Some thoughts on Nassim Nicholas Taleb on terrorism

In light of the recent, tragic events in Paris, Taleb is correct to point out that Saudi Arabia is the major exporter of terrorism throughout the region and beyond, through its bankrolling of violent, extremist Wahhabi and Salafi doctrine. This, it should be noted, is in contradiction with the commonly-held belief that such ideas originated, more or less grassroots, in places like Syria and Iraq, or possibly, Afghanistan. Of course, there’s some inkling that the funds are coming from private sources in the Gulf because who else in our incestuous little sandbox would have that kind of money? But Taleb’s point is that this is in fact sanctioned at the official level.

Not to mention, the hidebound, vitriolic ideology is part of the elementary school curriculum there, Cletus git yer gun!

The kingdom’s immense wealth allows it to drop millions disseminating these teachings to vulnerable, marginalized communities across the Muslim world and its fringes (Northern India, Southern Russia), all in the name of charity. This involves the building of mosques, schools, medical clinics, cultural centers, infrastructures, etc., as well as the dispatching of its fleet of hardline clerics to oversee the operations.

On Twitter, Taleb makes a cute joke that said clerics should be shipped off to Guantanamo. For every Jihadi John killed in a US airstrike, he says, 10 more are born, which he cites as an example of antifragility. So, groups like ISIS and, to a lesser extent, al-Qaeda are not only able to rebound quickly from unexpected catastrophe but can use the ensuing chaos to their advantage. The situation therefore calls for a drastic structural change—hence the joke. Ha ha ha. Get it? It’s no use to cut off the hydra’s head, you have to strike at its heart. The analogy is good, if I do say so myself, because radical Islam has siloed its terror cells in such a way that new ones are being generated every time an existing one is broken up.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Taleb. He’s basically my dad. Like dad, he issues trenchant, spitfire critiques; fancies himself a Roman senator; and ignores my repeated attempts to establish contact with him! He is also a Christian minority from a Muslim territory, which, like any intermediary status, is a difficult and unpleasant role to occupy. Between a rock and a hard place, as they say. You are forever apologizing to one side for the indiscretions of the other! You feel loyal to the East, but want to be liked by the West.

I had a hunch about Taleb’s position on Israel, so I did a cursory Google search and didn’t find much. But I did find this tweet (since deleted): 

Stating “Pro-Israel” or “Pro-Palestinian” has an unethical conditionality. You should say “I am pro-Fairness, pro-Justice” and revise ad hoc.

Sounds suspect. Whether or not you sympathize with the Palestinians on a personal level—I happen to think their leadership has done more than its share of playing into the hands of the colonial overlord—should be irrelevant to your geopolitical sympathies. It’s impossible not to view Israel’s actions as punitive, overzealous, and above all, fragile, to use Taleb’s preferred term. Which is to say, a country that was certain of its moral upperhand wouldn’t behave in such a way (i.e. bombing children’s hospitals and blockading ambulances from reaching the wounded). 

The kids today sure love their “Bush did 9/11” memes, but the reason conspiracy theories rarely pan out is that the reality is usually far worse. Fidel Castro’s words ring particularly true these days: didn’t the CIA and Mossad actually create ISIS, and before it, al-Qaeda? Or, at the very least, set in motion the chain of events that led to their founding by systematically destabilizing stable, secular regimes and radicalizing their former subjects? In case you doubt, I think this has been covered in elaborate detail by Noam Chomsky, but I never learned to read, so for godsakes don’t take my word for it. The Saudis, with their unforgiving strain of Islamic theology, are merely an accessory. (If living under neoliberalism for the past three decades has taught us anything, it’s that money doesn’t always equal power.)

So why Taleb chooses to focus on them is anyone’s guess, but I have a decent one. He, like Marty Peretz, has what could be classified as a fraternal contempt for his Muslim brethren. It’s hard to explain the context unless you’re actually from the culture. To the casual observer, it just comes off as… racism. Especially in America, which suffers from a congenital lack of nuance in separating the racial from the racist. As one of Peretz’s colleagues once said, the mentality goes something like this: it’s me against my brother; me and my brother against my cousin; me and cousin against the world.

In many ways, this mirrors the situation in Paris itself. We can beat around the bush all we want, and probably should out of respect for the dead, but France is a notoriously racist country, especially when it comes to antisemitism and Islamophobia. It seems almost incredible considering its sizable population of assimilated Jews and Muslims, but as it turns out, these things go hand in hand. In the absence of an American-style SJW PC police, French racism is both more casual and more insidious (kind of like it is in Russia, where one doesn’t think twice cracking a one-liner about “blackasses”  or “goatfuckers” or stabbing someone in the shoulder blade with a Caucasian dagger).

One thing I’ve always liked about Taleb is his sloppiness. He can be preemptive and harsh in his condemnation because he knows that oftentimes a good intuition alone can suffice. This is especially reassuring in a public figure, and one who has made a name for himself as a statistician at that. So, he had no problem, on principle, announcing during the Greek crisis that everything from Italy to Turkey should be absorbed into a single Mediterranean zone (I agree, on principle). And in general, he has expended a fair amount of rhetoric shoehorning himself into some sort of vague, Felliniesque Roman tradition that begins with Seneca and ends with Soprano (though he is circumspect about it, which, again, I appreciate). 

But this last turn is bothersome even for an ordinarily inconvenient critic of geopolitics. To clarify: Taleb is right in theory; but wrong in practice. He calls for addressing the structures as opposed to the symptoms, which is exactly right. The problem with his reasoning is that the Salafis are a step above the jihadis on the terror food chain but theyre not at the top. To place responsibility squarely on them betrays the sort of compensatory, progressive dickriding of Western “democracy” by Middle Eastern intellectuals that helped get us here in the first place. How can you blame the Romans for being selective with their morality when you do the same, but on behalf of foreigners?