Andrew Sullivan's Blog
August 23, 2014
Paul Ford sings the praises of politeness:
Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”
This politeness, according to Ford, can come naturally, even when socially compelled to discuss Jessica Simpson’s jewelry selection:
There is one other aspect of my politeness that I am reluctant to mention. But I will. I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy. For all of my irony I really do want to know about the process of hanging jewelry from celebrities. What does the jewelry feel like in your hand? What do the celebrities feel like in your hand? Which one is more smooth?
Olga Khazan responds, noting the connection between politeness and empathy:
There are multiple ideas of what it means to be polite. The oldest, coined by the British philosopher Lord Shaftesbury in the early 1700s, holds that “‘politeness’ may be defined a dext’rous management of our words and actions, whereby we make other people have better opinion of us and themselves.” That is, we behave politely so as to boost our own social standing among our peers.
But I prefer the definition offered by Brendan Fraser’s Cold-War-era Prepper character in the 1999 feature film Blast from the Past: “Manners are a way of showing other people we care about them.” Signaling that you understand how hard someone else’s situation is certainly makes you better at cocktail parties. But empathy—or “politeness,” or “manners”—isn’t just there at the start of interpersonal relationships; it also holds them together.
August 22, 2014
That’s the question Rod Dreher asks in a searching reply to my thoughts earlier this week on Christianity and modern life. Some of Rod’s response is a gentle correction to my characterization of the “Benedict Option,” which, in his original essay, he summarizes as “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.” To take one example, I described Eagle River, Alaska, as a remote village, while it’s actually in suburban Anchorage – I regret getting that wrong. More importantly, Rod argues that I created something of a straw man, portraying those who pursue the Benedict Option as running for the hills while the world burns. My rhetoric did slip in that direction, and there are nuances to the ways the Benedict Option can be pursued I didn’t capture in my original post. Not all who favor it, and certainly not Rod, argue for “strict separatism” as a response to modern life.
The deeper issue Rod raises, however, goes beyond haggling over this or that detail of the Benedict Option and its various instantiations. Really, arguments about the Benedict Option amount to arguments over the place of, and prospects for, Christianity in the modern world – how Christians should try to live faithfully in our day and age. Here’s the gauntlet Rod throws down:
The way a Christian thinks about sex and sexuality is a very, very good indication of what he thinks about living out the faith in modernity. The reason it is so central is because it reveals, more than any other question now, how a Christian relates to authority and moral order. Matt is a kind and honest interlocutor, and I sincerely appreciate his attention, so please don’t take this in any way snarky or hostile towards him or Christians who share his viewpoint … but the questions have to be put strongly: Where is the evidence for being hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life? Why should anyone think that the message of Jesus will retain its power in modernity if a Christian experiences little conflict between his faith and the world as it is?
To get to the heart of it: What is Christianity for?
Those obviously are very big questions, but at least a few points can be made to clarify how I approach these matters.
One reason I reacted the way I did to Rod’s essay is because it’s premised on assumptions about modern life I don’t share. It’s not hard to misconstrue those living out the Benedict Option, taking them to perhaps be more separatist than they are, when descriptions of what they are trying to do are prefaced with references to Alistair MacIntyre and suggestions that we are “living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe” or worries about “signs of a possible Dark Age ahead.” I’ve never quite bought this line of thinking, never understood modernity as being a rupture or break from a virtuous past. Instead, the formulation I use is that things are getting better and worse at the same time, all the time. The dazzling achievements of modern life are real but also can have a dark underbelly, which means it’s not always possible to clearly separate out what is “good” from what is “bad.” I resist narratives of decline because they seem to miss this, which means the task of discerning the signs of the times, thinking through them as a Christian, is a complex and difficult task. I reject both optimism and despair about modern life.
It’s worth mentioning here that I never argued for full assimilation into modern life, for Christians to be uncritical of what they see around them. I do experience conflict between my faith and the world as it is. But that tends to take the form of deep sadness at the loneliness so many feel in our society, our callous indifference to suffering, and the rampant materialism and worship of power and wealth characteristic of our times, to name just a few examples. And yet this incomplete list betrays the tension I noted above – were there not real problems with more traditional forms of community that, while largely free of the individualism and mobility that contribute to loneliness and neglect, sometimes were repressive and too averse to change or difference? Isn’t our materialism at least partly a function of an economic system that has pressing problems, but also lifted many out of a life of mere subsistence? I don’t mean for these examples to seem trite or too easy, but they get at why, even when I feel conflicted about modern life, it doesn’t take the form of viewing it as a catastrophe or a new Dark Ages.
