Reading Vali Nasr and Pondering US Policy

Few books, recently, have prompted me to question my own mindset more than Vali Nasr's The Heart of Islam.

I'd like to think of myself as an open-minded person. Although I am an atheist I willingly recognize that Islam, with its emphasis on truth, charity, and peace, has a lot to offer to anyone's personal philosophy. I know that the Muslim organizations with whom my country is at war only represent an extreme component of the faith. I understand that the Muslim world, while distinct from my own in many ways, has a vibrant culture which deserves the honor and respect of all who are exposed to it.

Yet along with that understanding, I have to say there are aspects of Islamic culture that strike me as simply wrong. The example of thehijab comes to mind. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the veil is mandated by law. Many women in that country wear it willingly and as a source of pride, yet many others struggle against at as an imposition by the state. To my mind the imposition of the veil is wrong, not because the veil itself is oppressive, but because the garment itself is imposed - the choice of whether to wear the article of clothing was removed from the person. I believe that this imposition is an injustice - I believe something should be done about it.

The obvious rejoinders include the fact that Iran does not represent the whole Islamic world, that the mandatory veil is an "invented tradition" that twists the words of the Prophet, and that it is unfair to hold the world's billion plus Muslims accountable to the policies of one authoritarian regime. These are all valid points. Nasr, in his book, adds one to the list - who am I, as a westerner, to determine what is just and unjust in any Muslim culture, even one that exists on the fringes as Iran does? Towards the end of his book, Nasr makes the argument that it is arrogant and ignorant of western observers to try and impose their own values upon the Muslim world. Nasr presents the possibility of a debate over values between Westerners and Muslims.

"The debate could continue for a long time, but at the end the Muslim interlocutors would thank their Western counterparts and state that they were grateful for their concern, but that if they really wanted to be friends and fellow human being,s the should not impose their views but ask the Muslim team what they considered to be the rights that were most missing in their lives and that their Western friends could help to realize." (pg 289)

Essentially, its the argument for self-determinism. Nasr isn't stating that he's against letting women choose whether veiling is right for them - he's arguing that it is up to Islamic culture, not the West, to make that judgement. He's not angry at countries with Muslim populations who walk about unveiled - he's angry with the model of forced unveiling represented by the Western-emulating Ataturk and Reza Shah. Ultimately Nasr is making the point that it is not the West's responsibility to intervene and force change, even when it genuinely feels that real injustice is being done.

It's an eloquent argument, and I wrestle with it. The track record of the West is hardly pristine, for one thing - I often need to remind myself that the founding of my own nation coincided with the mass occupation and usurpment of hundreds of millions of Native Americans. And, for another, I have to remember that the values of human rights are not always my nation's chief priority in the modern day.

A few paragraphs after that argument, Nasr touches upon another point that hits directly home.

"Anything less than mutual respect in understandingthe other side makes a sham of the question of human rights. And when the issue of human rights is used as a tool for policy by Western powers, it tends to nullify the efforts of those in the West who, with sincerity and good intention, are seeking to help others all over the globe to preserve the dignity of human life." (pg 290)

It might not have struck me so pointedly if I had not, the night before, prepared a briefing memo advocating that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's abuse of human rights should be used as a justification for applying targeted sanctions in the midst of the nuclear dispute.

It's a complex issue - In one context, both human rights abuse and nuclear proliferation are bad, and it is justifiable and right to advocate against them together. But it is also very important to make sure that one's condemnations against the abuse of human rights are genuine and not simply politically salient. My country supports the regimes of how many authoritarian but pro-western leaders, who, if free and fair elections were today held in their country, would immediately be shown the door and replaced with someone less friendly to our own interests? Can the US claim to be acting on behalf of the Iranian people, standing up for human rights, if last October it cut funding for multiple NGOs that documented and publicized instances of human rights violations? While the administration didn't comment on precisely why it took the action, many folks up on the hill argued that it was a decision in keeping with Iranian activists own wishes, and to prevent the impression that the U.S. was attempting to intervene in in Iranian domestic affairs.

