Members of Congress could lean a lot about the problem with rigid thinking, as outlined by former jihadists at a London conference
At the end of June, Google Ideas (a new "think/do" tank funded by Google), the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Tribeca Film Festival sponsored a summit in Dublin, Ireland, that brought together more than 50 former violent extremists to brainstorm ways to combat violent extremism in the world. The participants ranged from former Neo-Nazi skinheads and former Northern Ireland IRA and UDA fighters to former Colombian rebels and former Islamist jihadists. Their politics, in other words, pretty much spanned the spectrum from left to right and represented political, religious, nationalist, and racist movements.
Given the broad range of causes and motivations represented by the participants, I asked Jared Cohen, the head of Google Ideas and the primary organizer of the summit, if there were any common threads or traits he'd observed in all the former extremists he had worked with to make the summit happen. He thought a long moment before answering. The "formers," he said, had vastly different ideologies, different stories and paths, and a wide range of personalities. Was there something they all had in common?
"They're all extremely fixed in their thinking," he finally said. "Or, at least they were when they were active participants in extremist groups."
It is, perhaps, not a good thing that my conversation with Cohen, and some of my conversations with the former extremists at that summit, have come to mind again over the past two weeks as I've watched the double-debacle of the national debt limit and FAA funding fights play out in Congress -- a "debacle" so egregious that it prompted Standard and Poor's to strip the U.S. of its top credit rating over the weekend. But the parallels are also warning signs worth pondering, as we consider where we want our legislators to go from here.
The former extremists at the Google summit had all walked some very difficult roads of hope, anger, naivete, disillusionment, regret, learning, and growth to get where they are today. But many of them spoke of initially being attracted to an ideology that seemed both simple and clear, and which seemed to provide answers to not only how the world was, but also how to fix it. They were young and idealistic. And there is, they acknowledged, a great appeal to simple, black-and-white approaches that reduce messy complexity to something more manageable, with a clear and "simple" fix.
Both the Colombian rebels and the Islamist jihadists had seen real problems and injustices around them and had initially joined activist or resistance groups in the hopes of creating a more fair and better society. That those ideologies were over-simplistic and naive was a problem, of course.
"We had a very sketchy idea about what this grand Islamic state was going to be," admits Noman Benotman, a former commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). "Everybody said, 'Yeah! An Islamic State!' But what's the meaning of an Islamic state? That means, for us, that it will bring justice. It will bring everything. Everything will be nice. Everything will be fixed. Everything will be perfect. But if you ask most of the jihadists, give me a 15-minute lecture about the Islamic state you are going to establish, they will fail. They will talk for maybe two minutes, and you'll wait the other 13."
But the real problem, many of them now say, was not the ideologies themselves, but when those ideologies became both rigid and sacred. Or, as Benotman said, when the ideology became not a means to an end, but an end in of itself; a sacred idol that had to be preserved, intact and uncompromising, at all costs.
"Ideology is a set of concepts and ideas," Benotman explained. "And it's created because it helps any group achieve their goals. Because you need a framework. Liberalism itself is an ideology. And it's extremely useful as a tool, or means. The problem is when [the ideology] becomes not a tool, but the end itself. That means the group starts to act to serve the ideology. To keep it. To protect it. That's the explanation for people who have no tolerance when you're disagreeing with them. Because it's not a difference of tools and means.You're talking about the end, itself. So it's impossible to have a discussion. If you disagree, you are not me. You are the other. You are the enemy."
Granted, there's a long distance between extremist groups willing to employ violence and sacrifice lives as a means of protecting their ideology, shunning any compromise or dissent, and legislators willing to sacrifice the credit rating and potential economic stability of a country, or the paychecks of 74,000 contractors and FAA employees, in order to protect the integrity of their ideology, shunning any compromise or dissent. But the ideological rigidity and unwillingness to compromise, no matter how reckless the consequences, echo similarly enough that we should all be a bit alarmed.
As Benotman said, ideology can be a very helpful in organizing people around a shared set of values or beliefs. And as a starting point, it can be very positive tool. But when any group, whether it's a righteous freshman class of Tea Party diehards or any other offspring of a political or social movement, become not only rigid in their thinking, but also willing to risk recklessly for the sake of keeping their ideological underpinnings intact, we should worry. Because ideology, especially in a democracy made up of differing constituencies and viewpoints, should only be a starting point. When it becomes something more rigid than that, it starts to become dangerous.
Abu Muntasir, a soft-spoken London Imam who once served as a major conduit for young Muslims in England wanting to get to the jihad training camps of Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me that when we become righteous in our beliefs, "we are falling short ... before God."
Muntasir, like all the other former extremists at the Google summit, had learned the hard way where ideology can lead if it becomes too rigid, uncompromising, or a sacred end in and of itself. And all of them have walked very painful paths back from those places to give the rest of us a warning, like Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Future, about where our own folly, hubris, and righteousness could lead. We, and all the legislators who represent us, would do well to listen.
Why Nixon's former lawyer John Dean worries Trump could be one of the most corrupt presidents ever—and get away with it
Sometime early last fall, John Dean began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves. “I’m not somebody who remembers the details of dreams,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles. “I just know that they were so bad that I’d force myself awake and out of bed just to get away from them.”
