Foreign policy

Unlimited Partnerships

unltd_scrnshtFirst there was Al Gore. Then there was Tony Blair. Next it’ll be … Kim Jong Il?

My new piece for San Francisco magazine plays off the mini-trend of world leaders teaming up with Silicon Valley venture capitalists to save the world and (ahem) make some money along the way. Herein, I imagine some more potential partnerships between the titans of tech and various heads of state:

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Intellectual Action Hero

burdick001If you follow the political game, you’ve probably heard of “dog-whistle politics.” That’s when politicians speak in code to their supporters–all of whom get the meaning even if outsiders don’t. Sarah Palin’s speech at CSU Stanislaus last week put me in mind of the dog whistle. Apparently, she discussed “the topic of teaching the next generation the civic lessons of protecting freedom and defending the American idea of liberty.” Sounds like conservative boilerplate, basically, and it is. But there’s a lot in that statement if you care to look. What her supporters hear is an affirmation of their worldview: of an America explicitly founded by Christians for Christians, of a low-tax, corporate-friendly, homogeneous nation that is free to do as it wishes on the world stage.

I mention all this because the subject of my new piece in California magazine had a keen ear for the dog whistle. Eugene Burdick was a Cal political scientist and a Hollywood screenwriter, a Navy man and a surfer, a public intellectual who hobnobbed with both Marlon Brando and JFK’s Whiz Kids. (His astonishingly varied resume suggested the title of the piece.) Burdick, who died in 1965, is mostly remembered today for his Cold War polemic, The Ugly American, which urged the US to adopt counterinsurgency tactics in Vietnam long before COIN was cool (COIN’s vogue over the last few years is in many ways a retread of 1960s-era thinking; so far, its lackluster results also echo that era.) Like so many liberals back then, Burdick was an ardent Cold Warrior, a “better dead than red” guy, and his writing reflects a mindset (one that’s admittedly difficult to conjure today) in which the Soviet Union posed an existential threat to our existence.

He was also, however, a preternaturally gifted political analyst, and his most interesting book wasn’t about foreign policy but about domestic politics. Published in 1956, The Ninth Wave combined surfing and California politics in what might you might call a dystopian potboiler. In some ways, the book is sort of a mess. It’s filled with clunky writing and reams of needless detail (apparently, he dictated his prose into a tape recorder, sans editing.) But the ideas–he was one of the first to see the ways in which opinion polling could be used to manipulate fearful voters–are eerily up-to-date.

Burdick’s main character, an amoral political consultant (and surfer) from L.A. named Mike Freesmith, cracks the code of the modern election campaign. Using the nascent science of computer-aided opinion polling, he slices-and-dices the electorate into easily manipulated blocs, then jacks up the fear and hate quotient to put his demagogic candidate on the road to the governor’s office. When asked what his secret is, Freesmith sounds depressingly au courant: “You scare them into voting for your man.”

You can read the whole thing here.

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Strange Renderings

This month’s issue of California runs my profile of Trevor Paglen, an artist, geographer, writer, and photographer who deals in exploring “the limits of what we can know,” as he put it to me one day. This broad category takes in everything from investigations of California’s vast prison network to gorgeous photos of “dead” satellites orbiting the earth. He’s played in a noise band (as one music blogger described the sound: “Has a band ever made you want to take a shit? Like involuntarily?”); he went toe-to-toe with Colbert; and he’s founded his own branch of geography, called experimental geography. Paglen specializes, however, in working the seam line between our government’s desire for secrecy and the public’s right to know. Here’s the beginning of the piece:

The light is fading on a bitter-cold December afternoon in Berkeley, and Trevor Paglen is talking about spy satellites. Specifically, he’s explaining how hard it is to photograph them–not just because our government doesn’t want us to know they’re there but also because they’re a long way away. “You’re basically trying to shoot something the size of a car on the other side of the Earth, but actually it’s even farther,” he says, his words dissolving into a machine-gun laugh. Then, dissatisfied with the imprecision of his statement, he says, “Wait, you know what the diameter of the Earth is?” He’s silent for a minute as he pulls out his iPhone and searches the Web, and then: “Yeah, it’s 8,000 miles, so that would be … ” He trails off again, running the calculations in his head. “Yeah, shooting something a little bigger than a car but from a distance of three times further than China.” Another rapid-fire laugh. “It’s far away.”

Check out the rest of the piece.

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Midan Hussein

457878689_5a9f97b2fc_oThe news of a terrorist bombing outside Hussein Mosque in Cairo hit close to home. Back when I worked there, I spent a lot of time wandering the alleys of Islamic Cairo (as it’s sometimes called), a portion of the city so ancient that buildings from the 16th century are generally considered “new.” At the end of 2000, I was working on a photo project for grad school, and spending more or less all of my time down there. It was the month of Ramadan, and you’re not supposed to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset, so most people lie low during the day (it’s not uncommon to see office workers sleeping under their desks) and stay up for most of the night, eating a big meal at three or four in the morning. Midan Hussein, which is near both the famous Khan Al Khalili bazaar and a bunch of local markets, is always pretty busy. But on those Ramadan nights it just pulsed with life: every cafe was full, and huge banquet tables were set up in the square, overflowing with families celebrating the holidays. As a foreigner whose command of Arabic was limited to pleasantries and directions, I was humbled by the friendliness of virtually everybody I met (this was, of course, before George W. Bush took office–lots of people were actually excited about him, believing that he would follow his father, who was tougher on Israel than most recent presidents). People invited me to eat with them, plied me with tea, held their children out for my admiration; I remember a long, midnight conversation with a bunch of Islamist students from Tanta, the Egyptian Fresno. We talked about faith and TV shows.

All told, it was a peaceful time in Cairo. The government had pretty much crushed the Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, going so far as to burn the fields in the Nile Valley to deny its enemies cover. But these things don’t so much die as simply burrow underground, only to reemerge later. Egypt is a dictatorship (witness the saidi soldiers on every street corner), and so long as that doesn’t change, nothing else will: its citizens will get poorer and angrier, and the insurgencies will reappear, just as brutal as ever. And yesterday the tourists in Midan Hussein paid the price.

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Middle East
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