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Ai WeiweiAlison Klayman, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (documentary trailer)

Ai Weiwei’s TED Talk

Jeffrey Brown, PBS Newshour, “Art, China and Censorship According to Ai Weiwei”

Foreign Policy, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

Ai Weiwei, Newsweek, “The City: Beijing”

Jonathan Landreth, Foreign Policy, “Interview with Ai Weiwei”

On the modern global economic and political landscape, few countries loom larger or cast a darker shadow than China. In the United States, China is perceived to be the country’s chief economic rival – despite the powerhouses’ overt interdependence – and is often the subject of fierce scrutiny.

There are many conscious and unconscious elements that combine to generate this climate of distrust, but principal among them is the political structure of the country. The People’s Republic of China, as it is officially known, is governed by a single Communist party. For U.S. citizens, the concept of communism carries residual historical weight that most people reading this are probably familiar with and which informs popular perceptions of labor conditions. In other words, many in the U.S. believe (perhaps correctly) China is potentially responsible for a great many economic woes.

That debate aside, a perhaps more significant and alarming issue dominates the social reality of the country: despite the internet-facilitated modern age of nearly-universal freedom of speech, Chinese authorities impose extreme restrictions on personal liberty and expression as a means of maintaining control of the populace. The power of this government is so absolute that protestors are known to disappear – abducted and interrogated – sometimes never to be seen again.

In response to these conditions, China has a long history of dissident activity among the small and besieged intellectual and artistic community. There are many famous examples of this struggle, including “Tank Man,” the Tiananmen Square protester, who would not budge in spite of an oncoming column of tanks. Two years ago, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a writer and human rights activist who is currently incarcerated for inciting calls for political and civil reform in the country. And this year civil unrest began to spread among disenfranchised and impoverished rural communities.

Enter into the fray Ai Weiwei, the 55-year-old, epic-bearded, notorious Chinese conceptual artist, persistent dissident, and good friend of the aforementioned Liu Xiaobo. He’s a man you may not be familiar with, but as has become my habit with this blog, I want to make you aware of yet another excellent example of inspiring, freedom-seeking humanity.

I recently had the pleasure of watching Alison Klayman’s documentary about Ai Weiwei, Never Sorry, on Netflix (it is currently streaming – go watch it!). To say I was moved by it is an understatement. If you are not already familiar with Ai’s work, I strongly recommend checking out the Foreign Policy photo essay above, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” I already had a passing knowledge of Ai’s unique projects and the critical undertones of many of them, but the film provides an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the man’s motivations, including the life experiences that molded his scathing attitude toward the government.

Never Sorry goes on to document the last few years of Ai’s life, during which he has risen to prominence as an international symbol of intellectual curiosity and human rights activism, but also as a repeatedly detained and perpetually monitored enemy of the state. Throughout his growth as a pop culture icon (he has many followers and uses internet services like Twitter to great effect), he has cultivated a philosophy that emphatically asserts that freedom of expression is the stuff of life and that to restrict that freedom is nothing short of evil.

Communication is the means by which humans affirm their existence, and Ai is intent on assuring the lines of communication are open by defying the oppressive will of the government. It sounds overblown and faux-heroic, but the point is that his is a philosophy I agree with.

All of this admiration aside, I was initially hesitant to write about Ai Weiwei. A part of me was skeptical of the man’s rock star status and wondered if he was the real deal. He has lived and worked in China most of his life, but has also lived in New York City for more than a decade, attending school there. Not that that necessarily undermines his credentials as a punk provocateur, but in watching Never Sorry, I wanted to be sure my own personal belief in him was genuine, instead of fueled unconsciously by a like-likes-like satisfaction with his western-style tactics and attitude.

Of course the documentary is sympathetic to Ai, but after watching one particularly emotional and heart-rending sequence, in which he and his team pursue a project to attain the government-concealed names of more than 5,000 children that allegedly died in a recent earthquake as a result of shoddy school construction, my fears were dispelled. And I was elated when he happily celebrated the government’s retaliatory destruction of his newly-constructed studio after denouncing the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics when its construction necessitated the removal of citizens’ homes. Ai has been referred to as China’s modern conscience, and upon listening to him explain how those children no longer have a voice so someone must speak for them, I can truly understand why.

