Sunday, June 28, 2009

On Corruption

I recently shared our Fearsome Comrade's worries about the intersection of government and business in America. The Skeptical Bureaucrat shares a related concern, that of the incestuous world of "formers" consulting, in which former politicians become consultants advising businesses how best to deal with politicians. He recalls a conversation with a Turkish official:
He furiously resented a World Bank effort that was going on at that time to combat public corruption, which the Bank saw as an impediment to economic development. The Turk maintained that in the Third World public corruption is more or less benign, since it consists of small amounts of graft broadly distributed throughout society all the way down to the level of traffic cops, whereas the U.S. style of corruption consists of huge amounts of money passed out to a very few people at the top of the government-business nexus. I had no good answer to him then, and I haven't thought of one since.
I have to say, I had never, ever thought of it that way. And it's pretty strange, when you think about it, that Americans would be outraged at a traffic cop demanding a $20 bribe, but are relatively unruffled by millions of dollars in payola at the state and federal levels.

On Congressional Incompetence

Does it strike anyone else that there's insufficient outrage about the complete sham the Congress has become? It has become routine for Representatives and Senators to debate and vote on bills they cannot possibly have read. Congressional leaders sneer dismissively when legislators suggest they'd like a chance to do so. This is appallingly antirepublican, undermining the people's sovereignty and replacing it with a shadow oligarchy of congressional staffers. It's been going on for a long time, of course, but it seems to have reached a new level with the national embarrassment that was the "debate" over the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill.

Pushing for a Read the Bill Amendment seems over the top at first, but then again, an entire branch of our government has more or less abdicated their responsibilities, so perhaps a constitutional amendment isn't overkill. It would certainly have some nice follow-on effects, since it would greatly increase the incentive for concision in legislation, and force legislators to spend more time actually considering legislation and less time at bare-knuckles politicking.

Gustatory Pornography

For me, a gourmand hopelessly stuck in communal housing without a kitchen, food blogs are to cooking as pornography is to procreation. And the Pioneer Woman and Bakerella are my Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt. Today, Bakerella's making pancakes:

See what I mean?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

On Free-Range Kids

There are a lot of uninteresting one-cause blogs out there where strident people exorcise their own demons by beating dead hobbyhorses for the edification of the rest of us. Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids isn't one of them. It operates on a pretty simple thesis: American parents are driving themselves crazy with concern and smothering their children with illusory safety, all while America is as safe a place for children as it was in 1970. Quite simply, she's out to change the way Americans raise their kids. This interview with Salon lays out the argument pretty nicely. A few excerpts:
What are the statistics about crimes against children? What is the news that we're not hearing?

The crime rate today is equal to what it was back in 1970. In the '70s and '80s, crime was climbing. It peaked around 1993, and since then it's been going down.

If you were a child in the '70s or the '80s and were allowed to go visit your friend down the block, or ride your bike to the library, or play in the park without your parents accompanying you, your children are no less safe than you were.

But it feels so completely different, and we're told that it's completely different, and frankly, when I tell people that it's the same, nobody believes me. We're living in really safe times, and it's hard to believe.


Then there are products out there that will prevent [anything] from happening. Here is a helmet your child could wear when she starts to toddle, lest she fall over and split her head open and die, or suffer traumatic brain injury.

Kids have been toddling -- it's a whole stage we actually call toddlerhood -- ever since we started walking upright, which has been a pretty successful experiment for the human species. But now you're supposed to think that it's too dangerous for a kid to do without extra protection and without extra supervision and without this stupid thing you can buy.

There are kneepads that you're supposed to put on your kid because crawling is considered too dangerous for the knees, as if knees weren't built for crawling. That's why they're cute and dimpled and fat.

Everything that we do has a product that we can buy that's supposed to make our kids safer, as if they're born without the requisite accoutrements. Then there is something we can do as parents to be more careful, to be more protective. The assumption behind all of that is that if you are a good parent, you should be protecting your child from 100 percent of anything that could possibly go wrong, and if not, you will be blamed and Larry King will shake his finger at you.
I'm probably one of the few single young men reading Skenazy's blog, but I was a Free-Range Kid, and I'll likely have a couple myself someday. Beyond that, the child-safety hysteria is a microcosm of larger societal forces. It is fed by the same psychological quirk that cripples security planning and counterterrorism, namely that human beings are pretty terrible at internalizing probabilities, and particularly terrible at estimating probabilities of things that scare us. Really, Lenore Skenazy is the Bruce Schneier of child-rearing.

