Leadership and such

Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has arrived in the United States. And how! Last night at Madison Square Garden in New York City he was the center of a $1.5 million rock-concert style event celebrating India. He roundly told the sold-out crowd:

Some say, this is India’s century. India has the potential … The time has come. India is the world’s youngest country and its most ancient culture.    

I am not sure exactly what he meant by “youngest country” nor the total significance of reminding us of its “ancient culture” in the context of his hope that the coming century would be India’s. After all he is a politician and we know how politicians of all stripes are given to loose disconnections between words and meaning.

Speaking of which President Obama mentioned on US television yesterday that the strength of ISIS had been “underestimated” by his government and that the capacity of the Iraqi army to fight “misjudged.” I suppose this is as close as we are going to get to him apologizing both for his earlier dismissal of ISIS’ fighting force as “the JV team” and also for his policy of withdrawing all US forces from Iraq without, as he was advised, leaving a residual force of American ground troops behind.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergie Lavrov, involved in the disastrous Hillary Clinton “re-set button kerfuffle” in 2009, has announced that it is time for another attempt at resetting US Russian relations. Further, he is of the view that US strategy against ISIS (in its infancy after all) needs a total revamp.

Meanwhile huge pro-democracy demonstrations are taking place in Hong Kong and stubbornly refusing to dissipate under intense police pressure.

Oh, there is a new president in Afghanistan. After months of political fighting following the vote, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was inaugurated as president of Afghanistan on Monday, replacing Hamid Karzai. I wonder how that will turn out. Didn’t the Taliban behead 15 people there just last week?

Ah leadership.

 Speaking of which, at Gleneagles, Scotland the US lost in the Ryder Cup to Europe ….  again. Superstar Phil Mickelson chose the post-match team press conference as an appropriate venue to rip into the leadership style and philosophy (maybe even competence) of non-playing team captain, Tom Watson, who was sitting down the table from him. Awkward to say the least. Mickelson seems to believe that leaders make a team. Odd: the US players on the course were whipped by the players of the other team.

Blip as blob

Sometime coincidence is just too odd.

For example, read this.

Get it? A potential security alert was caused by a “butter-fly shaped blob” which showed up as an unaccounted “blip on radar.” (Yes, yes: it struck me too: when is a blob a blip?) On examination the blob turned out to be a hoard (millions or billions) of migrating monarch butterflies.

Swarm theory is all the rage just now. It seems to teach that a swarm (of ants, say) takes on a purposeful identity the potential of which transcends the sum of the individual parts’ (apostrophe intended and significant!) This purposeful identity, amongst those who (individually) write about swarm theory is referred to as “swarm intelligence.” The most excited amongst them apply this to computers. A swarm of computers will possess, the theory goes, almost unlimited intelligence.

This leads me to ask a question of the monarch butterflies and their radar-detected blip

Do they fly in a butterfly-shaped blob with intention, as a joke?

Why not fly in the shape, say, of a shark, or an arrow, or an ICBM?

If only they could spell.

I wonder what the computers will do.

Two minds?

It has been widely reported over the past two weeks or so that ISIS, allegedly, has threatened the life of Pope Francis. The Vatican has “dismissed” such threats, whatever that may mean.

In this context the pope’s visit to Albania was remarkable. You can read about it here.

Albania was one of the last countries in Europe to throw off its Communist rule. Prior to that it had been a closed society, cut-off from the rest of the world, run by a dictator, and to the world at large a mystery. Thus, in reading of the recent papal visit many in the West might have been surprised to learn that it is mainly a Muslim society, with large minorities of both Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

During his visit enormous crowds greeted him, which is not surprising. What is notable is that the majority of the crowds were Muslim. They greeted him, in part I suppose because he is a contemporary super-star, but many in interviews expressed their deep admiration for him as a man of authentic humanity and of peace. In his turn Pope Francis praised Albania as an exemplary nation of religious harmony and a model for all nations to take note of in the vexing context of today’s violence.

In particular, in what was taken as a reference to ISIS and probably Boku Haram, he slammed anybody who used “God as a ‘shield’ with which to justify ‘acts of violence and oppression’.”

The courage in this is stunning, of course, but so too is its message.

On the American radio program, “The Savage Nation” last Thursday host Michael Savage interviewed Lord Christopher Monckton, as a Christian, regarding his view that Islam should be ruled “illegal” due to its advocacy and espousal of homicide, which is a crime. Monckton advocated the use of red ink in the Quran to mark the many passages which, in his view, proclaim this advice. More than that, he went on to urge Islam to adopt the interpretative methods espoused in the Enlightenment and widely embraced by western religions in order to civilize and contemporize them. You can listen to the entire interview here.

Leaving aside the issue of courage, Pope Francis’ and Lord Monckton’s messages can be compared. (To be fair to Lord Monckton it should be pointed out that he acknowledged biblical passages that echoed the Quran’s sentiments and incidents from church history that seem to embody those ideals also.)

Both express disapproval of murderous violence as a religiously defensible act and both seem to have had a certain brand of Islam in mind.

