Most Interesting Reads of the Week (November 8, 2014)

Here are some of the more interesting things I’ve read this week:

  • The never-ending war in Syria. “Syria and Iraq are full of armies and militias that don’t fight anybody who can shoot back, but the PKK and its Syrian affiliates, the PYD and YPG, are different. Often criticised by other Kurds as Stalinist and undemocratic, they at least have the capacity to fight for their own communities.”
  • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is more a political creature than a religious one. “The sense in which Al-Baghdadi and ISIS have legitimacy among some Sunni of Iraq and Syria is as an opposition force to their respective governments (although the extent to which ISIS poses a threat to these governments is probably radically overstated). Their aspirations are local rather than global. Al-Baghdadi’s rhetoric notwithstanding, most ISIS recruits are not interested in some global or cosmic war.”
  • Why no one looks to America as a model for good democratic governance. “The rest of the world’s countries tend to pay far more attention to us than we do to them, and they’ve noticed what a mess our society is in. I’m not just talking here about the usual agonizing over American ‘declinism,’ the general perception of diminished U.S. influence around the globe. I have a more specific problem in mind: America’s dwindling attractiveness as a model of democracy.” [A question I think piece poses without actually doing so: what if more democracy will makes things worse, and not better?]
  • The myth of Chinese schools. “Chinese students regularly win any competition that depends on test performance. Where they fall short is creativity, originality, divergence from authority. The admirers of Chinese test scores never point out that what makes it the ‘best’ education system is also what makes it the worst education system. It is very effective in ‘eliminating individual differences, suppressing intrinsic motivation, and imposing conformity.’”
  • What is the purpose of freedom in American Conservatism? “Fusionism’s success was, however, more due to its ability to fashion resonant appeals to lots of constituencies than to its uncomplicated synthesis of mutually dependent ideologies. After all, I have never seen an effective answer to the question hardline traditionalist Brent Bozell posed to early fusionists in the 1960s: freedom or virtue? Is it more important to exercise freedom of choice regardless of the moral outcome, or is it more important that an individual’s choices align with traditional moral dictates?”
  • How Shel Silverstein became a children’s writer. “… Silverstein never intended to write or draw for children. He was often impatient around kids and, Rogak claims, ‘made no secret of the contempt he felt’ for most children’s books. ‘Hell, a kid’s already scared of being small and insignificant,’ he once said. ‘So what does E. B. White give them? A mouse who’s afraid of being flushed down the toilet or rolled up in a window shade and a spider who’s getting ready to die.’ But writing kids’ books was the complete opposite of the work he was doing for Playboy and, maybe for that reason, and with the prodding of a savvy editor, he decided to try his hand at it.”
  • I hope Russell Moore really means this on the end of the relationship between church and culture in America. “The church now has the opportunity to bear witness in a culture that often does not even pretend to share our ‘values.’ That is not a tragedy since we were never given a mission to promote ‘values’ in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and of judgment, of Christ and his kingdom. We will now have to articulate concepts we previously assumed—concepts such as ‘marriage’ and ‘family’ and ‘faith’ and ‘religion.’ So much the better, since Jesus and the apostles do the same thing, defining these categories in terms of creation and of the gospel. We should have been doing this all along. Now we will be forced to, simply in order to be understood at all.”
  • The delusions of being Israel. “One has to bear in mind that Israelis live in a largely mythic world, a somewhat modified and vastly simplified version of the Iliad. In this starkly polarized vision of reality, in which Israelis are by definition innocent victims of dark, irrational forces operating against them, heroic death in war always makes sense, and violent coercion is the option both of necessity and of choice. The Hebrew proverb says: ‘If force doesn’t work, use more force.’ But this summer the proverb failed to deliver.”
  • One mother’s attempt to kill her autistic daughter. “It is socially acceptable for parents to complain about, feel oppressed by, and even resent their children. But a parent who presents herself as a genuine victim of her own child is approaching a taboo. A mother is not supposed to cower before her child. That power dynamic seems to defy the rules of nature.”