Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Que maravilloso!

Congratulations to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina on affirming the legality of gay marriage!

It's Idiot Day and this time someone told me

Reproducing John Cole's post in its entirety:

And 100% of Popes are Catholic

by John Cole

Here is the MSM’s go-to guy on terrorism, Rep. Peter King (R, NY), on Fox News:

The fact is while the overwhelming majority of Muslims are outstanding people, on the other hand 100% of the Islamic terrorists are Muslims, and that is our main enemy today.

We are to the point that merely exposing yourself to right-wingers makes you dumber.

This on the same day that I read this discussion of environmental economics from Ezra Klein featuring a lovely quotation from Larry Summers:

THERE ARE IDIOTS. Look around.

Friday, December 25, 2009

I love it when this happens.

The singer from The Shins is collaborating with Danger Mouse. The single (and website, actually) is pretty cool. Looking forward to the album.

Christmas has been very nice. I asked primarily for socks, and I got so many! I can make it through the winter now! (This at the age of 21. I shudder to think what I'll want for Christmas by the time I'm 70).

Happy holidays to anyone reading!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Some quick hits

The situation for Afghani women isn't getting any better. There's not much new in the report, which could be fortunate or unfortunate depending on how you look at it, I guess; just a tragic sameness. I've posted about this topic before, and I wrote a paper that was about half on this subject. I don't really want to go over it again right now--it's too sad.

I'm getting to this way late, but Switzerland banned minarets a couple of weeks ago. In protest, a Swiss businessman built a minaret on top of his business in protest. Awesome.

Morand said he viewed the ban was all the more "scandalous" given that Switzerland actively encourages Arabs to "visit the country and to spend their money here."

The minaret, which has been in place since Tuesday, has "generated a lot of interest," he said, adding that he will wait and see before deciding if further action was needed to push his point.

I vote further action.

Andrew Sullivan flagged a video a while ago where a suicide bomber was interviewed on "All Things Pakistan." He titled the post "Interviewing Evil," which I object to--I think largely because I don't believe in evil. I'm not interested in this interview for purposes of staring into the underbelly of moral absolutes; I want to know what the suicide bomber thinks, that's all. Here's the video:

As always, there's more, but I'm too tired right now.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fair's fair

In light of my last, rather vehement post on Uganda's kill-the-gays bill and American Evangelical Christians, it's only fair to acknowledge Rick Warren's speaking out against the Ugandan initiative:

Andrew Sullivan comments:

This is an extremely positive if overdue development. I remain deeply concerned that Uganda's public policy is based on the "curing" homosexuals rubric, but that sure is better than executing them. The Ugandan bill should be abandoned. And Warren's call on pastors to disown the bill is a real step forward.


What I think is most significant is that Warren called this bill "extreme, unjust and unchristian towards homosexuals". It is absolutely and unequivocally unchristian to demonize a whole group of people and to threaten them with execution simply because of their sexual orientation and their need for love and sex and intimacy and companionship like every other human being. And for Warren to deploy Christian arguments in defense of the dignity of homosexual persons is a big step forward in this debate. I am grateful to him for staying true to the Gospels.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A hellfire sandwich

Recall the new Ugandan bill that will render homosexuality, or harboring, supporting, or not reporting homosexual Ugandans, punishable by death. It might even lead to the execution of HIV-positive people.


Some observers have wondered if Purpose Driven Life author and mega-evangelist Rick Warren has had a role in the globally controversial bill, especially because of Warren's close association with Ugandan anti-gay activist Martin Ssempa and, more broadly, because Warren has refused to denounce the anti-gay bill. To little notice, a charismatic network overseen by Warren's doctoral dissertation advisor, C. Peter Wagner, has played a major role in politically organizing and inspiring the Ugandan legislators who have spearheaded the anti-gay bill.

Someone please explain to me why Warren, Wagner, etc. cannot or should not be prosecuted for murder should this bill be implemented.

Sigh. The answer is that there is no institution or judicial body capable of doing so. The US, conveniently, is not a signatory to the ICC, and even if we were I doubt much would happen. If we can't even prosecute our war criminals--war being the form of international interaction most robustly understood and governed on a global and juridical level (commerce is an issue for another time)--we sure as hell aren't going to get anything done about rampantly homophobic pastors indirectly killing hundreds, thousands--I don't even know--of poor Africans.

The Talk to Action piece I linked above is further interesting for the following pieces of information:

Both Wagner and Warren have designed elaborate infrastructures for blurring the lines between church and state. Wagner describes his movement as the “New Apostolic Reformation” and openly espouses his goals of reorganizing and mobilizing the church to take Christian “dominion” over government and society. Warren’s movement is described as a “second reformation”...

Wagner is the Convening Apostle in a movement of charismatic "relational networks" which has extended its reach from the United States to Uganda, and worldwide. Under its umbrella of authority are virulently anti-gay apostles in the United States and Uganda including Lou Engle of TheCall, who led thousands of young people in a twelve hour November 1, 2008 stadium rally in support of California's anti-gay marriage Proposition Eight. The San Diego event closed with Engle, a member of Wagner's inner circle of "prophets," calling for Christian martyrs. [...]

In C. Peter Wagner's 2008 book "Dominion", he describes the process through which this brand of Christianity can take dominion over government and society, and claims that this can be accomplished within a democratic framework. Wagner clearly states that Rick Warren's global P.E.A.C.E. Plan is an example of "stage one":

"I think the P.E.A.C.E. plan fits most comfortably into Phase One, the "social action" phase of strategies for obeying God's cultural mandate. The Phase Two emphases on strategic-level spiritual warfare and associated activities have not been placed front and center. And crucial to Phase Three, as I am defining it, are such things as apostolic/prophetic government of the Church, the Church (including apostles) in the workplace, the great transfer of wealth, dominion theology and the 7-M mandate."

