Sunday, 28 February 2021

Picture Post #62: What's In a Name?

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be 
neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Sapho Mahilihili*

On 23 February 2021, the South African city of

Port Elizabeth was renamed Gqeberha.

This thing of changing names is pure stupidity, especially where it is applied to cities. It promotes laziness.

Look at it this way.

Our government has not built a single city, yet it has renamed many cities. Cities around the world are named after the people who founded them.

If the government could build a new city, and name it after the president, I would welcome that. This would instill a culture of building things from the ground up. The same applies to airports and universities. I welcomed the building and naming of King Shaka International Airport, and Sol Plaatjie University—built from scratch instead of renaming the old.

Let us build from the ground up, instead of hijacking things that are already built. This will create employment and contestation between presidents and their administrations, as to who built more and created more employment than the other. Instead of this silly idea, contesting who renames the most, while it creates no employment of the citizen.

Transformation of words and names is pure nonsense—places previously reserved and written Whites Only. Today they are written Management Only or Staff Only, and people think we are making strides. Go to that Gbeberha. Whites are still living in opulence, while Blacks are languishing in the same townships as before.

We need to build cities, especially along the coast, to tap in to the marine industry. Name those cities after people we love, instead of renaming cities whose old structural format remains intact, where Black people are pacified to believe that they made progress where there is none.

This is a regressive transformation, created out of hatred and spite towards White people, not to promote and elevate African people’s standard of living to those of White counterparts.

*Sapho Mahilihili is a well-known South African grassroots leader, 

   a #FeesMustFall and #Decolonization activist.

Editors' note: Twitter has suspended #Decolonization. One may refer to 

  #DecolonizeAcademia and other hashtags. 

Monday, 22 February 2021

Are There Too Many Laws?

The Roman philosopher, Cicero.
In his book, De Legibus, he suggests laws should be dawn from ‘the profoundest philosophy’.

Posted by Keith Tidman

Laws tend to accrete, one upon another. Yet, doesn’t this buildup of laws paradoxically undermine the ‘rule of law’? Wasn’t Montesquieu right to say that ‘useless laws weaken the necessary laws’, and by extension today enfeeble the rule of law?


The rule of law holds that every person and institution is equally accountable to the law. It is society’s safeguard against disorder. This presupposes that laws, in promoting the individual good, also promote the common good. The elixir to cure the ailments of society is often seen as dwelling in zealous lawmaking and rulemaking, which ironically may create even worse fissures within the rule of law itself and within the resulting social order. However mistaken such belief in the tonic may be, this regularly seems to be the guiding ideal and aspiration.


Yet, aspirations aside, the reality is that the proliferation of laws and regulations leads to redundancy, confusion, contradiction, and irrelevance among the laws that accrue over time. These factors fog up the lens through which people view laws as either just or unjust. In turn, citizens typically remain unaware of their actual liability to these amassed laws, and as a practical matter enjoy little understanding of how laws might be enforced.

Compounding the byzantine body of laws and regulations is the politicisation of their application. Governments of different political ideological leanings may well shift, especially as regimes shift, affecting the interpretation of laws. Laws being, as Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, ‘not counsel, but command’. Governments might make arbitrary decisions as to how to enforce the laws and regulations, and against whom. Political partisanship and the hazard of overcriminalisation can be the not-uncommon consequence.

When Winston Churchill warned, ‘If you have ten thousand regulations, you destroy all respect for the law’, to some people the cautionary note may have seemed an exaggeration, offered for effect. Now, many countries creak under an evermore bloated number of complex, cumbersome laws and regulations, with rule-of-law significances.


A core supposition of law is that citizens freely choose from among alternative behaviours in the daily conduct of their lives. Whether people really do have such uninhibited decision-making and choice, laws make sense, from the practical standpoint of society holding individuals accountable, only if the operative supposition of government and the community is that people deliberate and act through self-direction.

Laws and regulations ought to mirror society’s shared values, norms, conventions, practices, and customs, in order for justice to emerge. However, despite the influence of social values on laws, ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ are not necessarily equivalent to ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’; principles of legality and morality may be only obliquely correlated. 

Meanwhile, it’s precisely because of the influence of social values that laws ought to remain malleable going into the future, as core needs of the community become reimagined and reframed with time. The inevitability of novel circumstances in the future requires pliability in human thinking, and thus in law.


If laws and regulations are allowed to calcify, they shed relevance in longer-term service of the community. They no longer foster the welfare of the people, which along with social order is foundational to laws’ existence. ‘The welfare of the people is the ultimate law’, Cicero presciently observed. Outdated laws and regulations ought to be purged, barring new laws from heaping upon the crustaceous remnants of old laws. Preserving the best about rule-of-law principles requires housecleaning.


Everyday citizens often perceive the law as an impenetrably dense mass, understood and plied by a priesthood of specialists who accommodate select interests. Laws’ unfortunate opaqueness propagates ‘ignorance of the law’, despite this go-to plea not being a legally valid excuse.


The risk is that society tilts increasingly toward unequal justice, much to the disadvantage of the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and other alienated, underrepresented subgroups less equipped to self-endorse, or to accrue and deploy power and influence to their advantage. Vulnerability and punishment and discretion are frequently proportional to financial means, in plutocratic fashion. And the rule of law, meanwhile, loses its glint. 


