synthetic zero

March 26th, 2011

On the Interdependence Project blog we discussed the pros and cons of the military intervention in Libya, and we had a good discussion, I think, of the topic. I wrote this:

…as a country we’ve engaged in all sorts of terrible actions abroad, and I’m very aware of those; overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran, overthrowing Salvador Allende, supporting dictators like Pinochet, funding the contras in Nicaragua, our covert operations in Angola, and on and on. We’ve engaged in atrocities and massacres. Not to mention the probably unnecessary dropping of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of which killed my father’s aunt and uncle and probably gave cancer to my uncle. We have a very chequered past when it comes to foreign involvements and in many if not most cases we’ve done much more harm than good.

Furthermore any use of violence is already at a point where things have deteriorated to a terrible phase. Contemplating all this I can’t in any way find a way to think of the use of violence as something “good”. It’s always bad; weapons are, as the ancient saying goes, “instruments of ill omen”. It’s sad, regrettable, awful. At best I think violence is something which is only sometimes the least bad of a spectrum of bad options, and only warranted in the highly unusual circumstance where other options are likely to be worse.

As far as who gets to decide this: obviously there’s no way you can know for certain. My only argument is that sometimes I do think, unlike some, that it is something that any civilization ought to hold in reserve, as a last resort, to protect people. Far better to avoid the need for it in the first place, far better to use any other option short of it, but in extremis, I think it should be there. There was a sad reason for samurai to exist, for warriors to exist, violence I believe is a part of nature. It is not necessarily a view which all Buddhist teachers would agree with and I respect those who disagree. This is my personal view.

When it comes to Libya, as I’ve said before, in my opinion the lives saved by this intervention will exceed, even in the long run, the lives it will cost. At the same time I’m highly sympathetic to my pacifist friends who are skeptical of every American international involvement, whether it is sanctioned by the UN or not, out of what seems to me to be a well-founded distrust of our motives abroad as well as our past history, and an additional skepticism of the usefulness of the use of military force in general.

Ultimately, however, I cannot agree with their blanket criticism of our foreign policy simply because I don’t really think it’s appropriate to view any given situation in terms of taking one side versus taking another. My aunt’s boyfriend and I once had a long discussion of this a few years ago; both my aunt and he are progressive political activists and he in particular had seen first hand the atrocities we had committed or supported in Central America during some of the darkest days of the Cold War. While I absolutely accepted his accounts as I’m quite familiar with many of those operations (they’re now public knowledge for the most part), that didn’t change my view that sometimes, just sometimes, we’re not on the wrong side. He then asked me, who do you think has the ideal government? And I said, “they’re all bad!”

What I meant was, every government of every country at some point in history has engaged in both virtuous and terrible acts, has been both a supporter of justice and freedom and a supporter of oppression and injustice. The crimes the United States has committed are long: the genocidal ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population of North America is perhaps one of the most egregious, not to mention our sanctioning of slavery, and on and on. But then again the atrocities committed by other countries are no less heinous and in many cases even worse. Every ethnic group, every culture, every nation has done terrible things. So in my view we ought not to judge situations through the lens of taking sides, either for or against any given nationality or ethnicity, but rather we ought to stand and discern each situation as human beings living in the world. The enemy of justice is not a specific nation or nations, either our own or others, it is oppression, it is dictatorship, it is injustice itself.

I don’t believe this particular operation is, in fact, motivated primarily by a capitalist agenda to control the oil supply. I happen to think that we, and our allies, are actually primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns. We are also motivated, I think rightly, by a national security interest, in that Qaddafi retaking power militarily would be a negative sign in the region, and would encourage dictators to try to hold onto power through bloody means — which would only tend to encourage extremism and the same forces which attacked us on 9/11. However, that doesn’t mean we ought to intervene militarily in Yemen and Bahrain and everywhere else: if there is a path to resolving the crisis through diplomacy or via other means, then we ought to utilize that approach. Military intervention is a last resort. I think in the case of Libya, it has become, through the actions of Qaddafi, the least worst remaining option.

Iraq in 2003 was not such a case. Bad as Saddam was, he wasn’t at that moment using heavy weaponry to directly attack massive numbers of civilians. He wasn’t positioning snipers to shoot people at the entrances to hospitals. He wasn’t firing antiaircraft guns at peaceful protesters. Maybe he would have done such things if provoked, but preventive use of military force is in my view always illegitimate. They didn’t greet us as liberators, throwing flowers at our feet. We went in and thousands of civilians died and we created chaos and disaster in the name of imposing democracy. Rather than supporting an internal, grass-roots rebellion, we were dictating to their country by force of arms what they ought to do.