If Rick Warren is "phase one," what do Wagner's stages two and three entail ?

The "7-M" or Reclaiming the Seven Mountains mandate encourages believers to take over key societal sectors such as government, and a leading Ugandan spokesperson for the theocratic 7-M paradigm has played a major role organizing and inspiring politicians behind Uganda's Anti Homosexuality legislation.

There's much, much more in the piece (including all the in-text links that I got too lazy to reproduce). It's very much worth reading.

What I now want to know is how these people are any different from Wahhabi or Salafi Islamic fundamentalists seeking to take over various Muslim countries and impose an atavistic reading of sharia law, other than in their remarkable success at seeing their goals enacted in countries to which they have no real connection. Who in Uganda elected Peter Wagner?

I'm truly disgusted. I'm having a hard time viewing the success differentiating Warren/Wagner from the Taliban as due to much of anything other than that the Ws are rich white men working from the global center to impose their views on the periphery, and Islamic extremists are poor brown men working from the periphery toward the center.

So we're sandwiched. With a little luck, eventually we can all look forward to living in a hell modeled on someone's holy book.



On the night of June 10, 2006, three Guantanamo detainees were found dead in their individual cells. Without any autopsy or investigation, U.S. military officials proclaimed "suicide by hanging" as the cause of each death, and immediately sought to exploit the episode as proof of the evil of the detainees. Admiral Harry Harris, the camp's commander, said it showed "they have no regard for life" and that the suicides were "not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare aimed at us here at Guantanamo"; another official anonymously said that the suicides showed the victims were "committed jihadists [who] will do anything they can to advance their cause," while another sneered that "it was a good PR move to draw attention."

The military ordered all press off the island, prevented all lawyers from seeing their clients, prevented any outside investigation, and declared its own investigation, to be publicly released. Two years later, it was indeed released (in heavily redacted form), and failed to satisfactorily answer any of the relevant questions. How did three heavily supervised and separated detainees commit coordinated suicide? Why did none of the guards notice something was happening, and why were none of the guards on duty that night disciplined? Why and how did the detainees stuff rags down their own throats? Why was one of them missing his internal organs at autopsy? (I wish I were making this up.)

Seton Hall University's Law school has released a report [PDF] on the events which is not making my stomach sit any easier about this.

According to the report (and thanks to TalkLeft for highlighting this):

Accepting the military investigation findings as true and complete, in order to commit suicide by hanging, the detainees must have:

* Braided a noose by tearing up their sheets and/or clothing
* Made mannequins of themselves so it would appear to the guards that they were asleep in their cells
* Hung sheets to block the view into the cells, a violation of SOPs
* Tied their feet together
* Tied their hands together
* Shoved rags in their mouths and down their throats
* Hung the noose from the metal mesh of the cell wall and/or ceiling
* Climbed up on to the sink, put the noose around their necks and released their weight, resulting in death by strangulation
* Hung dead for at least two hours completely unnoticed by guards

SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures] required guards to note movement or to see the detainee‘s skin while walking the block. This raises many questions as to how three detainees on the same cell block, on the same side of the block, were able to complete the aforementioned acts without any Alpha guards noticing.

And just so we're clear how truly bizarre this whole situation is, here's Scott Horton interviewing Seton Hall professor Mark Denbeaux, who supervised the report:

Q: One of the prisoners, Yassar Talal Al Zahrani, had been seized as a minor and survived the prison riot that occurred at the Qali Jangi Prison near Mazar-i-Sharif. When his body was turned over for burial, an independent medical examination was arranged which found that the heart, kidneys and throat had all been removed from his corpse. The medical examiner noted that the removal of the throat in particular was highly irregular, and made an independent assessment impossible. Do you have any sense why U.S. military pathologists removed his internal organs and throat? Is this discussed in the report?

A: No.

The most innocent explanation I can come up with that comports with all the facts is that this is Gitmo meets The Lord of the Flies and the Stanford Prison Experiment: no one really cares about the rules. Even in that reading, the NCIS investigation is a cover-up of a gross dereliction of duty for which nobody was disciplined, leading to the deaths of three men. The fact that NCIS did not address these issues is inexplicable and very troubling.

That's the bizarre part, the twisted part. But here comes the shameful, really scary part:

There is one way that a meaningful investigation could be conducted into what happened to these three detainees: a lawsuit filed in federal court by the parents of two of the detainees against various Bush officials for the torture and deaths of their sons -- who had never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any wrongdoing (indeed, one had been cleared for release). By itself, discovery in that lawsuit would shed critical light on what was done to these detainees and what caused their deaths.

The problem, however, is that the Obama DOJ has been using every Bush tactic -- and inventing whole new ones -- to block the lawsuit from proceeding.


All of this is depressingly consistent with multiple other cases in which the Obama DOJ is attempting aggressively to shield even the most illegal and allegedly discontinued Bush programs from judicial review. Time and again, the most radical Bush claims of executive power, immunity and secrecy (ones Democrats and even Obama frequently condemned) are invoked to insist that federal courts have no right to adjudicate claims that the Government violated the Constitution and the law. As Harper's Scott Horton documented over the weekend, a new filing by the Obama DOJ in defense of John Yoo is "seeking to make absolute the immunity granted Justice Department lawyers who counsel torture, disappearings, and other crimes against humanity."