And so, in advising that ‘A state is better governed with few laws, and those laws strictly observed’, in light of his time in history René Descartes seems commonsensical. Yet, ever since, many countries have jettisoned this simple prescription.

The profusion of laws compacting outdated and useless laws cannot continue indefinitely, without risking an irreparable stress point for jurisprudence’s workability and integrity. A moratorium on disgorging new laws, however, is insufficient alone. It is vital to clear the overgrown brush that threatens to choke the consistency, intelligibility, reasonableness, and applicability of what we want to restore by way of the rule of law and sensible jurisprudence. 


That’s an achievable undertaking. The prospect of our returning to first principles regarding the rule of law as a credible and viable doctrine, beyond a muffled slogan, makes the enterprise of clearing the thicket of laws worthwhile if we want a just society.


Sunday, 14 February 2021

Stop the Hokum

Posted by Allister Marran

It is said that all things are related to all things. Mel Thompson, the author of Teach Yourself Philosophy, writes, ‘At any moment, we move within a seamless web of causality that goes forwards and backward in time and outwards in space.’ There is, however, a new kind of relatedness, which is not as sweet. It, too, goes forward and backward in time and outwards in space—yet the web that it weaves has no basis in the way that things truly lie—or worse, it is based on things which have no basis in reality at all. 

And so people start a ridiculous rumour, or a conspiracy theory which, fundamentally, has no basis in truth or fact. From there, they convince enough people in their orbit to like and share the post to make it go viral. Once it has enough support, they use the level of acceptance as the basis that it must be true. Surely, a post with a million likes and shares can only be right? It is the fallacy of the majority. A Chinese proverb, attributed to Pang Cong, has it, 'Three men make a tiger' (there is a tiger roaming in the market if three men say so).

Too often, to the recipient of rumour and conspiracy, their only verification of a fact or theory is the level of permeation and acceptance of said theory. Or put another way, I believe anything that the peers in my echo chamber tell me to believe if the echo is strong enough. An old Slavic proverb states (falsely attributed to Lenin in similar form), ‘Repeated one-hundred times, a lie becomes true.’

The best defence against hokum is critical thinking—a lost art in the age of information. Be critical, and aggressively interrogate everything you read or see. Don't just accept it as gospel because it furthers your own narrow perception of life or an argument. Don't accept it because it comes from a source you trust or are fond of. Attack the information in the post and see if it stands up to logical and scientific scrutiny. If it does, share away. If it does not, reply and resist the source of the hogwash until they stop spreading lies.

In an age of conspiracy theories, fake news, and deep fakes, among many other things, the only defence may be independent, impartial, robust thinking to discern those ‘seamless webs of causality’ which are sound and those which are not. In fact it often enough goes back to common sense that many of us knew from childhood: Did that movie ring true? or was it far-fetched? A lot of truth either validates or invalidates itself, to those who discern. And just like the movies, those who fall for a stupid plot look stupid and contemptible themselves—to all but themselves.

When one starts reading everything with an open mind, one begins to see that the world is not as black and white as one thinks it is, but has many colours and shades, a field of popping blooms that are beautiful to see and soft on the eyes. Next time you read something that makes a statement that might be prejudicial or controversial, I summon you to read it, then dissect it into a series of facts that the poster wants you to accept as truth. Then argue the opposite point of view with as much vigor as you can muster, and see how many holes, lies, or contradictions you can find in the post. If you are able to win the argument, then be honest with yourself and adjust your world view slightly to integrate this new information into your thinking.

Happily, there is a scientific way to do this, too. It is the analysis of oppositions, or opposites. In semantics, we find oppositions of various kinds: antonyms, directional opposites, complementaries, heteronyms, and converses. Imagine, for example, that we read that a certain politician is ‘influential’. Antonyms: they may be spineless instead, or may not bring about much change. A directional opposite: influence aside, this politician may be impressionable, too. Heteronyms: others may be influencing their situation—or force of circumstance, even divine will. Having now identified some oppositions to the description ‘influential’, we may ask whether any of these apply to them.

This might reveal that the politician did not bring about the change that we thought they did, or that they faced strong opposition. Or indeed, it might reveal that they proved to be influential or inspiring in ways we had not imagined. We begin to think more expansively and holistically.

The one sure way to identify false thinking is to test it for balance. If nothing offsets it—if those who propound their views can speak of nothing to the contrary, or worse, nothing by way of nuance or subtlety to off-set it or balance it, one is surely dealing with extremism, if not lunacy of some sort. This in itself should warn us that something has gone deeply wrong.

The only way to stop the lies of the social media hype-train from ruining a modern cyberspace-infused social media driven existence is to educate people on how to spot and call out falsehood and stop sharing it. Stop being the link. If nobody shares hokum, people will stop posting it.

Monday, 8 February 2021

Will Democracy Survive?

Image via

Cleisthenes, the Father of Democracy, Invented a Form of Government That Has Endured for 2,500 Years

Posted by Keith Tidman

How well is democracy faring? Will democracy emerge from despots’ modern-day assaults unscathed?

Some 2,500 years ago there was a bold experiment: Democracy was born in Athens. The name of this daring form of governance sprang from two Greek words (demos and kratos), meaning ‘rule by the people’. Democracy offered the public a voice. The political reformer Cleisthenes is the acknowledged ‘father of democracy’, setting up one of ancient Greece’s most-lasting contributions to the modern world.


