Sunday, April 20, 2008

Reading Sideways

It's by no means an original observation to say that the way we read text influences the way we read an image. In western countries we tend to scan an image from the top left to the top right, then bottom left to bottom right. (I have written about what this means practically in another post. Nickel version: it's not about the importance of any particular area of the image -- it's about how we interpret motion, force and intention.)

So as one friend asks... what does this mean for the images of cultures that don't read from left to right?

The Japanese writing system starts from the top right and goes to the bottom right, then across the page from right to left. This allows for a marvelous experiment. If we turn a japanese print counter-clockwise by 90 degrees we would then scan the image in much the same way a Japanese reader/viewer would. Does this allow the image to make more sense to us? I think so.

This is a woodblock print, probably from the 19th century. Unfortunately, I cannot credit the artist (click to enlarge.)

Notice how much more dynamic the image looks when it is turned sideways. The figure with the sword looks far more dominant; the sitting figure much more helpless. The eye races over the stripes in the defeated man's robe like they were highways. The yellow-red pattern on the swordsman's costume looks flat when the image is upright, infused with action when the print is turned. The lake on the left seems inert; when the print is turned, it looks plaintive and peaceful.

This is another 19th century print (click to enlarge):

Notice how the cherry blossoms seem to fall more convincingly at right. The gradient background seems more foreboding. And most notably, on the left he seems to be weirdly off-balance; when the print is turned, he seems more like he's bracing himself against the elements... a major one of which seems to be the direction of the viewer's eye.

Update: Here's an insight that came about from the interplay in comments. In Western art the signature of the artist is usually in the last quadrant the reader would see, the lower right... just how you would sign a letter at the end, not at the beginning or middle. In a Japanese work, one would expect it to appear in the lower left, since that is the last quadrant a Japanese reader would see. And indeed, that is where these pieces I show are signed.

I'm convinced!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Phony Balance (Or The Real Reason We Need to Leave Iraq)

Publius argues that there is some moral hazard to staying in Iraq:
Here, the overriding risk is all-out civil war – whether inter-or-intra ethnic group – or regional war, or both. Our presence mitigates these risks – at least in the short term. Thus, Maliki can take risky actions like raiding Basra or openly turning the army into a wing of Badr, knowing that he and his allies won’t be exposed to the full risk of those actions (civil war) because of the American presence.

Publius is part of a school of thought which argues that we're allowing the Iraqi government to avoid the difficult choices required to reconcile Iraq. Our departure, they optimistically say, will spur the Shiites to make the compromises necessary for the government to survive. Now, we've used every other kind of leverage there is to prod the Shiite leaders of Iraq to share their power with Sunnis, and none of them have worked. Perhaps using withdrawal as leverage might have an effect, and it certainly can't hurt to try... but I have my doubts.

Maliki's problem is not being too ready to take risks; it is negotiating between multiple risks. For Maliki, not raiding Basra would be a risk as well. He is caught between the sword of the Sunnis and the sword of the more radical Shiite elements. The U.S. disengagement will certainly push him to make choices, but it won't make either sword less sharp, and it won't improve his ability to split the difference, if that's even politically possible for him. Yes, the U.S. is protecting him from Sunni insurgents, but as Basra shows, it's also protecting him from recalcitrant elements of the Shiite faction. The risk from both sides would grow, and it's hard to see how his ability to negotiate the risks would improve.

I would be glad to be surprised, but I don't think our departure would hasten reconciliation in Iraq. What I would argue -- and emotionally it's a more difficult argument to accept -- is that our departure might make things worse in the short run, but that it would allow Iraq to find its own balance faster. And that a strong Iraqi government is simply not possible under a U.S. military occupation.

Every day we stay in Iraq, we cheat the government there of legitimacy. While Iraq is under occupation, Iraqis will always see their government as a handmaiden to the U.S., rather than a representative of them. Elections are fine, but when elected officials seem circumscribed by a foreign invading army, those elections lose their power to confer legitimacy.

Machiavelli said the prince needs to be either loved or feared, and that it was easier to be feared. Unfortunately, we're not making it easier for the Iraqi government win either kind of respect. Even if the Iraqi military were a crack force (and Basra casts that in doubt,) they will not be able to prove that they can hold the country together while the U.S. is still there. Until big brother steps away, the neighborhood bullies are all going to suspect they can take on little brother. The consequences for the outcome of the Sunni-Shia struggle are clear: insurgencies are over when one side knows it has lost. The Sunnis will not know they've lost until the U.S. leaves and they still cannot win power.

We complicate the government's political position in other ways: since the government has to cater to a constituency of American generals and officials, it is less able to freely develop its own Iraqi-grown constituency. Moreover, the commitments of the government when negotiating with Sunnis are doubted, because it is not known how long the U.S. will stay, and it is not known which of those commitments were made under American influence.

Finally, we need to recognize that a small but significant portion of the total violence in Iraq is not aimed at Sunni or Shia, but by nationalists against a foreign encroacher, or by jihadists against a nation of infidels. It is in our power to remove that violence by removing the irritant that causes it: ourselves.

While we support it with the force of our arms, the Iraqi government will always be a cripple in a body cast, with its muscles atrophying inside. The body cast needs to be ripped off. Then we will know if it will strengthen its muscles and survive, or perish and be replaced by something else.

We can kid ourselves into thinking that our presence is calming the water, but we're just delaying the accounting. Putting Sunni insurgents on our payroll might quell the violence momentarily, but it does not quench their aspirations, and it runs the danger of strengthening their cohesiveness and organization.

You can put a thumb on either side of the scale and pretend that it has come to balance, but it hasn't. It's a phony balance. We need to take our thumbs off the scale and let Iraq find its own equilibrium; we need to let Iraqis solve their own problems. We can and should withdraw in a cautious manner that would maximize the government's chances for survival and minimize the odds of a donnybrook. But we also need to cast off our illusion of omnipotence and stop pretending we can doctor a culture we barely understand.