Friday, 12 January 2018

"Fire and Fury" by Michael Wolff - A tale of palace intrigue with an ominous open ending

Palace intrigue provides a particularly compelling form of story-telling. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and Game of Thrones all feature family conflict and a struggle for power as central themes to their stories.
Centre to the drama in "Fire and Fury" is Donald Trump as president. All other characters in our story
curry favour except that he's like a "Delphic Oracle . . . throwing out prouncements that [have] to be interpreted." On one side of this battle for favour and correct interpretation stand his daughter Ivanka, her husband Jared Kushner and their cronies while Steve Bannon and his allies advance from the other.
Except for a few interviews on the his Breitbart show and ten minutes of conversation, Bannon didn’t know Trump at all before the election. He may have been instrumental to Trump becoming president however to think he could win a battle against the Donald's favourite and her husband is a mystery. 
It makes me laugh to think that, during the transition period when Trump was elected and he became president, Bannon recommended that the Trump team read David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest. The book is about the hiring of the best and brightest during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the failure that resulted anyway. All these men were Ivy League university standouts. They were literally, the brightest if not the best. Steve Bannon certainly wouldn’t have been included among that group. What he expected the rest of the team to get out of the book is a mystery because they too, were not among the best and the brightest.  
Of this group of not so best and brightest, Michael Wolff concluded that, “of the dominant characters in the transition, neither Kushner, Priebus, nor Conway, and certainly not the president-elect; had the ability to express an kind of coherent perception or narrative. By default, everybody had to look to the voluble, aphoristic, shambolic, witty, off-the-cuff figure who was both ever present on the premises and who had, in an unlikely attribute, read a book or two.”
Michael Wolff
According to Mr. Wolff, Trump can’t or won’t read or even skim. He couldn't stand listening to Retired General Kelly, who he hired as Chief of Staff after firing Reince Priebus, because Kelly showed Powerpoint presentations that were long with a lot of information that bored him. But according to Katie Walsh, one of Wolff’s inside informers, “Steve is careful about what he says, and there is something, a timbre in his voice and his energy and excitement, that the president can really hone in on, blocking everything else out.”
Steve’s problem was that he could never have enough power. Even when “Time” put him on the front page of their magazine
and an SNL sketch portrayed him as President Bannon, he still hadn’t had enough or heeded the obvious maxim that no one should ever out-shine the boss, particularly one like Donald Trump. 
Bannon went after the kids, Jared and Ivanka who he referred to collectively as Jarvanka. Likewise, Jarvanka went after Steve. The two groups were responsible for numerous press leaks meant to discredit the other. When the Washington Post reported that Kushner and the Russian ambassador had talked about setting up a private communication channel while the president was in transition, Jaranka blamed Bannon.
The battle did not only involve a clash of personalities. It was also a philosophical one. Ivanka and Jared sought to moderate Donald’s extremism while Bannon wanted only to encourage it. For example, the Donald chose to remove America from the Paris Climate agreement while Ivanka was trying to convince him to stay. Bannon sought a “radical isolationism, a protean protectionism, and a determined Keynesianism,” while Jarvanka attempted to moderate that inclination.
Bannon believed that Jared was behind Trump’s decision to fire James Comey which he thought would be stupid before it ever happened. Bannon warned the president that the Russian story was “third-tier” but if he fired Comey, it would become “biggest story in the world.” The warning didn’t matter. The Donald fired him anyway which Mr. Wolff considers perhaps “the most consequential move ever made by a modern president acting entirely on his own.”
I don't think I'm giving anything away if I say that Steve was also fired, blood being thicker than water. It didn't help that Steve was taking some of the limelight and much of the credit.  
Besides being an excellent tale of palace intrigue, this book is also a warning. The title of the book Fire and Fury comes from a speech made by Donald J Trump used to describe the form of retaliation North Korea can expect should it decide to attack the U.S. or one of its allies. The consequences of such an act would result in the death and injury of million of people. If Trump is capable of acting on his own when making a decision on the firing of the Director of the FBI, would he do the same with the launching of a nuclear warhead?
Combined his impulsivity and the possibility of his diminished mental acuity, (if it was ever that great) Trump could be the world’s greatest military, political and environmental threat.As Bannon puts it, “the debate . . . [is] not about whether the president’s situation [is] bad, but whether it [is] Twenty-Fifth- Amendment bad.” (The 25th Amendment refers to the president’s physical and mental capacity to remain in his position.)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Spoils by Brian van Reet - A tremendous achievement