On Arab Media

Here's another clip from MEMRI-TV to add to the "Al-Jazeera isn't what you think it is" file. In it, Iraqi author Najm Wali argues that the Arabs must pursue normalization with Israel if they are to have a future.
Najm Wali: I believe that normalization [of relations with Israel] is a cultural necessity for us, and it is the answer to all those who talk about a clash of civilizations. It is a historical necessity for us Arabs in particular, because it will take us to a new stage – a stage that will transcend the eternal conflict with Israel, and in which we will form new relations with the world. The eternal conflict with Israel has brought us nothing but material losses and loss of human life, as well as a chronic sense of defeat. The common Arab citizen feels that he is being defeated by this tiny country, Israel, which numbers only six or seven million, while the Arab world numbers 300 million.

The way to deal with this feeling should be through normalization. As you said at the beginning of this show, this is what the Islamic countries understood, long before the Arabs. The historical ties of Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia with Israel have gone beyond mere normalization. Turkey, Syria's partner and the mediator in the indirect talks [with Israel], has a strategic, military alliance with Israel. But I'm sad to say that the notion that prevails in the public discourse is that normalization is a trap for us, a deception. This notion will lead us to more defeats and battles, and the loss of more human lives. Look at other Islamic states, like Indonesia and Turkey. Not only are these countries international powers, which are even accepted as mediators, but they are also economic powers. Like the "Asian Tigers," they did not involve themselves in a daily conflict with a small country. This question has constantly made me wonder, even as a little boy: Why is this tiny state able to defeat us, even though we are 300 million? The problem lies with us. We have to think for ourselves, and build...

Interviewer: So the solution to this problem is normalization with this country?

Najm Wali: In my opinion, normalization is the first solution, so we can devote ourselves to economic prosperity. Economy is the problem in the world today.

Interviewer: Egypt normalized its relations with Israel some 25 years ago or more.

Najm Wali: And indeed, it regained the Sinai.

Interviewer: What has Egypt achieved since the normalization?

Najm Wali: Let's ask a different question: How many casualties has Egypt suffered since normalization? Egypt has not suffered casualties like it did in the past. [...] What I am saying is that this nation has to coexist in peace.

Interviewer: The Islamic nation?

Najm Wali: Yes, and especially the Arab nation, which is part of the Islamic nation. I consider it a historical necessity. In addition, peaceful coexistence – let's put aside the issue of Zionism... The Jews are no foreigners here. They've lived in the region for many years, throughout Islamic history. Even in terms of race, ethnicity, and history – they are our cousins. They lived for many years in the Arab Peninsula, in Iraq, and everywhere. We have to benefit from their experience in building a state.
I simply cannot imagine a scenario in which CNN or Fox News would give airtime to someone who would challenge America's fundamental image of itself the way this Najm Wali has challenged the Arabs. The willingness of the Arab media to give soapboxes to the most incredibly contrarian positions displays an admirable faith in the principle of free and open debate. I think we often overlook how significant this really is, particularly in the political context of the Arab world.

On Corporatism

Our Fearsome Comrade has a really important insight on the relation of business and government:
Corporations are going to get your money. The question is, will they do it by offering you a useful service or a valuable good in return, or will they do it by getting their friends in Washington to force you to give it to them for nothing?
When business and government collude, ordinary people lose. A laissez-faire policy is not based on some generalized affection for big business, rather the recognition that businesses that aren't threatened by the government have no reason to meddle in the government and no lust to control the government. If the government didn't have the power to bankrupt competing companies, funnel billions in tax revenue to favored industries, or force people to buy products they don't want, businessmen would have no interest in corrupting it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Transformers Gets Dretful Review

My favorite sort of movie review is the kind that totally pans a movie, but somehow makes you want to see it even more. i09's review of the new Transformers movie is just that sort of review:
And the true genius of Transformers: ROTF is that [director Michael] Bay has put all of this excess of imagery and random ideas at the service of the most pandering movie genre there is: the summer movie. ROTF is like twenty summer movies, with unrelated storylines, smushed together into one crazy whole. You try in vain to understand how the pieces fit, you stare into the cracks between the narrative strands, until the cracks become chasms and the chasms become an abyss into which you stare until it looks deep into your own soul, and then you go insane.
Every single performance is so ridiculous that it looks down on "over the top" as if from a great height.
In a sense, it's the first war movie ever to convey a real sense of the fog of war, the confusion that comes with battle. Somewhere around hour nine, you will understand why friendly fire happens in wartime.
I need to see this movie.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Lives of Soccer Players

