The sun has returned to Gaziantep.

Last night around 21:00 I was walking home when I saw a Syrian woman and her two children rooting through a dumpster. It isn’t unusual — they have a method and a cart for collection. The economic situations remain largely unchanged for Syrians in Turkey.

When I woke up this morning there was news of another attack in Istanbul. I am flying there Tuesday; today is the day to book a hotel surely.

Sanko Park was not open. It’s a mall here, with a Starbucks, a movie theatre, an ice skating rink, a pool hall. Usually it opens at 10:00 but as of 11:48 they were still not letting people inside — many tried, to be turned around by security, and then waited in a conspicuous crowd right outside the mall’s metal detectors.

So I sat in the park nearby re-reading Antifragile by Taleb. Finally the weather allowed this. The thrust of the book is that antifragility is undervalued, underconsidered, and wholly distinct from robustness or resilience. I think post-traumatic growth is a useful term (mentioned by the author).

We know the idea of antifragility intuitively, that if you sit as a couch potato, you’ll decay, but the opposite, vigorous exercise, fasting, sweat, et al can strengthen you. This positive reaction to stress is not the same as resisting harm, where you remain unchanged, neither fitter nor fatter, after exposure.

In any case I came across this early on in the book,

For revolutions feed on repression, growing heads faster and faster as one literally cuts a few off by killing demonstrators.

Hydra is the metaphor of course (Taleb loves eight or more analogies to make every point). (italics his, and I shudder at the diction).

I am not so sure how well this fits with the Syrian revolution. When the Hama massacre happened, my understanding is, this ushered in nearly three decades of uninterrupted suppression — the kingdom of silence. And it is well named a massacre — the Assad regime killed a lot of innocent people that year. A couple paragraphs later,

It is that political movements and rebellions can be highly antifragile, and the sucker game is to try to repress them using brute force rather than manipulate them, give in, and find more astute ruses, as Heracles did with Hydra.

I guess the out here is ‘can’ — Taleb isn’t making the mistake of claiming to understand the nature of reality. He is just saying ‘this phenomenon sometimes acts in this way’ where the phenomenon is rebellions and antifragile is the way. Insofar as I understand Hama, brute force did work for the regime.

Brutal force did not work in 2011 — news of the regime locking up, torturing, and killing fourteen year old boys in Deraa, while its agents taunted their parents, stoked the uprising. And as the army began shooting protestors, more protests erupted, Syrians began getting more organised — repression fed the revolution in 2011, but didn’t in 1982.

But look at that second half of the second quote — “manipulate them, give in, and find more astute ruses.” Assad has played a very good manipulation game. He gave in every where it didn’t matter. He waited out the revolution as it changed. So has the conversation.

For example the idea that Assad was, is, and will be, a protector of minorities in Syria has made a comeback. It has been repeated to such an extent that some people believe it. The arc of its believability has not been steady, it is more believed now than it was in 2013, but less than it was in 2010. Of course it was never true. The regime has always used each minority individually as it suited its interests, straight out of Machiavelli’s playbook. Yet some slice of those who considered themselves informed count protection of minorities as a point in Assad’s favour. In that vein, they also frame matters as a dichotomous choice, clarified by tallying a scoreboard of points, for and against the regime.

So repression rightly tuned succeeds. The problem sometimes with Talebian claims that include phrases like “more astute ruses” is that they risk boiling down to saying “better solutions work better.” But Taleb would be the first to point out that theoretical, universally applicable explanations of the world — actually he despises such foolish ‘platonicity’ —  are inaccessible. He uses the bed of procrustes often to illustrate that you can’t fit everything in the real world into some theoretical framework.

Instead we have piecemeal wisdom and habits and practices — aphorisms and human attempts at their application.




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