Cassandra, a female soldier operates a 50-calibre machine gun atop a poorly equipped Humvee patrolling the streets of Bagdad shortly after the American invasion of Iraq. Despite warnings of an ambush and with little armour on their vehicle to protect them from improvised explosive devices, they continue up a street where they are attacked by mujahedeen militia.
Abu Al-Hool would be one of those militia. Originally part of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, he and his cronies have moved their operations to Iraq where they can face their American enemy directly. Having lost his one and only son in Chechnya, Abu feels little reason to live and therefore, acts only on a commitment to his faith.
As a member of the tank crew, responsible for responding to the distress call from Cassandra’s Humvee, Sleed must also be, at least partially responsible for the subsequent capture of Cassandra and her two comrades. When Sleed and the other tank operators should have been racing the scene of the IED explosion, all three had been attempting to open a safe they’d found in a badly damaged portion of Saddam Hussein’s palace considered out-of-bounds for army personnel.
Intense hardly defines the novel “Spoils” however that’s how I felt after completing the last page. Satisfying? Maybe not. In a war where none of the combatants originate from the country of conflict, how can it be? It’s the ultimate proxy war. Is that how people are finding meaning nowadays? In abstractions? Truly, a tremendous achievement.  

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Terrorists - Are they evil or what?

I’ve found the actions of terrorists both disturbing and confusing. Disturbing for the obvious reason. Confusing in that I don’t understand their motivation. What would lead a person to drive a van down a sidewalk and then jump out and start stabbing random individuals on the street? Or wait outside a concert filled with teenage girls and their moms in anticipation of them leaving en mass and then, blowing yourself up? Or going back to the first major attack on “Western” soil, what would motivate a few young men to fly a plane full of passengers into the World Trade Centre? George W. Bush called them just plain evil and if I believed in evil, then that might be sufficient. But I don’t. So. I wonder.

Reza Aslan has written a number of books on religion and the Muslim faith and hosted the show “Believer” on CNN.  Unfortunately, this was recently cancelled after Mr. Aslan described Trump as a “piece of shit” on Twitter following the president’s comments after the Manchester attack in London.

In his book, “Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of
Globalization”, Reza argues that terrorists are engaged in a cosmic war where good fights evil both here on earth and in the afterlife as well. As a cosmic war, participants can look forward to the intervention of God as well as reward or punishment in the afterlife. There’s a lot at stake here.
The book describes a terrorist attack on children in Baghdad. They were in a square where children were celebrating the end of Ramadan with money they’d been given as a reward for making it through the month. A stranger enters the square pushing a cart filled with candies and stuffed toys to attract the children. When they’ve gathered around waving their money to grab his attention, he blows himself up killing dozens along with their parents and relatives. What could have been going through his head?

To begin, Mr. Aslan assures us that this has nothing to do with Islam.  He quotes the Qur’an which states, “Do not kill yourself: if someone does, so [God] shall cast him into hell.” As well, he says that the Qur’an is completely against the killing of women, children, the elderly, protected minorities and especially other Muslims.

For the terrorist, jihad provides the rationale and motivation. In the Qur’an, jihad refers to the struggle against the self with the goal to act in accordance with its teaching. This is similar to the Christian battle against sin or for the Freudian, the conflict between our instincts or id and societal expectations, the superego.

