of binge-targeted titles may have a similar effect on libraries. Read More…
Last week Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an anti-terrorism think tank, hosted a panel on the current state of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The panel included senior fellows Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Thomas Joscelyn, with Georgetown’s Director of the Center for Security Studies Bruce Hoffman. FDD’s Vice President for research Dr. Jonathan Schanzer moderated.
The most dismaying portion of this talk was the knowledge that information at our fingertips is not publicly available. At the time of bin Laden’s death, hundreds of thousands of documents were recovered that likely contain invaluable information concerning al-Qaeda’s organization and bankrollers. To date, only seventeen of them have been declassified along with a handful of videos. The panelists, particularly Joscelyn—who became visibly more agitated as he related these numbers—were all in agreement that this was unacceptable. Gartenstein-Ross estimated that 90 percent of the documents were not harmful to U.S. national security, and must be declassified to perform open source research.
When asked what they thought that drop-in-the-bucket statistic of the declassified documents meant in terms of the United States Government’s attitude towards classifying documents vis a vis their war on terror strategy, Joscelyn offered, “What was offensive to me was…that you could see a change in the narrative in what the documents said.” The first version claimed bin Laden was heavily involved, only to be reversed a year later. He continued, “That says to me we need transparency…because if we’re going to have that sort of flip in the narrative, then the American public needs to see for themselves what the evidence is, because we have such competing claims here.” He asserted that the minimalist interpretation of the paltry amount of documents is false, and that given the time and resources devoted to battling al-Qaeda, the public should have a better idea of who America has been up against for the last decade.
Hoffman’s point was more direct—and pessimistic: “What it says about our attitudes?” he asked. “Well, the main thing is that history doesn’t matter.” He lamented that the few documents had been released were ambiguous, rendering any analysis gleaned from them woefully incomplete. The “historical blindness” resulting from the attitudes about declassification and war deprives the U.S. the opportunity to examine details on how al-Qaeda operated and how it might evolve under future leadership.
Joscelyn’s insightful observation made a compelling national security case to declassify those documents: if Edward Snowden’s actions could disrupt national security initiatives, couldn’t releasing al-Qaeda’s documents have a similar effect?
The Congressional Budget Office did not exactly say Obamacare would cost the nation 2.5 million jobs.
But what it did say is vindication of what conservatives have preached since Barry Goldwater stood in the pulpit 50 years ago:
The more liberal the welfare state, the greater the disincentive to work and the more ruinous the impact upon a nation’s work ethic.
The CBO has just given us a statistical measure of that truth.
The Obamacare subsidies, it said, will cause some to quit work, others to cut back on the hours they work, and others to hold off going to work, so as not to lose the benefits.
The cumulative impact of all these decisions will be equal to the loss of 2.5 million jobs by 2024. A devastating blow to an economy where the labor force participation is at a 30-year low.
The CBO has put a number on what everyone knows to be true: If people don’t have to work to provide the needs of their daily lives, some will drop out and become permanent charges on the public purse, deadbeats.
The father of modern liberalism, FDR, never disputed this. As he warned in 1935, welfare is “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”
This used to be called common sense. Growing up, we all knew or read that those who inherited great wealth often ended up never holding a “real job” and spent their days in a life of self-indulgence.
However, a related and larger question is raised by the CBO: If Obamacare alone will cost the equivalent of 2.5 million lost jobs to the U.S. economy, what is the impact of our entire welfare state on the vitality and dynamism of the U.S. labor force? Read More…
John Hannah here argues that Saudi fear and loathing of Iran destroys the case for negotiating with Tehran. He proposes that we walk the Saudis “back from the ledge” by promising to bomb Iran if Tehran doesn’t surrender virtually entirely its nuclear enrichment program. Inadvertently, he provides a textbook example of a superpower being led around by its “allies”—if we don’t do what they want, they will destabilize the region, find other partners, acquire their own nuclear weapons, etc.
Perhaps here one should recall a salient part of Hannah’s biography: he is one of several low profile but highly placed Bush and Cheney aides who worked to set the stage for the Iraq invasion. Hannah was instrumental in channeling (“stovepiping” is the term of art) false information from an anti-Saddam Iraqi exile group into the White House, circumventing regular US intelligence vetting. He wrote the original draft of Colin Powell’s famous pre-invasion U.N. speech, in which Powell made a false but tragically effective presentation about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. So we aren’t speaking here of a random neocon bloviating about Neville Chamberlin; Hannah is a man with an actual track record in making wars happen, one who understands that facts, or “false facts,” can acquire a life of their own within a complex government bureaucracy if you know how to insert them and get them repeated in the right places. It is a process somewhat analogous to money laundering, a sort of information laundering: if you get a lie reported as fact in New York Times, you can then uses it as source, and perhaps get Colin Powell to repeat it before a global audience. And the lie (Saddam’s nuclear weapons program) assumes a life of its own.
