Monday, May 04, 2009

Just finished reading Reza Aslan’s new book, How to Win a Cosmic War on Kindle. Read it. It will almost certainly piss you off, but read it anyway. Kudos to Reza for slaying many sacred cows along the way to providing a remarkably insightful look at jihadism and extremism.
It was especially interesting to read it just before plowing through Malcolm Gladwell’s story on the New Yorker, How David Beats Goliath, It focuses on the often-ignored lesson of history that when Davids compete with Goliaths, David had better not play by Goliath’s rules. He has his usual mix of engaging examples — ranging from girl’s basketball in California to Laurence of Arabia — but the key concepts are probably familiar to anyone who reads my blog: innovation comes from collisions between formerly disjoint knowledge and when the rules change existing advantages can go out the window.
What was new to me was Gladwell’s examination of how hard it is to stick to insurgent behavior. Given almost any combination of outside pressure, easier paths, or changed opportunities, the vast majority will return “normal” behavior. Full-court presses trump skill in basketball, but don’t feel normal, so even very smart coaches don’t run them. It’s like research from several years ago that football teams should go for it on 4th down far more often then normal, which is almost universally ignored despite demonstrations that it works!
Which brings us back to Reza’s book. Conventional thinking on fighting extremism is to use military might despite many historical examples of what happens when extremists are actually brought into the democratic process. But deciding to allow former terrorists to attempt to govern is hard. Focusing on economic challenges is hard. Recognizing that the world isn’t simple black and white is hard. These are all outside our normal worldview, so it’s easier to go back to “normal” methods.
Even when they don’t work.

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