Another artist interviewed for the documentary goes on to say that in China, a country with a staggering population, individuals who truly care about the people of the country – like Ai – must be treasured and protected. The intelligence with which he uses media to cultivate popularity as his armor and employs his power to wage war on the system from within despite the risk of reprisal is incredible.

There are far too few examples of this kind of bravery on the world stage, but I hope you take the time to acquaint yourself with this one. We may live in a place where personal freedom is sacred, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from those still fighting to build such a place for themselves.

Malala Yousafzai vigil.Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf, “An Army of One”

BBC News Magazine, “Malala Yousafzai: Portrait of the Girl Blogger”

The Christian Science Monitor, Adil Jawad and Sebastian Abbot, “The Malala Moment: Tens of Thousands Rally In Pakistan for Girl Shot by Taliban”

Radio Free Europe, Ron Synovitz, “The Pakistani Taliban’s Rationale for Shooting A Schoolgirl”

A 15-year-old girl by the name of Malala Yousafzai was recently shot in the head during an attempted assassination carried out by members of the Taliban in Pakistan. The offense for which she was targeted? Speaking out to western news outlets – specifically the BBC, for which she wrote a blog as an 11-year-old – about the plight of uneducated girls and women who are prohibited from seeking education in regions of the country controlled by the terrorist organization. If it’s any indication of her prominence in the fight for girls’ rights, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu.

This virulent, horrific, and pathetic action is despicable and reflective of the worst of humanity, but that’s not the reason I wanted to write about it. To focus on the violence itself would do a disservice to Malala’s efforts and the efforts of those who support her and her peers.

The reason I am writing about Malala is because hers is a story worth knowing; a story of the excellence individuals can achieve in spite of daunting ideological and cultural obstacles. To quote her: “All I want is education. And I’m afraid of no one.”

I don’t want to go on about this because the articles listed above do a better job than I could of exploring the various facets and ramifications of her efforts, which even at her young age have had far-reaching, positive effects on the regressive situation imposed on Pakistani women. Thankfully she has been able to receive the best medical care available and it seems she will survive her injuries.

I do want to say that this young girl has stood for something and said “Enough is enough.” Malala and her supporters (her father is also an activist) correctly assert that the only way out of economic and ideological poverty is through education. Her actions are inspiring and refreshing, and I think we could all learn from her heroic example. I recently wrote about Superman and how the character represents a paragon of humanity to which we can all aspire, and from all accounts, Malala’s spirit is reflective of those excellent qualities.

Despite the inevitable dissipation of this event’s ripples, I am ecstatic to be able to count Malala among the living and look forward to her triumphant return to the fight for human decency. There is little doubt that she will go on to achieve great things.

If you would like to take some sort of action in support of Malala, I encourage you to add your voice to those coming from Amnesty International on her behalf, or participate in the UN’s special envoy initiative. I also encourage you to check out an organization I’ve featured beforeThe Girl Effect – which aims to promote awareness of and change the dire, unfortunate circumstances of young women like Malala all over the world.

The New York Times, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, “The Moral Hazard of Drones”

The New York Times, Scott Shane, “The Moral Case for Drones”

Esquire, Tom Junod, “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama”

The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama”

Oxford Journals, Bradley Jay Strawser, “Walking the Tightrope of Just War” 

The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, “The Strikes’ Effect on Life in Pakistan”

What follows is a meandering rumination on one of the most contentious issues facing modern political philosophers and anyone interested in discussing global-political ethics: the implementation and expansion of the U.S. military’s drone program in the Middle East. As you can probably tell from the number of links featured above (and the length of this post), the issue is extremely complex and is of great importance to prominently featured thinkers across the internet, despite mass media’s relative indifference.

