The Patrimony

In politics, everything is relatives

Category: Going philosophical

Stranger kings

by fpman

It’s that time of the year when one can (have the time to) think of things like… stranger kings. No, not the “Three Kings.” Just kings (or leaders) who are strangers to the land they rule (or used to rule, back in the day). I could as well be thinking about “What’s the purpose of Stonehenge?” (but I listen to it instead). The subject of stranger kings is nevertheless definitely closer to the subject area we are covering on this blog so I’ll spare you of some off-topic blogging.

If you think about it, the topic of stranger kings is actually even a bit of a paradoxical subject from the point of view of the Patrimony. Someone who was originally an alien to the people and the land under one’s rule by definition did not have family ties at birth that helped him/her into position. Those ties could of course be built up on the go, and they indeed were, in most cases, with the affinal ties that resulted being one of the key resources a stranger could use and rely on to get to rule… and to rule.

But some further literature which I am reading at the moment reveals that there may have been other resources, too. Or other reasons, rather, for a stranger becoming the king of the land.

David Henley: Conflict, Justice, and the Stranger-King Indigenous Roots of Colonial Rule in Indonesia and Elsewhere. Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2004), pp. 85–144. LINK

Marshall Sahlins: The Stranger King or Elementary Forms of the Politics of Life. Indonesia and the Malay World, Vol. 36, No. 105, July 2008, pp. 177–199.

As it may transpire from these sources, picking a stranger to be king could mitigate conflict between an ethnic group’s competing sub-units – Henley explains the emergence of colonial rule in some places with this as a key mechanism. Sahlins ponders how stranger kings often represented the “foreign” that is both desired and feared, and how the choice of an alien to rule one’s land worked similarly to the affinal tie of marriage on the personal level (through which many stranger kings have historically come to power, actually). The choice of a stranger both as king and as spouse led to constructive renewal (which, as we know from the science on consanguineal marriages, is even biologically/genetically necessary, to avoid too much in-breeding).

This is all fascinating. But the examples considered from the world of ancient communities from Greece to the Southeast Asian islands and Melanesia, and from the colonial era, seem remote. This begs the question: are stranger kings extinct by today? Has, as a result of nationalism, citizenship (and the requirement thereof) emerged as a must-have bond to a political community that pre-determines that a certain degree of strangeness cannot be overcome to get to rule a certain land? Knowing that citizenship (where the notion exists) actually does not work in a universal and homogeneous manner (just like rule of law and human rights don’t, either) this is an intriguing question…

Interesting contemporary examples jump to mind, too, from the Hashemite dynasty ruling Jordan today in the person of Abdullah II (a dynasty hailing from the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula) to Sonia Gandhi in India (the Italian lady who met then-future Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in a Greek restaurant in Cambridge, UK, and is now pulling the strings within the Indian National Congress party)…

Having thought through this, for strangers to be truly strangers one should also have a strong difference between internal and external that is not there so much, and certainly not universally there, in today’s increasingly transnationalizing world… which some people refer to as a “neo-medieval” order of sorts, implying that once we were there already, in the past…

Alright, no more paragraphs ending with ellipses today!

How an Islamic State media officer views the issue of family

by fpman

The following dialogue is heard in the second part of a documentary shot by Vice News in Islamic State territory recently. It takes place inside a car where, while waiting, the journalist, Medyan Dairieh, is asking questions in Arabic from a representative of the Islamic State, by the name of Abu Mosa, essentially a media officer — or Dairieh’s minder.

Medyan Dairieh: “The war has been going on for a while. Don’t you have recreation time that you spend with the family?”

Abu Mosa: “To be honest, no. In my case, no. In the last few Eid celebrations, I told my children that I’ll not buy any sweets for Eid until the children of Daraa and Homs are able to celebrate, too. I don’t return home for pleasure, I only go when it’s important or I’m sick. I don’t, I don’t go at all.”

Medyan Dairieh: “Does that mean that you live for war all the time?”

Abu Mosa: “Yes. The family, honestly, is the least important thing. There is a higher purpose. No one would defend Muslims if we all sat at home with the family.”

Abu Mosa is no top decision-maker, of course, but he is a representative of a recently declared state (or political entity, to use a less loaded term). While his person may initially make this seem like an off-topic post for this blog, the subject he is talking about, and the similarity of thinking across the Islamic State’s jihadi leadership — given that their whole world view is in effect about demanding and expecting homogeneity of thinking, or the unity of the umma, i.e. the “community of the believers” — makes Abu Mosa’s comments significant on a larger scale.

This is a peculiar case — in reference back to our first post here where we said politicians having family comes with both good and bad sides in terms of political implications. Here the readiness on the part of at least some of the people in question to disregard even the bond to their own families, along with much else, in the name of their “higher purpose,” is… concerning. That, probably, is the scientifically accurate expression of what it is.

By the way, the documentary discussed here has five parts and you find the first of the five here.

The Cowpens Romance

by fpman

What we have embarked on here at The Patrimony is the coverage of political phenomena from a specific, peculiar viewpoint. This will usually entail discussion (i.e. a mixture of responsible, good-natured gossip and analysis) of something (and someone) related to a top decision-maker in this or that country. Today’s, however, is only the second post here so far, and its subject is slightly different.

