11 July, 2018

Being vs. Doing in Ancient Chinese Thought--A Note

Yesterday's excerpt from the Zuo Zhuan is an excellent case study in the difficulty of translating classical Chinese into English (or into modern Chinese, for that matter). Here is the sentence of interest, as translated by Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Lee, and David Schaberg:
Having watched from her bedchamber, the girl said, “Gongsun Hei is handsome, to be sure, but You Chu is manly. For the man to be manly and the wife wifely: that is what is fitting." [1]
 Mark Edward Lewis translates Lady Xu’s judgement of the two men slightly differently:
“Gongsun Hei was sincere and fine, but You Chu was a man. For a man to be a man and a woman a woman is what we call true order.” [2]
The trouble comes with the phrase “for a man to be manly and a wife wifely/”for a man to be a man or a woman to be a woman.” In the classical Chinese, this entire sentence is only four words long: 夫夫婦婦 (in modern Mandarin: fū fū fù fù). If you translate it literally, all Lady Wu says is: “man man, woman woman.”

How to make sense of this? The key is that in classical Chinese the number of word classes any one word can belong to is usually much larger than in modern English. The word “man” can be used not just as a noun, but also as an adjective, adverb, or verb. In this sentence the second “man” and “woman” is intended as a verb. This can be difficult to grasp for English speakers. We sometimes use the word man as verb in English (think of the phrases “man up” or “man your stations”), but those uses are quite particular to specific situations. We don’t talk about the need for men to go “manning” their way through life (and we certainly don’t talk about "womaning" your way through anything).

This gets to one of the key conceptual differences between ancient Chinese thought and the kind of thoughts we express in modern English. Another example, this time from the Analects, helps make this difference clear:
The duke Jing, of Qi, asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, "There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son." [3]
Literally this reads: “Qi’s Jing-duke asks [about] governing to Confucius. Confucius replies: Lord lord, minister minister, father father, son son.”

You can translate this second part in several ways. You could say that the government is doing well when “fathers are fathers.” You could also translate it as “when fathers are fatherly” or “when fathers act like fathers.” But the most faithful translation would be to treat the second father as a verb: the realm does well when fathers father. This works, because the English language recognizes that being a father is not just something you are—it is also something you do. But we don’t think this way about most nouns. Fathering and mothering are things you do—but what about sonning, dauthering, or sistering? While I am sure my readers could come up with a list of responsibilities sons, daughters, or sisters have, the fact that one must do this to even talk about what it means to do sonhood or daughterhood shows how wide the gap between the world of ancient Chinese thought and our own really is.

So which came first, the role or the language which describes it? I am not sure. At first glance the former option seems the obvious answer. Because the ancient Chinese had such firm conceptions of what it meant to be a son, daughter, man, or woman, they devised words to describe people who did each. That is possible. However, I suspect (and not having studied the current state of Sapir-Whorf inspired research, it is only a suspicion) that the causality works the other way around. Classical Chinese forces you to think in terms of doing not being. I suspect ancient Chinese had such a firm conception of what it meant to be a son, daughter, man, or woman because they did not ask “what does it mean to be a man?” but “how do we do manhood?” [4] (Readers more up to date with the state of research on linguistic relativity are encouraged to to sound off in the comments!)

This is not a new or unique observation of my part.[5] But it does provide an interesting translation challenge. You cannot explain all this every time you translate a verb, and just have to try your best and make the result something sensible in English. This is probably how I would translate Lady Wu’s judgement of her suitors:

“Gongsun Hei is both earnest and fine-looking, but You Chu is a man. For a man to act as a man and a woman to act as a woman—that follows [the true order of things].”


[1] Trans by Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Lee, and David Schaberg, Zuo Tradition, vol III (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), 1317.

[2] Mark Edward Lewis, Sanctioned Violence in Early China (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), 43. 

[3] Analects 12:11. On James Legge, trans, “The Analects: 顏淵 - Yan Yuan.” Chinese Text project. Accessed 5 July 2018.

[4] Classical Chinese did have copulas, so it was possible for them to say “x is y” or “Y will be z.” Indeed Lady Xu uses a copula in the first part of her assessment of You Chu: “子皙信美矣.抑子南夫也.” (“As for Zinan [You Chu], he is a man.” But they were used far less than simply smacking two terms next to each other.

[5] For a good example, read Ames's introduction in Sun Tzu: The Art of War (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 43-64

10 July, 2018

Manning Up in Ancient China

One of many delightful pearls found inside the Zuo Zhuan, the oldest historical narrative in East Asia:
The younger sister of Xuwu Fan of Zheng was beautiful. You Chu had already formalized his engagement with her when Gongsun Hei sent someone who insisted on presenting her with a betrothal fowl. Alarmed, Xuwu Fan told Zichan. Zichan said, “This is because the domain lacks correct governing. It is not your worry. Go with whichever one you want.” 
Fan requested the two men to allow the girl to choose between them. Both consented. Gongsun Hei entered in elegant attire, laid out gifts of cloth, and exited. You Chu entered in military attire, shot arrows got the left and to the right, leaped into his chariot, and exited. 

Having watched from her bedchamber, the girl said, “Gongsun Hei is handsome, to be sure, but You Chu is manly. For the man to be manly and the wife wifely: that is what is fitting." She married into the family of You Chu.
Zuo Zhuan, Lord Zhao 1.7 [1]
Things did not turn out too well for our ancient Chinese Chad. Shortly after this episode Gongsun Hei attacked You Chu in revenge. You Chu defended himself well, but the higher ranking and better connected Gongsun Hei was able to frame the altercation as insubordination. Zichan had You Chu exiled from Zheng. Whether he was able to take his new bride with him into exile the text does not say.


[1] Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Lee, and David Schaberg, trans., Zuo Tradition, vol III (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), 1317.

06 July, 2018

What Cyber-War Will Look Like

When prompted to think about the way hackers will shape the future of great power war, we are wont to imagine grand catastrophes: F-35s grounded by onboard computer failures, Aegis BMD systems failing to launch seconds before Chinese missiles arrive, looks of shock at Space Command as American surveillance satellites start careening towards the Earth--stuff like that. This is the sort of thing that fills the opening chapters of Peter Singer and August Cole's Ghost Fleet. [1] The catastrophes I always imagine, however, are a bit different than this. The hacking campaigns I envision would be low-key, localized, and fairly low-tech. A cyber-ops campaign does not need to disable key weapon systems to devastate the other side's war effort. It will be enough to increase the fear and friction enemy leaders face to tip the balance of victory and defeat. Singer and company are not wrong to draw inspiration from technological change; nor are they wrong to attempt to imagine operations with few historical precedents. But that isn't my style. When asked to ponder the shape of cyber-war, my impulse is to look first at the kind of thing hackers are doing today and ask how these tactics might be applied in a time of war.

