Tag Archives: Philosophy

A Theory of the Drone: Clarifying, Terrifying

Originally published by ANewDomain:

Without debate or even formal acknowledgment by the government that it uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to kill people overseas, drones will – or have, depending on your perspective – revolutionize war as we know it.

a-theory-of-the-drone-review

Written with breathtaking clarity from a perspective that blends politics, history and philosophy, A Theory of the Drone convincingly argues that armed drones are drastically altering relations between nations and individuals, and that it’s probably already too late to turn back.

I’ve been obsessed with drones since the Bush administration deployed them during the months after 9/11 over Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they have since killed thousands of people, the vast majority of them demonstrably innocent civilians who were not targeted, the remainder so-called “militants” who don’t fit the popular definition of a terrorist determined to attack America, but are merely guerrilla fighters trying to bring down the governments of American client states and allies.

Coverage of the Aviary, a drone research facility at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio that designs drones to mimic flight in the animal kingdom from hawks and hummingbirds down to bees and dragonflies, convinces me that we have only begun to scratch the surface of the unmanned flight revolution.

Even though I’ve read tons about drones, French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou blew my mind with his lucid observations about the political and psychological of armed UAV warfare. Whether or not you find the subject of interest, I can say with certainty that “A Theory of the Drone” will be one of the most important books you have ever read.

Because even if you don’t care about drones, drones care about you.

In combat, two or more adversaries clash violently. To be sure, there can be and often is a wide gap in manpower, training, and technology that all but assures the outcome. Nevertheless, combat entails risk to everyone who participates in it.

To cite an extreme sample, the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima might have experienced an equipment malfunction that caused his plane to crash.

There was of course a vast difference in the risks taken by the Japanese residents of Hiroshima on the ground and Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, but still, he did place himself in some physical jeopardy.

Drone warfare, on the other hand, is not combat between adversaries. Drone warfare, Chamayou points out, is the relationship between hunter and prey.

“Contrary to Cael von Clausewitz’s classical definition,” he writes, “the fundamental structure of this type of warfare is no longer that of a duel, of two fighters facing each other the paradigm is quite different: a hunter advancing on a prey that flees or hides from him. The rules of the game are not the same.”

He quotes George A. Crawford, author of a report on “manhunting theoretical principles” for a military university:

In the competition between two enemy combatants, the goal is to win the battle by defeating the adversary: both combatants must confront to win. However, a manhunt scenario differs in that each player’s strategy is different. The fugitive always wants to avoid capture; the pursuer must confront to win, whereas the fugitive must evade to win.”

This is huge.

Chamayou notes attempts by the military, including an attempt to issue combat medals to drone operators, to imbue these remote-control killers with the glory that follows the courage demonstrated by risk-taking.

But there is no risk-taking – none whatsoever. Not even psychological: despite media reports that drone operators could suffer PTSD, there is no evidence whatsoever that this is ever happened to a single one.

a-theory-of-the-drone-review-ted-rallAt worst, drone operators report being mind numbingly bored as they watch hour after hour of ordinary civilians walking around dusty towns in the Middle East and South Asia doing ordinary civilian things, and sometimes the surreal aspect of blowing people up at work and then coming home to your wife and kids every night in the American suburbs.

Eliminating physical risk, however, comes at a political cost to the country that uses drones to invade foreign airspace.

And notice how no one talks about sovereignty?

Classic counterinsurgency doctrine teaches that asymmetric warfare is a war for hearts and minds.

Drones, Chamayou says, seem to solve the problem of the terrorist hydra whose death inspires dozens of his family and friends to take up the fight.

Chamayou writes:

An armada of hunter killer drones…can win that race and eliminate individuals at least as fast as new ones are recruited. The strategic plan of air counterinsurgency is now clear: as soon as the head grows back, cut it off. And never mind if, in a spiraling development of attacks and reprisals that is hard to control, the perverse effect of that prophylactic measure is to attract new volunteers … Never mind if the enemy ranks thicken, since it will always be possible to neutralize the new recruits as fast as they emerge. The cull will be repeated periodically, in a pattern of infinite eradication.”

Even if this doesn’t make your blood thicken, it should make your brain hurt: “The partisans of the drone as a privileged weapon of ‘antiterrorism’ promise a war without losses or defeats,” he writes. “What they fail to mention is that it will also be awarded the victory. The scenario that looms before us is one of infinite violence, with no possible exit; the paradox of an untouchable power waging interminable wars toward perpetual war.”