In Athens, the brand was direct democracy, where citizens composed an assembly as the governing body, writing laws on which citizens had the right to vote. The assembly also decided matters of war and foreign policy. A council of representatives, chosen by lot from the ten Athenian tribes, was responsible for everyday governance. And the courts, in which citizens brought cases before jurors selected from the populace by a lottery, was the third branch. Aristotle believed the courts ‘contributed most to the strength of democracy’.


As the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, put it, in this democratic experiment ‘there is, first, that most splendid of virtues, equality before the law’. Yet, there was a major proviso to this ‘equality’: Only ‘citizens’ were qualified to take part, who were limited to free males — less than half of Athens’s population — excluding women, immigrants, and slaves.


Nor did every Greek philosopher or historian in the ancient world share Herodotus’s enthusiasm for democracy’s ‘splendid virtues’. Some found various ways to express the idea that one unsavory product of democracy was mob rule. Socrates, as Plato recalls in the Republic, referred unsparingly to the ‘foolish leaders of democracy . . . full of disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike’.


Others, like the historian Thucydides, Aristotle, the playwright Aristophanes, the historian and philosopher Xenophon, and the anonymous writer dubbed the Old Oligarch, expanded on this thinking. They critiqued democracy for dragging with it the citizens’ perceived faults, including ignorance, lack of virtue, corruptibility, shortsightedness, tyranny of the collective, selfishness, and deceptive sway by the specious rhetoric of orators. No matter, Athens’s democracy endured 200 years, before ceding ground to aristocratic-styled rule: what Herodotus labeled ‘the one man, the best’.


Many of the deprecations that ancient Greece’s philosophers heaped upon democratic governance and the ‘masses’ are redolent of the problems that democracy, in its representative form, would face again.

Such internal contradictions recently resulted in the United States, the longest-standing democratic republic in the modern world, having its Congress assailed by a mob, in an abortive attempt to stymie the legislators’ certification of the results of the presidential election. However, order was restored that same day (and congressional certification of the democratic will completed). The inauguration of the new president took place without incident, on the date constitutionally laid out. Democracy working.


Yet, around the world, in increasing numbers of countries, people doubt democracy’s ability to advance citizens’ interests. Disillusion and cynicism have settled in. Autocrats and firebrands have gladly filled that vacuum of faith. They scoff at democracy. The rule of law has declined, as reported by the World Justice Project. Its index has documented sharp falloffs in the robustness of proscriptions on government abuse and extravagant power. Freedom House has similarly reported on the tenuousness of government accountability, human rights, and civil liberties. ‘Rulers for life’ dot the global landscape.


That democracy and freedoms have absorbed body blows around the world has been underscored by attacks from populist leaders who rebuff pluralism and highjack power to nurture their own ambitions and those of closely orbiting supporters. A triumphalism achieved at the public’s expense. In parts of Eastern Europe, Asia Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa, South and Central America, and elsewhere. The result has been to weaken free speech and press, free religious expression, free assembly, independence of judiciaries, petition of the government, thwarts to corruption, and other rights, norms, and expectations in more and more countries.

Examples of national leaders turning back democracy in favour of authoritarian rule stretch worldwide. Central Europe's populist overreach, of concern to the European Union, has been displayed in abruptly curtailing freedoms, abolishing democratic checks and balances, self-servingly politicising systems of justice, and brazen leaders acquiring unlimited power indefinitely.

Some Latin American countries, too, have experienced waning democracy, accompanied by turns to populist governments and illiberal policies. Destabilised counterbalances to government authority, acute socioeconomic inequalities, attacks on human rights and civic engagement, emphasis on law and order, leanings toward surveillance states, and power-ravenous leaders have symbolised the backsliding.


Such cases notwithstanding, people do have agency to dissent and intervene in their destiny, which is, after all, the crux of democracy. Citizens are not confined to abetting or turning a blind eye toward strongmen’s grab for control of the levers of power or ultranationalistic penchants. In particular, there might be reforms, inspired by ancient Athens’s novel experiment, to bolster democracy’s appeal, shifting power from the acquisitive hands of elites and restoring citizens’ faith. 


One systemic course correction might be to return to the variant of direct democracy of Aristotle’s Athens, or at least a hybrid of it, where policymaking becomes a far more populous activity. Decisions and policy are molded by what the citizens decide and decree. A counterweight for wholly representative democracy: the latter emboldening politicians, encouraging the conceit of self-styled philosopher-kings whose judgment they mistakenly presume surpasses that of citizens. 


It might behoove democracies to have fewer of these professional politicians, serving as ‘administrators’ clearing roadblocks to the will of the people, while crafting the legal wording of legislation embodying majority public pronouncements on policy. The nomenclature of such a body — assembly, council, congress, parliament, or other — matters little, of course, compared with function: party-less technocrats in direct support of the citizenry.


The greatest foe to democracies’ longevity, purity, and salience is often the heavy-handed overreach of elected executives, not insurrectionist armies from within the city gates. Reforms might therefore bear on severe restriction or even elimination of an executive-level figurehead, who otherwise might find the giddy allure of trying to accrete more power irresistible and unquenchable. Other reforms might include:


• A return to popular votes and referenda to agree on or reject national and local policies; 

• Normalising of constitutional amendments, to ensure congruence with major social change;

• Fewer terms served in office, to avoid ‘professionalising’ political positions; 

• Limits on campaign length, to motivate focused appeals to electors and voter attentiveness.