Jihad can also be called on behalf of the collective for defensive reasons when a Muslim group is being attacked. It should not be used as an act of aggression like flying planes into buildings or blowing innocent people to pieces. “God does not like the aggressor,” 2:190, says the Qur’an.

Jihads can only be authorized as a collective duty by a qualified imam or cleric. Osama bin Laden wouldn’t qualify as either of these nor would Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man who took his place as leader of al Qaeda following his assassination.  After all, Bin Laden was educated as an engineer and al-Zawahiri, as a doctor. And yet, in 1998, after creating the World Islamic Front, they issued a fatwa calling for a jihad to kill all Americans and their allies. They said that this is “the individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim.”
Osama bin Laden & Ayman al-Zawahri
Included under that umbrella of allies are the kafirs. They include Christian or Jewish or Shia or anyone who doesn’t rise up against the rule of a kafir. Iran is mainly Shia and so the reason for al-Qaeda’s recent attack on its Parliament and the mausoleum of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It’s a call for the minority Sunnis to rise up against their kafir government that’s been on the vanguard of attacks on ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Where did bin Laden and Zawahiri get the authority to issue a fatwa and why would young men listen to them? Mr. Aslan explains it thus. 84% of terrorists are first or second-generation immigrants. They’ve grown up in Europe and, as a consequence, have embraced the Western concept of individualism. Individualism emphasizes a reliance on the self.

Modern European individualism originates with Martin Luther when he said that the faithful should be directly responsible to God. They do not require an intermediary like a priest to interpret the meaning of the scriptures. They can read it themselves.

Muslims growing up in Europe have been steeped in a culture of individualism. As a result, they may prefer the “self-styled spiritual gurus to traditional imams and to abandon clerical precedent for ‘self-actualization.’” Many are unemployed or semi-unemployed, trapped in ghettos like those in Paris where riots took place in 2005 or Brussels where those responsible for the Paris attacks of 2015 were raised.   
Muslim ghettos - Paris
The problem, says Mr. Aslan, is that these young men do not feel a sense of place. They no longer identify with a nation. In the age of globalization, they have learned to identify with their religion. Al-Qaeda appeals to their sense of injustice they feel at home. They see their fellow Sunnis embroiled in a war with Western powers. By helping to fight a cosmic war, they can gain some individual meaning to their lives.

Reza Aslan believes that the terrorist activities of Jihadism should be replaced by the political solutions provided by Islamism. Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are examples. These organizations are concerned with solutions in the here. They fight to gain control of the government in the country where they reside. They are not engaged in a cosmic war without end.

Hamas has always been considered a terrorist organization and was never recognized by the government of Israel. If it had, Mr. Aslan believes it would have been made responsible for improving the lives of its people. He states that by allowing them to participate more fully in the political process “could conceivably force them to moderate their radical ideologies, as occurred with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Unfortunately, events since the publication of his book in 2010 have weakened these examples of support. In 2011, a popular uprising in Egypt forced the military to depose Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of oligarchic rule. The Muslim Brotherhood won the ensuing general election and Mohammed Morsi became president. Within the year, he granted himself unlimited powers to protect the country against Mubarak loyalists within the government. Journalist and opposition members were jailed and hundreds of thousands protested in the streets and Egypt became a military dictatorship. As well, his argument that Hamas would moderate it’s demands for an end to the Israeli state if they were given legitimacy may be a bit circumspect. 
Morsi, once president and leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood - sentenced to death
That said, Mr. Aslan’s writing provides at least the beginnings for understanding a very complex situation. With understanding comes tolerance. It’s easy to make pronouncements about situations we know little about. Ignorance can breed confidence and hatred and we have much to fear from a confident ignoramus who hates. Books like “Beyond Fundamentalism” help us understand and make us aware of how little we know.

Check out clips from Reza Aslan’s show “Believer with Reza Aslan” on Youtube.