I don't have anything brilliant to say about this. It's very, very bad, I wish it weren't this way, I consider it a betrayal by Obama of the base, the country, and his own campaign, I really want to know where that poor man's internal organs went, and I would do a lot to live in a world where people were actually prosecuted for this sort of thing.

I'm just going to leave you with this.

As Harper's Scott Horton documented over the weekend, a new filing by the Obama DOJ in defense of John Yoo is "seeking to make absolute the immunity granted Justice Department lawyers who counsel torture, disappearings, and other crimes against humanity." In other words, as we lecture the world about the need for them to apply the rule of law and hold war criminals accountable, we simultaneously proclaim about ourselves:

We can kidnap your sons from anywhere in the world, far away from any "battlefield," ship them thousands of miles away to an island-prison, abuse and torture them mercilessly, and when we either drive them to suicide or kill them, you have no right to any legal remedy or even any recourse to find out what happened.

As Horton writes, the claim that government officials enjoy a virtually impenetrable shield of immunity even in the commission of war crimes "has emerged as a sort of ignoble mantra for the Justice Department, uniting both the Bush and Obama administrations." Indeed, that is the common strain of virtually every act undertaken by the Obama DOJ with regard to our government's war crimes and other felonies, from torture to renditions to illegal eavesdropping.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

World wide web not looking so fun now

This new Iranian development is stunning:

The regime has been cracking down hard at home. And now, a Wall Street Journal investigation shows, it is extending that crackdown to Iranians abroad as well.

In recent months, Iran has been conducting a campaign of harassing and intimidating members of its diaspora world-wide -- not just prominent dissidents -- who criticize the regime, according to former Iranian lawmakers and former members of Iran's elite security force, the Revolutionary Guard, with knowledge of the program.

Part of the effort involves tracking the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube activity of Iranians around the world, and identifying them at opposition protests abroad, these people say.

Interviews with roughly 90 ordinary Iranians abroad -- college students, housewives, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople -- in New York, London, Dubai, Sweden, Los Angeles and other places indicate that people who criticize Iran's regime online or in public demonstrations are facing threats intended to silence them.

For example:

His first impulse was to dismiss the ominous email as a prank, says a young Iranian-American named Koosha. It warned the 29-year-old engineering student that his relatives in Tehran would be harmed if he didn't stop criticizing Iran on Facebook.

Two days later, his mom called. Security agents had arrested his father in his home in Tehran and threatened him by saying his son could no longer safely return to Iran.

"When they arrested my father, I realized the email was no joke," said Koosha, who asked that his full name not be used.

First of all, that's just scary. That is 1984 gone global.

It's also interesting, for two reasons. One is the way it actually works. It used to be that if a terrifying totalitarian regime wanted to reach outside its borders, it needed soldiers, spies, or double agents. Maybe satellites. The nice thing is that all of those things cost money--a fair amount of it--and good ones cost a lot of money.

Now, basically any regime with computers and a little know-how has a built-in web (no pun intended) of information and, it seems, even influence around the world. This has never happened on such a non-elite scale before.

Secondly, it's interesting in the context of the continuing process of reframing the idea of nations and territory that's been going on for the past couple of decades. Developments like multi-national corporations, the return of private military companies, and cyclical labor patterns that have people frequently moving between countries have done a lot to muddle the fairly fundamental (if never fully realized) notion of a one-to-one correspondence between state, territory, and nation (i.e. people, ethnic group, what have you).

Let's just say that this development does not make the situation any clearer. A few years ago it was in vogue to predict or announce the impending obsolescence of the nation-state. We were all going to be metropolitan now, or local, or global, or, well, something else.

That has not happened, and it doesn't seem likely. Rather, the nation-state is simply undergoing a process of repurposing and reformation. Where that will lead is hard to say in terms of the nation state; I'm confident that we'll see the sphere of global governance, mostly empty since the end of the Cold War (the U.S. all by itself does not count. It has influence over its allies. The Cold War presented an imperative and a set of incentives that came much closer to in some sense governing the whole world via arbitration by each side) begin to be filled in, whether by some other set of superpowers (unlikely, IMO) or by a true set of global institutions (also unlikely), or by something I haven't thought of (quite likely).

If and when that happens, I'm pretty sure this sort of behavior by any nation-state government will be unacceptable. Hopefully. Yeah.

Friday, December 4, 2009


The Vatican released a 12-song playlist for its MySpace page (The Vatican has a MySpace page?! How was this not breaking news on its own?), and, well:

Among selections from Mozart, Muse and Dame Shirley Bassey is the slain rapper's [Tupac Shakur] song "Changes," which was released two years after his shooting death on a greatest hits album in 1998.

That's right. The Vatican has embraced Pac.

I don't have anything insightful to say about this, other than I LOVE IT.

The Vatican commented:

"The genres are very different from each other, but all these artists share the aim to reach the heart of good minded people," the Vatican wrote on its official MySpace Music page.

I also want to point out that the list includes Muse and Fleet Foxes as well. Amazing. Apparently Father Giulio Neroni's got the 411.

Monday, November 30, 2009

About that

Regarding the most recent post:

I suspect that what we will see in the future is a church basing itself in the developing world, and adopting more African views on the subjugation of women, criminalization of homosexuality, and the evils of Western liberal capitalism. Europe will remain the enemy, Islam a useful ally and America's Republican Party Christianists a source of money and power as the Western flock shrinks to the rump that Benedict devoutly wishes for.