Where they differ, however, is more enlightening. Lord Monckton was advocating the adoption by Islam of the educational and cultural norms which have led to the post-Enlightenment flourishing of, what we can loosely brand, Western Civilization. Pope Francis has made much of his disgust with and disapproval of many of those same norms and their current results in western culture. In this the Pope is in tune with much Muslim critique of that culture.

In short, Lord Monckton rejects Muslim method and substance whereas the pope could be understood to be taking issue with methods only, “using God as a shield,” for example.

One often hears complaints about the silence of the “moderate Muslim voice,” a complaint most clearly articulated in the USA perhaps, but it strikes me that since a dialogue demands two voices and two pairs of ears, as it were, the Christian voice needs sharper honing which in turn demands some further intellectual clarity. Are Christians Monckton Christians or Francis Christians?

That is the question

Two interesting votes are taking place in Scotland today.

First, the members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews are voting on whether to admit women …. Not to the dining room and bars, but to the club itself! Times do change.

Which leads to …. Second ……

Residents of Scotland over the age of 16 are voting in the IndyRef. It has been fascinating to observe from afar the various campaigns. The question and possible answers are disarmingly simple, while the debate has been anything but.  I briefly want to focus on the question the Scots are considering today. Here it is; short, clear, unambiguous:

Should Scotland be an independent country?

To grasp the test in the question, substitute “England” for Scotland and ask it of yourself. No Englishman in his right mind would consider voting “No”, a fact the UKIP party led by the indomitable Nigel Farage makes very clear in the context of EU membership. And yet, many Englishman have openly suggested the Scots should vote No. How odd.

Or substitute “Canada.” Canadian nationalism and sense of being itself are overwhelmingly strong. Goodness, Canadian passion for being an independent country extends to legal limits on non-Canadian pop music content on the radio and in magazines.

Or Ireland. Or Denmark. Or Iceland. Or Nepal.  Or … their name is legion.

I hear you object. “But they are independent countries.” You miss the point. Their present state is not the issue. If that were the case there would be no IndyRef. That argument is self-defeating and entirely misses the point. They are countries, yes, in the sense that being nations they are also states.

The real issue is: Should a nation be a state? Answer: if it wants to be. Ergo, the IndyRef.

A better example than those I listed above is, say, Kurdistan. The Kurds are clearly a nation, but long since have had no state, although I think they were independent more recently than Scotland. This accounts for the lack of parallel with, say, Texas about which there are whisperings and even rumblings of secession from the United States.

I admit there are vexing ambiguities. Québec, for example. But the parallel in this case with Scotland is not so clear. Read here from the Toronto Star for a brilliant analysis of the differences. More similar, as the Star piece outlines, is the separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. I grew up with Czechoslovakia, but it is gone. (Hockey fans knew what a potent combo that was!)

No, the IndyRef question is fair, reasonable, and clear. It is also needed.

Some would dismiss the Yes campaign as a xenophobic madhouse. Odd how they do not say the same thing of, say, the Ukrainians, or the English, or the Canadians, or the Angolans, or ……….

It is going to be an interesting day. I am simultaneously hopeful and anxious, expectant and resigned.

Moral heroes

Who has not witnessed the “No-No-No-Yes” parent in action? The grocery store check-out lane is a likely spot. The kid, trapped in the cart, is reaching and straining to reach a chocolate bar from the strategically placed display while the mother, with an increasing volume matching her mounting embarrassment, yells “No, No, No,” until with desperate reluctance and a guilty smile to the watching crowds she gives in and hands the kid the candy, “OK. This one time.” No-No-No-Yes.

I mention this neither to criticize the mother (who is doing the hardest job in the world) nor the grocery business’s manipulation of us as consumers. I do so simply to illustrate, by its absence in this case, the challenging essence of ethics in action. There are three ingredients needed to lift ethics from the realm of fantasy and fun speculation and thrust it into hard-nosed and harsh reality.

They are: clarity, consistency, and courage.

You must be clear in your understanding (whatever it is and however profoundly articulated in your own mind) of right and wrong, good and evil. Without clarity moral action will be muddled at best.

You must be consistent. What is right today must be right tomorrow. Evil may manifest itself in differing forms and to varying degrees, but evil it remains. Inconsistency, not to be confused with relativism (which is another matter altogether,) renders moral action accidental.

You must have courage. Nothing is more challenging to or revealing of character than taking a moral stand. This is not ever easy. To take a stand is to stand out and this too many want to avoid at all costs, especially if the crowd of folks is all going another way. “Everyone’s doing it, saying it, voting it, wishing it” is no slogan for the march of the heroic spirit. No courage renders moral action impossible.

Consider the National Football League.

What a mess! Not only at the national level (with its handling of the Ray Rice affair of domestic violence,) but also at the local level (with the Minnesota Vikings’ bobbling of the Adrian Peterson matter of beating his children) we have been treated to the very opposite of ethical action. No clarity. No consistency. No courage. No ethical action.