I admit, too, that I differ with Rod on the question of homosexuality – I hope that even conservative churches come to bless gay relationships. But as the preceding shows, I don’t think that accounts in full for my attitude toward living as a Christian in the modern world. I see it as one more issue that’s of a piece with the complexity of the world around us. The increasing visibility of gay people is a fact that must be dealt with by the Church, and even many traditionalist Christians, like Rod, would be happy to concede that they are glad gay people face better prospects, in society at large, than they would have decades ago. Sexual modernity has made many people, even traditional Christians, more attentive to the ways in which gay people and women, to take the two most prominent examples, suffered in previous eras. Traditional Christians themselves, even when holding the doctrinal line, often understand these matters in ways quite different than they did just a few decades ago, showing more sympathy and humaneness than in the past. I would go so far as to say that Christians have been taught, through the changes brought by modern life, how to be more genuinely loving and decent in these areas than they have been in the past. That is not to dismiss the deep challenges modern life poses, for traditionalists like Rod, to a conservative sexual ethic – I understand, even if I do not fully share, his concerns. I just can’t view the coming of sexual modernity simply as the triumph of hedonism, if for no other reason than that it has led to grappling with real injustices.
The word that I used to describe my approach to these matters is hopeful, and Rod wonders at my use of that term, at least with regard to Christianity’s place in the modern world. I’ve gone on at length – perhaps too long – explaining how I think about modern life because I believe it goes some way toward suggesting an answer. Living hopefully, in light of this, amounts to patiently, humbly sifting through the complexity I described. It means trying to see the truths revealed by modern life as well as working to restrain it’s excesses and problems. And I’m not sure Christians can best do this by withdrawing from the mainstream, rather than critically engaging it.
When we do engage the modern world, joyfully and without rancor or fear, I still believe Jesus’ message of grace and mercy will resonate. To see the good in modern life is not to deny the need for real, costly love in the world, a love that reaches out to the poor and the lonely and the marginalized, a love that looks with compassion on all who suffer and struggle. What is Christianity for? To teach us how to do that, which sounds awfully pious, I know. And that’s certainly not all that can be said about the Christian faith. But when I look around me, I can’t help but see both the remarkable achievements of modern life and, despite those achievements, a world still fraught with injustice and pain. My hope is that we can sustain and extend the former while struggling to embody Christ’s love in the midst of the latter.
(Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, 1601, via Wikimedia Commons)
Frum blames it on reform efforts. He argues that “for 50 years, Americans have reformed their government to allow ever more participation, ever more transparency, ever more reviews and appeals, and ever fewer actual results”:
Journalists often lament the absence of presidential leadership. What they are really observing is the weakening of congressional followership. Members of the liberal Congress elected in 1974 overturned the old committee system in an effort to weaken the power of southern conservatives. Instead—and quite inadvertently—they weakened the power of any president to move any program through any Congress. Committees and subcommittees multiplied to the point where no single chair has the power to guarantee anything. This breakdown of the committee system empowered the rank-and-file member—and provided the lobbying industry with more targets to influence. Committees now open their proceedings to the public. Many are televised. All of this allows lobbyists to keep a close eye on events—and to confirm that the politicians to whom they have contributed deliver value.
In short, in the name of “reform,” Americans over the past half century have weakened political authority. Instead of yielding more accountability, however, these reforms have yielded more lobbying, more expense, more delay, and more indecision.
Noriah Daud, the mother of late co-pilot Ahmad Hakimi Hanapi, who perished aboard flight MH17 when it was shot down in eastern Ukraine, attends a burial ceremony in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur on August 22, 2014. Black-clad Malaysians paused for a minute of silence August 22 on a nationwide day of mourning held to welcome home the first remains of its 43 citizens killed in the MH17 disaster. By Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images.
Our coverage of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is here.
Brandon Ambrosino interviews Nicholas Opiyo, a Ugandan attorney who helped overturn the country’s infamous anti-gay law. He describes the harassment Ugandan gays face:
You’re not going to see public flogging of gay people in the streets. That would be a rarity, and even if it occurs, because of the nature of our media, it’s not going to get reported widely. What, however, happens is persistent, consistent, daily discrimination of the smallest nature possible. The shopkeeper at the kiosk next to your house, the boda boda guy, they keep heckling at you. People keep telling your family and brothers about you. They tell your family they will not come to your burials. People sneering at you, saying negative things to you. People pointing at your back: you cannot go to public places without being pointed at.