In this case, however, I think the majority of people in Libya will be grateful to us. At least there is evidence of this, judging by this video of a march in Benghazi:

There are hundreds of similar videos posted by many different organizations online already. When the opposition takes over cities, there is celebration in the streets. When Qaddafi is in control, people cower in fear in their homes because snipers are shooting anyone who moves. As a human being on the planet Earth, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that in this case, the always regrettable use of military force happens to be on the right side of history. This time.

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March 19th, 2011

As part of a discussion on a private conferencing system about how the nuclear disaster in Japan happened, we got on the subject of Japanese decision-making, and the idea of “wa” or harmony. Some participants with experience in Japan expressed the view that Japanese decision-making is quite different than Western decision-making, more consensus-based; others who have also lived in Japan felt that this was a “snow job” and in fact consensus was just used by the powers that be to enforce their will on people, get them to go along with decisions they don’t really agree with.

I wrote the following in response to this, arguing that it’s a little of both, in reality:

The Japanese consensus approach can have the effect one of the participants described (i.e., a way of shaming people into going along with something they don’t really agree with) but it simply isn’t just a “snow job”. Japanese decision-making really is different, they go about making decisions differently. I have done contracts for Japanese companies, my father is Japanese, my mother is Japanese-American; our family decision-making style is radically different from the style I’ve seen in most American families.

There are dual pressures in a Japanese consensus situation; the first is the group wants to accomodate the needs of everyone in the group, and the second is people in the group are subtly expected to go along with what the group consensus appears to be headed towards. The former is the “positive” side of consensus and the latter is pretty necessary otherwise Japanese groups (families, companies, etc.) would never be able to decide anything, but it can also lead to some bad things happening as well, where people go along with bad decisions.

I grew up in the US so my experience of “Japaneseness” is skewed by this, but whenever I visit my relatives in Japan, etc., they have a similar style, though perhaps a bit more extreme in various respects. In both my family and my relatives’ families (in Japan and here) there really is an emphasis on consensus, harmony. It’s not just a “snow job” as John seems to cynically suggest — I always felt my parents took my concerns or issues quite seriously. At the same time, I felt a strong desire to accomodate them as well. It’s a two-way street. If anyone had a strong objection to a proposed decision, we’d pivot and go in another direction. Didn’t matter if it was my mom, my dad, me, or my brother. I observe the same thing in my relatives’ families. Obviously not every family in Japan is the same; I’m talking about my own relatives as well as my family who I think are representative of at least a certain common style in Japan.

There’s a downside to it. I feel myself, though I grew up here, a strong desire to go along with the group decision, if the people are close to me (coworkers, etc.) I remember this one time when my company (Electronic Arts at the time) held an offsite team-building exercise. We were supposed to decide as a group how to best deal with a situation where we were stranded in the arctic due to a plane crash. The idea was each of us were supposed to give our own individual answers to the questions, then we were to discuss as a group and come to a consensus.

Of course, the theory was that the group decision was supposed to be much better than any individual decision. I was assigned to a group of programmers.

The result: The managers group did really well. Their score was the highest of all the teams. And their group score was significantly better than any of their individual scores. My esteem for EA management went up a bit.

Our team of engineers didn’t fare as well. Our group score was dismal. And I had participated in the discussions, and had agreed with what the group had decided. I had gone along with it. The irony was, my own individual answers were actually almost all correct. My individual score had been close to the managers’ group score. I learned from this that perhaps I am a bit too Japanese sometimes. And also: if you dump a bunch of nerds into the Arctic, they might all die…