Still other reforms might be the public funding of campaigns, to constrain expenditures and, especially, avoid bought candidates. Curtailing of special-interest supplicants, who serve deep-pocketed elites. Ethical and financial reviews to safeguard against corruption, with express accountability. Mandatory voting, on specially designated paid holidays, to solicit all voices for inclusivity. Civic service, based on communal convictions and norms-based standards. And reinvention of public institutions, to amplify pertinence, efficacy, and efficiency.


Many more ways to refit democracy’s architecture exist, of course. The starting point, however, is that people must believe democracy works and are prepared to foster it. In the arc of history, democracy is most vulnerable if resignedly allowed to be.


Testaments to democracy should be ideas, not majestic buildings or monuments. Despots will not cheerfully yield ground; the swag is too great. Yet ideas, which flourish in liberal democracy, are greater.


Above all, an alert, restive citizenry is democracy’s best sentinel: determined to triumph rather than capitulate, despite democracy’s turbulence two and a half millennia after ancient Athens’s audacious experiment. 

Monday, 1 February 2021

Picture Post #61: Outside the Image

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl

Picture credit: Robert Saltzman ‘La Fe’, 2017.

It might take a while to see that the creative feeling in this picture moves beyond the representation of a worshiper who touches the depiction of a Maria. The movement within the sobriety of this picture is of such subtlety that it exposes itself as a feeling rather than a seeing.

The eye immediately selects the strong vertical upward movement of the man with his arm against the painting, accentuated by the stick that the worshiper keeps in his right hand. Instead, the upper left of the frame of the painting, to the lowest forms one diagonal. Repetitive diagonals in opposed direction are drawn by the lower point of the angles of the pews' end-panels to the highest, with the upper right angle of the painting in its midst. In the picture, the vanishing point is to the left (imagine the benches as the floor), which brings us outside of the picture.

Within this classical framework of more- and less-visible lines, exalts the shadow of the man that is cast directly below the Maria. It is this shadow which accentuates the ascendance of the depicted Maria, visually and symbolically.

When one imagines this picture just with the man and the painting, without the shadow, and not in this room, the ‘inexplicable’, the ‘something more’ to life does not show. The eye focuses on a specific form, which the mind elaborates, and hands existence to the selected subject. Though it is not in the main subject but in the space, through the tension and the affinities between things of the surroundings, a subject receives empathy.

The unnoticed is deeply rooted in human being. The synthesis of every creative process is to verify this transpersonal union with the personal, within the contingent, transitory reality in which everything would become insignificant, remaining only personal or only eternal.

If in this picture we would see solely a religious man in a church, we would harm ourselves. Being moved is through the transformation of what we see and feel, and depends on an intrinsic secret of invisible images.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Poem: Laughing at the Milky Way

by Chengde Chen *

There was a chicken, who lived his life happily

Every morning, someone opened his coop and fed him

Day by day, month by month

he believed that this was the law of the world

so he never thought of escaping

Until New Year’s Eve

he found a kitchen knife at his neck

The ‘law’ disappeared

and it was too late for regrets!


It is laughable for man to worry that the sky might fall

but not laughable for the falling sky to worry about man

The destruction of civilisation cannot be ‘known’

Only mathematics, standing aloof from the world **

can sense the storm from the ancient Milky Way

Those who have felt it should ponder deeply over it

Those who have realised it should issue a cry loudly

Be a madman, letting others laugh

Laughing is better than being oblivious

for those who are laughing are no longer sleeping!

* Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

A Syntocracy

by Thomas Scarborough

Leonardo da Vinci wrote, ‘Realise that everything connects to everything else.’ In recent decades, this has become increasingly important. We have come to see, in fact, that it is vital to humanity’s survival. With this in mind, the chief end of political systems ought to be the healthy inter-relatedness of all things.

Democracy is often said to be the best available political system. It is, to put it too simply, a system of government by the whole (eligible) population. Even in non-democratic states, governments typically give some approval to the idea.

In terms of the healthy inter-relatedness of all things, democracy goes some way to guaranteeing this. In a democracy, one elects those persons to democratic office who are broadly representative of the people—so that, when they assemble, they may (ideally) bring all of society into healthy relation.

We need democracy as a political system, therefore, not merely for the sake of popular sovereignty, or political accountability, or individual rights, or a host of other things which populate descriptions of democracy. We need it first because, properly conceived, democracy is important to the healthy arrangement of society, and the world. If a political system fails to achieve this, then we are all imperilled.

However, when we think on democracy in these terms, it has, at the same time, some serious shortcomings.

While democracy rightly guarantees a broad participation in the national debate, it does not deliberately prioritise broad and healthy relations in society: for instance, between rich and poor, the built and natural environments, or the present and the future. One sees major imbalances in such areas the world over, and these are potentially disastrous to all.

Democracy as a political system has in many places failed to create an egalitarian society, preserve the whole over the parts, prevent environmental crisis, or create social cohesion. All these things, and more, speak of defective arrangements of our world, where the healthy inter-relatedness of all things ought to be the without-which-not. As humanity’s influence on the planet grows, we are no longer able to absorb such mistakes.