The Iranian soccer players who wore green armbands in a World Cup qualifying match in solidarity with the protesters have been "retired" from the team. Yglesias makes a very astute connection to the tactics used by the East German government, as displayed in The Lives of Others, one of my favorite films:
One of the things The Lives of Others does very well is illustrate how a dictatorial regime that prefers to stay in power through “soft” methods can use the threat of destroying people’s careers. Instead of being put on trial and executed, becoming a martyr for the cause, you can just be rendered unemployable in the field of your choice in a decision nobody has to publicly defend but everyone understands. You become, then, not an imprisoned hero, but perhaps just an apparently pathetic person—in the movie it’s a theater director who can’t direct—a cautionary tale rather than an inspirational example.
This is not the martyrdom of Neda Agha-Soltan, the peaceful protester shot dead by the regime's thugs, but it is a sacrifice all the same. These players must have known full well there would be consequences, the ending of their careers possibly the mildest scenario imaginable. Whatever the result of this situation, its legacy will be a hundred thousand stories of courage. I hope someone tells them again, someday.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Making Up for Lost Time

Another statement from our President (emphasis mine):
The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.

As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.

Martin Luther King once said - "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.
Bravo, Sir. Keep 'em coming.

Obama Speaks on Iran

There it is:
What you're seeing in Iran are hundreds of thousands of people who believe their voices were not heard and who are peacefully protesting and - and seeking justice. And the world is watching. And we stand behind those who are seeking justice in a peaceful way. And, you know, already we've seen violence out there. I think I've said this throughout the week. I want to repeat it that we stand with those who would look to peaceful resolution of conflict, and we believe that the voices of people have to be heard, that that's a universal value that the American people stand for and this administration stands for.
Was that so hard? Thank you, Mr President. (Notwithstanding the classic "as I've said before" Obamism flagging his change of position).

Friday, June 19, 2009

Success and Happiness

Considerably simpler when you break it down:

(from Flickr user Bud Caddell, via Jaltcoh)

"We Meddle Because We Exist"

Whatever or whoever Mir Hossein Mousavi was five days ago, he is now the leader of a mass movement that demands the creation of a free Iran that will rejoin the Western world. And yes, the wheel could turn again, this revolution could one day be betrayed, all kinds of surprises no doubt await the Iranian people. Yes, but. But today, there is a dramatic chance of a very good thing happening in Iran, and thus in the Middle East, and therefore in the whole world...

As Obama discovered just today, America will be accused of meddling on behalf of freedom, even if we do nothing. And the accusation will have been true, in the most fundamental sense, even though the State Department raced to deny it. We are the symbol of freedom in the modern world, and those fighting for freedom against tyrants will intuitively invoke our name and our Constitution in their struggle. They are right, for the very existence of America threatens the legitimacy of the tyrants.

We meddle because we exist.

Obama on Iran

I've been waiting for someone to sum up the arguments surrounding President Obama's (lack of a) stance on the post-election protests in Iran. James Taranto has published as good a digest as I could have hoped for. In classic blogographic style, I agree (why else would I have linked him?). I think Obama was right to avoid strident early support of the protest movement which could have undermined the protesters' confidence in the sovereignty of their own motivations. Nothing takes the wind out of authentic outrage faster than the suspicion you're playing into the hands of meddling superpowers. The regime's own propaganda machines are spinning this angle anyway, so it's a valid concern. But Obama's increasingly tepid responses over the past week are beginning to sound not measured and reasonable but absurd against the backdrop of the historic protests. As Taranto puts it:
The trouble with Obama's comments is not that they are insufficiently belligerent in tone but that they are craven in substance. If the president spoke with clarity and firmness, his doing so calmly would be a plus.

Self-Reliance in the Recession

If this isn't an argument for self-reliance, I don't know what is. Christina Davidson of the Atlantic visits rural West Virginia to see how the recession's hitting America's second-poorest state. Turns out, it isn't. According to lifelong resident Marietta Stemple:
We don't have foreclosure here because most people own their homes and have always owned their homes. Most people have jobs, and if they lose one, it probably didn't pay much anyway. We don't have much bankruptcy because most people know their limits. We don't have the expenses of people in the cities. I always sewed and made all my kids' clothes--I have five. I always cut their hair myself. We never bought what we didn't need. That's just how we live.
Maybe a lot more of the country will learn to live this way again.