You might think that a record like this would be detrimental to one’s career. Not really. In Washington, a neoconservative hawk never has to say he’s sorry. After his “government service” as a Cheney aide, Hannah was snapped up by the Sheldon Adelson-financed Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he now works to set the stage for a war with Iran. (It should be pointed out that the Saudis vociferously opposed the Iraq invasion. What did Hannah think about Saudi concerns back then?)
The Beltway worry used to be that Iran would get a nuclear bomb, which would would set off a “cascade of proliferation” throughout the Middle East. But any successful diplomacy with Iran will ensure that Iran not have a nuclear bomb, but a scaled down and tightly monitored uranium enrichment program. Nevertheless, Hannah deploys the same overheated language, as if it makes no difference whether five Security Council members (plus Germany) had just reached agreement to allow Iran a bomb program, or, as is actually the case, not. Hannah rails against Iran’s “march to the bomb”; he refers to John Kerry’s “stab in the back” diplomacy (a trope oft-used in early Nazi propaganda against the Weimar government; one wonders if Hannah is aware of that).
In all candor, we don’t know what the Saudi reaction to an eventual American rapprochement with Iran might be. Serious people who study the matter doubt that even if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon the Saudis would try to do the same. It’s not clear how they would acquire one, even if they wanted to. It’s not as if Saudi Arabia produces a lot of nuclear physicists.
Reduced to its essence, Hannah’s argument is that American diplomacy should be tied, apparently forever, to the fears and ambitions of a reactionary medieval monarchy. But why on earth should it? Hannah invites us to share Saudi remorse that the United States didn’t “strike” Syria, as the Saudis hoped, in order to overthrow Syria’s tyrant and replace him with some Saudi-favored jihadists. Why is that an American interest? When one reads counsel like this, from someone who was once, and may be again, highly placed in Republican foreign policy circles, one can only note how far America has strayed from George Washington’s admonition about “entangling alliances. ”
The Foreign Policy comments following Hannah’s article are caustic and often illuminating. There is clearly an informed public that won’t get fooled again. One wishes one could say the same for elected Republicans.
If you are literate today, it does not mean you can write — not even close to it in many cases. But if you were literate in 1863, even if you could not spell, you often could write descriptively and meaningfully. In the century and a half since, we have evolved from word to image creatures, devaluing the power of the written word and turning ourselves into a species of short gazers, focused on the emotions of the moment rather than the contemplative thoughts about consequences and meaning of our actions. Many everyday writers in the mid-19th century were far more contemplative, far more likely to contextualize the long-term meaning of their actions. They meticulously observed and carefully described because, although photography was the hot new medium during the Civil War, words remained the dominant way of communicating thought, memory, aspiration, hope.
Raasch’s theory is not a new one. Back in the 1980’s, when Internet was still in its primordial days and television was king, Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. His book cautioned against the developing “Age of Show Business,” fed by television’s sensory, visual medium.
Postman believed three “ages” were prominent throughout information’s history: first, ancient oral cultures encouraged the preservation of information through spoken records and stories. When the printing press and writing became more prominent, oral cultures dissolved into the “Age of Exposition”: a time when written records were perceived as holding the greatest truth. Then as photography and videography developed, media began to change again—for the worse. Postman believed we would lose more than writing ability in the wake of the entertainment era: he warned of a depleting mental and emotional capacity. He believed we would become as obsessed with pleasure as the humans in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman’s descriptions of distracted, sensationalistic consumers relate well to Raasch’s “species of short gazers.”
We can only imagine what Postman would have said about the Internet; perhaps Raasch gives us a taste when he describes it as “the Great Din”: “Today, throwing barbs and brickbats into the Great Din of the Internet has become as second nature as breathing … The Great Din requires no forethought, no real calculation of purpose or result, no contemplative brake, no need to seek angles or views beyond those that reaffirm or reassure what we think right now.”
Is this truly the future of media? Will we lose any true, deep, thoughtful communication in its havoc of pixels and pictures?