Not only this. In a democratic state, people are often prioritised over the healthy inter-relatedness of all things—and so democracy, too, is prone to the weaknesses one typically associates with people: populism, personal loyalties, polarisation, fleeting fears, vested interests, prejudices, and short-sighted thinking, among other things. For good or for bad, democracy is a people-focused enterprise.

Which then is it to be? Is supreme power vested in the people, or is it, so to speak, vested in relations between things?

The goal of democracy must be, not democracy as an end in itself, but the healthy arrangement of society, and the world. While democracy means ‘power to the people’, such power must be vested not merely in the people, but in the arrangement of society. Further, the law code which a democracy produces, which is the complete system of laws, needs to be developed to prioritise the inter-relatedness of all things.

While such an idea has much in common with with democracy, it differs in principle from the democracy that we know. For the sake of a name, we shall call this form of government a ‘syntocracy’—from the Greek and Latin syn, ‘together with’, and the Greek krites, ‘power’—a form of government in which all things are brought together in balanced relation, through the people.

Syntocracy rests, therefore, on relations which are balanced and broad. This simple principle shifts the emphasis of democracy as we now know it, and potentially transforms our political life.

Image credit: VA Network for Democracy and Environmental Rights.

Monday, 11 January 2021

Can We Escape the Thucydides Trap?

The Peloponnesian War fought between Athens and Sparta,
leading to the latter's ultimate victory

Posted by Keith Tidman

The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, chronicled for posterity the 5th-century BCE Peloponnesian War as a 27-year conflict due in large measure to the ‘rise of Athens’ and the fear this instilled in the ruling power of Sparta locked in rivalry for preeminence in the region.


Sparta had become wary and threatened by Athens acting ever more assertively. Athens, meanwhile, resented the alleged wrongs it saw as inflicted upon it. Theirs had been a tense coexistence with overlapping spheres of influence, each perceiving the other as an obstacle to its ambitions. The Athenians asserted that a new world order should reflect what they regarded as a shifting balance of power. After war broke out between the two Greek city-states, Sparta went on to eventual victory with the surrender of Athens, though both powers felt war’s destructive sting.


But does competitiveness between so-called rising and ruling powers inevitably lead to war? The idea that it does is known in international-relations theory as the ‘Thucydides trap’, a term coined by scholar Graham Allison, in his book Destined for War. One aim of Thucydides was to inform peers and future generations of the dangers posed by such strategic rivalry.


With that in mind, what does this professed Thucydides trap portend for us today, some 2,400 years later? It would certainly be worrying if the realpolitik opposition between the United States, as the globe’s ostensible ruling power, and China, as the ostensible rising power, was a modern-day case in point, with the United States our Sparta and China our Athens? The theory would suggest that the competitive posturing, influence peddling, and power projection — economic, political, and military — by the two wary nations might eventually result in the folly of a calamitous war.


U.S. president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping discussed the Thucydides trap during their summit meeting in Seattle in 2015, toward the end of the Obama presidency. Xi had proposed a ‘new form of great power relations’, though that left tension in place over, for example, Asian spheres of influence. Indeed, just a few years earlier, Xi had ambitiously announced his ‘China Dream’, including ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.

Yet, Xi’s statement in 2015 went on to discredit the Thucydides trap, cautiously saying, ‘There is no such thing. . . . But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves’. Two days later, Obama reciprocally concurred, delicately adding, ‘The United States welcomes the rise of China . . . [as] a responsible player in global affairs’. The two nations’ otherwise ideological evangelism was prudently quieted in a moment of diplomacy.


Despite Obama’s and Xi’s carefully chosen words, other wars from history’s annals are indeed thought to support the idea that rising and ruling powers often resort to conflict. The Thucydides trap exposed in more-recent history than the ancient world. As one case in point, France’s dominion in Europe came face to face with the rising House of Hapsburg, with the 1519 election of King Charles of Spain as the Holy Roman emperor. To preserve its influence over Western Europe, France rallied allies to challenge Hapsburg hegemony, leading to 40 years of off-and-on conflict. The outcome was a century of Hapsburg preeminence.


Another historical example occurred in 1648. It was in this year that the Peace of Westphalia granted the Dutch Republic its independence, the country having developed as Europe’s leading trading power, with dominance of the seas while chalking up colonial possessions. The Dutch Republic’s rise led to enmity with England, with its holdings in North America and trade in the East Indies. The republic wracked up a number of naval victories during the years-long Anglo-Dutch war, ultimately resulting in the republic’s supremacy.


Heres one other instance. During the late 19th century, France, under Napoleon III, became a controlling land power, dominating Western Europe. Otto von Bismarck of Prussia, however, was emboldened by his rapidly expanding economy and a grand mission to unite Germany, with the aim to dislodge France. Bismarck saw war as necessary to bring about that unification, whereas Napoleon saw war as a means to check Prussia. Their one-year war led to realisation of Bismarck’s vision.


In each case, the hegemon was challenged. Though, of course, for each example from history’s archives, the aspirations, causes, and intentions, such as a strategy to displace a competitor, were unique. The defining question is, how enlightening are these equivalences in the context of today’s international-relations theory, particularly in U.S.-China relations?