There is also the blackmail and extortion by police and security forces.
If the police know that somebody is gay, they will deliberately frame a charge against you, arrest you, and give you a police bond. A police bond is temporary freedom while your case is being investigated. If they know you are gay, they keep extorting money from you in exchange for your freedom. They say, “Oh, we’ve got evidence against you. We’re going to take you to court, so give us money.”
That is what kills the spirits, the hearts, the minds of gay people in Uganda. The insane discrimination. The insane segregation, and the sense of exclusion that happens every single day in every single place for gay men and lesbian women in Uganda. Just going to the hospital and getting treatment. Going to buy lubricant — you might not even find a place to buy lubricant, to buy condoms. If you have a particular problem, you may never get treatment because of the fear that people are going to keep pointing at you [points], “That one. That one!”
That is what is killing gay people in our country.
The situation is dire in West Point, a Liberian slum:
Tens of thousands of people are trapped in a slum in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, after officials put the neighborhood under strict quarantine to prevent the spread of Ebola. Clashes broke out on Wednesday, as riot police and soldiers attempted to barricade angry residents. Days earlier, locals had raided a holding center for suspected Ebola patients, pulling out mattresses covered in blood, which could spread the disease.
Per Liljas provides more details:
On Saturday, a health center was looted and Ebola patients sent running, after a rumor spread that infected people were being brought in from other parts of the country. Others refused to believe the disease existed. “There is no Ebola,” some protesters attacking the clinic shouted. “There is a high level of disbelief in the government in West Point,” Sanj Srikanthan, the International Rescue Committee’s emergency response director in Liberia, tells TIME. “The government has made a concerted effort to reach out to community leaders, youth groups and churches with the message that the only way to contain the disease is to understand it. But some people still believe Ebola is a conspiracy, and those people we need to reach.”
Raphael Frankfurter is unsurprised “that aggressive, opaque public health measures are met with suspicion, resistance, and anger”:
In public health, the emphasis on “harmful behaviors” arising from ignorance fails to acknowledge the complex socioeconomic factors and structural conditions that can lead to poor health.
In the wake of the first Ebola cases in Guinea, the Guinean government and later the Sierra Leonean government launched a massive campaign to persuade people not to hunt and consume bushmeat, which is thought to carry Ebola. Though well-intentioned, these campaigns did not adequately consider that malnutrition is widespread in rural West Africa, and villages in which the population heavily relies on bushmeat are often healthier—in our experience, they even have significantly lower rates of malnourishment. It wasn’t just an issue of people “not knowing” not to eat fruit bats and gorillas—bushmeat was their only source of protein. Continuing to eat it can be understood as a rational decision based on a risk assessment—malnutrition will likely always lead to more deaths in West Africa than an Ebola outbreak.
But I’ve also observed through four years of fieldwork in Sierra Leone that public health interventions that rely on the passive reception of “medical facts” by target communities and that hinge on getting “them” to think like “us,” are simply ineffective. To health workers, taking patients home to die in surrounded by their families, to be collectively buried and remembered in their villages might be considered “irrational” or “contributing to the spread of the disease.” But these practices also allow for a kind of solidarity and resilience in the face of capricious, cruel disease.
Liljas emphasizes the desperation of aid workers as they continue to battle the ebola outbreak in West Africa with limited support from overstretched international organizations:
[T]he biggest unmet need is for additional well-trained health workers. Professionals on the ground are exhausted, and several hundred have died in part because of a lack of training. MSF and other organizations are stretched to breaking point, some of them because of their involvement in other crises. USAID, for example, is responding to four humanitarian crises at the same time: South Sudan, Syria, Iraq and the Ebola outbreak. It must also weigh up whether to put people at risk.
David Francis details how the virus is also endangering the region’s fragile economy:
The outbreak comes at an inopportune time for the region. Prior to the outbreak, the Nigerian economy was being celebrated as the largest in Africa, with a GDP of $510 billion, compared with second-place South Africa, with a GDP of $353 billion. Sierra Leone is attempting to draw foreign investment to its diamond industry and saw its GDP grow 20.1 percent from 2012 to 2013. In 2013, Guinea’s GDP grew a modest 2 percent.
