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Culture war games: the sword and shield of surveillance

Surveillance Blowback
By Alfred W. McCoy

The American surveillance state is now an omnipresent reality, but its deep history is little known and its future little grasped. Edward Snowden’s leaked documents reveal that, in a post-9/11 state of war, the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to create a surveillance system that could secretly monitor the private communications of almost every American in the name of fighting foreign terrorists. The technology used is state of the art; the impulse, it turns out, is nothing new. For well over a century, what might be called “surveillance blowback” from America’s wars has ensured the creation of an ever more massive and omnipresent internal security and surveillance apparatus. Its future (though not ours) looks bright indeed.

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Culture war games: self-congratulation and selective memory

20 Years On, the War on Terror Grinds Along With No End in Sight
By Mark Landler

“If you had said on 9/12 that we’d have only 100 people killed by jihadi terrorism and only one foreign terrorist attack in the United States over the next 20 years, you’d have been laughed out of the room,” said Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism in the Obama administration.

“The fact that it had to be accompanied by two wars makes it hard for people to disaggregate how successful counterterrorism policies have been,” said Mr. Benjamin, now president of the American Academy in Berlin.

There are other explanations for the lack of a major foreign attack: tighter border security and the ubiquity of the internet, which has made it easier to track and disrupt jihadi movements; or the upheavals of the Arab Spring, which shifted the sights of extremists to their own societies.

Nor is it accurate to say that the West has been shielded from the scourge of terrorism. The 2004 Madrid train bombing; the 2005 London bus and subway bombings; and the 2015 attacks on a nightclub and stadium in Paris — all bore the hallmarks of the kind of well-organized attack that brought fire and death to Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon.

“The war on terror can only be assessed as relatively successful inside the Western world, more within the United States than with respect to Western Europe as a whole,” said Fernando Reinares, director of the Program on Violent Radicalization and Global Terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid.

Still, in comparison to the comprehensive failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “other” war on terror has so far achieved its bedrock goal of protecting the United States from another 9/11-type attack.

The question is: At what cost?

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Culture war games: self-licking ice-cream cones

Vicious Cycles
By Greg Jackson

What is the news? That which is new. But everything is new: a flower blooms; a man hugs his daughter, not for the first time, but for the first time this time . . . That which is important and new. Important in what sense? In being consequential. And this has been measured? What? The relationship between what is covered in the news and what is consequential. Not measured. Why? Its consequence is ensured. Ensured. . . ? It’s in the news. But then who makes it news? Editors. Editors dictate consequence? Not entirely. Not entirely? It matters what people read and watch—you can’t bore them. Then boredom decides? Boredom and a sense of what’s important. But what is important? What’s in the news.

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Culture war games: social stratification and human sacrifice

Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital
By Lizzie Wade

Human sacrifice occupied a particularly important place in Mesoamerica. Many of the region’s cultures, including the Maya and the Mexica, believed that human sacrifice nourished the gods. Without it, the sun would cease to rise and the world would end. And sacrificial victims earned a special, honored place in the afterlife.

Ritual killings in traditional cultures elsewhere in the world, including Asia and Europe, point to additional roles for the practice, and may help explain why the Mexica took it to such an extreme. “All premodern societies make some kind of offering,” Verano says. “And in many societies, if not all, the most valuable sacrifice is human life.” Social scientists who study religion have shown that costly offerings and painful rituals, such as the bloodletting ceremonies the Mexica also practiced, can help define and strengthen group identity—especially in societies that have grown too large for everyone to know everyone else.

Some researchers also argue that killing captives or subjects both establishes and reinforces hierarchy in large, complex societies. A 2016 Nature paper, for example, linked human sacrifice to the development of social stratification in dozens of traditional Austronesian cultures.

Many researchers say that, for the Mexica, political power as well as religious belief is likely key to understanding the scale of the practice. Theirs was a relatively young empire; during their 200-year reign, they conquered territory all over central and southern Mexico, sometimes facing tremendous resistance from local communities (some of which would later ally with the Spanish against the empire). Spanish chronicles describe Tenochtitlan’s sacrificial victims as captives brought back from wars, such as those fought with their archenemy, the nearby republic of Tlaxcala. Subject peoples in the Mexica Empire were also sometimes required to send individuals as tribute. “The killing of captives, even in a ritual context, is a strong political statement,” Verano says. “It’s a way to demonstrate power and political influence—and, some people have said, it’s a way to control your own population.”

“The more powerful a state was, the more victims it could dedicate,” says Ximena Chávez Balderas, an INAH bioarchaeologist who spent years studying the remains of sacrificial victims in offerings in the Templo Mayor; she is now Verano’s doctoral student at Tulane. The religious significance and political messaging of human sacrifice “go hand in hand,” she says.

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Culture war games: a perfect storm of temptations

Why Fiction Trumps Truth
By Yuval Noah Harari

It is sobering to realize that the Scientific Revolution began in the most fanatical culture in the world. Europe in the days of Columbus, Copernicus and Newton had one of the highest concentrations of religious extremists in history, and the lowest level of tolerance.

Newton himself apparently spent more time looking for secret messages in the Bible than deciphering the laws of physics. The luminaries of the Scientific Revolution lived in a society that expelled Jews and Muslims, burned heretics wholesale, saw a witch in every cat-loving elderly lady and started a new religious war every full moon.

If you had traveled to Cairo or Istanbul around 400 years ago, you would have found a multicultural and tolerant metropolis where Sunnis, Shiites, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Armenians, Copts, Jews and even the occasional Hindu lived side by side in relative harmony. Though they had their share of disagreements and riots — and though the Ottoman Empire routinely discriminated against people on religious grounds — it was a liberal paradise compared with Western Europe. If you had then sailed on to contemporary Paris or London, you would have found cities awash with religious bigotry, in which only those belonging to the dominant sect could live. In London they killed Catholics; in Paris they killed Protestants; the Jews had long been driven out; and nobody even entertained the thought of letting any Muslims in. And yet the Scientific Revolution began in London and Paris rather than in Cairo or Istanbul.

The ability to compartmentalize rationality probably has a lot to do with the structure of our brain. Different parts of the brain are responsible for different modes of thinking. Humans can subconsciously deactivate and reactivate those parts of the brain that are crucial for skeptical thinking. Thus Adolf Eichmann could have shut down his prefrontal cortex while listening to Hitler give an impassioned speech, and then reboot it while poring over the Auschwitz train schedule.

Even if we need to pay some price for deactivating our rational faculties, the advantages of increased social cohesion are often so big that fictional stories routinely triumph over the truth in human history. Scholars have known this for thousands of years, which is why scholars often had to decide whether they served the truth or social harmony. Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same fiction, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity? Socrates chose the truth and was executed. The most powerful scholarly establishments in history — whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or Communist ideologues — placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.

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