One interesting counter-opinion comes from former Daily Beast editor Tina Brown. Having recently left the world of journalism for event production, Brown has told reporters that she no longer reads magazines herself—in fact, she thinks “the whole writing fad is so twentieth century” (in the words of New York Magazine). But rather than warning of impending havoc and din, Brown calls people back to oral communication: “I think you can have more satisfaction from live conversations,” she said, adding that we are “going back to oral culture where the written word will be less relevant.”
If we experience the “death of writing,” as Rassch puts it, could we come full-circle and return to the age of oral communication? Will grandfathers sit down with their grandchildren and tell them stories, like our ancestors so long ago? One can only hope; but if such an experience were truly to flower from “The Great Din,” it would be rather surprising.
The process of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile has been going well, shockingly well, in fact. When a United States retaliatory strike was averted by a last-minute push by Russian diplomats to seize on John Kerry’s inadvertent comment about Syria being able to give up its chemical arms, few experts had high hopes for a successful disarmament. The chemical weapons destruction and verification process is onerous and exacting, even for countries undergoing disarmament under conditions of relative peace and security, such as those in Libya when Muammar Gaddafi agreed to relinquish his weapons almost ten years ago. Since Libya has still not completed its process after a decade, and Syria is engaged in a full-scale civil war, the idea of the Assad regime being able to comply fully and transparently even if it so desired was received, well, skeptically.
Yesterday, it was announced that Syria had completed the first step of the disarmament process by successfully destroying its capacity to manufacture chemical weapons and securing its remaining arsenal. In fact, it completed that step a day early “as President Bashar al-Assad has offered unexpectedly robust cooperation, at least so far, with a Russian-United States accord to dismantle his arsenal” according to the New York Times. By all accounts, the Syrian government has been unusually cooperative with the inspectors acting under the auspicies of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, tasked with enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention Syria signed earlier this year. The OPCW also received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.
However, distrust will rightly remain until Syria has fully complied with the destruction of its chemical weapons capacity and arsenal alike, and yesterday’s news was not unanimously positive. Instead, Foreign Policy‘s “The Cable” reported that Syria had requested to avert the destruction of some of its chemical weapons manufacturing plants for the ostensible purpose of converting them to civilian use, “fueling concern among some non-proliferation experts that Damascus may be seeking to maintain the industrial capacity to reconstitute its chemical weapons program at some later date.”
The Syrian request—which was contained in a confidential letter from Muallem to Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—has also raised concern among some Western governments that Syria may seek to entangle the inspection agency in lengthy negotiations that could drag out the process of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.
Countries are permitted to request such exemptions should they make a “compelling” case, but Syria remains under special suspicion as much of its chemical weapons industry is placed on military facilities that would be awkward converts to peace-time manufacturing. FP quoted nonproliferation expert Amy Smithson as saying much would depend on the intended end result of the conversion “‘If they want to make bubble gum or humanitarian products that are essential for the well-being of Syria’s citizens, that’s one thing,’ she said. ‘But if they ask to make pesticides and fertilizers, normally those plants are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the ability to make warfare agents.’”
As the fragile agreement to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons in the aftermath of a horrific use of apparent sarin gas on a Damascus suburb continues, parallel with Syria’s unceasing civil conflict, it remains to be seen if the Assad regime will prove to be genuine in its willingness to disarm, or will use bureaucratic requests and the fog of war to undermine the efforts of OPCW inspectors. Should the fears of nonproliferation experts prove true, we may find ourselves back where we were at the end of this summer.
I made this point in a casual bloggy way, so I’m very glad to see it made more rigorously by a highly regarded author and commentator. In Time, Fareed Zakaria punctures the notion that the Saudis are the Mideastern ally which must be catered to (this has become a new neocon meme, especially useful for those who want to downplay the Israel lobby’s role in influencing American Mideast policy.) Key Zakaria graf:
If there were a prize for Most Irresponsible Foreign Policy it would surely be awarded to Saudi Arabia. It is the nation most responsible for the rise of Islamic radicalism and militancy around the world. Over the past four decades, the kingdom’s immense oil wealth has been used to underwrite the export of an extreme, intolerant and violent version of Islam preached by its Wahhabi clerics.