Mark Cancian thinks like I do.

In a report Cancian wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies on how great powers adapt to tactical and strategic surprise, Cancian sketched out twelve "vignettes" of potential technological or strategic shocks to make his abstract points a bit more concrete. Here is how Cancian imagines an "asymmetric cyber-attack" launched by the PRC against the United States Military:
 The U.S. secretary of defense had wondered this past week when the other shoe would drop.  Finally, it had, though the U.S. military would be unable to respond effectively for a while. 
The scope and detail of the attack, not to mention its sheer audacity, had earned the grudging respect of the secretary. Years of worry about a possible Chinese "Assassin's Mace"-a silver bullet super-weapon capable of disabling key parts of the American military-turned out to be focused on the wrong thing. 
The cyber attacks varied. Sailors stationed at the 7th Fleet' s homeport in Japan awoke one day to find their financial accounts, and those of their dependents, empty. Checking, savings, retirement funds: simply gone. The Marines based on Okinawa were under virtual siege by the populace, whose simmering resentment at their presence had boiled over after a YouTube video posted under the account of a Marine stationed there had gone viral. The video featured a dozen Marines drunkenly gang-raping two teenaged Okinawan girls. The video was vivid, the girls' cries heart-wrenching the cheers of Marines sickening And all of it fake. The National Security Agency's initial analysis of the video had uncovered digital fingerprints showing that it was a computer-assisted lie, and could prove that the Marine's account under which it had been posted was hacked. But the damage had been done. 
There was the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base whose Internet browser history had been posted on the squadron's Facebook page. His command turned on him as a pervert; his weak protestations that he had not visited most of the posted links could not counter his admission that he had, in fact, trafficked some of them. Lies mixed with the truth. Soldiers at Fort Sill were at each other's throats thanks to a series of text messages that allegedly unearthed an adultery ring on base. 
The variations elsewhere were endless. Marines suddenly owed hundreds of thousands of dollars on credit lines they had never opened; sailors received death threats on their Twitter feeds; spouses and female service members had private pictures of themselves plastered across the Internet; older service members received notifications about cancerous conditions discovered in their latest physical. 
Leadership was not exempt. Under the hashtag # PACOMMUSTGO a dozen women allegedly described harassment by the commander of Pacific command. Editorial writers demanded that, under the administration's "zero tolerance" policy, he step aside while Congress held hearings. 
There was not an American service member or dependent whose life had not been digitally turned upside down. In response, the secretary had declared "an operational pause," directing units to stand down until things were sorted out. 
Then, China had made its move, flooding the South China Sea with its conventional forces, enforcing a sea and air identification zone there, and blockading Taiwan. But the secretary could only respond weakly with a few air patrols and diversions of ships already at sea. Word was coming in through back channels that the Taiwanese government, suddenly stripped of its most ardent defender, was already considering capitulation. [2]
How is that for a cyber-attack?

A few points should be made about the tactics of this sort of campaign. Consider a tactical option not included in this vignette, but one whose utility has been proven time and again in the real world: swatting. To swat properly, all you would need is a name, an address, and a way to place a phone-call. Swatting is limited in some ways. It is unlikely to kill its targets. Only a few targets living in one jurisdiction could be swatted at one time, as SWAT teams are a limited resource. And you can really only target the same family once; first responders remember places that have been swatted. But there are unique advantages to this sort of thing. Unlike, say, an assassination campaign, swatting could be used to target fairly high-level leadership (say, the NSC lead for Asia, the director of the DIA, or more locally, the commander of a place like Joint-Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham) without putting said leadership in the sort of danger that would call for lethal retaliation in your own capital. On the other hand, if your operational doctrine calls for the assassination of enemy political and military leaders from the outset (as, say, the People Liberation Army's plans for any attack on Taiwan requires), then swatting leaders who are unlikely to be caught up in the first round of attacks would be an efficient way to sow as much chaos as possible. [3]

Sowing chaos is not a goal sought for its own sake. Swatting would be most effective if conducted as part of a broader campaign. If the purpose is to distract the enemy before a surprise invasion, as Cancian's scenario imagines, then it probably would not be wise to go all-out on all fronts a week before zero-hour. That would simply tip the enemy off that an attack is coming. A more subtle and targeted approach would be more appropriate there. On the other hand, if the goal is to throw a spanner in the enemy OODA loop and throw up as much friction as possible once more traditional military operations have begun, then there would be little reason for restraint. This would be particularly true if participants imagined that the war hinged on a "decisive" campaign fought over a short time period (the PLA's belief that the fight for Taiwan will be won or lost in the first two weeks of fighting is a good candidate here). [4] An alternate rationale for extensive swatting in the lead up to a general attack would be to wear down and overtax the enemy's emergency response systems, who would not enter the coming war or battle in a state of readiness. Finally, a swatting campaign, especially if conducted in tandem with other attacks of a similar nature, could have a demoralizing effect on both the citizenship and the leadership of the enemy. The effect on the leadership is especially interesting to contemplate. Obviously decision making will be hampered if important decision-makers have to spend time in a crisis convincing policemen that there is actually no hostage crisis in their house, finding a way to pay for lunch now that their credit cards don't work, or investigating the rape threats being sent to their teenage daughters' Instagram. Less clear is how psychologically damaging this might be. The political and military leaders of many countries are not used to having their families targeted in times of war. It may very well break their nerve--especially on the short term. In the long term, however, it will likely just embitter enemy leadership and give them a very personal reason to stay committed to the fight.

The good news in all this is that some of these things can be mitigated against. This mode of thinking comes easy to me partly because I follow digital privacy and security blogs and researchers closely. They spread stories of this sort around like 7th grade girls spread rumors. The best of them also share tips on how to protect your family against many of these attacks. My favorites are Michael Bazzell and Justin Carroll, authors of the Privacy and Security Desk Reference vol I and vol II, and hosts of the Privacy and Security Podcast. My hope is that the broader world of federal employees can become familiar with these guys and their tribe. They cannot help with all of scenarios Cancian or I can come up with, but they can help with some of them. For example, if the idea of waking up tomorrow and discovering that PLA hackers have borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars in your name scares you,  Bazzell's guide on how to implement a credit freeze is worth your time.

A final parting thought. It is trivially easy to find an American's address, ruin their credit score, steal their investments, use their social media or email accounts against them, and generally ruin someone's life through digital means. America's two greatest rivals (Russia and China) do not hesitate to harass, beat up, or intimidate American personnel. But stories of this type are very rare. Why is this? It isn't because they lack the capacity. They have it now. If they are not regularly harassing Americans today, it most likely because they do not want Americans to be better prepared for the conflict of tomorrow. 


[1] Peter Singer and August Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2016).

[2] Mark Cancian, Coping With Surprise in Great Power Conflicts (Washington: CSIS, 2018), 110-111.