All of these positives are now overshadowed by the bleak prediction of Ebola’s ramifications in the region. The World Bank estimates that Guinea’s GDP will shrink between 3.5 and 4.5 percent this year as Ebola roils the agricultural sector and discourages regional trade. Liberia’s finance minister, Amara Konneh, lowered the country’s GDP estimates by 5.9 percent because of the outbreak. Bismarck Rewane, CEO of the Financial Derivatives Company, a Lagos-based financial advisory and research firm that manages $18 million in assets, told CNBC Africa on Monday, Aug. 18, that Nigeria could lose at least $3.5 billion of its $510 billion GDP. Moody’s has already warned that the virus could hinder the region’s energy sector.
Given the savagery of the Foley video, it’s easy in isolation to cheer for its banning on Twitter. But that’s always how censorship functions: it invariably starts with the suppression of viewpoints which are so widely hated that the emotional response they produce drowns out any consideration of the principle being endorsed. It’s tempting to support criminalization of, say, racist views as long as one focuses on one’s contempt for those views and ignores the serious dangers of vesting the state with the general power to create lists of prohibited ideas. That’s why free speech defenders such as the ACLU so often represent and defend racists and others with heinous views in free speech cases: because that’s where free speech erosions become legitimized in the first instance when endorsed or acquiesced to.
The question posed by Twitter’s announcement is not whether you think it’s a good idea for people to see the Foley video. Instead, the relevant question is whether you want Twitter, Facebook and Google executives exercising vast power over what can be seen and read.
Jay Caspian Kang joins the debate, coming down on the same side as Greenwald:
Twitter is not an editorial outfit; it’s odd to think that a company that allows thousands of other gruesome videos, including other ISIS beheadings, would suddenly step in. Twitter, for example, allows creepshot accounts, in which men secretly take photos of women in public. (The sharing of creepshot photos has been banned on Reddit because it tended to target underage girls.) Where, exactly, is the enforcement line? …
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have taken an outsize share of the information market, mostly by acting as facilitators. As presently constructed, the policies at each company about what do in these extraordinary situations are still in flux and under-formed. Having families fill out a form on a Web site about a beheading and chalking up the removal of the video to ill-defined company policy does not accurately reflect the power of the image, nor the power of social media. If Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube want to imagine their networks as something of a public square that can, at times, inspire revolutionary movements, they should come up with a more transparent and thoughtful way to deal with the extraordinary footage that is sure to come through their servers.
On the other hand, Emerson Brooking notes, ISIS’s social media propaganda ops are a key element of its war effort:
Social media has proven a powerful tool in the Islamic State’s military offensives. When IS advanced on Mosul beginning June 10, the Iraqi army collapsed immediately. An estimated 60,000 officers and soldiers fled in the first day of fighting. As IS has pushed both south and eastward, threatening to both encircle Baghdad and crush the semiautonomous Kurds, the rout has accelerated. More than 200,000 Iraqi minorities escaped ahead of IS’ early August offensive, abandoning their towns en masse. In total, some 500,000 civilians are thought to have sought refuge in Kurdish-controlled lands. While it is doubtful that more than a fraction of Iraq’s fleeing soldiers and civilians have seen the Islamic State’s postings, it only takes a small handful for the rumors to take hold.
Either way, though, Ben Makuch stresses how futile it is to try and banish ISIS from social media entirely:
I reached out to a Canadian fighter by the nom de guerre Abu Turaab al-Kanadi (“the Canadian”) on Monday, to see what the reaction was among online IS fighters. He’d been booted from Twitter, which I asked him about on Kik messenger. He was very blunt as to what solicited the hand of Twitter officials. “Probably the severed heads,” al-Kanadi said, adding that he was not offered any warning emails or an explanation from Twitter as to why his account was suspended. But al-Kanadi didn’t seem bothered: “It’s whatever. I made a new one.” … Banning Jihadists from Twitter already seems like an impossible feat, especially when at any moment there’s nothing stopping a banned fighter simply from recreating an account outside the auspices of Twitter officials. Unless you could somehow impose an internet black out on targeted regions of Iraq—even then, the Iraqi government did that with mixed results—it’s a near impossible task.
Chuck Hagel thinks so:
The group “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group,” Hagel said in response to a question about whether the Islamic State posed a similar threat to the United States as al Qaeda did before Sept. 11, 2001. “They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They’re tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” Hagel said, adding that “the sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources now poses a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country.”