“Nobody dies – except the enemy.” That’s the argument proponents of drone warfare have sold, fairly successfully, to the American public. It’s understandable. Nobody wants to see their sons or daughters, or other American sons or daughters, coming home from battle in body bags.

The problem with this tribalist attitude, writes Chamayou, is that the rest of the world is paying attention. Drones broadcast: American lives matter, foreign lives do not. You can’t blame the foreigners for not liking us very much.

Especially when the US military and its allies in the media claim that drones are actually a humanitarian weapon due to their precision – he makes a mockery of this – and because it saves American lives. “The drone,” he scoffs, “does indeed save our lives.”

When you choose this lesser evil, he notes, you are nevertheless choosing evil.

Countries like the United States – spending billions of dollars for thousands of drones employed around the world – will become “drone states,” nations whose reliance on military technology abroad must inevitably lead them to apply them domestically, by law enforcement agencies in the cities and states.

One can easily foresee how police drones, which have already been acquired by numerous local law enforcement agencies and have taken part in the pursuit of criminal suspects on the lam, might be used to shoot and kill a dangerous fugitive.

Few people would complain about this use of armed drones on American soil.

What happens next is less a slippery slope argument than a logical prediction.

The US military and CIA often justify using drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan on the grounds that it’s too dangerous to send in ground troops to try to capture its targets.

Rather than send policemen into a hostage situation, drug den, or other place where a criminal suspect or someone wanted for questioning who might be considered armed and dangerous, the authorities might instead choose to use a so-called precision drone to blow the place up and eliminate the suspect entirely.

Although it happened during the pre-drone era, this isn’t unprecedented in recent history: Philadelphia police dropped military grade bombs on the headquarters of a radical political cult called MOVE in 1985, burning down 65 houses.

Eventually, drones will be used to crush domestic political dissent.

Unfortunately, we have forgotten so much of America’s basic constitutional rights and traditional political ethics that those who appeal to our better natures find themselves lecturing to us as though we were not particularly bright kindergartners. Having found myself there, I wish there were a better way. In the meantime, we need to digest Civil Society 101:

“In law enforcement, one should first try to capture the individual, giving him the possibility of surrendering and even, if possible, offering him that chance,” Chamayou writes.

How far we have devolved since 9/11!

Did, for example, anyone ask whether Osama bin Laden was given the chance to surrender? And when it came out that he was captured alive but wounded, and was then executed on orders from someone sitting next to the President of the United States in the White House Situation Room, did anyone but a few leftists care?

When someone like bin Laden is denied rights that until recently were widely considered universal, is only a matter of time before those rights erode and eventually vanish.

The armed drone, which unambiguously allows the state to kill anyone and everyone with impunity, without the slightest physical risk whatsoever, has set the stage for a future dystopian nightmare even George Orwell didn’t imagine.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Joy of Hopelessness

http://www.utne.com/~/media/Images/UTR/Editorial/Articles/Magazine%20Articles/2011/01-01/Ten%20Things%20to%20Do%20When%20Youre%20Feeling%20Hopeless/ten-things-feeling-hopeless.jpg

Desire, the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti taught, causes suffering.

I managed to make it half a century, and thus likely through more than halfway to death (which Arthur Schopenhauer teaches us, is the goal of life), not only by failing to internalize the belief that optimism breeds disappointment, but by passionately refusing to believe it. Without desire, I fervently believed, there is no motivation and thus no accomplishment.

Without ambition, how does one succeed in one’s work or find the love of one’s life? I know people who don’t want anything. They’re called potheads.

But I’ve changed my mind. The stoners may be on to something.

Give up hope — and you might find happiness. I did!

As I’ve read and heard often occurs with spiritual journeys, I arrived at my epiphany as the result of an unexpected accident.

Like other cartoonists, I apply for the Pulitzer Prize, America’s most prestigious journalism award, every January.

I hate it. Yet I do it.

I hate it because it’s a lot of work, the odds are long, and the choice of the winner is usually — to be diplomatic — baffling. Out of the 20-ish times I’ve entered, spending a full day or two each year printing out and pasting up cartoons and clips into a binder (and in the computer age, formatting and uploading them), not to mention 20-ish $50 application fees, all I have to show for my efforts is one finalistship. Back in 1996.