In case you have missed it, this is what the Navy Times recently uncovered about the 2013-2014 deployment of the USS Cowpens in the Pacific, a tour that has seen the US Navy’s guided missile cruiser take part in disaster relief operations off the Philippines in November 2013, and subsequently get involved in a close confrontation with a Chinese amphibious naval vessel in the South China Sea during the course of December.

USS_CowpensUSS Cowpens (photo: US Navy)

It now turns out that the ship had an equally interesting ride over the 2014 leg of its Pacific cruise. In January, Captain Greg Gombert fell ill with flu-like symptoms, developed Bell’s palsy or partial facial paralysis, and, feeling weak and in a generally inadequate condition to continue to personally command his ship, found it necessary to retreat to the tranquility of his unit commander’s cabin (UCC) for the better part of the ensuing months. For the time being, he handed over command (his responsibility as CO or the Commanding Officer) to his temporary XO (Executive Officer), the chief engineer of the ship, whom he had previously promoted to the position after the predecessor XO had to leave prematurely — at a time when the new XO could not yet make it on board. The problem is: XOs come with a certain carefully determined level of required experience and specific training for the task, and the temporary XO did not have these. Moreover, with Captain Gombert spending most of the time in the UCC, the XO, by then the acting CO, did not even have the captain close by for those special situations with a narrower margin for error where superior experience can make a difference — she had to handle fuel replenishments in heavy seas on at least two occasions alone. This deviation from standard procedure may have put ship and crew at unnecessary risk…

Amidst this narrative you may have noted the gendered reference to the person of the XO. Yes, the executive officer happened to be a woman, by the (some would say remarkable) name of Destiny Savage. If you check out the history on the USS Cowpens, you may also find it interesting that over 2008-2010 the ship was commanded by a female Commanding Officer, Captain Holly Graf, who was eventually relieved of her duties related to allegations that she maltreated her crew. However, before one starts to theorize of a male-chauvinistic conspiracy against women in the Navy, and against women serving on board USS Cowpens in particular, it has to be noted that there indeed was some deviation from standard procedure in this case, even if no major mishap resulted from it.

Where gender certainly does come into play: Captain Gombert and Lt. Cmdr. Savage were eventually found guilty of “fraternization” by the Navy (that is, of being lovers, in this particular context). This, needless to say, is generally not tolerated within militaries, given the need for minds unaffected by ties of this kind in even the most demanding of circumstances. Based on what we know from open sources, the evidence of the two officers’ relationship seems to have been largely indirect though. They may have spent a couple of nights together in a hotel in the Philippines, may have been seen holding hands on one occasion, and Savage is rumored to have often made dinner for Gombert in whose cabin she spent considerable time. And the culinary specialist of the ship would swear that he saw Cpt. Gombert wearing boxers at least once while Savage was with him, and that this was romantically significant.

Savage_and_GombertLt. Cmdr. Savage and Cpt. Gombert (photos via KPBS and Thinking Housewife)

A ship usually makes for a nice metaphor. In this case, it epitomizes much of what this blog is about. For one obvious connection with the world of politics and decision-makers’ friends-and-relations, “fraternization” as well as having one’s actual relatives around can be an interesting issue in the latter universe, too, even as there are no similar anti-fraternization standards for political leaders (for a mixture of good and bad reasons).

But there is more to what the story of USS Cowpens may stand for. As James R. Holmes of the US Naval War College notes writing in The Diplomat, “ships are still islands — in effect self-contained societies — once they cast off all lines.” A ship’s leadership — even though officers therein rise to their position according to specific rules of promotion, or the institutional rules of the game — thus offers intriguing parallel with the leadership of a country.

One point I would make in particular pertains to imagining counterfactual scenarios and outcomes of the events that unfolded on board USS Cowpens. We often conceive of counterfactuals by thinking of circumstances that may have been different. “Had this or that happened, the result would have been different, for better or worse.” Yet it is equally easy to imagine counterfactuals by thinking of what would have happened had there been different people or even slightly different personalities interacting with each other in a given situation. Each and every member of the USS Cowpens crew may have made a difference in terms of how the merits of the case were eventually judged by the Navy — with the different interpretations they had, the way their interpretations evolved over time, the way they expressed what they thought, and the way they acted on the basis of their beliefs at any given moment.

Herman Wouk begins his classic novel, The Caine Mutiny, the fictional story of World War II destroyer/minesweeper USS Caine, by positing about the main protagonist Willie Keith that “the event turned on his personality as the massive door of a vault turns on a small jewel bearing.” Wouk’s masterfully woven plot is nevertheless a good example of how all personalities are important. Replace anyone, or even a personality trait, and you may end up in a different “possible world,” in the language of counterfactual analysis. Not to speak of how an objective description of what happened is hardly possible, and whatever remains may be interpretation rather than fact, from anyone’s respective point of view. In the story of the USS Caine, even Willie Keith is not completely sure by the end of how much he was right to make the decisions he made.

Much of this applies not only to ships and their crews of course.

There are good reasons not to count with personality and interpersonal relations as exclusive determinants of domestic political processes and international interactions, but they clearly are a factor, and often a very important one at that. And in as much as that is the case, this blog is on to something.

To be continued.