The majority of writers talking about drones tend to come down definitively on one side or another, either for or against them, but I find myself wavering among the arguments and honestly unsure of where I stand. Not that I need definitive certainty, but I thought writing a bit about it and offering some resources would prove beneficial for anyone else grappling with this conundrum like I am. If you have any interest in this debate – one which I think will only become more prevalent in the future – I strongly recommend any of the pieces above.

So, where do you start with such a factually and philosophically challenging problem? I guess I would begin by asking “Why is this issue so complex?” followed quickly by “What are your reservations?”

As many people are aware, the U.S. government has deployed unmanned, remote-controlled planes commonly referred to as “drones” to the Pakistan/Afghanistan/Yemen region to conduct reconnaissance missions and often kill suspected terrorists. These actions are carried out in the name of defense of the U.S. citizenry.

Perhaps the most sensational and widely-known drone incident was the targeting and killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen who defected to Yemen, joined Al-Qeada, and was suspected of having a hand in planning the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. This event is of particular note because it “was believed to be the first instance in which a U.S. citizen was tracked and killed based on secret intelligence and the president’s say-so,” according to Huffington Post.

The drone program was started during President Bush’s time in the White House after 9/11 at the outset of the “war on terror,” but of particular concern to observers is the way in which President Obama has expanded the program, even as U.S. ground forces are in the process of exiting Iraq and Afghanistan. The practical causes for concern are many and mounting: the CIA has never openly acknowledged the program’s existence, the U.S. Congress has never officially supported the program, there have been an unrecorded number of civilian casualties, the program reportedly inspires more terrorists than it kills, and the President seems to operate with unilateral, unchallenged authority. And to further complicate things, questions abound about the ethics of the program, which is where I am with regards to the issue: many questions, few answers.

I have to admit that this technology is obviously a phenomenal development in the prevention of soldier casualties, and it allows us to stop our enemies in remote, difficult-to-access regions of the world. I am not naive and don’t think every enemy can be dealt with through diplomacy or sanctions. But the increasingly remote nature of our armed conflicts and the resultant detachment of the citizens in whose name those actions are taken is worrying. As far as I can tell, there are four troubling questions at the heart of this matter:

  • Is the drone program more or less ethically acceptable than larger armed conflicts, and to what extent does the remote nature of the devices influence our conception of war?
  • Does the unilateral expansion and implementation of the drone program constitute an express overstepping of the President’s military authority and violation of the law?
  • Are the supposed benefits of the drone program justification enough, despite ethical misgivings, to engage in the remote execution of even a suspected terrorist?
  • Do technological developments that remove the risk of soldiers’ lives from the battlefield render armed conflict meaningless and is that a good or bad thing?

These are the questions I find myself debating internally and with friends whenever this issue comes up, and no matter how many times I try to wrap my head around them, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to any of them. I think part of the difficulty is the fact that we live in a time when traditional definitions of terms such as “war” are evolving at such a rapid pace that our linguistic and philosophical vocabularies are struggling to catch up. Many contend that drone strikes constitute acts of war or even war crimes, but when the strikes kill a relative few compared to a traditional war, do those accusations hold merit? Are they even relevant?

And when we discuss the validity of unilateral military actions taken by our leaders, it’s growing increasingly difficult – especially where the Middle Eastern region is concerned – to see any instance in any shade but gray. President Obama’s decision to use the U.S. military in Libya without congressional support (as the law traditionally requires) was more humanitarian mission than war, and although his means were questionable, I ultimately support the ends given the rapidity with which circumstances were developing and the potentially devastating result of inaction. Further, he acted as part of a coalition, but without abiding by our laws – is that acceptable?

Many people I speak with about the subject contend that the drone program is without doubt ethically-bankrupt because of the suspect results, and I both agree and disagree. I think it depends on your perception of the persistence of our enemies. The most unfortunate aspect of the debate about military action is that the circumstances being discussed are often relative and subjective. I think most would agree that the U.S. has enemies that wish to do it harm. In organizations like Al-Qaeda, though, we find an enemy unwilling to negotiate or relent.

So, realistically, what can you do? If the U.S. government desires a proactive approach to negating the potential effects of its enemies, it realistically has only a few options, all of which have been used over the course of the last decade: a remote targeting program, a full-scale invasion, and a small-scale infiltration.