Hagel’s comments added to the mismatch between the Obama administration’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric and its current game plan for how to take on the group in Iraq and Syria, which so far involves limited airstrikes and some military assistance to the Kurdish and Iraqi forces fighting the militants. It has also requested from Congress $500 million to arm moderate rebel factions in Syria. But for now, the United States is not interested in an Iraqi offer to let U.S. fighter jets operate out of Iraqi air bases.
Retired Gen. John Allen seconds Hagel’s assessment, arguing that the US has the means to destroy ISIS and a moral and security-based obligation to do so:
IS must be destroyed and we must move quickly to pressure its entire “nervous system,” break it up, and destroy its pieces. As I said, the president was absolutely right to strike IS, to send advisors to Iraq, to arm the Kurds, to relieve the suffering of the poor benighted people of the region, to seek to rebuild functional and non-sectarian Iraqi Security Forces and to call for profound change in the political equation and relationships in Baghdad.
The whole questionable debate on American war weariness aside, the U.S. military is not war weary and is fully capable of attacking and reducing IS throughout the depth of its holdings, and we should do it now, but supported substantially by our traditional allies and partners, especially by those in the region who have the most to give – and the most to lose – if the Islamic State’s march continues. It’s their fight as much as ours, for the effects of IS terror will certainly spread in the region with IS seeking soft spots for exploitation.
Observing how the official rhetoric on ISIS has escalated, Eli Lake picks up on a choice of phrasing by Obama that he interprets as revealing:
In the aftermath of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Obama vowed to bring the attackers to justice. This week Obama struck a different tone, saying: “When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.” The difference between bringing suspects to justice and seeing that justice is done is roughly the same as the difference between treating terrorism as a crime and as an act of war.
Even though special operations teams were dispatched to Libya after Benghazi to target the jihadists suspected of carrying it out, Obama chose to treat the attack, which cost the lives of four Americans, as a crime. It took until June of this year for the FBI in conjunction with U.S. special operations teams to capture one of the ringleaders of the attack and bring him to the United States to face trial. A different fate likely awaits the leaders of ISIS.
Larison is steaming, of course:
The good news so far is that the administration doesn’t appear to be taking its own rhetoric all that seriously, but the obvious danger is that it will trap itself into taking far more aggressive measures by grossly exaggerating the nature of the threat from ISIS in this way. The truth is that ISIS doesn’t pose an imminent threat to the U.S. and its allies, unless one empties the word imminent of all meaning. Hagel made the preposterous statement today that the group poses an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” That is simply a lie, and a remarkably stupid one at that, and it is the worst kind of fear-mongering. Administration officials are engaged in the most blatant threat inflation with these recent remarks, which is all the more strange since they claim not to favor the aggressive kind of policy that their irresponsible rhetoric supports.
If the group can be contained, as Gen. Dempsey states, then it can be contained indefinitely. If that is the case, then the threat that it poses is a much more manageable one than the other ridiculous claims from administration officials would suggest.
Allahpundit figures it’s only a matter of time before ISIS attempts an attack on American soil:
ISIS has every incentive to do it, too. Nothing would lift their prestige in the jihadiverse more than an attack on American soil. They have nothing to lose at this point by holding off either; quite rightly, we’re going to bomb them whether they do it or not. They have the motive and they most certainly have the means, flush with cash to pay traffickers handsomely for smuggling them across and well supplied with men who can melt into the U.S. population more easily than the average ISIS neckbeard. If you want to knock Perry for something, knock him for understating the threat: Why would ISIS send a jihadi to cross the border, where he might be caught, when they could put one with a British passport on a plane and have him waltz into the United States instead?
By engaging the jihadists in battle, Keating points out, the US creates that incentive:
ISIS and its predecessor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, have long held hostile views toward the United States and its presence in the Middle East. It has issued threats against the U.S. before, including a promise to “raise the flag of Allah in the White House.” U.S. and European governments have also warned for some time that the large numbers of international fighters who have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS could return with the means and know-how to carry out attacks in their home countries. So far there hasn’t been much evidence of this actually taking place. … This has arguably been to ISIS’s strategic benefit. It’s hard to believe the U.S. would have taken quite this long to send in the drones had there been evidence that ISIS was actively plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland or even U.S. facilities in the Middle East. Now, that’s obviously changed. With the U.S. bombing its forces in Iraq, there’s no benefit for ISIS in refraining from attacks against Americans.