Demographics of Resistance

Michael Totten shares what strikes me as an important point about the demographics of Ahmadinejad's supporters:
[The] strange meme in many media reports that Ahmadinejad has a “base” of support in the countryside is not only wrong, it’s backwards. The uprising we’re all watching on YouTube is taking place inside Ahmadinejad’s “strongholds,” such as they are.

Ahmadinejad is a “conservative” in the relative sense of the word, as he resists any and all reform of the 1979 revolution. He is not, however, a conservative in the traditional sense. Khomeinism and radical Islamism are 20th Century totalitarian ideologies. Traditional village people, conservative as they may be, have little use for them.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Michael Ledeen on Iran

If anyone has something to say worth listening to about the situation in Iran, it's Michael Ledeen. "Faster, please" has been his mantra for years. Now it's in sight. Maybe.

On Oaths

I just saw this Tweet on #Iranelection:

Sorry, @normankonrad, but I don't think it works that way. I don't know exactly how their oath reads, but I don't believe Iranian cops and soldiers are sworn to protect the people of Iran. Even in America, soldiers swear fealty to the regime, not to the people, by taking an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and to obey the orders of the President. Iranian troops are sworn to defend the Islamic Revolution. In our case, soldiers fight with the confidence that the Constitution we defend is on the side of the people. In theirs, let us rather call the army and the police to respect higher oaths than those they have taken. But even if the soldiers and police defect to the demonstrators, they still have to deal with the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij. There is still a long way to go.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Tweeted

While I was enjoying myself this weekend in splendid isolation in the awe-inspiringly beautiful Great Smoky Mountains, apparently the world's been falling apart. At least Iran. I don't know a lot about Iran. But even life-long Iran watchers and analysts admit that the great deal of that county's political decisions -- such as those surrounding this weekend's election result -- are made somewhere within the "black box", those inner councils of the theocracy whose workings are entirely opaque to outside observers.

What is transparent, however, is that something scary -- but also exciting and possibly even hopeful -- has been stirred up in Iran.

Whether it will grow and remake that country remains to be seen. Whatever the result, the world will experience it live and firsthand from thousands of participants. Follow them on Twitter.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On Legalization

I don't think any single writer has shaped my political philosophy as much as world traveler and prison doctor Anthony Daniels, better known pseudonymously as Theodore Dalrymple. It was Dalrymple in such books as Life at the Bottom; Our Culture, What's Left of It; and Not With A Bang But a Whimper who has meticulously proven to me that I am in no way a libertarian and encouraged me to embrace the label of "conservative", though he never labels himself such. The Skeptical Doctor blog provides a convenient portal to Dalrymple's writings in various journals, and this morning reposted his 1997 City Journal article against the legalization of drugs. If any single essay could present a microcosm of Dalrymple's political philosophy, this might be it:
The idea that freedom is merely the ability to act upon one’s whims is surely very thin and hardly begins to capture the complexities of human existence; a man whose appetite is his law strikes us not as liberated but enslaved. And when such a narrowly conceived freedom is made the touchstone of public policy, a dissolution of society is bound to follow. No culture that makes publicly sanctioned self-indulgence its highest good can long survive: a radical egotism is bound to ensue, in which any limitations upon personal behavior are experienced as infringements of basic rights. Distinctions between the important and the trivial, between the freedom to criticize received ideas and the freedom to take LSD, are precisely the standards that keep societies from barbarism.

It's 2009 Already...

... where's my... my... huh? Okay, if past visions of the future tell you more about the time they were made, then 1992 was a strange, strange time.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Good Good Good: Hizbullah Defeated in Lebanese Elections

The anti-Syrian March 14 coalition has secured 70 out of 128 seats in the Lebanese assembly, soundly defeating the Hizbullah-Communist-Socialist March 8 alliance. More importantly, the opposition has accepted the result (via Legal Insurrection):
"We have lost the election," said a senior politician close to the March 8 alliance. "We accept the result as the will of the people."
That's a phrase I'll never tire of hearing. Faster, please.

I Want One: Tata Nano

It's coming to the US. And I'm totally getting one.

