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Syria: gallows humor edition


When I taught at the City University of New York a few years ago, it was an open secret that the institution’s attitude toward its own rules and regulations was inconsistent to the point of open contradiction and brazen hypocrisy. I try not to read internal college emails if I can, but the most memorable such email I ever got was written by a colleague of mine who, fed up with the inconsistencies and nonsensicality of internal CUNY politics, described the institution as an “ad hocracy”–a term that I think should have been included in Aristotle’s list of deviant constitutions in the Politics, and should be a part of our everyday political lexicon.

If you want to see what ad hocracy looks like on a larger scale–where the stakes are a matter of life and death–read today’s lead story in The New York Times on the Obama Administration’s Syria policy, “Obama Tests Limits of Power in Syrian Conflict.” I don’t think I could have invented half of the stuff in it if I’d wanted to confect criticisms of the current drift of “our Syria policy.” My personal favorite passage:

Disputes about whether and when a president or nation may launch an act of war can be hazy because courts generally do not issue definitive answers about such matters. Instead presidents, and countries, create precedents that over time can become generally accepted as a gloss on what written domestic laws and international treaties permit. Against that backdrop, many legal scholars say Mr. Obama is proposing to violate international law. But others contend that the question is ambiguous, and some suggest that the United States could establish a precedent creating new international law if it strikes.

A question for the philosophers of law, particularly those who specialize in international law: can the rule of law consist of rules that are vague to the point of “haze,” and so unpredictable that even their putative authors don’t know what they are, because they’re making them up as they go along? A complex question, to be sure, but one that puts a new spin on the old Aristotelian problem of future contingents: if you thought it was hard to figure out whether or not there’ll be a sea battle tomorrow, try and figure out whether there’ll be a missile strike in Syria this week. Metaphysical gallows humor.

Syria in the present tense.

Syria in the present tense.

Speaking of gallows humor, I was cleaning out some things today, and happened on my old college Arabic textbook, Ziadeh and Winder’s An Introduction to Modern Arabic, published in 1957. The illustrative text from chapter 27, on Syria, has either a quaint or sardonic quality to it at this point–I’m not sure which. The student is asked to study an Arabic passage that parallels the following English text:

The traveller from Beirut to Damascus passes by several summer-resort villages spread out on both side of the road in the mountains. When he reaches Zahr al-Baydar, and begins to look to the east, he sees the fertile plain of al-Biqa’ stretching from north to south. In front of him the town of Shuturah appears with its beautiful gardens. From a distance looms the head of a white mountain–Mount Hermon. When the traveller resumes his journeying beyond that town in the anti-Lebanon mountains, he almost thinks himself in the desert because of the extreme dryness. But when he draws near the city of Damascus, he finds the trees, orchards, and gardens which the Barada river waters: his soul is rested because of them. Then he sees a broad street which leads to the heart of the city, next to the river.

Call it an elegy for a country in grammar-book form. It’s from the chapter on “Weak Verbs in the Imperfect.” Present tense.



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