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Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Exploiting Human Psychology. Lessons in Stillness. The Existing Democratic Majority. - firstname.lastname@example.org - Gmail
Detail from The Battle of Königgrätz by Georg Bleibtreu, 1868. Prussian victory paved the way for a united Germany. Image courtesy Wikipedia
Organised violence – the term war boils down to – has long been a unifier of peoples. Archeological evidence shows that nearly half those who lived during the last part of the Stone Age in Nubia, an area along the southern reaches of the Nile River, died violent deaths. Many other tribal societies through the ages have shared this mortality pattern, which suggests large-scale mobilisation for killing rather than widespread random violence. Orchestrating raids on neighbouring Nubian settlements took coordination among villagers, as did fending them off. Attackers and defenders alike had to marshal resources, make plans and build trust among one another in order to fight effectively. Cooperation, mutual dependence, trust – even in killing others – are building blocks of political order, the foundational elements of states.
The advent of agriculture was a prerequisite to long-term human settlements – cities – of any significant size. It gave rise to larger societies, capable of bigger and more elaborate wars. For the dynasties of ancient China, the empires of Mesopotamia and, centuries later, the kingdoms of Europe, waging war was one of their reasons for being. Frederick William founded and built Prussia to wage war against its many hostile neighbours. Prussia’s clashes with regional rivals during the 17th and 18th centuries made the nation we know today as Germany. Across the Atlantic, in the mid-18th century, the Seven Years’ War helped to galvanise American colonists against the British, setting them on the path to form a nation of their own.
Across this long history from the Stone Age to the modern era, the basic political formula remained the same. Disparate elements of a society learned to cooperate outside familial structures in order to arm themselves for plunder, defence – or both. They formed hierarchies, bureaucracies and institutions that endured and evolved. For emerging nations, the aftermath of the wars imparted important shared experiences too. Defeat could be even more unifying than victory.
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The last major nation-building war came in 1980, when Iraq under Saddam Hussein attacked Iran following the Iranian Revolution. When Hussein launched a ferocious assault reminiscent of fighting from the First World War, Iran was woefully unprepared. The Iranian revolutionaries drew on religious commitments to help galvanise legions of fighters. Iranian men young and old flung themselves against Iraqi tank attacks, again and again, until Iraq’s advance ground to a halt. For Iran, it is difficult to overstate the legitimacy this achievement gave the new regime, and the cohesion the war imparted to Iran. Iranian society cohered around grief, fear and a renewed sense of Persian identity in response to Arab invaders, both Sunni and Shiite.
Since the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), wars have tended to be mainly destructive forces for nations. Countries amid the throes of war now seem to be breaking down rather than rising up. In countries today ranging from Libya to Myanmar, conflict is undermining governments, and threatening to undo nations much as strife tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In Iraq, a war initially launched 14 years ago by the United States to save the country has gone on and on, and become a source of the nation’s internal decay. Meanwhile, South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, is in a downward spiral of internal violence. The country won its independence from Sudan after more than two decades of fighting. Patterns in history suggest that South Sudan should have emerged from that ordeal unified despite the many challenges the country faced as a young nation. Instead, it essentially collapsed amid infighting upon independence, launching yet another war that has displaced more than 2 million of its 12.5 million people.
The experience of South Sudan is the new norm. Armed conflict, whatever its origins and outcomes, tends to be a scarring interruption to the progress of societies, setting back development and darkening prospects. Indeed, war has become a mortal ailment in modern states. The widely used terms ‘war-torn nation’ and ‘cycle of violence’ to describe conflict countries express the obvious fact that countries at war are countries in perilous decline. War seems to be the bleak end, not the beginning, for strong nations.
Part of the reason that war no longer helps to build nations is simply that few new nations are waiting to be built. Decolonisation and the end of the Cold War brought scores of new countries around the world into being. In addition, the prospect of a country waging a war of conquest and subsuming or incorporating a neighbour violates norms of international politics established in the late 20th century. What nations there are remain, for the most part, within their borders. Many of the gains that used to require territorial conquest can now be achieved through capturing market shares, election rigging and military hegemony.
In the past, nation-building often involved appeals by political leaders to ethnicity and ideology. But the ethnically driven politics and violence that many nations embraced in their early history have fallen into disrepute, and would likely draw accusations of war crimes. Perhaps more importantly, no forceful ideas animate global politics as they once did. At the end of the Second World War, Sukarno, the leader of modern Indonesia, promoted an ideology of his own making that mixed nationalism, Marxism and Islam as part of his successful effort to unify Indonesia. For Sukarno, the major beliefs and ideas coursing through the world at the time provided a means to build a vast and populous nation from an ethnically diverse chain of far-flung islands. But global politics today is bereft of big ideas and revolutionary ideologies. Most nations have conformed to the Washington Consensus on norms in governance and economics. Even the remaining autocracies largely play by those rules. Only a few countries in Latin America – Bolivia for example – boast political movements at the national level aimed at any meaningful challenge to neoliberalism.