UPDATE:'s got a test drive up on YouTube. They seem impressed:

Saturday, June 6, 2009

We'll Call It "Amsterdam Syndrome"

I don't think we've talked about Geert Wilders on the blog. He's a Dutch parliamentarian who believes Western civilization is something worth preserving and that, therefore, current Dutch policy of allowing uncontrolled mass immigration of vocal and occasionally violent advocates of a pre-modern worldview might need a second look. This opinion, of course, has inevitably branded him "far-right" in the eyes of the global media, and gotten him banned from British soil as a hate-mongering racist.

The latest outrage has come after Wilders compared the mindset of Europe's elites to that of the Dutch journalist Joanie de Rijke, who has spoken repeatedly in defense of the Afghan Taliban fighters who abducted and serially raped her for six days. It's a dark, dark metaphor for the future of the West.

Do Take Some Time This Weekend

Take some time to read Bruce Gee's eclogue on orchard work in Wisconsin. It's more than worth your time.

On Working With Your Hands

I'm thankful to have come from part of the country and a family where nobody would have imagined the need to write a defense of craftsmanship. But for all my readers who've been raised and educated to be "knowledge workers" with no thought to the alternative, Matthew Crawford outlines "The Case for Working With Your Hands" in NYT Magazine, an abridgment of his philosophical treatise "Shop Class as Soulcraft" in The New Atlantis, which has now been expanded into a book.

American culture as a whole idealizes the thought of being one's own boss, and yet does not encourage promising young people to enter the only sector of the economy where this goal is not only realistic, but relatively commonplace: the skilled trades. Crawford's focus is on the mechanical trades, but the requirements of creativity and problem-solving and the rewards of concrete satisfaction and connection to the community are just as real for pastry chefs, florists, and cobblers (they still exist) as they are for plumbers, electricians, and auto mechanics.

My goal is nothing less than the "miracle" of small-scale self-employment.

Milwaukee School Choice Targeted for Destruction

Milwaukee's school choice program has been proving critics wrong for 20 years, and as a successful test case has inspired similar programs around the country. It must therefore be destroyed, as Madison is now seeking to do.

Friday, June 5, 2009

On Uniforms

There are some people whose sensitivities are offended by the presence of uniformed policemen or soldiers in public, because they've been raised to see uniforms as symbols of oppression and militarism. In reality, uniforms are a concession to the people, and the most terrifying representatives of state power are the ones who don't mark themselves as such:

What possible message can be meant by parading plainclothes officers, other than a reminder that the eyes and ears of the Party are everywhere? 20 years after the massacre of Tiananmen, China seems to be holding its breath.

On Settlement

The BBC Monitor publishes a digest of Israeli editorial reactions to President Obama's Cairo speech. I was most struck by this comment by settler Benny Katzover, published in Ma'ariv:
Obama reiterated his wish to establish two states for two peoples. Balance and equality between Jews and Arabs as it were. But Obama "forgot" that in the Jewish state there are more than a million [Israeli] Arabs who enjoy democratic rights unknown to their brothers in Arab countries. No one stops them from building… But for us Jews in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] it is forbidden to live, build or to buy land. Obama, who is supposed to be sensitive to racism, has turned himself into a racist.
I'd never really thought about that, but if an Israeli citizen of Arab ancestry were to buy land and build his home in the West Bank, nobody would think twice. But when a Israeli citizen of Jewish ancestry does the same, he is "expanding the settlements" and it is a source of international condemnation and handwringing. Someone explain to me why Katzover is wrong, how this is something other than rank racism? Does it bother anyone else that we've somehow all accepted the premise that a Palestinian state must rightly be judenrein?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama Visits the Pyramids

Of course, you can't go to Cairo without seeing the pyramids. Yawn. You've seen them already, I assure you. Only in the books and postcards, they make sure to take the pictures at an angle so you can't see the Pizza Hut and the rest of the sprawl that runs right up to them.

He took a tour of Sultan Hassan mosque, which is okay, I guess. By which I mean BOOOOORRRRING. He should have gone to Ibn Tulun, which is truly one of the great treasures of human endeavor. I suppose the location might have played a role. Security would be pretty tricky in the heart of Khan al-Khalili.

Cairo Quibbling

So, here are the notes and quibbles I had with specific points in President Obama's Cairo speech. My general thoughts are here.
This cycle of suspicion and discord must end... I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning.
Sigh, don't we all wish it were that easy? And when will the administration figure out how obnoxiously American this wipe-the-slate-clean mindset is? Sorry, folks, the rest of the world's got history. There is no "reset button".

