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robertogreco : oversimplification   2

[Easy Chair] | The Habits of Highly Cynical People, by Rebecca Solnit | Harper's Magazine
"In April 24, 1916 — Easter Monday — Irish republicans in Dublin and a handful of other places staged an armed rebellion against British occupation. At the time, the British Empire was the strongest power on earth; Ireland was its first and nearest colony. That the puny colony might oust the giant seemed far-fetched, and by most measures the endeavor was a failure. The leaders were executed; the British occupation continued. But not for long: the Easter Uprising is now generally understood as a crucial step in a process that led, in 1937, to full independence for most of the island. A hundred years on, some view 1916 as the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

This year also marks the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring. It seems to be taken for granted that these uprisings, too, were a failure, since many of the affected countries are now just different kinds of dire than they were before. But the public display of a passionate desire for participatory government, the demonstration of the strength of popular power and the weakness of despotic regimes, and the sheer (if short-lived) exhilaration that took place five years ago may have sown seeds that have not yet germinated.

I am not arguing for overlooking the violence and instability that are now plaguing North Africa and the Middle East. Nor am I optimistic about the near future of the region. I do not know what the long-term consequences of the Arab Spring will be — but neither does anyone else. We live in a time when the news media and other purveyors of conventional wisdom like to report on the future more than the past. They draw on polls and false analogies to announce what is going to happen next, and their frequent errors — about the unelectability of Barack Obama, say, or the inevitability of the Keystone XL pipeline — don’t seem to impede their habit of prophecy or our willingness to abide them. “We don’t actually know” is their least favorite thing to report.

Non-pundits, too, use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures. The mind-set behind these statements is what I call naïve cynicism. It bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.

Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naïve says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.

Maybe it also says something about the tendency to oversimplify. If simplification means reducing things to their essentials, oversimplification tosses aside the essential as well. It is a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither, a desire to shove nuances and complexities into clear-cut binaries. Naïve cynicism concerns me because it flattens out the past and the future, and because it reduces the motivation to participate in public life, public discourse, and even intelligent conversation that distinguishes shades of gray, ambiguities and ambivalences, uncertainties, unknowns, and opportunities. Instead, we conduct our conversations like wars, and the heavy artillery of grim confidence is the weapon many reach for.

Naïve cynics shoot down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of any situation. They take aim at the less cynical, so that cynicism becomes a defensive posture and an avoidance of dissent. They recruit through brutality. If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. But expecting perfection is naïve; failing to perceive value by using an impossible standard of measure is even more so. Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards. They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised — but also because the openness of hope is dangerous, and in war, self-defense comes first. Naïve cynicism is absolutist; its practitioners assume that anything you don’t deplore you wholeheartedly endorse. But denouncing anything less than perfection as morally compromising means pursuing aggrandizement of the self, not engagement with a place or system or community, as the highest priority.

Different factions have different versions of naïve cynicism. There is, for example, the way the mainstream discounts political action that proceeds outside the usual corridors of power. When Occupy Wall Street began five years ago, the movement was mocked, dismissed, and willfully misunderstood before it was hastily pronounced dead. Its obituary has been written dozens of times over the years by people who’d prefer that the rabble who blur the lines between the homeless and the merely furious not have a political role to play.

But the fruits of OWS are too many to count. People who were involved with local encampments tell me that their thriving offshoots are still making a difference. California alone was said to have more than 100 Occupy groups; what each of them did is impossible to measure. There were results as direct as homeless advocacy, as indirect as a shift in the national debate about housing, medical and student debt, economic injustice, and inequality. There has also been effective concrete action — from debt strikes to state legislation — on these issues. Occupy helped to bring politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Bill de Blasio, and Elizabeth Warren into the mainstream.

The inability to assess what OWS accomplished comes in part from the assumption that historical events either produce straightforward, quantifiable, immediate results, or they fail to matter. It’s as though we’re talking about bowling: either that ball knocked over those pins in that lane or it didn’t. But historical forces are not bowling balls. If bowling had to be the metaphor, it would be some kind of metaphysical game shrouded in mists and unfolding over decades. The ball might knock over a pin and then another one in fifteen years and possibly have a strike in some other lane that most of us had forgotten even existed. That’s sort of what the Easter Rising did, and what Occupy and Black Lives Matter are doing now.

Then there is the naïve cynicism of those outside the mainstream who similarly doubt their own capacity to help bring about change, a view that conveniently spares them the hard work such change requires.

I recently posted on Facebook a passage from the February issue of Nature Climate Change in which a group of scientists outlined the impact of climate change over the next 10,000 years. Their portrait is terrifying, but it is not despairing: “This long-term view shows that the next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.” That’s a sentence about catastrophe but also about opportunity. Yet when I posted the article, the first comment I got was, “There’s nothing that’s going to stop the consequences of what we have already done/not done.” This was another way of saying, I’m pitting my own casual assessment over peer-reviewed science; I’m not reading carefully; I’m making a thwacking sound with my false omniscience.

Such comments represent a reflex response that can be used to meet wildly different stimuli. Naïve cynicism remains obdurate in the face of varied events, some of which are positive, some negative, some mixed, and quite a lot of them unfinished.