This is all well and good, but there is something hypocritical about claiming that the United States wishes to "let the Iranians determine their own fate" on Monday and then on Tuesday citing domestic injustice as justification for sanctioning the Iranian regime. Especially when sanctions are also being argued on the basis of a matter directly related to our own security interests.

So, I am torn. On the one hand I heartily believe that we should criticize Iran for oppressing its own citizens, and, for that matter, that we should go further in promoting human rights and democracy in Saudi Arabia, a nation which many forget has with has less of a claim to democracy than does even Iran. But at the same time I also believe that we in my country need to recognize that the US, as great as it is, does not have a direct connection to the "Ultimate Truth" hotline. (Or, if we do, we haven't really been following its advice to the letter.) We need to be conscious of our own failures and hypocracies, even while we campaign for the greater good.

So, on one level we need to figure out just what we believe about the world. The US can't claim to stand for justice if the only times we act against injustice are when the "unjust" are acting against our interests. We should mean it when we say we support freedom and democracy, we should be willing to sacrifice to achieve that goal, and we should be willing to be criticized when we fail to live up to that goal.

And we need to consider the point Nasr is making - that engaging the Muslim world on, as Obama said in Cairo, the basis of "mutual respect and mutual interest," actually does require a change in our own behavior. We need to recognize that the much of the Middle East does not feel as though it needs American saving, and that our own cultural history is hardly earns us authority to preach. While advocating the values that we genuinely hold dear, we should also be conscious of our nation's imperfections, and act towards the rest of the world with a bit of humility as well as pride.


Webcomic Developments and the CRUSHING onset of Poverty

Looks like I haven't updated this page in a while. Speaking as a man $14,000 dollars in debt and counting, I can't think of a better way to spend my time than to update my Giantbomb blog with my newest webcomics. 
I've noticed a trend - the more real-life shnannegans I should be taking care of, the more I want to do something useless and creative, like play music or write a blog post. Or do a webcomic. Here are my most recent endeavors.  
I started doing a multi-panel story arc, but I've discovered that it's hard to maintain an arc when you update as seldom as I do. I had a full five notebook pages of sketches of this story planned out (some of them were even pretty funny) but since I update on average once every three weeks, by the time I get the urge to post another comic I've already moved on to something new and different in my own head.  
My girlfriends always told me I had committment issues... Anyway - comics!   

Oh man... I just blew 30 minutes toying Giantbomb's image posting tool... MUST WORK.  
My webcomic is called Repiphany, by the way, stop by and leave an anonymous post!
Peace, y'all. 

Webcomic update! & Comic Influences

I've just put up a new Repiphany! strip: The Search for Renown

Full Sized Image Here.
(Please hit the link - Last week I made it to the top #300 of #13,000 on my host's website!)

It's fascinating to watch this comic evolve as time goes by. Looking back its clear - at least for me - where my big influences lie... how strips like Calvin and Hobbes, Penny Arcade, and xkcd have shaped my own particular brand of panel humor. My work is my own, obviously, and on my best day I am nowhere NEAR the genius of people like Bill Watterson, but it is interesting to see how, consciously or unconsciously, I've tried to adopt things I've liked about these strips into my own endeavor.

One influence I've definitely noticed is the way that I've shaped punchlines. At least in newspaper comics, multi-panel strips usually follow a basic formula. Each panel essentially serves as a build up to the final image wherein the joke is told, and aren't necessarily funny in and of themselves.

Online you'll often see something very different. Penny Arcade strips, for example, often follow a very different comic structure. Most of the time the strip just flows like a funny conversation between two people, (Which in fact it is - take a listen to their podcast and you'll see this is exactly how it the strip gets written!)and each panel is a joke in and of itself. So the final image ends up not being the place where THE joke of the strip is told, but an especially silly or crazy panel that ends off the strip.

