Friday, March 24, 2006

Slope of the Meme Ramp

Here's a little tidbit for those who think that all cultures are equal. Now, the Russians are a secular, Christian-based culture, just like the US in many ways. Do you still think you can swallow a passel of Wahabi radicals without major stomach upset?

3/24/2006 1:31 AM

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At Friday, March 24, 2006 7:41:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

JJ, the first link is to an article about Russian men and women beating each other up. Is that the link you intended?

Those Russian domestic violence numbers are depressing, along with so much else these days.

I wonder what brand of islam the young Iranian is from? I'd have guessed him to be Shia, whereas I think Wahabis are Sunni. ??? In any event, the kid has something in common with so many other religionists of all stripes: he's a nut.

Incidentally, at a staff meeting the other day we had to kill a few minutes pending a presentation, and conversation turned to the Hadj, sectarian violence in Iraq and so on. A question came up to the effect of whether the Shia also have to make a pilgrimage, and if so, how do they get along with all the Sunnis in Mecca, and how can they distinguish the one from the other when they are all dressed the same way?

One person, who had spent 12 years in the middle east, said that among Iraqi arabs there are actually physical characteristics distinguishing Shia from Sunni, this due to centuries of isolation of the one from the other. That was a surprise to me. Sounded plausible, but I wonder.

At Friday, March 24, 2006 11:29:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Yes, Steve, that is what I intended. Here's what I'm trying to say. We have something in the US which is precious and rare. This may be the peak, but for now it is good. The situation in our country, true freedom of expression, a sense of justice, egalitarian impulses, the spirit of compromise are reflections of a rare set of values. Being American, I don't like to say it, but we are better than others because we hold these values. We have something that needs to be shared, something that is worth sharing, certainly worth preserving, a beneficent memeplex.

Russians had an opportunity to join us, but they have been unable to do so. They are handcuffed by wrong ideas. They tend to invest their government with too much power. They are cynical. They can't be wealthy in the way we are because they do not treasure honesty and fairness in business, only power. They can't be free because they don't know how. Security and stability are too important to them. Glasnost and perestroika were too threatening. I loved Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, but the Russians didn't and don't. Instead they returned power to the KBG by way of Mr. Putin, whose anti-democratic tendencies should have been obvious.

I was shocked by the article, and by others recently appearing in the news -- the astonishing prevalence of wife-beating, not to mention general drunkenness, self-pity, anti-semetism and aggressive nationalism. We have never been that bad.

The Russians were our adversaries for so many years that we came to believe that they are basically just like us. When the Soviet Union fell, we spent a lot of time teaching them how to calculate interest rates and write constitutions, but we didn't teach them what they really need to know because we don't, ourselves, recognize what it is that we know. They are not just like us; they are missing something and they need our help to find it.

So the Russians are strange to us. Can we actually help them? Maybe not at this point, but we have to have a strategy for attempting it. If the Russians are strange, imagine how much more strange are the people in the Middle East, and how much more help they need. We thought we could do it by project management.

When we finally recognize that cultural characteristics prevent success, we have a tendency to shrug our shoulders and say, let these people stew in their own juices. We can't do that. 1) We have to accept that our own success is at least partially cultural. We hold ideas that foster freedom and democracy. 2) We have to recognize that plans on paper don't address the crucial issues. We don't know how to teach those things. 3) We have to develop strategies that foster the necessary foundation. I think that we did it in Japan and South Korea, cultures very strange to us. Maybe we can get lucky again.

At Friday, March 24, 2006 11:43:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...


The suggestion of growing genetic separation between Sunni and Shia is very interesting. I was unaware that they were isolated. I do think, however, that the two variants of Islam were adopted by different peoples originally. Iraqi Shia may self-identify as Arabs, but there has been a lot of social interaction with Persians over the centuries.

Wherever there is a filter, there will be differences, but it's usually hard to pin down. I did notice in Paris, however, that you can tell the relative wealth of a particular arrondisement by the numbers of tall citizens. The sixteenth seems to have the de Gaulle lookalikes. Other parts of the city seem to have large numbers of very short women. Then again, it may be all in my mind. Reticular activation is a powerful force. I can't help but look for patterns that I expect.

At Sunday, March 26, 2006 11:03:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

One of the reasons I read your blog, JJ, is because you are more hopeful, more optimistic, than I am. I'm here not to convince you that it's hopeless, but to see if I can learn to justify a more hopeful outlook. I value your perspective.

It's tough, though.