Obama extols the "common principles" between America and Islam such as "justice, progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings". Exactly how common are those principles?

He's got a good pronunciation on "holy Koran". If you're going to try it, get it right. I also appreciate that the White House press release uses the English spelling and doesn't mess around with all that "Qur'an" nonsense. Who knows how to pronounce a Q? or an apostrophe?
The interests we share as human beings are more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.
Again, it's a great thought. But is it true? I want it to be, certainly. But I'm not quite as confident.

Referencing his Muslim father and ancenstry is tricky, tricky ground. He is calling himself out as an apostate under the more extreme sharia jurisprudence, worse than an infidel. Even more moderate Arab Muslims will be very much discomfited by the idea of a son who does not follow his father's religion. This is an issue of Arab culture, whether Christian or Muslim. When Iraqi soldiers would ask me why I was not a Muslim, the simple answer "because my father is not a Muslim" was always a fully satisfactory explanation. Saying "I am not a Muslim, but my father was" will not score you any points with Muslims.
Throughout history Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of Religious tolerance and racial equality.
When and where, exactly? Yes, Jews were tolerated (and specially taxed) in al-Andalus, as Christians have been in Egypt, with only the occasional pogroms. But where is religious tolerance in Saudia Arabia, the beating heart of Islam, where I cannot hold a worship service, carry a Bible, or even pray silently in public? Where is it in Afghanistan, where conversion still carries the death sentence? And racial equality? Are you flippin' serious? The African slave trade exists still today, in Mauretania, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, and Saudia Arabia. The word 'abd -- slave -- remains the common term for Africans in much of the Arab world.
Partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't.
Unfortunately, this entire speech is based on what he wishes Islam to be, rather than what it is. That's not an indictment of the speech, setting high standards can shame someone who isn't meeting them. But it does make this line sound pretty dumb.
Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words -- within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum -- "Out of many, one."
It's a bolder defense of American principles than I had expected. Well done.
America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.
That's a much bolder defense of Israel than I'd expected. Excellent.
Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed... It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered.
Pull out the shame card. Good, good.
The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state, to recognize Israel's legitimacy, and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.
He could have driven point a bit deeper, but I'm glad he brought it up at all. Unfortunately, the administration is still committed to a foreign policy based on the laughable assumption that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is the cornerstone of region-wide peace.
I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.
I'm glad the freedom agenda hasn't disappeared. I think this is actually a more realistic outline for internal reform than the Bush administration put forward with their overwhelming focus on voting as the cornerstone of democracy. Elections matter less than do rule of law, equal justice, and guaranteed freedoms. Elections without those things mean "one man, one vote, one time", as we've seen with HAMAS in Gaza.
Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.
Free to get their heads cut off, you mean.

I don't really begrudge him the whitewashing. It comes with the territory, and President Bush was at least as bad. It still galls me, though.

Reflections on Cairo

I've avoided any commentary on President Obama's speech to "the Muslim world" from Cairo this morning. I wanted a chance to watch and read the whole thing before I responded, so if I'm coming to completely different conclusions than all the pundits, it's because this is my genuine reaction. I've got plenty of line-by-line quibbling, but I'll post that separately, and keep this response on general principles.

I thought it was a great speech. If its goal was to raise America's approval rating, it will probably succeed, and it could very well cause many Arabs to rethink the reasons behind their knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Obama was more critical of Arab leaders than I expected, and more defensive of America and Israel, and for that I give him great credit. He addressed historical grievances without apology and demonstrated great respect for Islam without kowtowing. He didn't abandon the freedom agenda, but rather defined it more realistically than his predecessor. I got annoyed with his mannerisms and switched to the transcript, but everyone seems to love his style. I guess "robotic" is the "in" thing in rhetoric these days. Cicero would be appalled.

So far, so good. The problems come in the metanarrative. The issue is not his words, but the way he uses them; not the content of his speech, but rather the paradigms the speech concedes. This was billed as a speech to the "Muslim World", and he used the term throughout; he spoke repeatedly of Islam as if it were a country and Muslims its citizens. Insofar as there is a "Muslim World" it exists in the ideologies of militant Islamism, as Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish intellectual writes (via Inside the Asylum)
Islamist ideologues are the only group that strongly advocates the belief that all Muslims belong to a politically untied global community. These same ideologues advocate for the replacement of the modern nation state with a new Caliphate ruled by Sharia law. Why do we legitimize that view by repeating it ourselves? ...A Muslim World is Al Qaeda's conception.
There is a persistent philosophical struggle over Muslim identity between those who argue that Islam is and must be a global political entity and every Muslim's first loyalty must be to Islam, and those who believe that a Muslim can embrace a political identity and remain a faithful Muslim. In how he billed the speech and addressed his audience, Obama accepted the premises of the former. Even while condeming extremism, the very concept of his speech supported the Islamist paradigm.