The questions I listed above are unfortunately predicated on my pessimistic understanding that the U.S. President will, for the foreseeable future, be required (by ideology or public account) to eschew a more ethically sound defensive posture for an ethically questionable offensive one. In other words, I consider this issue from the perspective that the U.S. will always want to attack its allies instead of defend against them.

Many would argue “the best defense is a good offense,” and that the potential benefits of the program far outweigh the cost or ethical agony. But I struggle with my confident belief that that’s not always true and that such a self-assured attitude toward an institution implemented with the sole purpose of killing individuals we deem enemies is cavalier and wrong. And with that I can’t help adding to my list of questions and asking myself “At what point is one forced to accept that the animal fear of pragmatism trumps the human hope of idealism?”

Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf, “The Enemy Within”

Besides the hilariously appropriate metaphor Rothkopf uses to frame his editorial (the U.S. as burger-guzzling ground-pounder on the fast-track to the cemetery), he makes excellent points as he runs down the list of perceived foreign threats politicians routinely use as bogey-men and swiftly dismisses them all. This is one of the most succinct write-ups I’ve come across that explores why the U.S. needs to stop worrying ad nauseum about external enemies and focus on its domestic issues. This attitude of fear-mongering has been present in politics for as long as I’ve been aware of politics as a thing people care about (admittedly, not long), but given the economic instability of recent years and the advent of terrorism as a front-and-center FEAR in the popular consciousness, people seem to be in overdrive.

That’s not to say there aren’t domestic “terrors” that inspire ridiculous amounts of mental exhaustion among some people (tax laws, abortion rights, gay marriage/civil unions), but it’s so much easier and more common for politicians to point in fear out over the oceans at something that simply is not there or so far over the horizon as to be irrelevant. It sounds like a tired old complaint, but it would be great if those who claim to want to lead us actually did some, you know, leading.

David Rothkopf: “If America stopped searching for goblins under the bed, it might actually be able to reset its economic priorities and start investing in the things that would make the country stronger, more prosperous, and safer again, from infrastructure to energy security to better schools. What’s more, Americans might find that a foreign policy that identified real risks but kept them in perspective and was more about deepening ties, finding common ground, and avoiding unnecessary conflict would work better than the tired us vs. them formulations of the recent past.”

TED, Rory Stewart, “Time to End the War in Afghanistan”

This is another excellent TED talk from July of 2011, this time regarding western military intervention in Afghanistan. The closing of his talk is too good to miss, so I’ve transcribed it below for anyone who doesn’t want to watch. Besides it being an honest analysis of western involvement in the region from someone who’s spent a tremendous amount of time there, Stewart constructs a clear, well-reasoned, thought-provoking argument that should be a positive example of debate for anyone interested in engaging in public discourse about topics like this.

Rory Stewart: “When people talk about intervention, they imagine there is some scientific theory – the RAND Corporation goes around counting 43 previous insurgencies, producing mathematical formulas saying ‘You need one trained counter-insurgent for every 20 members of the population.’ – this is the wrong way of looking at it. You need to look at it in the way you look at mountain rescue.

When you’re doing mountain rescue, you don’t take a doctorate in ‘Mountain Rescue.’ You look for somebody who knows the terrain. It’s about context. You understand that you can prepare, but the amount of preparation you can do is limited. You can take some water, you can have a map, you can have a pack, but what really matters is two kinds of problems: problems that occur on the mountain which you couldn’t anticipate, such as, for example, ice on a slope, but which you can get around, and problems which you couldn’t anticipate and which you can’t get around, like a sudden blizzard, or an avalanche, or a change in the weather. And the key to this is a guide who has been on that mountain in every temperature, at every period; a guide who, above all, knows when to turn back, who doesn’t press on relentlessly when conditions turn against them.