[3] Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia (Eastbridge Books, 2017),  ch. 4

[4] ibid, ch. 5.

28 June, 2018

The Scholar's Stage: Who Are You and What do You Like to Read?

Folks, I am pleased to announce that—starting this week—the tempo at which I publish new material here shall increase dramatically. In a recent post I mentioned that I was leaving China. That move is now over with. My new position in America will allow me to devote far more time to writing than I could get away with in Beijing. In consequence, I will be publishing at least one blog post, book review, op-ed, or piece of original reporting a week. Not all of these pieces will be first published here at the Stage, but (as has been the case with past columns for other publications) I will link to anything I publish here, and will probably include a few additional thoughts on the issue at hand that had to be cut out to meet word-count requirements.

I realize that my writing has slowed down over the last year or so, and though my more successful posts can still pull in a good 10,000+ clicks, a large number of former readers have moved on. If you are one of the people who is still reading: thank you.

I would like to get a better picture for who this core readership is and what it is you look most forward to reading here at the Stage. To this end I have set up a short reader's survey. The survey has three parts. The first asks about how you originally found this website and what content you most want to see published on it; the second is a demographic questionnaire, and the third asks basic questions about your political beliefs. I only ask that you fill out the first section. I would be pleased, however, if you filled out the other two, as I am curious about the demographics of this site's readership. If enough people fill the second and third sections out, I will write a post up that explores the data.

One of the questions on the survey asks what posts of things you most enjoy reading here at the Stage. I split my posts up into six broad categories:
1) ‘Clear eyed’ takes on international affairs and contemporary security issues (with a focus on East and Southeast Asia). 
2) Long-form essays on macro-historical topics or little known historical events (with a focus on East and Southeast Asia).
3) Accessible summaries of social science literature with a focus on potential applications/ramifications of the results outside of their home discipline. 
4) Criticism and analysis of modern American culture, politics, or society through a comparative or historical lens. 
5) Meditations or musings on theoretical problems in strategic theory, political philosophy, or the historian’s craft. 
6) Meditations or musings on Chinese literature, philosophy, or culture.

To give you a sense for what might be included in each of these categories, the posts "China Does Not Want Your Rules-Based Order," "The Fight Against ISIS: A Few (Unorthodox) Points for Discussion," "A Few Comments on China, Vietnam and the HYSY981 Crisis" and my Foreign Policy piece "Cambodia Wants China as its Neighborhood Bully" are fair representatives of the first category.

The posts "History is Written by The Losers," "Everybody Wants a Thucydides Trap," "A Short History of Han-Xiongnu Wars," "The Growth Revolution," and my book review of Shanghai 1937 for Strategy Bridge are good examples of my history-oriented writing.

I used to write posts in the third category quite often but have not pursued them as much in recent years. See posts like "What Those Chinese Think (+What We Think Back)," "From Foreigners to Countrymen: How Many Generations Until Immigrants Think Like the Rest of Us?," and "America Makes You Violent" for examples.

The fourth category can be divided into two parts. One might be termed cultural criticism. That would include posts like "Conservative Fairy-tales and Liberal Allegories?" and "A Short Defense of the Musical Hamilton." The analysis side of the coin would include posts like "Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: A Three Century Tour of American Political Culture," and "Economies of Scale have Killed the American Dream."

The fifth category would include book reviews or annotations, as done in "Justice as Vengeance: Passages I Highlighted in my Copy of 'Eye for an Eye,'"  summaries or reinterpretations of political philosophers or strategic thinkers from days past (ala "Introducing: Asabiyah" or "The Radical Sunzi") or attempts to solve problems I see in the way folks think about this or that theoretical issue  (ala "Fiction and the Strategist" or "Islamic Terrorism in Context").

The sixth category is probably the least explored of them all. The post "Learning From Old China" provides a hint of what this might look like, as I suppose, do the posts "The Radical Sunzi" (linked to above) and "The OODA Loop, Ancient China Style." The Chinese intellectual and literary tradition is vast, and deserves to be popularized, analyzed, and shared beyond the cloisters of East Asian Languages departments.

Of course, there are plenty of posts that blur lines and cross categories (e.g., "ISIS, the Mongols, and the Return of Ancient Challenges"). But those category spanning posts don't lessen the challenge that this list highlights:  I simply write about too many different things. I suspect that readers that come to the Stage to read about PLAN machinations in the South China Sea have little desire to hear critiques of America's victimhood culture or political economy, while those interested in my take on such culture war topics might not care at all for explications on medieval Arab political philosophers or Tang dynasty poets. A partial solution to this is to try and find outside publications that specialize in these different topics (though this is easier for some topics than other ones—hot takes on international affairs are not too hard to place; publications that will take book reviews of new monographs in ancient Chinese thought are considerably more difficult to find). But even there one must prioritize. Thus my interest in seeing what kind of posts keep readers coming back to the site.

To help with that, please consider taking a few minutes out of your day to fill out the official Scholar's Stage Reader's Survey.

01 June, 2018

Moral Hazards and China

Image Source.

Four hundred thousand to one million people in concentration camps.

If these estimates are true,  that means that at least one—and perhaps far more—of every ten Uyghur men lives in a re-education camp right now.

Those numbers come from an article published by the Associated Press two weeks ago. [1] This week's Economist lists a similar tally. It goes on to describe in detail a few of the other things happening in the sands of old Turkestan:
Under a system called fanghuiju, teams of half a dozen—composed of policemen or local officials and always including one Uighur speaker, which almost always means a Uighur—go from house to house compiling dossiers of personal information. Fanghuiju is short for “researching people’s conditions, improving people’s lives, winning people’s hearts”. But the party refers to the work as “eradicating tumours”. The teams—over 10,000 in rural areas in 2017—report on “extremist” behaviour such as not drinking alcohol, fasting during Ramadan and sporting long beards. They report back on the presence of “undesirable” items, such as Korans, or attitudes—such as an “ideological situation” that is not in wholehearted support of the party.