The second issue is in the categorical confusion. For a speech about the issues of the "Muslim World", Obama focused overwhelmingly on issues of the Arab World, which is home to only a minority of the world's Muslims. Imagine a world leader declares he will address the "Christian World" from Rome, then focuses the entire speech on European issues, and at times even conflates the "Christian World" with Europe. Wouldn't Americans, Uruguayans, Zambians and South Koreans be a bit miffed? I'm quite sure they would be, so lets hope Bengalis, Malaysians, and Albanians are more forgiving.

Finally, by focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict in a speech to the entire "Muslim World" President Obama acknowledged that the conflict with Israel is a fundamentally religious conflict. The Arab-Israeli conflict is an appropriate concern of the Arabs, the Israelis, and their partners and allies. On its geopolitical face, why should it be a central concern of American relations with Muslims in Indonesia or Pakistan? Again, insofar as Israel is a concern to non-Arab Muslims, it is so because of militant Islamist Jew-hatred that says Jews cannot be tolerated in Dar al-Islam, the realm of Islam. By accepting the premise that non-Arab Muslims have a dog in that fight, Obama tacitly recognized it as a religious conflict, even as he called for a peaceful 2-state solution.

Time will tell what effect this speech will have. I suspect it will blunt anti-Americanism to a degree. But Obama's tacit recognition of the Islamist paradigm will increase the burden on those Muslims struggling to argue philosophically and theologically against political Islam. In general, it confirms my inaguratory fears about Obama and foreign policy: Obama believes that foreign policy is easy, and that his predecessor was just doing it wrong. He is campaigning for America, which is quite welcome, but he also seems to conflate American popularity with America's interests. Warm feelings don't solve problems, however, and even cold allies are still allies. His inability to parse the interconnected webs of implications -- not just of his words but of how and where and to whom he says them -- smacks of cocky amateurism. Foreign policy is fiendishly difficult, and I really hope President Obama doesn't have to learn that the hard way.

He Had Them At Hello

Just catching up on the Cairo speech. Riotous applause for his al-salaam 'alaykum. Hehe, he truly had them at hello.

The Myth of Violence

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pre-Blogging the "Muslim World" Speech

The Israel-Palestine conflict is a 60 Years War that I genuinely doubt I will see solved in my lifetime. Tomorrow, our President visits Cairo to give his long-awaited speech to the "Muslim World" (on that poisonous term, see here and here). No doubt he will hold out hope for a 2-state solution. I suspect he will demand that the Israelis soften their position and make some concessions; I doubt he will demand anything of the Arabs. There's a good chance he'll buy into the Arab lunacy that argues that nothing can be improved anywhere in the greater Middle East until Palestine is free. And I know he won't remind Hosni Mubarak of his nation's complicity in creating the conflict. There were population displacements throughout the first half of the 20th century, and we've forgotten about most of them. Why does this one still fester? Oh, that's right:
Egypt's policy for the Strip was succinctly spelled out by the deputy governor, Muhammad Flafaga, in an interview appearing in the Danish newspaper Aktuelt on February 9, 1967:

Question: Why not send the refugees to other Arab countries? Syria would no doubt be able to absorb a vast number of them. Are you afraid that national bonds with Palestine will be loosened, that the hatred against Israel will vanish if they become ordinary citizens?

Answer: As a matter of fact, you are right. Syria could take all of them, and the problem would be solved. But we do not want that. They are to return to Palestine.

UNRWA reported in 1956: "One of the obstacles to the achievement of the General Assembly's goal of making the refugees self-supporting continues to be the opposition of the governments in the area."

Ralph Galloway, an UNRWA official who quit in frustration, observed bitterly: "The Arab states don't want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don't give a damn whether the refugees live or die."

Palestinians are despised and maltreated throughout the Arab world. Some are even starting to notice. But the Arab governments continue to feign concern and insist that no concern in the Middle East can possibly be addressed until there is a 2-state solution, because the Palestinians are their only effective weapon against Israel. And the US will swallow these ludicrous pretenses and play right along.

