ISIS hostages, congressional politics in S.C., and ‘a sea of subcultures' in modern America

Posted at 5:53 AM, Oct 27, 2014

We know now much more than we ever have about what Western hostages held by ISIS have been through – those that lived – thanks to an extraordinary article in The New York Times by Rukmini Callimachi. The story has vivid details about 23 Western hostages snatched by Syrian rebels who came to be a part of ISIS, especially James Foley, the American journalist who was beheaded in August.

Apparently, many of the captives converted to Islam, some sincerely, some in hopes it would offer some protection. The article claims Foley converted sincerely, but that brought him no sympathy from his jailers even before his murder. At one point:

They also began waterboarding a select few, just as C.I.A. interrogators had treated Muslim prisoners at so-called black sites during the George W. Bush administration, former hostages and witnesses said.

With time, the 23 prisoners were divided into two groups. The three American men and the three British hostages were singled out for the worst abuse, both because of the militants’ grievances against their countries and because their governments would not negotiate, according to several people with intimate knowledge of the events.

“It’s part of the DNA of this group to hate America,” one said. “But they also realized that the United States and Britain were the least likely to pay.”

Within this subset, the person who suffered the cruelest treatment, the former hostages said, was Mr. Foley. In addition to receiving prolonged beatings, he underwent mock executions and was repeatedly waterboarded.

This is a tremendous piece of reporting, a long read but well worth it.

Congressional politics in S.C.

On a less somber not, but closer to home, Marc Fisher has an amusing dispatch from South Carolina in The Washington Post. It seems that the state’s entire congressional delegation – seven incumbent House members and two Senators (there’s a special election this year) – are running either unopposed or against “absurdly underfunded, almost completely unknown challengers.”

In a year in which American voters express deep frustration with paralysis in Washington, the ballots awaiting South Carolinians are so lopsided — not one competitive congressional race — that even some entrenched incumbents lament the lack of choice and bemoan what the paucity of campaigning says about the nation’s dysfunctional politics and disaffected citizenry.

Although candidates, parties and outside groups are spending nearly $4 billion to capture the two dozen House races and maybe one dozen Senate contests across the nation that are truly competitive, in states such as South Carolina, there are precious few bumper stickers or yard signs to be seen and barely any debates or forums where challengers can face off against incumbents.

“Why would congressmen come around here?” asked Beverly Huff, a Republican who owns the Antique Emporium in downtown Aiken. “They’re shoo-ins. They go to Washington and the money is flowing and pretty soon, they feel entitled and they feel dug-in, and they don’t need us anymore. I want a front-row seat on Judgment Day so I can watch them all get sucked to hell.”

‘A sea of subcultures’

Is this a real low point in the cycles of American politics? Is it nostalgic to think the olden days were better? One thinks conservatives are more likely to want to “conserve” the past and liberals are more likely to believe in progress. But not Yuval Levin, the conservative writer who edits the National Interest. In a brief essay in First Things, Levin writes:

The biggest problem with our politics of nostalgia is its disconnection from the present and therefore its blindness to the future. While we mourn the passing postwar order, we are missing some key things about the order now rising to replace it.

Perhaps the foremost trend our nostalgia keeps us from seeing is the vast decentralization of American life, which has characterized the early years of this century and looks only to grow. The postwar order was dominated by large institutions: big government, big business, big labor, big media, big universities, mass culture. But in every area of our national life—or at least every area except government—we are witnessing the replacement of large, centralized institutions by smaller, decentralized networks.

Younger Americans are growing up amid a profusion of options in every realm of life, with far more choice but far less predictability and security. Dynamism is increasingly driven not by economies of scale but by competitively-driven marginal improvements. Our culture is becoming a sea of subcultures. Sources of information, entertainment, and education are proliferating.

The near-total (and bipartisan) failure of our politics to confront these changes explains a lot of the dysfunction of our government today, and much of our frustration with it.

“Our culture is becoming a sea of subcultures.” That’s a great line. 

The pace of this cultural change has been jarring, hence the nostalgia and the cultural conservatism.

But there is also a loud and triumphant school of Internet-inspired, Google-worshipping techno-utopians championing the power of “decentralization,” the wisdom of the crowd, the power of the networked.

How this relates to the dysfunction of government today is not clear to me.  But Levin’s cultural conservatism makes for a thought provoking short essay.

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