This is about the Catholic, not any Protestant, Church, but it could be interpreted as an interesting sort of reversal of the dynamic I was trying to describe in that post. I would say I need to think about this more, but I don't have anything like the time. Alas.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Family knows best?

Sitting in Logan airport using Google's free holiday wi-fi (thanks, Google!), I came across the following:

With their reported $13 billion tax-exempt financial empire, the Mormons may be the wealthiest cult in America — and Scientology may be the big thing among the rich and powerful in Hollywood — but when it comes to political power neither of those sects holds a candle to the Family, the Christian extremist political group that operates the now infamous C Street house on Capitol Hill in Washington.


But what many people may find surprising is that the Family has branches around the world. In fact, yesterday, Jeff Sharlet, author of “The Family: Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” reported on NPR’s “Fresh Air” that it was a Family member in the Ugandan parliament who introduced a bill that would increase the punishment for homosexuality from life imprisonment, which is the maximum sentence today, to death:

SHARLET: [The] new legislation adds to this something called aggravated homosexuality. And this can include, for instance, if a gay man has sex with another man who is disabled, that’s aggravated homosexuality, and that man can be – I suppose both, actually, could be put to death for this. The use of any drugs or any intoxicants in seeking gay sex – in other words, you go to a bar and you buy a guy a drink, you’re subject to the death penalty if you go home and sleep together after that. What it also does is it extends this outward, so that if you know a gay person and you don’t report it, that could mean – you don’t report your son or daughter, you can go to prison.

And it goes further, to say that any kind of promotion of these ideas of homosexuality, including by foreigners, can result in prison terms. Talking about same sex-marriage positively can lead you to imprisonment for life. And it’s really kind of a perfect case study and the export of a lot of American largely evangelical ideas about homosexuality exported to Uganda, which then takes them to their logical end.


[The] legislator that introduces the bill, a guy named David Bahati, is a member of the Family. He appears to be a core member of the Family. He works, he organizes their Uganda National Prayer Breakfast and oversees a African sort of student leadership program designed to create future leaders for Africa, into which the Family has poured millions of dollars working through a very convoluted chain of linkages passing the money over to Uganda…

So who are the members of Congress who belong to the Family and tolerate, if not encourage, this sort of extremism overseas? According to Jeff Sharlet, while most cult members are Republicans, members of both parties are welcomed. “Jesus didn’t come to take sides,” the members are fond of saying. “He came to take over.”

Now check this:

The mainstream media avoids referring to the Family as a cult, but check out this description of the group’s belief system from Jeff Sharlet and decide for yourself:

They have a very unusual theology in the sense that they think that Christ had one message for an inner circle and then a kind of different message for a sort of slightly more outer circle. And then the rest of us, Christ told us little stories because, frankly, we couldn’t handle the truth. And the core members are those they think are getting the real deal.

He didn't come to take sides, he came to take over. It makes me shiver.

But what makes me shiver more than the Family/cult/power network stuff is the overarching dynamic. A lot of gay people in Uganda are going to die, or live in misery. A lot of their friends and family will, too. And they will go through this directly because of globalized Evangelical Christianity.

I was just reading about a much different, milder, nicer version of this in a book about the Full Gospel community in Trinidad. Protestantism plus colonialism in Trinidad, at least, has rendered the local and the native identical to the carnal and the primitive, while the nonlocal (North America in particular) is identified with the spiritual and pure. This gets played out in choices of music appropriate for worship services, but that's not the point here. In Trinidad, at least, sects are concerned with the "global church" (largely Pentecostalist and Evangelical) as a way of defining for themselves what is proper religious practice and what is appropriate for someone living a religious life.

I admit that I don't know much about Uganda, and I am very ready to be wrong. But as we know, a little information is a dangerous thing, and so armed with my one book about Trinidad I see a bit of a parallel here of a global (read: American) church having a strong influence on congregations far from the global center--peripheral nations like Trinidad and Uganda. And especially in the case of particular issues, like abortion and birth control, this flow of influence has been strengthened and backed by explicit U.S. policies.

That makes me shiver, too. In a much less titillating fashion.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What I'm doing with myself

Today (yesterday) I had to write and send in a 6-page (double-spaced) statement about what my B.A. thesis will be. I was pretty happy with it and figured it wouldn't hurt to post it here. So without further ado:

I intend to examine Hamas and Hizballah from a perspective much different from that prevailing in political and journalistic discussions of these organizations. It is my view that the existing literature on political organizations does not account for the particular forms of power and violent tactics practiced by Hamas and Hizbollah. While these two are probably not the only organizations to employ such practices, my intention is to begin to build a framework for understanding their particular roles, capabilities, and structures as political organizations that could be applied more broadly to other cases.

I will show that Hamas and Hizballah are an unusual type of political organization, which I will term parallel or alternative government. Both Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories have been in the process of building a strong, democratic state for decades, but both have been hamstrung by a lack of agreement among their respective populations on questions that are fundamental to the statebuilding project. They have consequently been unable to build the robust institutions that would begin to constitute a state. In Lebanon, the question of a quota system in government institutions—whether one should exist, and whether the existing one is correct, just, and so on—is still contested; the current system has weakened the government to the point of paralysis, while the disagreement still existing over this structure has sapped the government’s authority and legitimacy. In the Palestinian Territories, the population is riven over the proper methods of “resistance” to Israel; the existing Palestinian institutions were created in negotiations with Israel and as such are inherently illegitimate to those Palestinians who reject negotiation and rather favor violent resistance. In both cases, the government structure represents a “side” of this fundamental question and so is inherently politicized, illegitimate to a significant segment of its population. Rather than serving as the location of policy, institutions themselves are policy. Finally, structural factors in the military, economic, and international political spheres have served to further weaken these regimes’ abilities to project power, deliver services, and command loyalty.

