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.

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