Some historians and political scientists, besides Allison, have affirmed that per the Thucydides trap and contemporary international relations, there’s a correspondence with 21st-century China as the Athens-like rising power and the United States as the Sparta-like ruling power. The matter circles back to potential triggers, such as if Taiwan were to declare independence with the United States’ backing. Or if China were to block the South China Sea, preventing the free passage of the world’s commercial and naval vessels. Or if a full-on hot war were to break out on the Korean peninsula. 


All that is to say, the United States and China count on accurately assessing where the other draws its red lines in safeguarding core national and international interests, not to mention their jingoistic pride. And each country must assess where and how to project influence and power, whether militarily, economically, diplomatically, politically, or in other ways.


But the equivalences with 21st-century United States and China — geostrategic challenges and opportunities, international order, deepening and irreversible globalisation, myriad interdependences, robust trade, potentially existential nature of war’s massively lethal technologies today, and preferred resort to negotiation and diplomacy — don’t seem to hold up. The stakes for the two countries, and for the world, are exponentially more consequential today. The equivalence to the ancient city-states of Sparta and Athens especially stretches credulity.


Yet, despite the United States’ and China’s careful circling of the other, underlying the wariness and abstract diplomacy-speak by their presidents was acknowledgment of the countries’ global power supremacy and the risks in their possibly geostrategically stepping out in front at the expense of the other. However it may have been couched, the Thucydides trap remained not too far from the room during Sino-American negotiations to tamp down flash points, where bilateralism may be hard to untangle.


The ancient strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu (5th century BCE) still inspires Chinese grand planning, informing contemporary issues directly tied to the Thucydides trap. There are many instances of Sun Tzu’s advice that shape Chinese philosophy on global affairs. Among the advice are these two laconic, yet telling, aphorisms from his The Art of War: ‘The greatest victory is that which requires no battle’. And ‘Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak’. Geostrategic predispositions to keep in mind as the two nations compete and seek advantage.  


There will, accordingly, continue to be positioning for supremacy in Sino-American relations. The stakes are high, the siren’s song irresistible. The United States and China will thus take each other’s measure for the foreseeable future. Each conditioned to eye the other as a determined rival, and each deciding how to deftly thrust and parry. This will entail a strenuous push-pull situation, predictably to include testing whether power incumbency can ever be safely challenged.


However, despite competitiveness and even spikes in chariness between the United States and China, I propose that’s a normal, eminently manageable, and very different dynamic than the irresistible trajectory toward war that Thucydides predicts. Shifts in power balance will occur, as issues of entitlement, clout, hubris, embrace of righteousness, differently aligned interests, the puffery of self-exceptionalism, and real and imagined threats play out.


War, though, is not the inevitable consequence. The ‘trap’ need not snap shut upon us.


Monday, 4 January 2021

Picture Post #60 The Teapot

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Martin Cohen

The magic teapot… Or is it an Aladdin’s lamp? 

The shape so familiar, but here given a different quality… 

The photographer is Jindřich Brok, a Czech photographer born 20 January 1912 and who died in 1995. He’s not very well-known, or indeed successful. So for more than that, you have to go to the Czech Republic itself where one website confirms he was the son of salesman in Kutná Hora, where he began photographing in 1929. After the death of his father, he took over the business, which he expanded to include a photo department and studied a particular kind of photography - the photography of glass. And then came the Nazi occupation, during which time he was interned in the Terezín concentration camp. 

Perhaps that is why there is a bleak aspect to these images, almost spectral, or ghostly?

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Things and Nothing

 by Thomas Scarborough

As this year draws to a close, we soar beyond the turbulent things which have so exercised philosophical hearts and minds, to consider for a moment one of the very abstract and timeless questions of philosophy: ‘things’ and their opposites.

There are, in this world, ‘things’. Or so we suppose. These are also called objects, entities, items, existents, or beings—terms which, by and large, all mean the same thing. The philosopher William Rowe wrote that a ‘thing’ is any item whose existence is acknowledged by a system of ontology, whether that item be particular, universal, abstract, or concrete. The whole universe, even, may be called a ‘thing’. So far so good.

But what is the opposite of a thing? Or what is its contrast, or complement? Nothing, perhaps. But how could there be ‘nothing’? That would seem to be supreme philosophical nonsense. Or suppose that there is a thing which failed to exist? It never came into being. What should we say about that?

Somebody observed that all of our philosophical concepts may be grouped in pairs. Where we find ‘altruism’, we find ‘egoism’; where we find ‘theism’, ‘atheism’; where we find ‘realism’, ‘anti-realism’—and so on, from A to Z. Some do the same with ‘things’. Where there are things, we find nothing. The philosophers Bradley Rettler and Andrew Bailey comment,

‘It’s not clear whether anyone sincerely endorses the thesis that there is nothing, However, it has been defended several times over.’

One could contend that ‘things’ are things in space and time, while nothings are not—like numbers, for instance, or society, or force. Or one could say that things exist, but properties do not. Say, a house exists, but its karma does not. In that case, a great many things ‘do not exist’. Or one could say, as the existentialists do, that one may experience Nothing. But existentialists are afraid of Nothing, jokes the philosopher Simon Blackburn, where there is nothing to be afraid of.

There is one obvious way that we can try to solve the problem, and many have taken this course: namely, first define a ‘thing’. If what chiefly defines a ‘thing’ is that it is, then of course, its opposite must be a thing which is not—perhaps rather, nothing. But is that properly the way to define a thing?