This weakness and the political divisions at its root have created a political space in both polities for a second, parallel government to spring up with the support of those factions which are in opposition to the “side” represented by the existing political structure. These parallel governments perform many functions of a governing institution: service delivery, security, national defense (as perceived by their supporters), and political representation. They are parallel rather than rival in that they do not seek simply to control the institutions of the existing regime, nor do they attempt to create a separate state; rather, they build their own institutions to further their preferred outcomes while remaining committed to a united Lebanon or a free Palestine. Rather than attempting to secure the reforms and policy shifts they want within a system that is too weak and dysfunctional to produce the desired outcomes, these constituencies have chosen simply to build the state they want.

Hamas’ and Hizballah’s use of violence has been one of the primary factors agitating the international discourse about them. I will examine the particular ways in which these groups deploy violence—when they use it, when they do not, against whom and employing what techniques—in order to show that their violent methods also distinguish them from most other political organizations. They are neither states, nor insurgents, nor guerrillas, nor decentralized terrorist networks; and they do not use violence in the same way as any of these. I will attempt to link their unique employment of violence to their status as parallel governments and to elucidate the relationship, if any, between their particular forms of violence and their particular forms of political power.

Both Hamas and Hizballah have used a variety of violent tactics, borrowing methods from a variety of forms of political organization. Hamas, in particular, has taken on statelike functions in terms of controlling violence. The group has done more to secure Gaza than the PA had ever accomplished: it integrated its police forces into the Gazan security forces (Crisis Group 2006: 9), secured the interior of Gaza against clan warfare for the first time, and made a credible attempt at controlling the inflow of weapons through the tunnels to Egypt (Crisis Group 8) as well as their display and sale within Gaza (Crisis Group 2003: 10). The Qassam Brigades were converted into an external security force and set to patrolling Gaza’s borders—a strong statement in the context of their longstanding domination by Israeli forces. Hamas also did its best to coordinate and control military resistance to Israel for the first time (Crisis Group 2003: 8), though this effort was not fully successful.

At the same time, Hamas has continued to use violence against Israel in ways that do not reflect the behavior of a state; rather than deploying an army, invading, or attacking Israel’s military capabilities, Hamas has continued to fire rockets into Israel, a tactic widely described as terrorist since the rockets largely impact civilian life. However, rather than mounting spectacular exhibitions of violence connected to high civilian deathcounts in connection with specific demands, Hamas has more often used its rockets as a reminder of its continued presence and resistance: the rockets are often aimed to avoid harming anyone, and do not have the sophisticated technology that would allow them to target specific Israeli buildings, persons, or resources. Hamas’s rocket fire is curiously ambivalent: it constitutes neither full-on war nor straightforward terrorism. Rather, it is a legitimacy-seeking exercise: Hamas is simultaneously able to demonstrate its commitment to the cause by being seen to be doing something and to declare its existence, defiance, and relevance to Israel and to the international community. Through rocket fire, Hamas carries out its mission of resistance and refuses to allow itself—and by extension Palestine—to be forgotten.

Hizballah, meanwhile, emerged from “a loose coalition” of Shi‘a groups who were radicalized by U.S. and Israeli interference in the Lebanese civil war (GlobalSecurity.orgb 2008), and originally most resembled a militia, drawing its soldiers from ordinary people in villages as needed. Its first major accomplishment was Israel’s ignominious withdrawal from southern Lebanon, and the group employed classic insurgency tactics in this struggle. Hizballah sought to secure the IDF’s complete withdrawal from Lebanon, including the Security Zone, and made its point with missiles, attacks, and suicide bombings. Their efforts lasted up through the 1990s, when the civil war officially ended (Morris 2001: 558), and have continued sporadically since. Suicide bombing was not a common tactic at the time, and it proved to be a crucial innovation on Hizbollah’s part in terms of making its name as well has having a clear impact on American and Israeli forces in Lebanon.

But Hizballah, too, has taken on statelike military functions. The Lebanese Army disintegrated more than once under internal and external pressures during the civil war, and Hizballah’s military wing was far more effective, disciplined, and cohesive. Its military no longer consists of The group has, essentially, taken on the task of national defense and border security against Israel, without regard for the policies of the official Lebanese government but with the approval of its constituency (primarily, but not exclusively, Shi’a in the south of Lebanon). Hizballah de facto rules several areas of Lebanon, including the northeast and, of course, the South, and one is more likely to find a Hizballah member or supporter than a government policeman in these areas.

These are a few of the variety of tactics Hamas and Hizballah have adopted as part of their repertoire of violence. While their individual practices or campaigns can be described using existing terms—insurgency, state-within-a-state, terrorism—the combination of them all within single, coherent organizations has so far gone unnamed in political science literature, just as the political function of these groups remains undescribed. What remains to be seen is whether there is a connection between the groups’ idiosyncratic uses of violence and their anomalous political status. How do Hamas and Hizballah view themselves as acting? What effect do these views have on Hamas’s and Hizballah’s parallel statebuilding projects, and on their countries’ statebuilding projects more generally?