Quite so. There may be no sound reason to oppose the Saudis, or even to assume their kingdom will go the way of all monarchies sooner rather than later. But treating them as a highly trusted ally with veto power over American diplomacy is a bit much. Personally I was taken aback when a liberal friend, the brilliant Jim Chapin, shortly after 9/11 described the Saudis to me as a viper clasped to our bosom, but can understand where he was coming from. In any case, Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be granted any kind of veto power over our negotiations with Iran, any more than Taiwan had over our dealings with China. Be friendly. . . absolutely. Keep them informed. . . of course. Stand ready to defend them against external aggression. But remember, Saudi Arabia is the international affairs equivalent of the rich heir who never worked a day but gives nice parties. A thin reed upon which to base American diplomacy in the Mideast.
But you have to admit, it is amusing to see all this neoconservative solicitude for Saudi concerns.
I’ve generally been paying more attention to the P5 plus 1 Iran negotiations than the government shutdown melodrama. Haven’t you? The opening round in Geneva was predictably opaque: Iran’s foreign minister presented a complex proposal, and the Western negotiators, plus Russia and China, acknowledged its seriousness and said, we’ll get back to you. Anyone who thinks that nuclear negotiations are not incredibly complex, whose details are beyond the ability of all but experts, isn’t serious. But in general, Iran seems to want to offer inspections and limitations on how much and to what degree it will enrich uranium, in return for acknowledgement of its “right to enrich” and sanctions relief. Of course, the devil is in the details, but my sense is that a rigorous but fair-to-both-sides agreement would essentially make it impossible for Iran to “break out” and build a weapon without the rest of the world having a lot of warning. Which is good, because Iran’s leaders have said they reject nuclear weapons for religious reasons. Perhaps an Islam expert can suggest what these might be: it’s pretty obvious that Christian, Jewish, and atheist regimes exercise no such rejection. I would take the Iranian assertion with somewhat of a grain of salt, but it is clearly much better than Iran’s leaders saying that religion requires them the have the same weapons that various other countries wave menacingly about.
Of course, we know that a powerful entrenched interest opposes any such agreement with Iran. One high-ranking representative of it, Senator Mark Kirk, took to the pages of the London Telegraph to warn against any deal. Said Kirk, it’s 1938 all over again, and does the West want to be Churchill or Chamberlain. I wonder whether a single person in Great Britain is moved by such comparisons. In any case, a top Telegraph columnist responded forthwith, pointing out the very obvious differences between the behavior of Iran and Nazi Germany, including that, unlike some countries we might name, Iran hasn’t invaded another country in 170 years.
Mark Kirk, sad to say, represents a big fraction of the US Senate that takes its foreign-policy marching orders from AIPAC and Benjamin Netanyahu. One question observers of the negotiations are waiting to have answered is whether Congress will decide, in an effort to thwart successful negotiations, to add on to the sanctions—essentially denying the Obama administration the capacity to actually negotiate with Iran. My feeling is that this is somewhat a danger—but that if it is apparent to all the world that the ignoramuses of Congress are blocking a deal (I’m borrowing the term deployed by the Telegraph‘s Peter Oborne) the other nations whose cooperation is needed to enforce the sanctions regime will begin to peel away. Which might be good for Iran—to have the sanctions removed without a deal—but probably is not the best of possible outcomes.
Over at Open Zion, Ali Gharib has video of Anthony Weiner trying to brush off a questioner who asks him about his claim there is “no Israeli occupation” of the West Bank. A couple of weeks ago I wondered whether New York voters would care about or even notice this issue, whether Weiner’s opponents in a liberal Democratic primary would see Wiener’s far-right Israel politics as a point of potential vulnerability. The verdict is not yet in, but the fact that someone (a pro-Palestine activist? someone linked to one of the other campaigns?) is trying to publicize the issue is a sure sign of progress.
Weiner is in a bind: he wants to appeal to that segment of the electorate which is really far right on Israel, while hoping the rest of the primary electorate doesn’t notice or care. It’s a balancing act that can only work if no one brings up the issue in public. Why should voters care what a mayoral candidate’s position on Israel-Palestine is? If you’ve lived through a New York democratic primary, you know that much of the campaign consists of every candidate trying to “outliberal” one other in pandering to New York’s very large array of liberal constituencies. The issues are often fairly technical, and it’s hard to get a fix on how candidates would actually govern if elected — when there are real restraints on how liberal they can be.
So the question of Israel-Palestine becomes a sort of window into the moral judgement of the candidate. I don’t expect great things, but Weiner’s far out position clearly exposes himself as both ignorant and bigot — personality traits which are not irrelevant to his capacity to govern the city. No wonder he looks peeved in video.