And the rest of President Obama's speech? Lots of feel-good hokum. Some riff on "religion of peace" will appear, along with references to the great achievements of the medieval Muslim world. He will mention his Muslim father, which will cause every listener to wonder "then why aren't you?". He will mention his childhood schooling in Indonesia, which will make as much sense to his listeners as if were visiting, say, Latvia, and brought up my childhood schooling in West Africa as if it gave me some special connection. Terrorists will not be mollified, authoritarians will not be challenged, and things will go on more or less as they have.

UPDATE: More on the folly of the "Muslim World" from Lee Smith at Slate:
Obama's speech to the "Muslim world" serves to erase the national borders of our Arab allies, and however questionable those allies are, their borders serve American interests, and erasing them serves Iranian ends.
UPDATE II: Asylum link-back. Thanks!

It's Called Soda

Dialect maps are fun. They're particularly interesting for American English, which has lots overlapping changes. The soda/pop/coke split is sharper than I would have imagined:

It's interesting to me that eastern Wisconsin and the St Louis area would be islands of soda in a sea of pop.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Video Games and War

Oh, BloggingheadsTV, what did we do without you? Other than, you know, not listening in on webcam conversations between stuffy academics and self-important policy wonks.

Here's a conversation between Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom and "philosopher of the mind" Tamar Szabo Gendler on the neuropsychology of video games, and the eternal question of whether video games are corrupting our morals: (note: a few times in the video they mention "alief", which is Gendler's term for conditioned responses, those things you know about the world without being conscious of believing them)

Gendler argues that in most cases, the physical actions portrayed in video games are so alien to the physical experience of playing the game itself that it's hard to see how they could effectively familiarize someone with the actual experience of firing a gun or throwing a punch. Bloom, a video game enthusiast playing devil's advocate, points out scenarios where the experience of playing a video game is very much like the real thing, such as firing a missile in a flight simulator game. Gendler takes the conversation in a completely different direction, so we don't get to hear them hash through what strikes me as a very valid point in this conversation: modern war is increasingly conducted by remote control. The control systems for a Reaper UAV or armed Talon robot look just like video games. They are video games, only with real people dying on the other end, and our video-game-raised youth are very, very good at them. I don't really have a conclusion. I just wish I could have heard their conversation on it. Thoughts?

Headline: Ambiguity Vanquished!

Closely related to the Science News Cycle is the policy research cycle. Consider this headline:

Study: Public Schools Just As

Good as Private Schools

Wow, thanks Research! Way to smack down all those voucher waving moonbats! Oh, wait it only studied math skills? Only through 5th grade? And only over several years? How many is several exactly? 5? 3? Well, we know it's valid, right, because it's fully corroborated by "other, yet-unpublished studies of the same data, which produced similar findings".

Bluuhhh. Of the small number of people who actually order a copy of this study, precisely 11 will have the statistical acumen to judge the researchers' techniques of "controlling for demographic differences". For that matter, what was the testing standard? People complain about "teaching to the test", here the danger is testing to what's been taught. The best private schools in the world would fare poorly if the test looks just like the public school's curriculum.

But none of that's worth blunting such a beautiful headline.

On Taxing Sin

A point from Splice Today, (via Reason Hit-and-Run), on the proposition to impose a national tax on "sugary" beverages:
Why stop at soda? How about a tax on every calorie-laden coffee drink served at Starbucks and its competitors? After all, a vanilla bean frappuccino with whipped cream is more than 500 calories, a beverage that health researcher Mike Adams calls “dessert in a cup.”

...I’m not attempting to be facetious here, but rather point out the gross inequities when new sin taxes are considered: it’s aimed at the déclassé products, such as soda and fast-food burgers, and protects—for the sake of general class description—the “Whole Foods” crowd from their gluttony.

...why not slap a heavy tax on country club memberships, restaurant meals that total more than $150 for a table of two, and increase the alcohol sin tax on pricey wines and premium brands of spirits?
Of course no politician could suggest something like that, because they'll hear no end of it at their next cocktail party. But taxing soda and fast food? The "Whole Foods" crowd can get behind that proposition, because they don't consume much of those things anyway.

AFTERTHOUGHT: And of course, many jurisdictions could save considerable amounts of money if they cut public funding for symphonies, opera companies, and the theater, which amount to a massive subsidy for the personal entertainments of the very wealthy. This is, of course, less likely than taxing Starbucks.