What we look for in firemen, in climbers, in policemen, and what we should look for in intervention, is intelligent risk-takers. Not people who plunge blind off a cliff, who jump into a burning room, but who weigh their risks, weigh their responsibilities. Because the worst thing we’ve done in Afghanistan is this idea that failure is not an option. It makes failure invisible, inconceivable, and inevitable. And if we can resist this crazy slogan, we shall discover in Egypt, in Syria, in Lybia, and anywhere else we go in the world that if we can often do much less than we pretend, we can do much more than we fear.”

NPR, Linton Weeks, “Obama Is the Best and the Worst President. Discuss.”

When kids are growing up and asked what they want to be when they’re older, some poor, misguided souls claim they want to be “President of the United States.” Personally, I can imagine few positions I’d rather hold less than the presidency, but maybe that’s just me. I’m also of the mind that no one who WANTS to be in such a powerful position should ever be ALLOWED to be in that position to begin with, but that’s another problem entirely.

This interesting NPR write-up examines an issue that cuts to the core of political division in the United States: scapegoatism. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be the President, especially if you attain the office with the intention of trying to do good for the country. I’m sure most go into it thinking they can help the people they love, shepherd those people into a new age of prosperity, elevate them above where they are collectively on inauguration day. How disappointing that moment must be when you, the purported “most powerful person in the world” realize just how ineffectual you are; how self-destructive and resistant to the most basic, beneficial change those people are. They don’t know what’s good for them and they know not what they do, but you can’t dictate what should or shouldn’t change, because you’re supposed to be one of them.

It’s a hell of a catch-22. I believe Obama actively wants to do good, and although he (as with all presidents) has gotten caught in the complicated dance of mission, expectation, and opposition, he has done some good. That’s not to say he’s without flaws. I disagree with his expansion of what I’ll summarize as “Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ policies,” for one. His lack of commitment to the LGBT community has been sad and he’s done pretty much nothing for my generation and anyone younger. But the point is, he seems to be genuinely trying. I get the impression he cares.

All of this is to say that it would be nice if the U.S. citizens dispensed with absolutism in their judgments of his performance and adopted a more nuanced, informed understanding. Despite his best efforts, President Obama and everyone who helps him to achieve the goal of betterment are only human and the world is a more complicated place by the day. Although advances in technology have expanded our view, it seems the public’s thought processes have yet to keep pace. I guess that’s just human nature. Anyway, the article says all of this better than I can manage, so I defer to Mr. Weeks’ analysis.

Dean Keith Simonton: “For good or ill, Obama will also be judged according to criteria that must be considered unjust by any rational standard — most notably the economy. Even though the U.S. president has very little control over economic growth — particularly now that the economy has become global — he still is saddled with the blame for a bad economy.”

Foreign Policy, “Once Upon a Time”

This is a Foreign Policy collection of photo essays that essentially takes “a look back to a time before the headlines turned grim” in parts of the world that are especially volatile and violent at the moment. These places include Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan, among a few others. The true sadness of these photo essays is in seeing how many of the locations photographed indicate the rise of peaceful, hip, interesting places to visit and live, but because of political unrest, social injustice, and prolific violence, have rapidly declined in their stability and appeal.

From an anthropological viewpoint, it’s especially fascinating to see how many of the photos reveal a stark colonial westernization of the countries and cities in the 50’s and 60’s. In recent times, however, these areas’ problems seem to have arisen out of either a backlash against that western influence, or out of a strong desire to once again embrace western-style values, especially democracy and representative government.

It’s not as cut-and-dry as that (I’m sure many – myself included – wish that it were), but above all else, the photos and stories contained in this collection make it easy to identify with the people on the ground. Though we hear a great deal about the balance of power, personal sacrifices, extreme violence, etc. in these places, it’s important to keep in mind that for the most part, everyday, run-of-the-mill people are just trying to live their lives as well as they can. My sympathy for them is the reason why I take the time to explore these issues in the first place.

Reflections aside, although I am of a “western persuasion,” I can’t help wondering whether those places (like many others around the world) would have been better off evolving naturally along their own cultural path, without western intervention. We’ll never know for sure and it’s only speculation. All the same, this line of thought sets me to pondering our country’s most recent and explicit involvement in the region in the form of two wars and various overt political engagements, and, well… I guess you see the point of the photo essays.