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.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Though it wasn’t pretty, Minaj was really teaching a lesson in civility.
Nicki Minaj didn’t, in the end, say much to Miley Cyrus at all. If you only read the comments that lit up the Internet at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, you might think she was kidding, or got cut off, when she “called out” the former Disney star who was hosting: “And now, back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what’s good?”
To summarize: When Minaj’s “Anaconda” won the award for Best Hip-Hop Video, she took to the stage in a slow shuffle, shook her booty with presenter Rebel Wilson, and then gave an acceptance speech in which she switched vocal personas as amusingly as she does in her best raps—street-preacher-like when telling women “don’t you be out here depending on these little snotty-nosed boys”; sweetness and light when thanking her fans and pastor. Then a wave of nausea seemed to come over her, and she turned her gaze toward Cyrus. To me, the look on her face, not the words that she said, was the news of the night:
Why haven’t more challengers entered the race to defeat the Iraq War hawk, Patriot Act supporter, and close friend of big finance?
As Hillary Clinton loses ground to Bernie Sanders in Iowa, where her lead shrinks by the day, it’s worth noticing that she has never made particular sense as the Democratic Party’s nominee. She may be more electable than her social-democratic rival from Vermont, but plenty of Democrats are better positioned to represent the center-left coalition. Why have they let the former secretary of state keep them out of the race? If Clinton makes it to the general election, I understand why most Democrats will support her. She shares their views on issues as varied as preserving Obamacare, abortion rights, extending legal status to undocumented workers, strengthening labor unions, and imposing a carbon tax to slow climate change.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Beijing’s top five scapegoats, from journalists to hedge funds to the U.S. federal reserve
China’s stock markets continue to stumble, despite the massive stimulus that the government has unleashed to prop them up. The Shanghai benchmark index fell by 1.23 percent Tuesday, after closing down slightly Monday. The index has fallen by nearly 40 percent from its mid-June peak.
In some ways, the slide isn’t surprising—after all, Chinese stocks were trading at extremely rich valuations before they started to fall, even as signs emerged that China’s economy was slowing.
The NBC show isn’t casting its net wide enough when it comes to finding new players.
Since the departure of many of its biggest stars two years ago, Saturday Night Live has mostly avoided major cast changes. Yesterday, NBC announced the show would add only one new cast member for its 41st season—the near-unknown stand-up comic Jon Rudnitsky. SNL is, of course, a sketch-comedy show, but it keeps hiring mostly white stand-ups who have a markedly different skill set, with limited results. As critics and viewers keep calling out for greater diversity on the show, it’s hard to imagine the series’s reasoning in sticking to old habits.
As is unfortunately typical today, controversy has already arisen over some tasteless old jokes from Rudnitsky’s Twitter and Vine feeds, similar to the furore that greeted Trevor Noah’s hiring at The Daily Show this summer. But Rudnitsky was apparently hired on the back of his stand-up performances, not his Internet presence, similar to the other young stand-ups the show has hired in recent years: Pete Davidson, Brooks Wheelan (since fired), and Michael Che. It’s a peculiar route to the show, because SNL is 90 percent sketch acting, and unless you’re hosting Weekend Update (like Che), you’re not going to do a lot of stand-up material. So why hire Rudnitsky?
Many educators are introducing meditation into the classroom as a means of improving kids’ attention and emotional regulation.
A five-minute walk from the rickety, raised track that carries the 5 train through the Bronx, the English teacher Argos Gonzalez balanced a rounded metal bowl on an outstretched palm. His class—a mix of black and Hispanic students in their late teens, most of whom live in one of the poorest districts in New York City—by now were used to the sight of this unusual object: a Tibetan meditation bell.
“Today we’re going to talk about mindfulness of emotion,” Gonzalez said with a hint of a Venezuelan accent. “You guys remember what mindfulness is?” Met with quiet stares, Gonzalez gestured to one of the posters pasted at the back of the classroom, where the students a few weeks earlier had brainstormed terms describing the meaning of “mindfulness.” There were some tentative mumblings: “being focused,” “being aware of our surroundings.”
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
The use of a stick to hold a camera at a distance for a self-portrait is not a new phenomenon, but the popularity of the new breed of extendable selfie stick has exploded over the past two years.
The use of a stick to hold a camera at a distance for a self-portrait is not a new phenomenon, but the popularity of the new breed of extendable selfie stick has exploded over the past two years. Multiple companies are producing varied versions of the device, tailored mostly to smartphone users. These sometimes-unwieldy extenders have been labeled as nuisances by some, especially in crowded public spaces, and have been banned in many museums, stadiums, and theme parks. Collected here are recent images of selfie sticks in use around the world, from high in the sky above China to the shores of Greece and beyond.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.