For example, I don't see us being able to help other cultures because of, among other things, what appears to be a hard-wired tendency to resent unsolicited assistance from those higher in the pecking order. Howard Bloom lays this out pretty convincingly in his The Lucifer Principle (which still seems to provide me the best model to explain what I see going on in the world these days).

To help Japan seems to have required that Japan be beaten senseless in the sort of bloody-minded war refered to (almost called for) in Imperial Hubris, by Anonymous (later revealed to be former CIA al Quaida desk chief Michael Scheuer).

I can't wrap my mind around such a think with respect to radical islam, much less the still massively nuclear Russia.

This is a most unsatisfying comment, but there you have it.

At Monday, March 27, 2006 12:06:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...


I remember reading Darkness at Noon and Brave New World and any number of World War II stories as a child. I was fixated and horrified at the unavoidable knowledge of the torture and the totalitarian terror that humans were able to inflict upon one another. At the time, I just took it as understood that the world would wind itself into a tighter and tighter spiral of torment. The Soviet Union would never end. It would slowly drain us, overwhelm our puny efforts because we were not able to focus our energies like they were. We were not tough enough, smart enough or present in sufficient numbers.

Ironically, I was thinking this way at the same time that the traditional terror regime of the American South was being dismantled. I knew that WWII had changed the nature of Japan and Germany for the better, but it had also changed the nature of China for the worse. Most of the world seemed doomed to an eternity of unleavened hopelessness. Most of the rest was mired in poverty. The West, itself, was careening from crisis to crisis.

Today, it is reasonable to look at the world as divided into the promising "connected" nations and the "non-integrating gap". Nothing is clear cut, but there is certainly a different feel to the planet than there was then. The West is no longer just the American Experiment.

Norman Borlaug and his ilk gave us some breathing room and we didn't entirely waste it. Today the only Stalinist enclave remaining is North Korea. The worst may be behind us. People are eating better and the world has not ended, contrary to widespread predictions.

Now, the problems we see today are far more daunting, at least if viewed with open eyes, but we have changed too. We're smarter and freer and better at communicating. I think the open eyes are absolutely necessary, but I also think we should recognize that we've had a run of remarkably good luck over the last few hundred years. We've pulled out ace after ace after ace. We have extricated ourselves from the quicksand of Tyranny -- almost. We are on the path to rid ourselves of poverty and disease -- I hope. Now all we have to do is save the planet and integrate the gap.

Yes, I know that past good fortune is no predictor of future success, but you shouldn't bet against someone who keeps pulling aces.

To me, even more astonishing than the fall of the Soviet Empire, more than the collapse of institutional racism, more than the multiplcation of wealth in the US, has been ... are you ready for this? ... the remarkable change in the culture of cigarette smoking. Think about it. A self-engineered modification of culture for our own good.

Maybe you don't remember what it was like before, but this social transformation is one of the things that gives me hope. I believe that what we need is this precisely, a self-engineered modification of our culture of governance and collective thought process.

We have successfully juggled the horrors and threats of the postwar world, never quite getting a chance to put the balls down. But through our desperate lurching efforts, and repeated instances of individual heroism, we have kept things going. I believe there is cause for hope, but it is now time to take conscious control of our collective self.

At Monday, March 27, 2006 8:06:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

> ... but it is now time to
> take conscious control of
> our collective self.

Heh... Whatever do you mean, JJ?

Sounds like you have some thoughts on how to achieve such a thing. I do, too, but my more plausible thoughts are pretty awful.

At Monday, March 27, 2006 8:56:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

By the way (this seems somehow relevant to taking control of our collective self), there's an info warrior called Michael Wilson, whose collection of articles I found very interesting.

I found them when I came home from a road trip with my son a few years ago, during which I'd been daydreaming about "memetic engineering", thinking that it might be an original term I could somehow exploit. (Nothing new there, of course, original thoughts being the rarities they are.)

When I checked out the phrase, though, I landed on the web site of 7Pillars Partners, and was blown away by some of Wilson's papers.

The domain is still registered, but the site was taken down, as I recall, shortly after 9/11, Afghanistan and all that. It's interesting, though to Google them, and you can also find some or all of the site archived in the Wayback Machine at

I got permission from Wilson to put some of his papers on a web site I was playing around with (now abandoned but still out there). I highly recommend Wilson's Memetic Engineering, PsyOps and Viruses for the Wetware. It's here if you're interested, along with a few of his other papers, though the Wayback Machine has much more (be sure to click on a different date if the first one fails to load).

See what you think. I'm curious to know if you see any relevance to taking control of our collective self.



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