To datestamp this story: the letter was typed. As in: on a typewriter.

Like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s football, I apply for the Big P under the old New York Lotto dictum that you have to be in it to win it. What if the year I don’t enter is the year that I would have won?

Contest Judge #1 to other Judges: So that’s all the entries in the cartooning category.

Judge #2: Wait a minute. Where’s Ted Rall?

Judge #1: He didn’t apply.

Judge #2: WTF?

Judge #3: I specifically came here to give Ted Rall his long-overdue award!

Judge #1: Me too. I doublechecked. Tragically for journalism, he did not enter.

Judge #4: Can we call him?

Judge #1: That would be against the solemn Rules. We must choose from the other entries.

Judges #2-#4 commit suicide in interesting ways.

The deadline used to be January 30th, so I thought it still was, but they changed it a few years ago to the 25th God knows why. I blew the deadline.

As though carried off by a drone labeled “Short-Sighted Defense Policy,” a metaphorical weight bigger than a crosshatched albatross labeled “National Debt” lifted from my shoulders.

I didn’t enter. So I would not, could not, win.

Which meant I couldn’t be passed up in favor of someone else. To be precise, I couldn’t lose to someone I didn’t think was as good as me.

What a relief!

I really really really don’t mind losing to someone good. When someone good has won, I have been happy for the winner. I did not grit my teeth. I congratulated them, and meant it, and resolved to do better next year.

The problem is, the winner of the Pulitzer is usually very not good. Not as good as me. Not pretty good. Not even as good as average.

Losing to someone whose work I don’t respect hurts because it means either (a) the sucky winner is better than me, so therefore I suck even more, or (b) the Pulitzers are judged by dolts, so I must be an idiot to submit to the process, much less care about the results. I strongly suspect (b), though (a) could be true.

From late January, when I realized that I couldn’t enter, to early April, when they announced the results, I felt lighter on my feet. When my colleagues called to handicap the prize, my usual toxic mix of ambition, dread and fear of disappointment was replaced by the carelessness of knowing that I had no dog in the race and that whatever happened wouldn’t be a reflection upon me. So what if someone bad won? The judges never saw my stuff. So I wouldn’t have to spend weeks and months wondering how it was possible that anyone could look at the cartoons by the terrible winner next to mine and choose him instead of me.

I should confess that other cartoonists, no doubt smarter than me, arrived at this wisdom when they were younger. One, 10 years my junior, casually remarked that she gave herself a mini Pulitzer Prize every year by not entering: $50 a year adds up. Not to mention the time she saved compiling entries.

Last year’s winner turned out to be someone whose cartoons couldn’t possibly be any different than mine. Ditto for the finalists. Given who they chose, the judges weren’t interested in the genre of cartooning I do, so I would never have stood a chance.

Not entering was the right move. Or non-move.

This year, however, I remembered the deadline. To enter or not to enter? I entered.

Now I wish I hadn’t.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

The Potato Salad Society

Some dude posted a Kickstarter asking for $10 to make a potato salad. “It might not be that good. It’s my first potato salad,” he wrote. Thousands of backers gave him tens of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, worthier Kickstarter projects -€” and charities -€” go unfunded. Most of the potato salad supporters wouldn’t give anything to help refugees in South Sudan.

LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: Deconstructing Donald Sterling

Words Mean Nothing

 

 

Like every other political cartoonist, I love shooting fish in a barrel. So there was no way no how I was going to pass up L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s surreptitiously recorded racist rant.

However, this is one of those stories where you easily guess what every other cartoonist’s take is going to be. In this case: racism is bad. Not that I don’t think racism is bad. I do. It’s simply that, after American cartoon consumers have read a hundred cartoons saying that racism is bad and that Donald Sterling, as a racist, is bad, I don’t see what would be added to the national conversation on race by a 101st, Ted Rall cartoon saying that racism is bad.

I may be self-deluded (but then how would I know?) in my belief that one of the things that sets me apart from the herd is my interest in facets of big stories that get overlooked by other commentators.