Few people are more intimately acquainted than Dean with the consequences of an American presidency gone awry. As White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, he was a key figure in the Watergate saga—participating in, and then helping to expose, the most iconic political scandal in modern U.S. history. In the decades since then, Dean has parlayed that resume line into something of a franchise, penning several books and countless columns on the theme of presidential abuses of power.
The president-elect described NATO as “obsolete,” called the EU “basically a vehicle for Germany,” and said other countries would follow the UK's lead and leave the bloc.
President-elect Donald Trump hasn’t been shy about sharing his views about the world, in general, and Europe, in particular. He was criticized during the presidential campaign for questioning the value of NATO, praising the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU, and linking terrorist attacks to the million or so asylum-seekers who have arrived in Europe since 2015. Trump’s supporters and political analysts attributed those comments to campaign-season rhetoric, and said he would pivot on these and other issues before the general election. But with less than a week before the inauguration at which he’ll be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, Trump gave a joint interview to The Times (of London) and Bild, the mass-circulation German tabloid, during which he described NATO as “obsolete,” called the EU “basically a vehicle for Germany,” and said other countries would follow the U.K.’s lead and leave the bloc.
Is there room in the movement for people who morally object to abortion?
Updated on Monday, January 16 at 4:05 p.m.
Pro-life women are headed to D.C. Yes, they’ll turn out for the annual March for Life, which is coming up on January 27. But one week earlier, as many as a few hundred pro-lifers are planning to attend the Women’s March on Washington, which has been billed as feminist counterprogramming to the inauguration.
With organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America co-sponsoring the event, pro-life marchers have found themselves in a somewhat awkward position. What’s their place at an event that claims to speak for all women, but has aligned itself with pro-choice groups? With roughly a week to go before the march, organizers also released a set of “unity principles,” and one of them is “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people.”
Billy Barr moved to the Rocky Mountains four decades ago, got bored one winter, and decided to keep a notebook that has become the stuff of legend.
It was a year into his life alone in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains when Billy Barr began his recordings. It started as a curiosity, a task to busy his mind during the winter. By no means, Barr told me, having skied down from his cabin to use the nearest phone, did he set out to make a vital database for climate change scientists. “Hell no!” he said. “I didn’t know anything about climate change at the time.”
In 1973 Barr had dropped out of college and made his home an abandoned mining shack at the base of Gothic Mountain, a 12,600-foot stone buttress. The cold winds blew through the shack’s wood slat walls as if they didn’t exist; he shared the bare dirt floor with a skunk and pine marten, his only regular company for much of the year. Barr had moved from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains precisely because of the solitude, but he couldn’t escape boredom. Especially that first winter. So he measured snow levels, animal tracks, and in spring the first jubilant calls of birds returning. He filled a notebook with these observations; then another notebook. This has continued now for 44 years.
King's famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," published in The Atlantic as "The Negro Is Your Brother" and excerpted below, was written in response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. It stands as one of the classic documents of the civil-rights movement.
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of "outsiders coming in"
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
Why some people are withdrawing from mainstream society into “intentional communities”—and what the rest of the country can learn from them
VIRGINIA— For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Here is one matter, at least, in which the Swiss refuse to be neutral.
Nancy Holten, 42, was born in the Netherlands. At the age of 8, however, she moved with her family to Switzerland, which Holten has called home for the past 34 years. Holten currently resides, with her three daughters, in the small village of Gipf-Oberfrick, in the far north of the country, within the canton of Aargau. She speaks fluent Swiss-German. Her daughters are Swiss citizens. She has been a member of the parents’ committee of their school.
And yet Holten was recently rejected for a Swiss passport—which is also to say, effectively, for naturalized Swiss citizenship. For the second time.
The reason? In Switzerland, applications for naturalization are decided not at the federal level, but rather by the country’s cantons and municipalities—and the applicants’ peers have a say in whether naturalization gets granted. And, unfortunately for Nancy Holten, her peers are not inclined to give her the “gift” of a passport. Because, despite all the ways she is Swiss, Holten—a vegan who is extremely vocal about that life choice—has also stridently opposed one of the most beloved cultural traditions of Gipf-Oberfrick, and of Aargau, and of Switzerland itself: the practice of putting large bells around the necks of cows, for reasons both practical and ceremonial. Insert your preferred “more cowbell” joke here.
A new study shows that the disproportionate imprisonment rates faced by people of color contribute to race-based inequalities in educational attainment.
In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the closing remarks at the March on Washington. More than 200,000 people gathered to cast a national spotlight on and mobilize resistance to Jim Crow, racist laws and policies that disenfranchised black Americans and mandated segregated housing, schools, and employment. Today, more than 50 years later, remnants of Jim Crow segregation persist in the form of mass incarceration—the imprisonment of millions of Americans, overwhelmingly and disproportionately black adults, in local, state, and federal prisons.
The U.S. incarceration rate is more than five times higher than that in most of the world’s nations, despite a crime rate that’s comparable to other politically stable, industrialized countries. And among the swelling number of incarcerated men and women is a vast number of parents. In 2015, The Atlantic’s Alia Wong highlighted a study from Child Trends that found that one in nine black children has had a parent in jail or prison, about twice as high as that for white children. For black adolescents ages 12 through 17, it’s nearly one in seven. Predictably, this has implications for America’s classrooms.