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March 17th, 2011

Saint Cecelia Hotel

I just got back from SXSW. It was truly intense. A bit more crowded than last year but I don’t think it has jumped the shark (yet) as some people have intimated. I met a lot of fascinating people and had a ton of great conversations, not to mention meeting in person a number of people I’ve known virtually for a long time. SXSW is a strange scene, it’s a bunch of nerds getting together, yes, but somehow you end up feeling a little like a rock star. And the people I met were not just the sort of folks you’d think you’d meet at a tech conference; I met Melissa Gira Grant, a feminist intellectual who writes about blogs and diaries and sex and runs the Third Wave Foundation, Katie Pomerantz, an LGBT activist who also runs an art gallery, a music promotion business, and a non-profit for LGBT issues in LA, Joanne McNeil, a brilliant art/culture critic and freelance writer who writes the Tomorrow Museum, Halle Tecco, a social entrepreneur and founder of a seed accelerator for health startups called RockHealth.org, Benjamin Bratton, a sociological/media/design theorist who gave a great panel on the dark side of urban technology with my friend Molly Steenson, Richard Nash, a book publisher with a subtle and deep mind who is now trying to create a new kind of publishing house and who gave a panel on how tech and art can learn from each other, an artist who runs a gallery and makes little magnetized blocks to let people create control circuits with light and sound and switches and logic by just sticking them together, Jen Bekman, who I’ve known virtually in various contexts but had never met in person, who runs 20×200 and the Jen Bekman Gallery, Siva Vaidhyanathan who wrote The Googlization of Everything and gave a great panel on the dangers of Corporate Social Responsibility (another person I’ve known online but never met), and so many other people equally interesting, I can’t even list them all. You have these intense conversations and then go party until midnight or 3am or later (my latest night was 4am). It’s like college except much better, with more interesting people and all the people are actually doing real things in the world.

And I have to say that tech nerds at SXSW kick ass at karaoke (particularly my SXSW friend Michelle Neuringer, who rocked Nirvana hard). Seriously. I’ve never heard so many good singers doing karaoke in my life.

I also managed to see Miranda July’s The Future (it was virtually impossible to get in, but Miranda was very kind to put me on the guest list, thanks so much!), a film about which I have so much to say I cannot even begin to say it. It’s both simple and straightforward and really intricate and multi-layered. I will try to say more about it in a future blog post. It’s also a film which is closer to Miranda’s performance roots, more surreal and I’m very glad to see her injecting some of this into her second film. More fans of hers should check out her earlier work.

In other news…

Libya. I hesitate to write too much about this because the use of military force is always a sensitive topic. I’ve written in the past about my rather unusual position when it comes to military matters: I think a lot about them. My family was samurai in the old days, maybe it’s in my blood but it’s certainly part of my family culture. In the end, for me, it comes down to this: military intervention I believe is warranted to protect your own people or if it is likely to save more lives in the long run than it costs. It’s not an either/or situation, there’s no simple rule, I am neither a dove nor a hawk, but I believe that military force should be used only rarely, but when it should be used it should be done decisively and quickly.

So yes, we shouldn’t intervene in every dictatorship in the world. I strongly opposed the Iraq War, I marched against it, I argued against it everywhere I could. There are many reasons for this, but the primary one was the cost was not worth the benefit. I believed it would not save more lives down the line than it cost, either on our side or on the part of Iraqis, both combatants and the innocent. But in this case, the situation is rather different.

There is an existing rebellion on the ground which controls large amounts of territory (for now). They are begging for our help and it’s pretty clear they have broad popular support in Libya (a bit less clear what their level of support is in every part of the country, but if you’ve been following the news closely you’ll read that in private, anonymously, Libyans in the Qaddafi-controlled western part of the country also secretly opposed to him as well, for the most part). There are widespread, confirmed reports of indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods. The Arab League has called for air support. We would not be sending in any ground forces.

Furthermore, I believe it is in our strategic interests, as well as the interests of long-term world stability. Intervening now would be a cautionary tale to dictators around the world. It would likely restrain dictators in other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and would give some pause, one hopes, to the leaders of Iran. More importantly it would undermine the argument that Al Qaeda has long used against us, that we are complicit in the support of dictators and oppression in the Arab world, and that they’re the only route to salvation. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolts have already weakened Al Qaeda, but if Qaddafi regains power it will undermine this argument.

We cannot and should not intervene against every dictator in the world. But in this case I believe action is warranted and urgently needed. In fact, had we intervened earlier Qaddafi might have folded. As it is, the longer we wait the larger the cost of inaction in lives. I further believe that while it will cost lives to intervene now, it will save more lives in the long run, not to mention protect us in the long-term future.

As for Japan, I think perhaps partly because I am of Japanese descent and my ancestors were samurai I feel a somewhat different reaction to the disaster there. The tsunami and earthquake were natural disasters and it is a tragedy but I have a feeling the Japanese are doing perhaps the best job one could imagine at trying to recover from it. But the nuclear disaster ongoing there is a different matter. The Japanese government has long been complicit in covering up safety problems at Japanese nuclear facilities (like our own government, frankly). So my main reaction to what is happening there is anger at the arrogance and ineptitude of government regulators in Japan when it comes to nuclear safety. The plant at Fukushima should never have been allowed to operate.

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