Looking ahead, reluctantly

Recently, I was asked for “my take” on the future. After apologizing that my crystal ball was down for maintenance, I skirted away from the question – the surest way to look a fool is to try to paint an accurate picture of events that will be driven by the unpredictable actions of millions of individuals.

Yet there’s a paradoxical truth – although individual actions can’t be predicted, the movements of the herd in which they live can be.  So, I figure that if I stick to broad strokes and squint with as blurred a vision as an Impressionist, I might be able to paint a passable picture of the future.

But which future to discuss?  Technology?  Art?  Economics?  For me, the most interesting extracurricular topics generally revolve around religious philosophy and war.  But as we all know, religion is the third rail of the intelligentsia, a topic few today take seriously for fear of mockery, so let’s stick to war, mankind’s second-favorite obsession.

Wars…

ISIS will continue making steady progress, in part because of such fabulous marketing. They understand the cinematic power of their message. Especially in the eyes of a generation raised on hyper-violent gaming and movies.

I’m sure Tarantino would approve of their artistically-filmed beheadings and public immolations: maybe they’ll take a page from his playbook and start knocking off the heads of Christians with baseball bats or better yet, crucifixes.  That would play well among the downloaders.

Our society certainly loves its gory violence, a poison gulped down guiltlessly as mere entertainment, and that is precisely what ISIS is giving its audience of wide-eyed Internet junkies. By the bloodily overflowing bucketful. And all heralded as “news” with impeccable timing by their proxy press offices in CNN and Fox.

But it’s not just the (blood-) slick messaging that is working for the men holding the black banners and the bayonets. Their ranks will continue to grow because the west can’t figure out the counter argument.

There is no contradictory message, no hearts-and-minds campaign coming out of either Washington or Riyadh to inspire our generations raised on war games and slasher movies.  The young men who fall for ISIS aren’t just isolated Algerians in France, they are part of a generation ignoring their own nations’ political heritage of doing good in the world, because the western ideal of “all it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to fail to oppose it”, now sounds so old-fashioned in their millenial ears.

And that is a tragedy, because without that simple truth, the West has zero message to rally our own in opposition to the atrocities committed in the shadow of the Black Flag. Many watching online tonight in Holland or Italy probably think (and maybe without much guilt) that the ISIS message is appealing in a strangely retro way: Lawrence of Arabia meets Inglourious Basterds.

So, ISIS will grow, and they will eventually deliver their content to the West via more effective campaigns, much closer to home. They have already outgrown standing in a line to gun down their cowering co-religionists, and surely they will find something more repulsive than cutting off the heads of a few dozen Coptic Christians along the seashore, or live-roasting a captured pilot.

By “more effective campaigns” I mean that they will show up in Europe, or America, or a seaside resort in Indonesia filled with half-drunken Europeans on vacation, grinning behind their balaclavas, an AK in one hand and a cheap knife in the other.  Why the grins?  Because, like wolves, they know they’re ready for the slaughter,  while the sheep never are.  This predator/prey relationship is being established today, and will play out on tomorrow’s headlines if we remain frozen in the headlights of our indecision.

And rumors of war

But ISIS isn’t the real threat, not to more than our sense of well-being. In cold reality, they’re a sideshow, a chance for the Fox and CNN “analysts” to shout for 60 seconds and earn a thousand bucks pretending to think independently, while actually parroting their respective networks’ political agendas.

The greater threat in my mind is Russia, while in my Israeli friends’ minds, it is Iran.

And you know what?  We’re both right.

As I’ve written before, the Russians are a threat to regional stability in Europe, with their constant nibbling away at Ukraine, eating a slice of it each year, until eventually it will all be gone, and the West will have done nothing. Realistically, what’s to hold them back from continuing the banquet with other former members of the Soviet empire on next year’s menu?  More sanctions?  Once we stop selling them Chevys and iPads, what’s left in our arsenal of democracy?