Since the spring of 2017, the information has been used to rank citizens’ “trustworthiness” using various criteria. People are deemed trustworthy, average or untrustworthy depending on how they fit into the following categories: 15 to 55 years old (ie, of military age); Uighur (the catalogue is explicitly racist: people are suspected merely on account of their ethnicity); unemployed; have religious knowledge; pray five times a day (freedom of worship is guaranteed by China’s constitution); have a passport; have visited one of 26 countries; have ever overstayed a visa; have family members in a foreign country (there are at least 10,000 Uighurs in Turkey); and home school their children. Being labelled “untrustworthy” can lead to a camp. 
To complete the panorama of human surveillance, the government has a programme called “becoming kin” in which local families (mostly Uighur) “adopt” officials (mostly Han). The official visits his or her adoptive family regularly, lives with it for short periods, gives the children presents and teaches the household Mandarin. He also verifies information collected by fanghuiju teams. The programme appears to be immense. According to an official report in 2018, 1.1m officials have been paired with 1.6m families. That means roughly half of Uighur households have had a Han-Chinese spy/indoctrinator assigned to them. 
Such efforts map the province’s ideological territory family by family; technology maps the population’s activities street by street and phone by phone. In Hotan and Kashgar there are poles bearing perhaps eight or ten video cameras at intervals of 100-200 metres along every street; a far finer-grained surveillance net than in most Chinese cities. As well as watching pedestrians the cameras can read car number plates and correlate them with the face of the person driving. Only registered owners may drive cars; anyone else will be arrested, according to a public security official who accompanied this correspondent in Hotan. The cameras are equipped to work at night as well as by day. 
Because the government sees what it calls “web cleansing” as necessary to prevent access to terrorist information, everyone in Xinjiang is supposed to have a spywear app on their mobile phone. Failing to install the app, which can identify people called, track online activity and record social-media use, is an offence. “Wi-Fi sniffers” in public places keep an eye, or nose, on all networked devices in range. 
Next, the records associated with identity cards can contain biometric data including fingerprints, blood type and DNA information as well as the subject’s detention record and “reliability status”. The government collects a lot of this biometric material by stealth, under the guise of a public-health programme called “Physicals for All”, which requires people to give blood samples. Local officials “demanded [we] participate in the physicals,” one resident of Kashgar told Human Rights Watch, an NGO. “Not participating would have been seen as a problem…” 
A system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), first revealed by Human Rights Watch, uses machine-learning systems, information from cameras, smartphones, financial and family-planning records and even unusual electricity use to generate lists of suspects for detention. One official WeChat report said that verifying IJOP’s lists was one of the main responsibilities of the local security committee. Even without high-tech surveillance, Xinjiang’s police state is formidable. With it, it becomes terrifying. [2]
Contemplate these things. We are over-due for a moral accounting.

Over the last two years, a substantial part of my income has come through leading reading seminars with Chinese students who will go on to study in American universities. We've read history, philosophy, and literature together. Some of my students have said very nice things to me over these two years. The most flattering compliment any of my students have ever offered me was only given two weeks ago. At the completion of one of the seminars, the student told me that she had never met (nor heard of) an American who was as fair to China as I was. It was a small thing, but coming as it did from one of the seminar's shiest students (and what is more, after grades had been submitted!), it was meaningful to me.  One engages differently with different audiences, of course. I suspect that those who read this blog or my twitter feed will be surprised to hear comments like that; I make no apology for the hard line I take with the Party. But my goal has always been to understand issues as they are seen from the inside, and when the occasion demands it, to articulate them in a way that even the ardent Party faithful would agree with. In some cases this is easy. The Party line on America is actually, in many respects, a far more accurate vision of American foreign policy than many of the things we Americans—left or right—like to tell ourselves. But not all issues are so easy. Still, I try. My student's comment was a small confirmation that my efforts have not completely been in vain.

I take a similar approach to the history we study. I have studied many of the nastiest parts of modern history with my students. Slavery.  Japanese war-mongering. The Holocaust. My approach to these atrocities is simple: it is not enough to empathize with the victims. That is easy. It is also mostly useless. The real challenge is to try and feel the emotions, understand the fears, and take seriously the ideas that lead perpetrators to commit the crimes they did. One must not just sympathize with the tyrannized--one must also try and sympathize with the tyrant.

Why is this necessary? Why focus just as much on the experience and fears of the slaver as the slave? Because you are far more likely to become a slaver than you are to suffer as a slave. In his book on the 14 million people murdered by the Soviet and Nazi regimes in Eastern Europe, historian Timothy Snyder makes this point well:
It is far more inviting, at least today in the West, to identify with the victims than to understand the historical setting that they shared with perpetrators and bystanders in the bloodlands…Yet it is unclear whether this identification with victims brings much knowledge, or whether this kind of alienation from the murderer is an ethical stance. It is not at all obvious that reducing history to morality plays makes anyone moral....It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of the victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander. [3]
So one must try and sympathize with the tyrant. But one must not forget what tyranny is.

We see tyranny before us today. To put it bluntly: the Communist Party of China is an enemy to freedom of worship and freedom of conscience. With a small exception to be made (depending on how one counts) for North Korea, there is no greater. No tyranny in human history has ruled more people than the Party does now. But we must be truthful about the nature of this tyranny. Tyranny can be popular. If we are honest we will recognize that many—perhaps even most—of the Party's subjects are quite content being just that: subjects. Not all people cry for freedom.

Xinjiang is different. Here a people is crying. They have been subjected to a new and frightening form of despotism, a terrible marriage of terror and technology. To enforce this new tyranny the Party has imprisoned one out of every twelve to one out of every six adults. Each has been subjected to torture (or the threat of it), insult, betrayal (or the threat of it), and an attack on all they hold sacred.  Each has been plugged into an Orwellian system of surveillance that rates, rewards, and punishes them for everything they do or identify with. There is nothing else in our world like it.

There are moral hazards here.

The hazards have layers. The prison torturer is more culpable that the prison guard, who is more culpable than the bureaucrat next door, who in turn is more culpable than the bureaucrat in a distant province. But each is part of system that keeps the machine of torture and tyranny rolling. Each man might contribute only his mite—but 1.3 billion mites is a heavy yoke to bear.

Yet  it is not just Chinese who add in their mites. Every businessman, every investor, every pundit, and every well-oiled ex-politician must search themselves. Do their words, deeds, or funds help hold up the machine? We cannot say anymore "well that's just Xinjiang" or "most of the Party isn't that bad." There are one million people in concentration camps! Those kind of comments could be allowed a decade ago—but not now. Things are now far too terrible for that.

I leave Beijing shortly. I am fortunate. I will not be a part—even a small little part—of this system any longer. My plans to leave were finalized before these reports were made public, so I cannot claim any special virtue here. But I am glad that I will not need to lose any sleep over being a cog in the infernal machine. I am luckier than most: I have the opportunity to leave. Most Chinese will never be given the chance to escape the moral hazard the Party quite purposefully forces them into.

We—and by we I mean all non-Chinese reading this—do have that chance.

A moral accounting is in order. I don't ask for a witch hunt.  I stand against twitter mobs as a matter of principle. Far better for this to be a matter of private change, not public shame. But for that to happen we need this first step: the recognition that the PRC of 2018 belongs in the same moral category that we placed the USSR in during 1950s. There are those among us who would not imagine supporting the Gulags of that regime, but do not feel so strongly about the Gulags of our own day.  If you are one of these people, the time has come to ask yourself: why? 


[1] Gerry Shih, "China's Mass Indoctorination Camps Evoke Cultural Revolution" Associated Press, May 2018.

[2] "China has turned Xinjiang into a Police State Like No Other" The Economist, 31 May 2018.