Both Hamas and Hizballah not only practice violence but have constructed strong ideological links between their exercise of violence and their political identity. Hizballah has declared, “our military apparatus is not separate from our overall social fabric. Each of us is a fighting soldier” (Hizballah 1988: 1). Hamas’s mission is connected to violence at the most basic level: it exists for the purpose of violent resistance to Israel. In parallel with Hizballah, it argues that “It is necessary to instill the spirit of Jihad in the heart of the nation so that they would confront [sic] the enemies and join the ranks of the fighters” (Covenant: Article 15). Furthermore, both have asserted their independence from their supposed governments through maintaining their violent practices and capabilities against these regimes’ wishes. Alone of all the militias that sprang up in the civil war, Hizballah has refused the state’s injunction to disarm; it has also resisted political pressure to integrate its military wing into the Lebanese national army (Jamail 2006). Prior to its electoral victory in Gaza, Hamas maintained the operations of its military forces (Boudreaux 2007; Crisis Group 2008: 6) despite the orders of the Palestinian Authority and later took over government of Gaza through a violent coup.

These facts are suggestive of several links. The first, and simplest, is between the groups’ violent tactics and their political constituency: after all, their basic mission is violent resistance to Israeli dominance and to Western interference. Second, they seem to understand themselves and their operations—including nonviolent undertakings—in terms of war, as shown by their rhetoric. Even a worker in a Hizballah-run hospital is in some sense a soldier, just as a Hamas member who guards the tunnels through which necessary goods are smuggled from Egypt correctly understands himself to be committing an act of war against Israel. The role of religion and religious history in this understanding is important and bears further exploration, not only in terms of teachings regarding jihad but also because another aspect in which the groups are metaphorically fighting is for particular practices of Islamic life in their respective territories.

Third, violence and control of violence has been used by both groups in constructing their parallel governments, often directly in opposition to the regimes that ostensibly rule (or ruled) Gaza and Lebanon. One of the basic definitions of a state is a political entity that monopolizes violence within a bounded territory; by exercising and controlling violence, Hamas and Hizballah have concretely removed territory from the states in which they live and constructed separate zones of domination—yet they have managed to do so without seceding or attempting to partition the territory in question. Through a delicate balance of both internally and externally directed violence, service delivery, construction of parallel institutions, and participation in existing political institutions, Hamas and Hizballah have successfully built their parallel states.

Depressing realities

So I'm in that delightful stage of one's fourth year of college where one attempts to decide "what to do" after graduation.

I decided at least a year ago that I don't want to go to grad school right away, but rather after two or three years. UChicago has burned me out pretty well, for one thing, but for another my degree is highly interdisciplinary and as a result I'm not even sure what departments I would want to apply to (though lately a Ph.D. in Middle East Studies seems more and more likely). More importantly, though, I'm fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of making a living off of theorizing human beings without ever knowing them or doing any concrete work with them toward improving their circumstances. It's not right.

So I decided at around the same time that I want to work in probably an NGO for a while in a fairly concrete capacity--not desk work and not theory stuff. I don't need an organization that's promising transformational change, largely because I'm too cynical to believe in such promises--I'd rather just do some good work that maybe helps some people just a little in their actual lives for a while, without yammering about civil society development or investing in the change of tomorrow and so on.

The problem, right, is that it's very hard to find out what organizations of this sort exist because most of the ones with web presence are large and/or more think-tank or diplomacy oriented. This isn't a path I've ruled out, but it's not what I'm ideally looking for.

So last week I got an email from the International Studies listhost about government and NGO jobs which included a link to a website that serves as a hub for professionals and organizations in "international development, global health and humanitarian aid." I did a simple search for "Middle East" under "Companies & NGOs" and my god, it is discouraging.

It's discouraging for the following reason: probably 90% of the results I scrolled through that day (haven't had time to continue) were consultancies of one sort or another, usually concerned with economic development. I'm profoundly skeptical of such organizations: I don't think they necessarily do much good, and most often they serve to make consultants rich off the needs of poor people without having much other effect. This is precisely the antithesis of what I want to spend the next couple years doing.

I don't have any deep thoughts right now about that fact that aren't deeply obvious, in part because it's very late at night and I spent the evening at a Girl Talk show followed by watching 10 Things I Hate About You (incidentally, one of my favorite movies of all time) and drinking beer. But the basic fact of it is depressing to me, and I wish it weren't so.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Too good

For once, Reuters was entirely correct in filing a story under "Oddly Enough": Women Disappointed by Gaddafi 'Party' is a pretty odd story.

Basically, it seems Qaddafi was in Rome on diplomatic business (whatever that means when you're Muammar Qaddafi) and put out an ad through some sort of agency saying the following:

"Seeking 500 attractive girls between 18 and 35 years old, at least 1.70 meters (5 foot, 7 inches) tall, well-dressed but not in mini-skirts or low cut dresses."

And then roughly 200 women actually showed up to what they thought was going to be some sort of VIP party but was actually a two-hour lecture on Islam and the role of women in Islam, topped off with an exhortation to convert and a free Qur'an!

This whole thing is hilarious to me on a number of levels. First of all, everything Qaddafi does is amazing. Secondly, while I personally cannot comprehend responding to any ad that is seeking women based on their appearance, I can well imagine that a woman who might do so a) might not know what she was getting into if it involved Qaddafi, and/or b) might have good reason to expect a fancy party at the other end. The image of all these gorgeous Italian women all done up and expecting a party having to sit through two hours of Qaddafi telling them that Jesus was not, in fact, crucified--it was a stunt double, apparently--is just incredible.