Oh, but surely the sanctions will hurt the Russians.  That’s precisely the point we’re missing – there’s nothing a Russian does with greater instinctive fervor than suffering for Mother Russia.  Putin is exploiting nationalism while demonizing the West, because we, with our sanctions, play straight into his hands.  While we play checkers, the Russians are playing chess.

Yes, the Russians are a real threat, just not to us – they’re a threat to regional stability in the Mideast, as the Israelis know. With their support for Iran and enablement of the inevitable Iranian achievement of nuclear capability, they are helping to gently place a noose around Israel’s neck. Just as they have during centuries of pogroms.

So, the Israelis have to face facts – Iran will be a nuclear power in the next five years, there’s no negotiating a way around that one – and the only question remaining is whether the Israelis want to let the Mullahs build five bombs or five hundred, before someone gets impatient and pulls the trigger. Because the Iranian regime really wants to pull that trigger and usher in a brave new post-apocalyptic world.  And Israel’s best chance for survival is to fulfill its worst fear, by pulling it first.

But all of those threats pale in comparison to China. While we print paper debt, they are quietly stockpiling enormous quantities of gold. What is their end-game? Why invest so heavily in something that the West views as being antiquated, a symbol of wealth from another era? If the Chinese are wrong, the Bitcoin crowd will snicker, but if they’re not, the West will be the indentured servants of the Chinese in decades to come, after our own house of paper printed by the Fed and spent into oblivion by the Congress has finally collapsed under its own demographic and mathematical weight.

In a world beyond, or fated to rise from the ruins of, the next war

While we twitter and tweet and follow each other in spirals of momentary popularity, the Chinese are amassing the world’s greatest manufacturing capabilities: who builds, rules. They are steadily growing their military. They are reinforcing their economy against financial collapse. They are playing the long game, not just chess to our checkers as are the Russians, but a multi-century game for millennial domination.

What will the US’s role be in 50 years? If we’re lucky, peace will have broken out and the Chinese will be treating us with smirking tolerance like Sweden – a society of technically clever folks idling quietly on the fringes of history, a politically irrelevant nation of has-beens inventing electronic gadgets for the Chinese to sell to the rest of the planet. Hopefully they won’t demand too high of a percentage on our bail-out payments.

If we’re not lucky, we’ll be coming out of the tail-end of a world war that will have started in the Middle East after the Mullahs decided to trade Tehran for Tel-Aviv and hasten the return of the 12th Imam, a war whose conclusion might find  NATO staring down Russia over the smoking ruins.  That is, if the Chinese remain politely on the sidelines, instead of seizing the moment to join the winning side late in the game and spring to world dominance, just as the US did in Europe a century ago.

Either way, it’s a big “If”.  And that’s why my crystal ball will remain in the shop for the (un) forseeable future.  Except on the economic front, where I have a hard time seeing a way for us not to be spending a good chunk of the 21st century on a long hard slog out of national insolvency.

So, as above, I see this as a time of wars and rumors of war, yet laced with the chance that the storm might still miss us. Whatever comes, this will remain a time of accelerating change and increasingly greater reliance on ever-more complex technologies that we understand ever less.  We rely far too deeply on a national infrastructure inherited from generations in the past, and we are living through a time of the abandonment of the morals and philosophies that helped our ancestors hold the darkness at bay over the course of many centuries.

But those before us have overcome worse.  And we are their sons and daughters – we can do the same.

Yet on the fringes of my imagination, I still see the black flag fluttering defiantly: that banner of the death cult, that standard of violence as entertainment and inhumanity as virtue.  And in the shadows beneath the black flag, I see a reflection of our own darkest natures.

In other words, whether we want it or not, this is a conflict of good and evil, and if we can’t muster the willpower and moral certitude to stamp out evil now… well, there’s an old saying: those who ignore a small evil today, will surely face a greater evil tomorrow.

Half in light, half in darkness

I awoke before dawn this morning, and went outside with my coffee to watch the sky as it lightened. As is typical for this part of the world, it was a cloudless sky, a sheer and perfect continuum of subtle shades ranging from light orange in the east, to deep blue above, then down to midnight black in the west, where stars still shone.

Directly overhead, the moon mirrored this earthly distinction, but without its subtle interplay of light and dark – instead, the moon was starkly divided, right down the middle, into two hemispheres: a world of bright day contrasting with one of deepest night.

The previous evening, I had watched with millions of others as the family of the American aid worker wept over her murder in the mid-east. Kayla Mueller had attempted to shed some light onto the land under the black flag, that land of moral darkness now illuminated redly, like a volcanic caldera, by the fire of those burned alive in cages, by tracer fire arcing over desert hills, and by the red-black blood pouring from the severed necks of the innocent.

Shutting off the monitor filled with images of weeping relatives, I had walked outside in the night, and looked upwards. Whether at dawn or during the evening, the sky here is nearly identical to that over the land of ISIS. It is clear, cloudless, and at this time of the year, Orion the Hunter hangs directly overhead. The Egyptians modeled the arrangement of the pyramids of Giza on the stars in Orion’s belt: in 4,500 years, neither have shifted perceptibly.

The same sky overhangs us both – Orion rides high above the heads of the merciful and compassionate, such as Kayla, as well as above the heads of those who murder in the name of the All-Merciful and Compassionate, such as her executioners.

It is both light and dark, ever-changing yet never-changing, this eternal sky that looks down upon us all, mirroring in its subtle shadings and sharp contrasts, the complex interplay of good and evil that tugs back and forth in every human heart. Like all of us below, the desert sky is neither all darkness nor all light: it is an ever-changing mixture of both, overshadowing every subtle variation from the saintly to the satanic among us mortals below.

So as I looked up into the sky again this morning, I became starkly aware of the bright dividing line on the face of the moon standing between night and day, goodness and evil. It perfectly bisected the moon hanging directly over my head. I stared at this stark contrast and remembered that scientists call that dividing line “the terminator”. And I thought, how apt a metaphor it is for this moment in human history.

Like the edge of the sword of Damocles, the terminator divides. It forces a choice – this side or that – and we weak human beings who like to dawdle in the twilight between good and evil, choosing one side or another as our moods dictate – we cannot delay our choice forever.

Eventually we must decide – do we want to live in the light, or in the darkness? Do we want to be a ray of mercy to those who invoke the name of the All-Merciful, or do we prefer to hide our broken natures in the shadows of violence and intolerance for those of a different creed?

Like nature itself, the changing cycles of light and darkness are inevitable and inexorable: we cannot delay them or bend them to our will. We cannot hold them back for a second. They operate with complete disregard for our preferences. Like blindfolded Justice with her sword and her scales, they are concerned only with what is, not what we would wish it to be.

So as much as we flit about like fish in the shallows of our moral twilight where good and evil intermix, we must eventually turn our eyes to the truth, and choose to either rise towards the light shining down upon us, or dive deeper into the darkness so as to escape its awful, relentless power to show us the truth about ourselves.

And it is in our response to this inevitable change from night to day that we learn something profound about our own hearts. When we look across this great sea of humanity into the hearts of our brothers and sisters, Kayla and ISIS, we see reflections of our own inclinations towards evil or nobility, towards compassion or murder, as each of our souls is either rising towards the light, or diving away from it into the cold comfort of the shadows.

Yet the terminator is moving relentlessly across the landscape of each of our hearts. Every one of us must choose to dwell in the light or in the darkness, because no person can remain in the moral twilight forever.

So, standing there in my backyard, I turned my back towards the darkness and decided to face towards the east. With great consciousness of my own inner shadows, I managed still to smile at the dawn shining back at me.

I smiled because I realized that this tear-filled night through which the world is groaning is now already passing away, already yielding to the inevitable power of the light that we can choose to embrace.

As the sun broke over the mountains, it warmed me.  I stood there sipping the coffee and soaked up the light.

It felt good. It felt really, really good.