[3] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2014),  400.

01 May, 2018

Book Notes — Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction

Antulio Echevarria’s Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction is a short and accessible introduction to military strategy, as ‘strategy’ is thought about and debated in American national security circles today. It will be a useful read for many simply as introduction to the terminology of the modern defense intellectual. Echevarria has both the strengths and weaknesses of this class, and I found the historical references he uses to be, in their own way, illuminating. The bulk of these references were to the wars of the Roman Republic and early Empire, Napoleon’s campaigns, the American Civil War, World War II, the French and American failure to crush Vietnamese communists, Cold War deterrence strategies, the Gulf War, and numerous contemporary insurgencies. A slew of other conflicts get a side reference here or there. The only surprises in this list is the dearth of references to those two pillars of realist theory, the First World War and the Peloponnesian War. I suspect the first is omitted because Echevarria wants to dispel the stereotype that attritional warfare must look like so many Sommes; Thucydides is probably left out because Echevarria centers his work on what he labels military strategy, and Thucydides focuses so often on the level of action that Echevarria calls grand strategy. We will return to Echevarria’s distinction between military strategy and grand strategy later on in this post.

A book like this is by its nature a summary of what other thinkers have written and said. Again, Echevarria’s choices on this front are illuminating. His discussion of strategic thought is very much focused on the debates of the current moment. The difference between Echevarria and most of his fellow defense intellectuals is that Echevarria is a great deal more familiar with the origins of the terms and concepts that dominate modern defense discourse than most. He does a swell job of tracing these concepts back to their roots without drowning his readers in a sea of names, dates, and acronyms. Almost all of the foundational strategic theorists—Jomini, Clausewitz, Douhet, Galula, Schelling and so on—get a call out sooner or later. However, Echevarria rarely lets any of these men get the final word, and supplements their theories with the concepts (and occasionally, the controversies) current among American defense intellectuals over the last 40 years. Contrary to my expectations, the names Mahan and Corbett do not appear in this text. The debates that follow from their line of inquiry—is war at sea fundamentally different from war at land, the relationship between geography and strategy, the entire concept of ‘jointness’ and the ghastly pestilence of acronyms spawned because of it—are left unaddressed. Other omissions are less surprising: Sunzi and Mao make appearances, but no other Chinese theorist of war is mentioned, nor are the actual campaigns that Mao took part in (which only occasionally corresponded to his theories) highlighted. Lenin does get a mention, but none of the other 20th century Russian strategists appear. India’s long strategic tradition is unreferenced.

One cannot fit everything into a hundred pages, so these omissions will be excused. But given what is missing, it is interesting to see what Echeveria goes out of his way to include. Entire chapters of the book are devoted to cyber-warfare, “targeted killing” (e.g. drone strikes), and terrorism. While certainly topics of interest to the national security professional, I remain unconvinced that any truly lies in the domain of military strategy. Each of these rests somewhere in those grey mists that separate military operations from the realm of law enforcement or spookery. Whether political assassination is a natural extension of military or spookish operations is a hot topic, of course. An intellectual take like Echevarria’s hides the fact that there is a very real, albeit low-key, turf war being waged between JSOC and the CIA’s Directorate of Operations over just who should be running America’s bomb-‘em-from-above campaigns. Echevarria does not take side in that dispute, but the fact that this dispute exists points to why drones are a relatively prominent part of this book in the first place: cyber-warfare, counter-terrorism, and decapitation strikes are still thorny issues for the American defense intellectuals. Conceptually and institutionally, they are unsettled questions. It is hard to imagine that these questions will stay unsettled. I suspect that in future years these sections will hopelessly date the book.

Another way to make this same point goes like this: though this book is titled Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction, a more accurate title might be something like Concepts Used to Analyze Strategic Problems In Vogue with American Military Thinkers in the Early 21st Century, Along With a Few Thoughts on National Security Controversies of the Last Few Years: A Very Short Introduction. This is not meant as a criticism of the book. It is probably exactly what the vast majority of its readers want. But it does mean this book's content will be far less enduring than it could have been.

In describing Echevarria as something of the ur-American defense intellectual, I fear that I have given the impression that his ideas or his writing are run-of-the-mill. This is not true. Being able to relate complex ideas in plain language is a rare gift. Echevarria has got that gift. His thinking is also razor-sharp. He is an example of the American defense intellectual at his most excellent. But this is, as suggested above, very much a book of the moment. Whether by accident or intent, this book is a neat little summary of what problems the American defense intellectual is thinking about right now and what historical analogies and concepts he or she is using to think through them.

Echevarria’s most important contribution in this book is conceptual. To relate the current state of strategic theory, Echevarria decides to group all possible military strategies into ten basic categories. These categories cut across more traditional conceptions of war (insurgencies vs. wars of maneuver, naval vs. land-based campaigns, total vs. limited wars, etc.) and are not limited to any single era. These basic types are:

  • Strategies of annihilation
  • Strategies of attrition
  • Strategies of dislocation
  • Strategies of exhaustion
  • Strategies of coercion
  • Strategies of deterrence
  • Strategies of terror
  • Strategies of terrorism
  • Strategies of decapitation
  • Strategies of targeted killing

I consider the last four somewhat spurious. Echevarria describes strategies of terror as strategies that make “use of terror to coerce or intimidate” (64) or follows from the premise that “terrorizing the populace should drive [their leaders] to capitulate” (69). By way of example, he includes both the American fire-bombing of Japan and the political assignation campaigns carried out by Algerian nationalists during their war of independence as example of "strategies of terror." However, I fail to see a meaningful distinction between these type of operations and what Echevarria earlier calls “strategies of exhaustion” and “strategies of coercion” (which I will discuss with greater length below). For now it is simply enough to note that the word coerce appears in Echevarria’s own definition of terror-strategies, strongly suggesting that this type of strategy is merely a subset of “strategies of coercion” type he introduces earlier in the book. 

 Targeted killing seems to be a similar sort of category error—depending on the tempo and preciseness with which these operations are being conducted, I don’t see a good reason to classify them as anything but a tactical subset of the first four strategic types. Echevarria himself admits that terrorism may be better understood as a tactic than as a strategy (65), and he probably would have been better off treating it as such.

 I have similar reservations about decapitation strikes and kidnappings, and tend to see them as mirror images terrorist campaigns. One is used by the weak against the strong for the sake of generating publicity, fear, distrust, and discord; the other is used by the strong against the weak for the exact same purposes. As Echevarria’s many case studies using drug cartels and criminal syndicates suggests, it is not clear that either type of violent act truly rests in the province of military strategy. If the "strategy" can be used just as easily by law enforcement agencies and criminals as it can two parties at war, its use as a specifically military strategy is questionable. Al Capone ordered a decapitation strike on mobster rival Dean O’Banion in 1924. Are we ready to call that a military strategy? If so we have reduced the meaning of that word to mere “the use of organized violence to achieve certain ends.” This seems to be broader that Echevarria is willing to go. The fact that military assets are used for these operations is also not sufficient to upgrade these particular acts to military strategy. After all, military assets have also been used to police streets and run medical clinics. If this latter sort of operation does not get its own category of strategy as well, then it is difficult to justify the special attention given to targeted killings, decapitation strikes, and terrorist bombings.