Finally, the fact that Qaddafi could be under the impression that all that's standing between Italian women and the light of Islam is a lecture from him is just beautiful. Of course, the poor dears have just never thought about it before! And who better to open their minds than Qaddafi--the leader of Libya since 1969, whose little Green Book is taught in schools, and who is clearly the greatest advocate for Islam since, um, whenever.

The cherry on top is that he wants to make sure his Italian converts are hot. Just raising the Ummah's average attractiveness one lecture at a time, eh, Qaddafi?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Qifa Nakbi makes many funnies

The Qnion is totally my new favorite thing. It's like the biggest inside joke ever (in that people who don't follow the Middle East wouldn't find most of it funny, but if you do it's brilliant).

From a recent post from Alex at Syria Comment:

“The Syrians knew that the Israelis were following their official in the U.K,” says retired Russian intelligence specialist Vladimir Balakhoff. “So they loaded all of these false photographs of nuclear reactors, diagrams, and documents in North Korean onto his computer. And the Israelis fell for it.”

“Why do you think that no one in Israel made a big deal out of the bombing?” asks Egyptian political affairs expert Gamal Galagala. “Once they realized that they’d been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, they tried to sweep it under the carpet, but that’s hard to do when the milk’s already been spilled. If you catch my drift.”

High-level Syrian sources are now confirming that the laptop decoy was intended to veil a much more sophisticated security project, one with the potential to change the strategic balance of power in the region.

This project, known as the Syrian Computer Society (SCS), is headquartered in another remote town, Hassake, not far from the site of the fake nuclear power plant. It boasts three desktop computers – two IBM compatibles with 486 processors and an iMac G3 – and a 14.4 kbit/s dial-up modem.

The project’s director, Dr. Samir Mahdoum, suggested that Syria could use these advanced machines to spy on Israel, thereby denying their arch-enemy the element of surprise. “Using Google Maps Satellite View, we see all of Israel,” said Dr. Mahdoum, stroking an albino hamster. “Their troop movements, their weapons, everything!”

Regional specificity be damned, it was the albino hamster that really did me in.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thank goodness for footnotes

"Civil right is personal freedom; political right is a right over others as well as oneself." --Alfred Fouillée, cited in Robert Michels' "Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy."

Damn, apparently I need to read some Fouillée. This remark opens a lot of doors, potentially, particularly when you consider the struggles over "social issues" that tend to dominate contemporary American politics.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


This would be a truly delightful piece on the current renaissance of cocktail culture if it didn't keep straying into smug misogyny. Perhaps the simplest way of explaining it is this:

The new cocktail lounges are all about preserving a comfortable atmosphere for drinks and conversation. (Milk & Honey in New York, one of the best spots in America for the classic cocktail drinker, has a famous set of rules, including the wonderful instruction to its female patrons, "If a man you don't know speaks to you, please lift your chin slightly and ignore him."...)

I don't need to be told how to handle strange men, thank you. Nor do I appreciate the extremely gendered way Messenger looks at different kinds of liquor and drinks (women splashing pink liquor [Cosmos] on their dates while men are "getting into" rye, since god knows women a) only drink when with men and b) can't handle their liquor). I happen to love very complex, fragrant, but strong cocktails that would probably defy strict gender assignment best (though not because of gender politics), but after that it's man-liquor all the way--whiskey and gin. We deal with enough gender difficulties in life as it is; is it so much to ask that I, as a lover of liquor and of cocktails, be allowed to enjoy the drinks I like without being perceived as manly or out of my depth? And why is it that men are apparently capable of enjoying Mai Tais while women couldn't possibly be interested in a Sidecar?

It's not frequent that the article actually says what it means in this regard, though I'd estimate it happened at least five times (in two pages). But something about the way it's written makes it very clear that this is one for the boys, as it were.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Okay, so the world kind of really is flat

The Taliban have a YouTube channel, called Istiqlal Media (istiqlal means "movement," in the sense of a political movement).

Setting aside the obvious ironies of the Taliban using technology invented in the US--which currently supports all manner of content they oppose--this is interesting. It's interesting in a bajillion ways: how does this dovetail with fundamentalist attitudes? What videos will YouTube take down vs. allow to stay up? How much will it help them?

Also, it's a confirmation of what David Rohde has been reporting about the Taliban's ambitions outside of Afghanistan:

Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.

Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.

It's hard to imagine another motivation for the Taliban's starting a YouTube channel--it's not as though most Afghans have access to broadband.

YouTube so far seems to have taken down most of the videos but left the account up. It'll be interesting to see this ideological cyberbattle (between the YouTube terms of service and, well, the Taliban) play out.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Well, looka there

Ehud Olmert, former PM of Israel, came to give a lecture at the Harris School of Public Policy at my university a few days ago. I passed the protesters outside, but I didn't realize there were disruptions inside the lecture hall as well:

Detailed coverage from Electronic Intifada here.

I was really surprised by this, frankly, as well as by the size of the anti-Olmert protest. UChicago, at least in its more visible aspects, tends to be a pretty politically conservative institution and very pro-Israel. On the other hand, of course Mearsheimer does teach here, and our Center for Middle East Studies is fantastic academically and politically much more varied--if anything it probably would lean toward the Palestinian end of things.

The student body, particularly the undergraduates, tends to be much more liberal than the school's reputation, but for the most part the pro-Israel students tend to be much louder and more visible than the other side. Partly it has to do with the very large contingent of fairly conservative Jews here: while by no means are all Jews pro-Israel, I've met many more people here who have spent extended time in Israel or have direct family connections to it than I ever have before in my life (though I'd say the proportion of Jews in the University population is about the same as the area I grew up in).