I shall here accept the view, for the sake of argument, that all the things we call things are things: things which exist in space and time (objects), things which happen (events), and things which exist in the mind (concepts). Now suppose that, in order to create all of these things, we need to differentiate them from what the philosopher and psychologist William James called the ‘undifferentiated stream of experience’.

Things have contours. They have definition. But the opposite of things do not. When things lose their contours, they slip back into the undifferentiated stream. Another way of putting it is that, if nothing is not related to the rest of reality—not a word, not a motion, not an entity, not an event—then we artificially separate things when we call them ‘things’. Artificially, because we strip away from them their completeness.

To create a 'nut', we throw away the fruit, and the tree, and the soil, and the air, and the universe. If we included all these things which are essential to the nut's existence, we could never isolate a nut as a thing. Therefore it is simply 'an edible kernel', or something of the sort.  We strip away the interconnections or interdependencies, to create something which is self-contained.  

The philosopher of science Alan Chalmers describes our reality like this:

‘Many kinds of processes are at work in the world around us, and they are all superimposed on, and interact with, each other ...’

If this is true, then it stands to reason that any ‘thing’ which we cut out from this whole is not wholly itself. 'Nothing' is therefore that which gives birth to things. It is that which exists before we create the contours which create things. In his translation of Lao Tzu, Sam Hamill writes, ‘There was some undifferentiated something here, before heaven and earth.’

The opposite of things, therefore, is a world which is without them—because they have not emerged from it. Nothing was the plastic rattle, before the infant apprehended it. Nothing was the theory, before the scientist formulated it. Nothing was the environment, before it emerged in our minds and hearts. Nothing is all those things which could be, but are not, or are yet to come, because they have no contours.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Resist or Die

An implicit celebration of nihilism turns into

satire or pop culture. The seriousness of it all is minimised.

Posted by Jeremy Dyer

We have all become more aware of how fragile we actually are (mind, body, and spirit), and are all hanging on to the reality that we once knew, though it is slowly dissolving. But the future marches inexorably upon us, clouds of toxic mind-dust choking all hope. Right now we face an unprecedented assault upon body, mind, and spirit, akin only to a World War or widespread plague.

In normal times, society had the bedrock of religion, and a fatalistic stoicism; death was part and parcel of life: people died, but the living moved on. Society ticked along all by itself, and we just went with the flow in a reasonably predictable world. There was the assumption of law and order that did not require our active engagement. There was an education ladder and a job at the end, if you put in the effort. Predictable.

Initially we were confident that this Corona-tsunami would pass. However, as it has stubbornly persisted, a future desert of human and economic devastation is steadily coalescing. According to the UN World Food Programme’s David Beasley, more than a quarter-billion people are now “marching toward the brink of starvation”, in large measure due to the Coronavirus. 400 million full-time jobs have already been lost.

Additionally it is becoming glaringly apparent that “leaders” and “scientists” alike are actually confused and unsure what to do. Like us, they are in fact flying by the seat of their pants. In one of the world's largest cities, New York, wrote Dan Adler of Vanity Fair, “frenzied confusion [is] about par for the course.” It has become obvious that the powers that be are not looking after our interests in the broader macro-economic or philosophic sense ...

The whole machine of civilisation is choking and stuttering, 
and a group of vultures are profiteering off its suffering.

In South Africa, where I write, “Rona” has glaringly exposed our elected officials for the worthless thieves that they actually were all long. The Auditor-General, Tsakani Maluleke, turned up “frightening findings,” and law enforcement agencies are investigating more than R10.5 billion (£500 million, or $700 million) in potentially corrupt Coronavirus spending across South Africa.

“What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.” (Morpheus, The Matrix, 1999).

The whole machine of civilisation is choking and stuttering, and a group of vultures are profiteering off its suffering. Bolts and cogs are daily falling off the interlocking wheels of our finely-meshed consumer society. Doomscrolling news on our smartphones only intensifies our existential angst.

Is it any surprise people feel the claws of despair in their inner being? No wonder existential anxiety is at an all-time high the pain of being alive; the pain of accepting that our own fate is horrifyingly, completely up to us. The philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote that it all evokes nausea.

Society offers very little hope, though some rage against this “invisible other” by destroying all symbols of authority and civilisation. But the spectre of a wasteland is not an encouraging future.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

(Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919).

In our 21st Century consumer society, we have become accustomed to problems being solved. We have become thin-skinned, forgotten the reality of war, and cannot accept that misfortune is “just life”. We demandingly insist that things get resolved, be it a skin cancer, refuse removal, or a luke-warm latte.

We find cognitive dissonance (stress, conflict) intolerable. So we act out, protest, insist on pills to solve what is essentially a personal, existential issue. We want pharmacy to numb our philosophy. Or money to numb our fear of poverty. Usually both. We feel the pressure of slowly being reduced to animals. Our noble ideals of ourselves as spiritual, caring and helping others, being steadily crushed by the predatory motivation of “every man for himself”.

The future appears “bleak,” as the trendy expression goes, but it is also a bleakness we have created in our own minds. Despair prompts apocalyptic solutions: get solar, prep your bunker and grow your own food; yield all responsibility to a totalitarian state; retreat into a personal haze of addiction and denial; kill yourself.

Realistically though, this is not the end of the world, but just another catastrophe, and a relatively mild one by historical standards. We should most determinedly resist despair.

What else remains but hard, personal moral choices?