In contrast, the first six categories—annihilation, dislocation, attrition, exhaustion, deterrence, and coercion—are solid. Laying out and defending these categories is the great achievement of this book. The difference between the first four of these strategies might be best explained through a diagram of my own creation:

Strategies of annihilation and strategies of attrition both attempt to force the enemy into accepting one’s will by reducing their physical capacity to resist it. Strategies of annihilation attempt to do this quickly, usually through set-piece battles. For success they rely on the physical destruction of a large percentage of the enemy leadership, army, or populace—a large enough percentage, at least, that future resistance is physically impossible. Echevarria highlights the Napoleon’s 1805 campaign—which ended with the Battle of Austerlitz—and the destruction of the Spanish fleets off of Manila and Santiago Bay in Spanish-American War as examples of this strategy successfully employed. The Battle of Cannae is given as an example of a strategy of annihilation that failed. If a failure to annihilate the enemy force does not lead directly to your own annihilation, the campaign quickly bogs down into a war of attrition.

Echevarria uses the word attrition in the normal sense. A strategy of attrition is an attempt to grind the enemy down bit by bit until they either do not have the men, the money, or the material to keep the fight going. The First World War is the paradigmatic example of this sort of warfare in most folk’s minds, but Echevarria instead chooses to focus on the Allied strategy during the Second World War. He does this, I believe, to dispel the notion that attrition warfare means mad dashes towards enemy machine gun nests. An attritional strategy need not be static. It can require movement and grand maneuver. It can be conducted between fighter planes, armor formations, or submarines. All that matters for a strategy to fall under this rubric is that it does not attempt to create one decisive point upon which the fate of nations turns, and that when the defeat of one of its parties arrives, their collapse comes less from a lack of will than from a lack of the physical capacity to send more soldiers to the front.

Strategies of dislocation and exhaustion focus on the enemy’s will. By fostering awe, surprise, confusion, and shock, a strategy of dislocation aims to disrupt the enemy’s ability to understand the situation on the ground and effectively resist your forces. The key case study here is the Nazi Blitzkrieg through France, which defeated the French while destroying only a small part of the French armed forces. The modern phrase “shock and awe” catches the gist of this sort of strategy perfectly. If strategies of dislocation are the psychological counterpart to strategies of annihilation (both seeking quick decision through overwhelming force), strategies of exhaustion shadow those of attrition. The difference between attrition and exhaustion is that a strategy of exhaustion sets its sights a bit lower: it aims not to slowly destroy the enemy’s physical ability to continue the fight, but their willingness to sacrifice anything more for victory. In some wars, such as the First World War, this is a distinction without a difference. In other wars, however, such as America’s sojourn in South Vietnam, the difference is obvious. The North Vietnamese never had the power to defeat the Americans through attrition. They did have power to exhaust their willingness to stay in the fight.

The last two strategies, that of coercion and deterrence, are mirror images of each other. What sets these strategies apart from those discussed above is their focus on threat. Deterrence seeks to deter an enemy from doing something you do not want them to do by threat of force; coercion seeks to coerce (or compel) an enemy into doing something they would not like to do by threat of force. In each case, military force is used to persuade your opponents that you have the capacity and the willingness to inflict pain upon them—and that the pain you are able and willing to inflict will exceed the pain of complying with your wishes. Because these two strategies focus just as much on the threat of force as its actual use, they are the only two that are exercised in peace-time. In many ways, actual war begins once one of these strategies fails. However, coercion and deterrence can bleed into war itself. War provides an opportunity to prove that one actually does have the capacity to wreck the sort of havoc promised earlier. It also provides the opportunity to show that one can take the wounds the other side can deliver, and thus prove that your own side will not be deterred. As wars stretch on in time, however, the distinction between coercion and exhaustion begins to blur.

These six categories are a useful heuristic, and simply classifying different campaigns into one category is a worthwhile exercise. The Imperial Japanese Navy, for example, had since the time of Tsushima a strong preference for strategies of annihilation. Realizing that complete annihilation of America’s fleets and war-making powers was not possible, they hoped instead to use a strategy of dislocation and deterrence—the hope being that the Americans would be so shocked by the destruction of their Pacific holdings and fleets, and so wary of the cost of recapturing and rebuilding what they had lost, that they would come to the bargaining table instead of risk further battle. As things happened, the Americans instead decided to wage an all-out war of attrition designed to fully dismember the Japanese empire. Once the Japanese Navy was sunk to the bottom, Japan’s only response was to fight a desperate war of exhaustion-cum-deterrence, going to extreme lengths and committing extreme sacrifices to raise the costs of Allied victory. The American decision to use the atomic bombs was a decision to put coercion ahead of attrition, and it, combined with the very real strategy of annihilation being used against the Gwandung Army by the Soviets, convinced the Japanese to capitulate.

I go through this exercise to show that these categories—while compelling—are rougher around the edges than they seem, and a commander may adopt or forsake one approach as circumstances require. A single campaign may actually be simultaneously of different types. Was the Battle of Yorktown, for example, the culmination of a strategy of annihilation or a strategy of exhaustion? The answer depends in large part on whether you view the Yorktown campaign from the perspective of Lord Cornwallis or Lord North.

If you want to see how clarifying this sort of exercise is yourself, consider this question: which of the six types of strategies are American troops in Afghanistan following?

My biggest disappointment with Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction is that it downplays the political element of military operations. This is—again—a characteristically American thing to do. I am grateful that Americans enshrine the principle of dividing the civil so strongly from the military, and this reluctance to admit politics into military strategy reflects a real reluctance on the part of military leaders and thinkers to let partisan concerns poison their professionalism. This a good thing. But it leads to some blind spots. This can be seen in the one passage where Echevarria does gesture towards this issue:

Commanders define risk as the likelihood a mission might fail: high risk means high probability of failure. They usually try to reduce risk by increasing resources in some way. In contrast, heads of state view risk as a function of the political capital they might have to invest, or have already invested. Put simply, political capital is the trust and confidence the public has in its leadership. As the commitment of resources (lives and treasure) increases, so too does the risk to political capital. Accordingly, political leaders prefer to keep the resources they commit to a military action, especially human lives, as low as possible (6).
This does a very good job of explaining some tensions in American strategic behavior over the last two decades, but it is hardly a universal rule. It doesn't even describe American military history—Abraham Lincoln was famously impatient with the reticence of his generals, and the Continental Congress was continually frustrated by Washington's slow and inglorious 'Fabian' strategy. In truth, political leaders are often more eager to commit more resources to a military action than military leaders are, and military leaders are often more concerned with explicitly political aims than Echeverria allows. For example, a great deal of Japan’s strategic behavior in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, up to and including the decision to go war with Great Britain and the United States, is most easily understood through the lens of the bureaucratic fight for influence between the Imperial Army, Imperial Navy, and the Planning Board. Simply put, certain enemies were chosen and certain strategies were pursued to ensure that the Navy remained relevant. “Risk” and “failure” in the eyes of these commanders was measured by how much power they held in Japan’s domestic politics. [1] Likewise, more than once an Allied offensive was launched during the First World War to signal commitment to other members of the alliance. [2]

We could continue with these examples for a long time. Defeating the enemy is often a secondary concern of many military operations. Military operations—be they conducted in times of peace or war—may be just as much about bureaucratic infighting, career advancement, demonstrating toughness to domestic audiences, rewarding domestic supporters, forestalling domestic rivals, fostering national unity and purpose, or signaling to allies as they are about defeating an enemy. Echevarria might claim that such concerns fall outside the realm of military strategy—and as you will see below, his definition of military strategy excludes them—but I wish he had taken some time to discuss how domestic concerns will shape the creation and implementation of military strategy. In fact, given how much weight politics is given in his earlier books, I find it mysterious that Echevarria devotes so little attention to it here.  


Echevarria’s definition of “military strategy:”
Military strategy is the practice of reducing an adversary’s physical capacity and willingness to fight, and continuing to do so until one’s aim is achieved (1).
What that means in practice:
Simply put,  that task consists in countering the strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of an opponent in ways that make accomplishing one’s purpose ever more likely (ibid).
How this is different from “grand strategy:”
To throw sharper relief on the characteristics of military strategy, we can compare it to what some experts call grand strategy. Military strategy refers to the “business,” or concern, of the general… By comparison, grand strategy can be thought of as the “concern of the head of state” of which the general’s business is but one aspect (3).
Something creators of “national security strategy” documents ought to remember:

What distinguishes a strategy from a plan is the nature of the environment and the presence of an adversary or a rival (6).
Echevarria’s paragraph-length summary of a vast literature on the sources of military power:
The following nine principles appear most frequently in professional military literature:
  1. objective, defining the goal and ensuring every military action contributes toward achieving it;
  2. maneuver, gaining positional advantage;
  3. surprise, attacking one’s foe in an unexpected manner
  4.  mass, concentrating military power to achieve superiority; and its converse
  5.  economy of force, ensuring secondary efforts receive only as much force as necessary; ( 6) offensive, gaining the initiative or the temporal upper-hand;
  6. security, ensuring one’s forces are well protected;
  7.  simplicity, avoiding complicated schemes and communications; a
  8. unity of command, placing the direction of the war under a single political-military authority to avoid conflicting interests (8).
On the variety  of possible exhaustion strategies:

A strategy of exhaustion can take several forms. Among the most frequent are blockades, sieges, “ scorched earth ” policies that destroy land an attacker might use, or almost any approach, including guerrilla warfare, that typically involves trading space for time or avoiding decisive battles until one is (38)
According to Echevarria, there currently are two schools of thought on strategies of coercion. The first:
believes coercive strategies are most successful when threats need not be carried out; it is the threat of force, or pain yet to come, more than its actual use, or pain already inflicted, that is most important (59).
The second:
views coercion as a function of the threat of military failure, which typically involves the systematic destruction of an opponent’s military capabilities until it realizes it would be better off if it complied. This is known as coercion by denial because at its core is the use of destruction to deny a party the ability to accomplish its aims (59-60).
On why strategists are more important than strategies:
Finding the right commander can take time. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln fired six generals before he found one, in Ulysses S. Grant, capable of defeating the Confederacy’s armies consistently enough to bring the war to an end. British prime minister Winston Churchill went through three generals before he found one, in Bernard L. Montgomery, capable of defeating Erwin Rommel, the Wehrmacht’s famed “Desert Fox.” As historians have noted, the strategist is probably more important than the strategy because one needs wisdom to know when and how to adjust one’s strategy, and this quality is critical for success (111).


[1] Michael A. Barnhart, Japan Prepare For Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).

[2] David Stevenson, CataclysmThe First World War as Political Tragedy (New York: Basic Books, 2009), kindle locations 3450-3460. Briand's insistence that Verdun be held--against the best judgement of Joffre--is another example of political leaders calling for blood that generals are loathe to spill.

10 April, 2018

Losing Games We Don't Know Are Being Played

The Sydney Herald Morning Post has this on their front page today:

China eyes Vanuatu military base in plan with global ramifications
China has approached Vanuatu about building a permanent military presence in the South Pacific in a globally significant move that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep. 
Fairfax Media can reveal there have been preliminary discussions between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments about a military build-up in the island nation. 
While no formal proposals have been put to Vanuatu's government, senior security officials believe Beijing’s plans could culminate in a full military base. The prospect of a Chinese military outpost so close to Australia has been discussed at the highest levels in Canberra and Washington. [1]
This news is causing alarm in geopolitical circles. You do not need to be an expert in naval combat to understand why Chinese naval bases in the South Pacific are proper cause for alarm. But here is the thing: the alarm has been sounding for a long while now. From atoll to archipelago it has wrung; its tones have echoed from one side of Oceania to the other. We have ignored it at every sounding. One must be careful with such statements: not everything done on this Earth is the consequence of American action (or lack thereof). But in the South Pacific we have acted amiss. We toot our way across its waters with a ludicrous level of complacency. My hope is that this news will shake some of us out that. But it may well be too late. The Chinese have delivered the lesson we deserve.

A few caveats. The language employed by the Sydney Morning Herald is interesting. China "eyes" a Vanuatu naval base, we are told. "Eyes" is not "announces." The deal has not been made. We have no independent verification that it is even on the table. If it is, the Herald's source certainly isn't Chinese and probably isn't Vanuatuan. The most plausible source is an Australian agency opposed to the Party's expansion into the South Pacific.  The leak is intended to shame and pressure the Party out of making a deal with Vanuatu. Nothing has been decided. Possibly nothing ever will be decided.

Those of you who follow my twitter feed—or a bit rarer, those of you who I have had the privilege of discussing Chinese foreign policy with in person—know how frustrated this issue makes me. I have been writing about it since 2015.  Pay attention, I have pleaded, to what is happening in these islands. Look at what is happening inside Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands (and to a lesser extent, FSM, Samoa, and America's own territories in the Western Pacific). No one has cared. Now we see why they should have.