Like: as creepy as Sterling obviously is, this violation of his privacy rights is a nasty piece of business. As I wrote for the tech news website A New Domain:

“As we learned from The People vs. Larry Flynt, society must defend its worst scumbags from having his rights violated, or everyone else risks losing theirs too. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world where every stupid thing I blather over the phone is potential fodder for public comment, Twitter wars and cause for dismissal from work. Until we descend into the Stasi-like “Lives of Others” dystopia into which the NSA seems determined to transform the Land of the Formerly Free, everyone — including racist douchebags like Donald Sterling — ought to enjoy a reasonable presumption of privacy on the telephone.”

Privacy isn’t the only under-discussed aspect of a story that, like the O.J. trial and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, has more angles than a porcupine.

Step aside, Bill (“I did not have sex with that woman”) Clinton. There’s a new non-denial denialist in town: the anonymous PR flack in at Clippers HQ who penned this beaut:

“Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life. He feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him and apologizes to anyone who might have been hurt by them.”

Man. I love this.

Where to start? The hilarity of apologizing for saying things you haven’t actually admitted saying? (As of press time, Sterling still wasn’t fessing up. But NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Sterling admitted it was his voice asking his ex-mistress V. Stiviano not to be photographed with black people or bring them to Clippers games.)

Yes, we’ve all said we wish we hadn’t. But most of haven’t, like Mel Gibson pissed off and drunk and all anti-Semitic, or Donald Sterling going on and on and on for 15 whole minutes, revealed, in great detail, our obviously deeply-felt bigotry. Which is because most of us don’t have those feelings. Even when we’re drunk. Or baited by Instagram and/or a wildly age-inappropriate girlfriend.

So how to explain Sterling’s assertion that “what is reflected on that recording” is inconsistent with and doesn’t reflect his “views, beliefs or feelings”? Besides, I mean, that he and his PR flack think we’re total morons?

The answer is clear: Sterling must be a devotee of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida, a pioneering postmodernist best known for his work as a “poststructuralist,” argued that meanings of words and phrases were inherently arbitrary: “Language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique, deconstructive criticism aims to show that any text inevitably undermines its own claims to have a determinate meaning, and licenses the reader to produce his own meanings out of it by an activity of semantic ‘freeplay’…There is, with respect to the very structure of language, no proper context to provide proof of a final meaning.”

Many poststructuralists, active in the 1980s and 1990s, carried Derrida’s theories to their logical conclusion that words were meaningless, everything is unknowable and that life is therefore not only absurd in the Sartrian sense, but devoid of substance.

Bien sur.

Derrida, however, died cruelly misunderstood by his own disciples. Fortunately for Donald Sterling, he is about to have a lot of newly freed-up time on his hands. He’s already shed his expensive ex-girlfriend. He’s not allowed to attend any more basketball games — and what could be more meaningless than watching men throwing and bouncing a ball back and forth?

I recommend that Sterling continue his studies with Benoit Peeters’ riveting “Derrida: A Biography.” At a mere 700 pages, he’ll be sad it’s over way too soon. But that’s why God — whatever He means or is or whatever — created — whatever that means “From the New Criticism to Deconstruction: The Reception of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism.”

On the other hand, this essay may just be a sandwich menu.

Death Benefit

No expense is spared to retrieve dead bodies, whether it’s the victims of the Malaysian Flight 370 victims at the bottom of the Indian Ocean or the mudslide victims buried by sludge in coastal Washington State or the soldiers who cannot be left behind on the field of battle. Yet when we’re ALIVE, we can’t get help when, for example, we lose our jobs.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Calvin, Hobbes and Anthony Weiner

Why We Care About Mr. Mushroom Head

Media coverage and thus most over-the-water cooler and cocktail party chit-chat about Anthony Weiner obsessively focuses on what the scandal — or circus, or freak show, whatever it is — says about him. More interesting, yet utterly ignored, is what it says about us.

The historian Richard Hofstadter began his classic book “The American Political Tradition” by quoting the 19th century journalist-economist Horace White. The Constitution of the United States (and by extension the nation’s Ur political philosophy, White wrote, “is based upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. It assumes that the natural state of mankind is a state of war, and that the carnal mind is at enmity with God.”

Americans assume that people are basically bad. That, left to exercise their free will, people will usually succumb to their basest impulses. As the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, an ardent Calvinist, wrote: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire.”