In sum, the age of nation-building might be over. Let’s hope so. Nation-building involves, at bottom, the violence of internal repression and external conflict. Revolutionary-era France, Jacksonian America and Maoist China – three signature periods of nation-building in global history – are as notorious for their crimes as for their enduring accomplishments. While the end of the age of nation-building might be a boon to the world generally, it is little comfort to countries struggling to establish themselves. There will likely be no Sukarno for Afghanistan or Somalia, two countries where a series of aspirants have failed for decades to become truly national leaders, or to strengthen their countries’ nationality. Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish territory of Iraq, a nation without a state, is unlikely to raise its own flag any time soon, remaining in a kind of semi-autonomous status. This is the source of enormous frustration to Kurds of the Middle East, as the recent referendum on independence in Iraqi Kurdistan clearly showed. But the path to nation that many Kurds seek seems to have vanished.
Lessons in Stillness From One of the Quietest Places on Earth
In the wilderness of Washington State’s Hoh Rain Forest, a
poet searches for the rare peace that true silence can offer.
This story is featured in T Magazine’s Travel issue, on newsstands Nov. 12.
THE OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK stretches down coastal Washington and east toward Seattle on a thumb of land known as the Olympic Peninsula, some 60 miles long by 90 miles wide. Around a three-hour ride by car from Seattle, it feels much farther, as if you have passed into an otherworldly realm. Within it are volcanic beaches scattered with the remains of massive Sitka spruces, evergreen-crowded mountains, broad, flat valleys and the Hoh Rain Forest, through which 12 miles of hiking trails and the glacier-formed Hoh River run. The Park, in total nearly a million acres, is home to what may be the most complex ecosystem in the United States, teeming with big-leaf maples, lichens, alders, liverworts, Monkey flowers, licorice ferns, club mosses, herbs, grasses and shrubs of remarkable abundance. Today, thanks to federal protections, it is home to some of the largest remaining stands of old-growth forest in the continental U.S.
It was an unusually warm and sunny day in August when I arrived in Washington. I was walking the grounds of my hotel in Kalaloch Beach, less than an hour’s drive from the rain forest, when I heard another guest call out. “Whales!” he said. “Do you want to see some whales?”
I climbed up into the gazebo beside him and looked where he was pointing, at the vast, pounding ocean. A delicate spout of water breached the air. And then another. And another. And then — a fin of an orca arcing over a wave.
“They’ve been feeding all day,” he said. “I was down there watching them for the past hour. I’ve never seen them like this.”
I hurried down to the beach. The dark gray sand was velvety and warm. I walked past beached jellyfish and oyster shells and the slender bones of sea gulls. Before me was nothing but ocean — no ships, no airplanes, no buildings. The huge noise of ocean and nothing but ocean was profound, a silence in its own right, which seemed odd as I thought about it — how can noise feel like silence? Perhaps because its quality is continuous, soothing, allowing immersion. Listening, it seemed I was on the verge of some feeling or fresh understanding. As the sensation crested, a huge orca lifted up out of the water, baring its smooth gray back, and for a moment I felt its weight settle on me.
long with being one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country, the Hoh Rain Forest is also one of the quietest places in the U.S., according to the One Square Inch project, run by the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, who has worked over the years to preserve the Hoh’s quiet (for example, by requesting that airlines remap their flight patterns). Here, the absence of sound is complete. There are indeed few planes crossing the vast sky overhead, and on the less populated trails I walked during my visit I saw few other tourists or cars. Around me, the sun filtered through dense canopies of leaves, and mosses hung, beardlike, from Sitka spruces and Douglas firs, turning the landscape into a Seussian fantasia. Sword ferns, their leaves delicate and precise, formed coronas at the base of the massive spruce trunks. (A less martial mind might have named them after Victorian feather hairpieces rather than weaponry.) Twelve to 14 feet of rain fall here annually, and the plant life is monumental: I was immersed in a forest’s cathedral stillness.
Hiking alone, I felt like the loudest thing around, crashing endlessly forward. I was loud inside, too, a cacophony of swirling worries, nagging to-dos and then — beneath all that — a layer of thoughts I hadn’t had time to think in months.
So I stopped. Entering the quiet spaces of woodlands, as the novelist John Fowles once put it, “is almost like leaving land to go into water, another medium, another dimension.” I sank into a medium where impressions arrived more slowly — and more completely. What I heard, oddly, was distance. An insect far to my left on the mossy floor; a gray jay, maybe 50 yards away; and, even farther, the Hoh River, its waters a quiet, claylike, alluvial blue, stained by the rocky beaches banking it. When I finally came to it, a herd of elk was resting dreamily in the sun, curled against one another. As I watched, one woke, wobbled up onto its oversize legs, and made his way to the river to drink: a baby still.
I stood there, breathing, taking in, being. “Silence is for bumping into yourself,” a monk tells George Prochnik, the author of “In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise,” a meditative exploration published in 2010 about the costs of noise and the benefits of pursuing quiet. I’d come here to try doing just that — to find a willful silence. My tense, raised shoulders slumped. I felt my body relax and my breathing slow. Sitting on the rocks by the river, letting the sun flush my skin a warm pink, I realized that all summer I’d barely even registered the overwhelming sensation of heat, the way it makes you both sleepy and attuned to the tiniest flecks of sound around you, the pulse flicking in your wrist.