Corporations have started to flee the NFL, the Vikings, and the players involved. Money talks and so we may see a veneer of clarity, consistency, and courage begin to be manifested. Don’t be fooled. The ethical travesty is rooted in the system.

The NFL in turn, needless to say, is no more than an example and an illustration. It is not the entire disease. In reflecting on it, however, I invite you to examine not only your own life, of course, but to be alert for what is going on around you: in your workplace, your friendship circles, politics, international affairs.  Moral heroism is not in over abundant supply. We need as many heroes as we can get! Hope demands it.

Culpability and integrity

The debate rages. Is ISIS “Islamic” or not? Can the category “Muslim” be applied to it?

I have alluded to this recently and do not propose continuing in this post, but mention it to highlight another point.

In an era in western civilization of rapid secularization and widespread dismissal of organized religion’s relevance, it is religion which is playing a key role in determining the pace and pattern of current global affairs. This dimension, I think, remains fundamentally baffling to western leadership and is an inherent weakness in the setting of strategy. Be that as it may, my interest today lies elsewhere.

Please note what the BBC reports about what has been termed a “crisis” in Germany.  It references March 23, 1933 or “Potsdam Day,” a day of minor infamy on which then newly elected Chancellor of Germany Adolf Hitler was “adopted” as elite by the then German establishment, thus legitimizing him. The whole thing centered on the Goebbels controlled event which took place in and around the Garnisonkirche, a baroque masterpiece, subsequently bombed by the allied air force and then finally demolished by East German Communists.

What’s the “crisis?” There are proposals to rebuild the church. Its value as an example of baroque is almost unmatched, it is argued. Those who oppose this rebuilding project proclaim the church as a symbol of “evil.”

Clearly I have no horse in this race. I mention it for this reason: Hitler’s rise to power was in large part aided by the German Church. (You can read a very simple piece about it here.) True, his power also led to the formation of “Confessing Christians” many of whom (Dietrich Bonhoeffer perhaps most famously) would oppose the regime and indeed participate in attempted assassinations. Karl Barth became a mouthpiece of opposition and stimulated the creation of the Barmen Declaration, perhaps a high-point of twentieth century theology and, along with the American civil rights movement, a high mark of that century’s Christian conscience in action. The point is that despite the opposition of the Confessing Christians, Nazi power and its establishment was “baptized” by the church.

What’s the point?

The church alas is an all too human institution and goofs up, makes enormous errors in judgment and practice, endorses inhumane policies, embraces the selfish and arrogant, and generally falls woefully short of its ideals.  History all too loudly and clearly testifies to all this. That is by no means the whole truth of the church, but you get my point. Even as it proclaims its message and even as it performs exemplary self-sacrificial work, the church also says and must say and continue to say, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” As a Christian, I am aware of the faults and failings of my church and yet do not want it judged on those things alone.

The same holds true for every religion and its institutional practitioners.  Islam included.

Sunday Potpourri

This from allAfrica.com:

Ugandan authorities have foiled a planned imminent attack by the Somali militant Islamist terror group al-Shabab, the U.S. Embassy in Uganda said Saturday. In statements on Twitter and its website, the embassy said Ugandan forces had conducted operations against members of the terror group in the capital, Kampala.

Did President Obama not say in his “let’s get ISIS” speech the other night, that the US strategy would be like that which was so successful in dealing with al-Shabab? After all, he was just off a killing strike on its leader. It seems they must have other leaders in waiting.

Does can entail ought, after all?

Ethics 101 teaches that while ought implies can, can does not entail ought. Are we in danger of being forced by science to discard this ancient axiom?  Read here, for example. The coming of the actual humunculus. Can this fail to end badly?

World War III?

Pope Francis is widely reported to have said that the global conflicts ongoing are so widespread and ingrained that we have effectively entered the third world war. He put it like this:

(P)erhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.

He went on to urge the world “to shed its apathy” in the face of all this evil. Is it apathy or impotence? Is it not the case that folks of the local level simply feel trapped? “What can I do about it?” is not necessarily a cry of apathy, but a shriek of rebellion, or at least as loud as rebellion can get against the machinery of national governments’ decision-making.

IndyRef Fallout

Whether Scotland votes Yes on Thursday in the IndyRef, already lasting changes have taken place within the fabric of the country. This wee piece, for example, has certainly and indelibly marked George Robertson nothing more than a smarmy nyaff (look it up!), but more than that it has deeply branded a trend that will, after the vote regardless of outcome, continue as a voice that will no longer be tolerated.

Manchester United and Glasgow Rangers

On a lighter note: in a few hours ManU kick-off and this match is virtually the real start of their season. Millions of pounds of new signings will be on display against lowly Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford. Lose and despair will grip the ManU universe. Win and light will suddenly be shining at the end of the tunnel.

As for Glasgow Rangers, what can one say? The drama continues. Owners continue to rip off resources and weaken the club’s prospects; fans roar in complaint, but feel they can do “nothing about it.”

Kind of like World War Three?