Today's headlines are the inevitable end of the changes sweeping through Oceania. The writing has long been on the wall. Aspects of my biography have given me a strong incentive to peer at this writing—a stronger incentive, at least, than most China-hands have. But this is not about me. I bring up my past moments playing Cassandra only because it is an example of how difficult it is to get Americans to care about what is happening to their pathway to Asia. I write up tweet storms on the Chinese student experience in America, or Chinese influence operations in Australia, and what I write goes viral. I do the same in response to events in Tonga or Kiribati.... and get maybe a retweet. Our priorities are screwy. We view the region with unconscionable complacency.  We act as if the South Pacific has fallen out of history. We pretend we do not need to know what the people there do and think, who they owe money and favors to, or how they feel about America writ large. Too late we start to see the costs of our smugness and stupidity.

This is not the post to detail all that China has been doing in the region. Rehearsing the flood of Chinese migrants and tourists, the new deep-water ports and roads, the Chinese built government offices and bureau buildings, the towering debt, the scholarships and language programs, the pleasure trips to China gifted to bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians is a task for another day. Rehearsing all of the things America has not done in the region, or has stopped doing, is also another something that must be left for a longer article where the topic can be given full treatment. But to end this post with something substantial to ponder over, I ask you to consider this image:

Image Source: "实拍中国驻世界各国使领馆(组图)" Sohu Travel (January 2010)
This is the PRC embassy in Nuku'alofa—the capital of Tonga. Here is another one:

Source: Bob Markin, "China Opens New Embassy in Port Vila," Vanuatu Digest (27 July 2017). 

This one is less fancy. This is the PRC embassy in Vanuatu. It was constructed (along with the Prime Minister's office, a new wharf, the foreign affairs building, and a college) by Chinese contractors over the last two years. It opened for business last summer. 

Now let me show you a picture of the American embassies in Vanuatu and Tonga:


That is right. There are no pictures of the American embassy in Tonga or Vanuatu. It turns out, the United States of America does not have an embassy in Tonga or Vanuatu. 

We are losing a game that we do not realize is being played. 


[1] David Wroe, "China eyes Vanuatu military base in plan with global ramifications," Sydney Morning Herald (9 April 2018).

23 March, 2018

My Grand Theory of Jordan Peterson

I have a short essay out in the Weekly Standard this week arguing that most of the commentariat have a deeply flawed understanding of pop psychologist Jordan Peterson. To quote:
The spectacular rise of Jordan Peterson has caught much of the world flat-footed. caught much of the world flat-footed. Discussions of the psychology professor from the University of Toronto tend to focus on the enormous popular movement his lectures have spawned, rather than the actual ideas presented in the lectures themselves. As a result, no one seems to know who the “real” Jordan Peterson is. 
In a way, this is understandable. Peterson is a man of several personae. One Peterson is the inventor of an innovative and compelling neuropsychological model of human behavior. This is the Peterson presented in a dozen research articles reviewed and published by his academic peers.

Another Peterson dispenses pieces of practical advice and dispels progressive dogmas with a quiet, fatherly charisma. This is the Peterson made famous in podcasts, television interviews, and his best selling self-help book
But there is a third Peterson, the Peterson of his debut book, Maps of Meaning and the annual 40-hour long lecture series that shares this book’s name. This Peterson is the bridge between the other two, the key to understanding both his agitations as a culture warrior and his work as an academic psychologist. This is also the Peterson that inspires a religious sense of devotion among his followers. They are devoted not just to the man, but to his project.

And this project is grand. It is nothing less than the revitalization of Western civilization itself. 
Read the rest of the essay for my summary of the basic ideas behind Peterson's project and a few thoughts in response to some of those who have tried to condemn it.

In between the time I submitted that essay for review and its publication yesterday, two new large profile attacks on Peterson were published, one by Pankaj Mishra for the New York Review of Books, the other by Nathan Robinson for Current Affairs Mishra's piece is the more popular of the two, and the easier to dismiss. Attempts to tie Peterson back to the Nazis with proclamations like "the modern fascination with myth has never been free from an illiberal and anti-democratic agenda" just don't deserve to be taken seriously.  I earnestly await the follow up essay explaining why Percy Jackson is the real cause for Trump's election and the connection between the works of Neil Gaiman and Heinrich Himmler. 

Mishra does have a good sense for the real weak spot in Peterson's project, however. As I note in Weekly Standard essay,  Peterson’s “careful comparative analysis” of world mythology and religious imagery is built almost entirely on the writings of Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade. There are a few other writers thrown in, but those two get the lion's share of his citations.  This is entirely inadequate. If you are hoping to build a universal moral system through analysis of the great faith traditions and surviving myths of ancient civilization, you need to delve deeper than two idiosyncratic mid-20th century scholars. Peterson's direct engagement with mythological and religious primary source material is limited to the Near East: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, and the Abrahamic offshoots. His discussion of Greek, Norse, Indian and Far Eastern religion (with quotations from an outdated Dao De Jing  translation excepted) are all mediated through Eliade. His take on Christianity relies too much on Nietzche, and even his discussion of the Mesopotamia mostly derives from scholarship and translations from the 1960s. I have seen no evidence that Peterson has patched up these blind spots in the days since he first published Maps of Meaning in the 1990s. 

Here is why that matters: inevitably we will be graced with a devastating invective of some left-leaning historian of religion or folklore who will not only be eager to demolish Peterson, but will know more about comparative religion than he does. When that day comes, the thinness of Peterson’s bibliography will come to haunt him. I can only hope that this reckoning does not destroy the Peterson project entirely. 

Robinson's attack on Peterson is much more damaging, precisely because it attacks Peterson's ideas directly instead of diverting itself with Peterson's character or the excesses of his devotees. His critique takes advantage of another one of Peterson's weaknesses: a tendency to write in convoluted and baroque academic prose. This weakness is hardly unique to Peterson, but it makes it easy for Robinson to pick out page-long paragraphs full of the sort of fluff that other writers would dispatch in half a sentence or so. To claim that this sort of academic fluff is all there is to Peterson's work is not fair. There is substance behind Peterson's writing; Peterson simply has no experience laying it out concisely. When concision is compelled out of Peterson, the strength of his underlying ideas is far more apparent. The best presentation I have seen of these ideas is a 13 page precis Peterson wrote for The Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict. The encyclopedia's editor deserves great praise: he was able to squeeze unusual lucidity from Peterson in a very small number of pages. I do not think an honest observer can read them and then conclude he is pedaling mere fluff.

Peterson can withstand the scrutiny his ideas are now being given, if he is careful about how he responds to critique. However, even if his attempt at building a new moral universe falls in on itself, I am glad to see the attempt made. He is asking the right question. Conservatives and classical liberals would do well to consider the question he poses: if the we have lost faith in religion, in liberalism, and in our national myths, then what will we find faith in? I fear that many conservatives are now so focused on protecting their communities from the tides of modernity that they have lost all interest in influencing the course those tides will take.