The climate movement has grown powerful and diverse. On this continent it is shutting down coal plants and preventing new ones from being built. It has blocked fracking, oil and gas leases on public land, drilling in the Arctic, pipelines, and oil trains that carry the stuff that would otherwise run through the thwarted pipelines. Cities, states, and regions are making stunning commitments — San Diego has committed to going 100 percent renewable by 2035.

Remarkable legislation has been introduced even on the national level, such as bills in both the House and the Senate to bar new fossil-fuel extraction on public lands. Those bills will almost certainly not pass in the present Congress, but they introduce to the mainstream a position that was inconceivable a few years ago. This is how epochal change often begins, with efforts that fail in their direct aims but succeed in shifting the conversation and opening space for further action.

These campaigns and achievements are far from enough; they need to scale up, and scaling up means drawing in people who recognize that there are indeed opportunities worth seizing.

Late last year, some key federal decisions to curtail drilling for oil in the Arctic and to prevent the construction of a tar-sands pipeline were announced. The naïvely cynical dismissed them as purely a consequence of the plummeting price of oil. Activism had nothing to do with it, I was repeatedly told. But had there been no activism, the Arctic would have been drilled, and the pipelines to get the dirty crude cheaply out of Alberta built, before the price drop. It wasn’t either-or; it was both.

David Roberts, a climate journalist for Vox, notes that the disparagement of the campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline assumed that the activists’ only goal was to prevent this one pipeline from being built, and that since this one pipeline’s cancellation wouldn’t save the world, the effort was futile. Roberts named these armchair quarterbacks of climate action the Doing It Wrong Brigade. He compared their critique to “criticizing the Montgomery bus boycott because it only affected a relative handful of blacks. The point of civil… [more]
rebeccasolnit  2016  cynicism  change  time  occupywallstreet  ows  hope  optimism  idealism  perfectionism  obstructionism  simplification  oversimplification  possibility  economics  justice  climatechange  keystonepipeline  patience  longview  blacklivesmatter  civilrightsmovement  politics  policy  conversation  easterrising  power  community  systemsthinking  standards  metrics  measurement  success  failure  dissent  discourse  uncertainty  opportunity 
may 2016 by robertogreco
Texas in Africa: show me the data
"In other words, it's much more complicated than just the mineral trade. Which is why the argument that shutting down the mines will end all of this violence is fundamentally flawed. It is, quite frankly, based on incorrect assumptions and a lack of rigorously-analyzed evidence.

An all-encompassing focus on the mineral trade won't end violence in the eastern DRC. Assuming that it were even possible to track the Congo's minerals from source to market and that it would be possible shut down the militarized mineral trade (and, given the limits of technology and oversight, those are two mighty big assumptions), would the loss of income really force these armed groups to the negotiating table? These forces are already well-accustomed to terrorizing local populations to obtain the necessities of life. Would their behavior really change if they lost this income stream? I'm not sure. And, we must remember, there's the tiny problem of external financing of these armed groups (especially the FDLR) that the international community has until very recently completely ignored.

Then there's the lingering detail of the 1 million+ people who depend on the mineral trade for their livelihoods. Any program to shut down the mines have to take their employment into account. As Harrison Mitchell and Nicholas Garrett continue to point out, legitimizing the mineral trade is a far better idea than shutting it down.

I do not know a single scholar of the Congo who buys into the "cell phones cause rape" thesis. We all understand that the situation there is far too complex to be reduced by the activists to a simple resource war that could be solved if we just pressure Congress to stop the conflict mineral trade (How many of you are willing to give up your mobile phones to stand in solidarity with Congolese women? Keep in mind that there aren't any conflict-free cell phones.).

This doesn't mean that minerals don't matter. But the militarized mineral trade is a symptom of the disease of state failure, not the root cause of violence. Even setting aside all of the logistical issues with certification, controlling supply chains, taking physical control of the mines, developing the technology necessary to track minerals, finding livelihoods for newly unemployed miners, and creating a degree of consumer consciousness that's stronger than the desire for an iPhone, the violence won't end. It won't. There's no entity capable of stopping it.

Treating one symptom rarely cures a disease. We all want the people of the Congo to live productive, peaceful lives that are free from the constant threat of violence. We all agree that the eastern DRC is in many ways the linchpin for regional stability. But until there is serious security-sector reform, the Congolese government can actually control its territory, tax, and pay its soldiers, and the regional dynamics that drive much of the conflict over land, citizenship rights, and Rwanda's role in the region are settled, armed groups and civilians will continue to commit horrific acts of violence, simply because they can. "Doing something" about the mineral trade won't change that fact.

Policymakers would do well to focus less on oversimplified solutions to extraordinarily complex problems, and to instead turn their attention to giving the people of the DRC what they deserve and need: peace, public order, and a chance to make life better. That will require a long-term, sustained effort that doesn't pretend the peacekeepers only need to stay another six months or a year. It will require negotiating with unsavory non-state actors. It will require honest assessments of regional actors' territorial and sphere-of-influence ambitions. It will require the recognition of corruption in all its many varied forms, and of the need to directly target aid to its beneficiaries.

Above all else, it will require policies that are based on facts, not assumptions. The stakes are too high not to pursue policies that are data-driven and have a reasonable chance of success.

Then again, maybe it's easier to oversimplify things."
via:vruba  2009  lauraseay  congo  mining  violence  rape  economics  policy  politics  complexity  oversimplification 
october 2014 by robertogreco

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