Anyway, I've often caught myself following the latter structure. Today's strip, perhaps not so much, but check out #18 on nanotech and you'll see what I mean. I can also see myself trying to capture what's funny about xkcd or touching about Calvin and Hobbes. Success is not always mine, but it is the journey, after all, and not the destination that must provide satisfaction. It's good to learn from heroes.

And one of these days, I'm going to have to figure out the main characters name.




Webcomic - Dynamic Architecture!

Here is the new Repiphany! page:

Full-sized frame here.

See what I've done here? I've taken the building of the future and turned it into a phallus joke! Mother would be proud.

I am learning that putting a lot of detail into your comic takes a LONG TIME. I've either got to revert to my old, simple format, or just do the drawing over multiple days. This 3-hour comic is not going to fly.

Dynamic architecture is actually an idea, by the way. YouTube the phrase and you'll see what I mean. check out this link, too, very fascinating.



Enlightenment, Eventually

A new Repiphany! comic:
The full-sized page can be found here.  Please click the full link to up my pageview count.

Sad to say, but this actually happened to me. I bought a ticket to see the Dalai Lama two months ago and marked it on my calendar... Then completely forgot there were 30 days in April instead of 31.

No inner peace for me! But check out this link from a 2007 Dalai Lama lecture that I imagine was much like this year:

I have 2 other comics already sketched up! There should be a shorter break between this update and the next.

Indie Games meet Global Politics

I'm always surprised when my two biggest interests, international conflict resolution and video games, collide. Generally the result is some sort of World War 2 first-person-shooter, which is fun but generally fails to actually, you know, promote international conflict resolution.

I've just ran across an independent game that seems to take a different take on the idea. It's called Storytron: Balance of Power in the 21st century. In it, you play an American leader following 9-11 trying to set the world right.

Being a hippie who hates America and who bathes in flowers, I immediately set about trying to improve America's relations with the Middle East. As a first step, I humbly asked Israel to recognize Palestine and to remove its settlements in the West Bank. Imagine my shock when Israel refused, even after I went and brought the EU to the table, and India. Even after I offered some trade agreements and some moderate political prodding, my efforts to promote a just world were rebuffed.

So, just to see what would happen, I clicked the "nuke Israel" button.

I quickly learned that it is in fact a bad idea to nuke Israel. My international standing dropped like a rock. I was uniformly condemned by my European allies, who rallied behind - get this - Kim Jung Il of North Korea to pass a censure vote against America in the United Nations. On the plus side, however, what was left of Israel did end up recognizing Palestine. I decided to retire in infamy and lick my wounds on the political sidelines. To the right is my ending scorecard, with American power in the world ultimately dropping slightly, and American credibility in the world non-existent. I wonder if this is how Bush felt leaving office...

I had a bit of fun with this game putting my political ideology to the test. If anything this game has definitely illustrated that the non-violent course of action is a very difficult one. I plan to try a few more times and see if I can't do it all right.

In all seriousness - I would never accept a nuclear option in real life - I think this game presents some interesting opportunities to challenge our beloved mindsets. Everyone who has an opinion about how we should have handled the world following 9/11, please check out the link above.

On a side note, I can't help but underline how important it is that it was a game that caused me to think about my own ideology. Games aren't just Super Mario Brothers, folks... they sometimes present complex and difficult themes, in ways that simple stories or movies can't. I've been mining the Indie Game scene, and I can say for absolute certain that games like these are not uncommon phenomena. They're out there, and they deserve recognition.

Onlive - Truly Astounding Games Evolution

I've been paying attention to the Games Developers Conference that's been going on this week in California, and some really innovative stuff is landing. By far the biggest splash I've seen was generated by OnLive, an online web service that allows one to play video games over the internet. The astounding thing about this service is that the games one plays aren't simply flash games - mainly 2d concepts that run in a tiny window of the screen - nor is one downloading a massive, high tech title that runs only poorly on an entry-level computer. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, OnLive is an amazing work of technology because it allows the user to play any title made available to it, from the Xbox360, the PC, the Playstation 3 - at full graphics quality, by streaming it over the internet.