If people are scum, it follows that they must be controlled. Americans accept Lord Acton’s aphorism that power corrupts; thus we admire the wisdom of the founding fathers for crafting a system of government based on checks and balances.

A corollary of the assumption that people are inherently bad is that the ability to resist temptation is rare, and thus admirable. George Washington, we are told, stands as a paragon of virtue for retiring, Cincinnatus-like, resisting the siren call of his admirers to stay on as a sort of American king. The perfect American leader is like Washington — self-effacing, self-denying.

When Anthony Weiner, then a relatively obscure, verbally combative New York Congressman, was, um, exposed sending photographs of his genitals via Twitter in 2011, what happened next initially followed a familiar political redemption narrative. He resigned, apologized, and vanished for a while. A little while. Then he gave a pair of carefully crafted interviews that put his attractive wife, and by extension their marriage, front and center.

He apologized again. No more sexting, he promised.

Next he announced his candidacy for the mayoralty of America’s largest city. Though not necessarily a step down in his career, neither was it perceived as an attempt to leap forward.

So far so good. Weiner climbed quickly in the polls, and no wonder: though few people could identify with his proclivity for self-photography, it didn’t seem as serious as actual cheating — boning a young intern in the workplace, for example. New Yorkers are fond of feisty politicians, even more so nowadays when people feel betrayed by a system run by and for the 1%.

As a liberal Democrat, Weiner didn’t face accusations of hypocrisy (c.f., former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, a “family values” right-wing Republican who bashed gays on the Senate floor while cruising for them in the St. Paul airport men’s room). Anyway, New York is the most liberal city in the country, hardly a bastion of Bible Belt self-righteousness. It didn’t hurt that his principal rival, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, was a singularly unattractive candidate, physically as well as politically. Few New Yorkers have forgotten Quinn’s perfidy in using her City Council to overturn term limits — which had been passed by a wide margin on the ballot — so that her ally, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, could run for a third term.

But then a low-rent website, The Dirty (!) revealed that Weiner had continued his old shenanigans. Not only was he sending out more photographs of his junk to random women online, he was carrying on cheesy virtual relationships with them. As Rachel Maddow said on MSNBC, this was something new: lying in the apology. And things got worse from there. It wasn’t just one woman, maybe it was three or six or whatever, who could really count? These days, the man who would be mayor can’t even say that he has stopped.

With the media, Democratic Party establishment, and even his wife’s mentors, Bill and Hillary Clinton, aligned against him, Anthony Weiner is plunging in the polls. It’s hard to imagine how he could recover by next month’s primary.

When you talk to voters in New York, they’re more amused by than disgusted at what Weiner did. Taking photographs of your penis, after all, is silly. Getting sexually aroused, or expecting women to get sexually aroused, by sexting seems kind of juvenile. It’s a boring kink, like a foot fetish. It isn’t gross, but it’s incomprehensibly goofy. Most people react to this sort of thing with a shrug. Whatever, if it makes you happy. And if his wife’s okay with it, why should we care?

What people really hold against Anthony Weiner is his lack of control. Clearly this man has a compulsion. All he had to do to become mayor of New York City was to stop sexting for 18 months. Clearly he couldn’t help himself.

It’s not the sin. It’s not the sexual proclivities, the unusual desires. It’s his lack of stoicism. His inability to suppress his compulsion.

Like all cultural assumptions, we take this one — our admiration for those who know how to play the game and our contempt for those who can’t/don’t — for granted. But it isn’t universal. Former Italian prime minister and media baron Silvio Burlosconi may well be heading to jail for tax evasion, but Italian voters didn’t give a damn about his prodigious sexual appetites, which manifested themselves at his notorious “bunga bunga” orgies, which featured under-aged prostitutes.

It’s easy to see how the inability to resist one’s primal sexual urges might make one a poor candidate for a position that required top-security clearance, for example. But Mayor of New York? I don’t really know the answer.

If the trash gets picked up on time and the subways run faster and the streets get cleaned and the schools improve, would it matter if the city’s chief executive spends his spare time setting up just the perfect shot for his private parts? If poverty is reduced and development is managed intelligently and the city’s budget gets balanced, would there be much harm in emailing dirty photos of himself to Midwestern floozies?

Like I said, I don’t know the answer. But we should be thinking about these questions — about what our societal priorities ought to be — more than about what is going on in Anthony Weiner’s brain.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL