I blogged yesterday about the beautiful graphic novel Strange Attractors, with its meditations on complex, barely-predictable systems. The journal Critical Review (vol. 24, issue 3) deals in its latest issue with similar questions, featuring essays reacting to the late-90s increase in interest in “systems analysis,” the attempt (initially in foreign policy) to acknowledge that prediction gets far more difficult when there are overlapping simultaneous forces in play and you aren’t really sure which ones matter most.
That may seem intuitively obvious to most people, but the academics (and ideologues) who normally study such things -- trying to predict wars and coups and the like -- love the illusions of control, predictability, and simplicity that seem to give them at least a fighting chance of making useful models of the world.
Of course, we don’t want to just throw our hands up and despair, either. So, it’s unclear quite how to proceed. As in the hard sciences, the answer might be forthrightly making more testable predictions (analogous to holding pundits accountable for their errors, which rarely happens).
While the political science professors wrestle with all those abstractions, though, I would suggest seeing leftist war reporter Jeremy Scahill’s ominous, dramatic documentary Dirty Wars (spun off of his recent book and articles on the topic, but that link takes you to the film trailer) as a simple, concrete, real-world illustration of how complexity leads to greater tension between desperation for control and the inevitability of tragic error. Scahill just went and talked to the villagers and survivors who the mainstream press never dared trek over the hills to locate. The result is very eye-opening.
Seeing the film might be a good way for some of my more neoconservative acquaintances here in New York City to spend Flag Day, in fact, since it’s a reminder how many variables are at play when you start down the road of running covert ops in numerous nations (without declaring war) -- much messier than just settling the simplified two-second debate about whether America is good and its major foes bad.
In New York City, you can see it at IFC and Lincoln Plaza, and its glimpse of the survivors of U.S. raids overseas -- and a visit with a warlord in Somalia who we’re paying to do our dirty work -- might just change your whole worldview, whether you’re a conservative hawk or a loyal Obama Democrat. But then, I’ve grown anarcho-capitalist enough to think even minarchism, with its (over)emphasis on the state’s “legitimate” role in policing and military matters, might be granting far too much to the state.
Lest I sound all lefty, though, let me emphasize the capitalist part in that anarcho-capitalist formulation by blogging about Max Borders’ book Superwealth in my next entry.