Take a look at this GDC expo. It's a little long, but the first few minutes hit the major key points.
The interesting thing about this is that it lowers the bar of who can play high-end videogames. An interesting example of this is the game Crisis, a game that many view to be a benchmark for gaming rigs. Designed several years ago for games of the future, there are thousand-dollar machines out there now that still must strain to the upmost to play Crisis at its highest settings. Yet OnLive service effectively cuts that $2000 pricetag down to the cost of a its own subscription fee and the cost of high-speed cable. Sitting at my entry-level laptop from two years ago, I can play Crisis at max settings over the internet, at high def, with virtually no latenence issues.

I think this is going to have a dramatic impact on the games market. Game-distribution companies like Gametap have existed for years and have not radically reshaped the way that we play games because the hottest, big-ticket items still cost large amounts of money to play through them, and only run poorly on a low-end rig. OnLive, at least on the surface, offers every game on the interet to be played instantly at max-settings, for the cost of a subscription fee. Even for $60 a month, which is what I pay for games anyway, the advantage of effectively owning every game on the OnLive server is a really, really, big deal. We may be seeing the next iteration of the new age of digital distribution, wherein games are bought and sold purely over the internet, and the death of physical CD boxes.

How exciting! Let's see what happens.

After all this... my Curiosity is actually piqued.


I've been one of those bitter, angry souls who have only completed one Final Fantasy because all the others seemed to represent a fall from grace. I know this is just a trailer but... could it be that I'm actually interested in Final Fantasy?

God help me.


Shiny, technically astounding, and abysmally bad at telling a story.
Apologies, but for just one minute I have to join the screaming multitudes.

Le me say that there are cliff hanger endings, and there are endings that com e simply because the developers decided that the next game would begin here. Assassin's Creed has one of the later category. It's a shame that the game has such a bad case of schizophrenia - it oscillates so quickly from being engaging to being mind-blowingly dull that I wonder if it shouldn't go on prosaic, spend a weekend in Vegas and go see if it can't work out what must be some pretty troubling issues with its father.

Visually, the game is superb. Environments glow, clouds and characters alike cast shadows, birds flock towards distant, fog obscured mountains. All of it is gorgeous and one realizes that the shine on this game's presentation is largely responsible for the game's positive reviews.

And even technically, the game is impressive. It has several living, breathing cities that use different styles of architecture (although I'm not sure how many houses were transplanted out of downtown London during the Crusades). Altair follows the Prince of Persia in having an incredibly varied move count - watch him climb laterally on the side of a building and its likely you wont see a single move repeat.  Combat is entertaining, Camera work is superb. People weave in and out of traffic, and the cities are alive... even if generally its a city populated by a citizen mass that enjoys repeating itself endlessly.

But the story - Oh, god, the story - What a shambles.  All "memory" characters - and the protagonist in white most of all - are terribly realized. Writers need to learn that editing out all contractions does not make a character sound noble or historic. It makes him sound strange and off rhythm. I compare the "present" storyline to the "past", though, and the difference couldn't be more pronounced. Characters interact, they have personality, they get angry or funny or any number of emotions, and all the performance is plausible and engaging.  If they had shot for a more natural sounding dialog in the past they would have had in me a rapt and attentive audience. As it was I barely listened to any of the dialog, and resented all the side quests that the game required me to take before I went a-killin'.  The limited beneath the surface story, as per Halo 3, does a little revive the game but in the end its all too little, too late.  In the end it's this aspect of the game that drags the other elements down.

It was a decent game. But I'm selling it back today because I'm certain that I will never, ever play it again.

Yhatzee did an apt critique, by the way.



Corpse Alphabet!

Shock and Awe doesn't even begin to describe my reaction.

Bravo to the brave men and women who completed this project. It is good to know that useless endeavors still motivate the world's population. Don Quixote would be proud.



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