Monday, 14 December 2020

Persuasion v. Manipulation in the Pandemic

Posted by Keith Tidman

Persuasion and manipulation to steer public behaviour are more than just special cases of each other. Manipulation, in particular, risks short-circuiting rational deliberation and free agency. So, where is the line drawn between these two ways of appealing to the public to act in a certain way, to ‘adopt the right behaviour’, especially during the current coronavirus pandemic? And where does the ‘common good’ fit into choices?


Consider two related aspects of the current pandemic: mask-wearing and being vaccinated. Based on research, such as that reported on in Nature (‘Face masks: what the data say’, Oct. 2020), mask-wearing is shown to diminish the spread of virus-loaded airborne particles to others, as well as to diminish one’s own exposure to others’ exhaled viruses. 

Many governments, scientists, medical professionals, and public-policy specialists argue that people therefore ought to wear masks, to help mitigate the contagion. A manifestly utilitarian policy position, but one rooted in controversy nonetheless. In the following, I explain why.


In some locales, mask-wearing is mandated and backed by sanctions; in other cases, officials seek willing compliance, in the spirit of communitarianism. Implicit in all this is the ethics-based notion of the ‘common good’. That we owe fellow citizens something, in a sense of community-mindedness. And of course, many philosophers have discussed this ‘common good’; indeed, the subject has proven a major thread through Western political and ethical philosophy, dating to ancient thinkers like Plato and Aristotle.

In The Republic, Plato records Socrates as saying that the greatest social good is the ‘cohesion and unity’ that stems from shared feelings of pleasure and pain that result when all members of a society are glad or sorry for the same successes and failures. And Aristotle argues in The Politics, for example, that the concept of community represented by the city-state of his time was ‘established for the sake of some good’, which overarches all other goods.

Two thousand years later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserted that citizens’ voluntary, collective commitment — that is, the ‘general will’ or common good of the community — was superior to each person’s ‘private will’. And prominent among recent thinkers to have explored the ‘common good’ is the political philosopher John Rawls, who has defined the common good as ‘certain general conditions that are . . . equally to everyone’s advantage’ (Theory of Justice, 1971).


In line with seeking the ‘common good’, many people conclude that being urged to wear a mask falls under the heading of civic-minded persuasion that’s commonsensical. Other people see an overly heavy hand in such measures, which they argue deprives individuals of the right — constitutional, civil, or otherwise — to freely make decisions and take action, or choose not to act. Free agency itself also being a common good, an intrinsic good. For some concerned citizens, compelled mask-wearing smacks of a dictate, falling under the heading of manipulation. Seen, by them, as the loss of agency and autonomous choice.


The readying of coronavirus vaccines, including early rollout, has led to its own controversies around choice. Health officials advising the public to roll up their sleeves for the vaccine has run into its own buzzsaw from some quarters. Pragmatic concerns persist: how fast the vaccines were developed and tested, their longer-term efficacy and safety, prioritisation of recipients, assessment of risk across diverse demographics and communities, cloudy public-messaging narratives, cracks in the supply chain, and the perceived politicising of regulatory oversight.

As a result of these concerns, nontrivial numbers of people remain leery, distrusting authority and harbouring qualms. As recent Pew, Gallup, and other polling on these matters unsurprisingly shows, some people might assiduously refuse ever to be vaccinated, or at least resist until greater clarity is shed on what they view as confusing noise or until early results roll in that might reassure. The trend lines will be watched.


All the while, officials point to vaccines as key to reaching a high enough level of population immunity to reduce the virus’s threat. Resulting in less contagion and fewer deaths, while allowing besieged economies to reopen with the business, social, and health benefits that entails. For all sorts of reasons — cultural, political, personal — some citizens see officials’ urgings regarding vaccinations as benign, well-intentioned persuasion, while others see it as guileful manipulation. One might consider where the Rawlsian common good fits in, and how the concept sways local, national, and international policy decision-making bearing on vaccine uptake.


People are surely entitled to persuade, even intensely. Perhaps on the basis of ethics or social norms or simple honesty: matters of integrity. But they may not be entitled to resort to deception or coercion, even to correct purportedly ‘wrongful’ decisions and behaviours. The worry being that whereas persuasion innocuously induces human behaviour broadly for the common good, coercive manipulation invalidates consent, corrupting the baseline morality of the very process itself. To that point, corrupt means taint ends.


Influence and persuasion do not themselves rise to the moral censure of coercive or deceptive manipulation. The word ‘manipulation’, which took on pejorative baggage in the eighteen hundreds, has special usages. Often unscrupulous in purpose, such as to gain unjust advantage. Meantime, persuasion may allow for abridged assumptions, facts, and intentions, to align with community expectations and with hoped-for behavioural outcomes to uphold the common good. A calculation that considers the veracity, sufficiency, and integrity of narratives designed to influence public choices, informed by the behavioural science behind effective public health communications. A subtler way, perhaps, to look at the two-dimensional axes of persuasion versus manipulation.


The seed bedding of these issues is that people live in social relationships, not as fragmented, isolated, socially disinterested individuals. They live in the completeness of what it means to be citizens. They live within relationships that define the Rawlsian common good. A concept that helps us parse persuasion and manipulation in the framework of inducing societal behaviour: like the real-world cases of mask-wearing and vaccinations, as the global community counterattacks this lethal pandemic.


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