Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Pleasures of Complexity

In the spirit of the connectedness of things, an interesting coincidence has occurred. The first item is the appearance on newsstands (and with a surprisingly small web presence) of a journal called World Affairs. I picked one up, because I'm the kind of policy-wonk wanna-be that does such things, expecting neocon apologetics and Great Power nationalism. The introductory essay speaks admiringly of Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and there's a regular column by Christopher Hitchens, so I figured this would probably be primarily a forum for the folks who supported the concept of an Iraq war, but had in mind a better-planned, more humane war featuring a quicker and happier ending, prominently featuring the secular dreams of Hanan Makiya and Ahmed Chalabi, and were simply astonished, not to say mortified, when the incurious Mr. Bush and his technocratic defense secretary botched their historic opportunity. Who could possibly have known?

Well, I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised. The first issue of the journal seems to grasp the complexity of the world, as I might have guessed had I myself been less hasty and carried on down the author list at least as far as George Packer. Even the article about academics and the war declines to demonize Noam Chomsky. I am, generally speaking, a big fan of grasping the complexity of the world. It can be paralyzing, that complexity, and it's sometimes just an excuse for inaction, but it seems to me that, generally speaking, erring on the side of greater understanding is likely to serve us well in the long term.

The second item of the coincidence is an article in The New Republic, a book review of Jacob Heilbrunn's "They Knew They Were Right", about the rise of the neocons. And yes, the review begins by addressing the vital question, "do we really need another one of thses?". But that's not the interesting part, the interesting part is that the author of the review (Mark Lilla) mentions that he was, once upon a time, the editor of "The Public Interest", which, we are reminded that this journal was founded on more or less the same principles as the current incarnation of "World Affairs" -- to grasp the complexity, to address it empirically, to be grounded in reality (as distinct from ideology) in the debate of these issues.

So there's nothing new under the sun, I suppose is one lesson. It's interesting that the Lilla review describes the neocon trajectory as being reactionary (Lilla takes great pains to strip this term of its pejorative connotations and tries to use it descriptively) and in search of simplicity, so much so that its practitioners came unmoored from the world as it is, but "World Affairs" seems to me to be the complement to this, a reaction to the excessive ideological narrowness of American political discourse, and an attempt to appreciate the breadth of complex issues. Not as a call to inaction, at least not so far (there's only been the one issue), but as a service to the body politic.

Does this mean complexity enthusiasts like me are now reactionaries? As Robert Anton Wilson is supposed to have said, it only takes twenty years to go from a liberal to a conservative, without changing a single idea.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

We The Robots

There's a new link on the right-hand pane there, under "Links I Like", to the webcomic, "We The Robots". I really like the artistic style of this webcomic, they're all somber grays and gray-themed versions of other colors, the sort of thing you'd get if you did watercolor painting on gray paper. You don't have to imagine, you can go look. Feel free to mouse over the header bar while you're there. It's a small treat, but a treat nonetheless.
I have already forgotten where I found out about this, although it was only a few days ago. Might have been the Comics Curmudgeon, might have been bOING bOING.