Partly, it seems from the EI coverage that the protest was augmented by area activists and students from other universities, but nevertheless it was an unusual and, frankly, welcome display of the other side of the debate. It gets tiring sometimes only seeing one side represented.

According to EI, this is the latest in a series of protests across the US, which is an interesting data point in terms of how Americans view Israel's actions of the last few years. It confirms the prevailing notion that Americans in general have lost some patience and goodwill toward Israel, something that has been generally felt among people I've talked to but usually unconfirmed by any real data. (Not that this is the equivalent of a major study with, you know, statistics, but it's still a data point.)

I'm not sure how I feel about the level of disruption of Olmert's actual speech. I'm sure I would have been massively uncomfortable had I been there, but that's sort of the point, isn't it? I don't know. As always with this issue, I remain divided and able to see both sides of it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Shoddy work

Ezra Klein has a great takedown of Stephen Levitt's new book.

It's terrifically shoddy statistical work. You'd get dinged for this in a college class. But it's in a book written by a celebrated economist and a leading journalist. Moreover, the topic isn't whether people prefer chocolate or vanilla, but whether people should drive drunk. It is shoddy statistical work, in other words, that allows people to conclude that respected authorities believe it is safer for them to drive home drunk than walk home drunk. It's shoddy statistical work that could literally kill somebody. That makes it more than bad statistics. It makes it irresponsible.

But hey, it makes for a fun and unexpected opener.

Levitt teaches at my school and I can't say as I've ever heard anything good about him. His reputation is that he's full of himself, a bit of a jackass, and--much, much worse--a bad teacher. You'd be hard-pressed to find a big-name prof at this school, especially in econ, who isn't a bit full of himself and a bit of a jackass, but that's what we expect from big-name profs here. It's all part of the schtick. It works for them because they're legitimately great scholars and effective, enjoyable teachers. Copping the attitude and not delivering the pedagogy is really just not okay.

It's pretty typical economist fare to go for the cheap thrill or the controversy rather than the staid-but-valuable contribution to the field, and I'm not saying Levitt is obliged to aim for a Nobel rather than NYT-blog fame--but your cool stories have to at least make sense if it's going to be a good kind of pop culture fame. Ezra's take was satisfying to read as a longtime anti-fan of Levitt; God knows every time I've ever taken the time to read his blog entries I've finished them angry, sardonic, and unimpressed.

Gulliver travels

Here is a letter from an Andrew Sullivan reader.

Critics of non-intervention tend to accuse their opponents of cynicism, cruelty, and brutality, as did your most recent correspondent in his caricature of John Derbyshire. But foreign policy realism is essentially grounded in three deeply conservative concepts: first, we do not really know what makes societies successful, second, we do not know how to make these things happen, and, third, as a result we prefer some kind of stability as opposed to chaos; because conservatives will always prefer the orderly known to the disorderly unknown.

The invasion of Iraq was a profoundly anti-conservative project, since the purpose of the invasion -- aside from disarming Iraq from weapons it did not have -- was a revolutionary project meant to rebuild a nation from scratch. At the time, supporters of the effort pointed to the examples of Germany and Japan after World War Two, ignoring the fact that both nations had evolved into fairly cohesive and democratic market economies well before we showed up. Over time it has been shown that the neoconservative perspective -- which is really a revolutionary perspective -- has failed.

Now the argument is being applied to Afghanistan.

We hold elections, we chase guerillas, we destroy opium crops: we expect the Afghanis to calm down and be nice little democrats. No, that isn't going to work, it never works. The only thing we accomplish by invading other countries is provide an easy target to natives who resent our presence, because as any good conservative knows the easiest way to get someone to hate you is to try to force someone to do something they are not ready to do.

At this point the counter-argument is reduced to a querulous "What do you expect then? That we do nothing?" Well, there is one alternative. In historic times, when states fail, they breed chaos which spills over into other states and causes problems. At that point, the more stable state simply takes over the failed state, either as a protectorate, a colony, or via annexation. (I would point to numerous historical examples but that would offend many nationalists.) We could therefore simply take over any number of Arab or Muslim or otherwise failed states, because it is clearly in our national interest to do so, however, to do so, we would have to abide by strict rules of occupation, and not attempt to force a people to be what they are not yet, and not building settlements on their land, and so on. And our mission should be simply for keeping the peace, nothing more, and nothing less, and reducing the exposure of our people to violence.

The problem is that the United States nor any other country in the developed world is prepared to such a project. Our manpower resources are stretched thin as it is -- don't ask me where we're going to get the troops for Afghanistan -- our financial resources are even thinner, the American people have no interest in national sacrifice in terms of a military draft, increased taxes, rationing, or any of the other associations of a broad national effort, and therefore we have to recognize that the project of colonization or quasi-colonization is simply not going to happen.

However, if that's the case, there's really no more reason for us to be in either Afghanistan OR Iraq, because, again, in terms of history, these things work themselves out on their own scale. The best we can do is support dialog, communication, trade, and other benign forms of interaction. Anything more will simply kill people -- theirs and ours -- and will advance the evolution of these societies not one iota.

I agree with this completely except for one and a half things. First, the half; while I am mostly sure that this reader is using the colonization option as the sort of theoretically possible but realistically unacceptable option I would consider it, it's not a hundred percent clear from his tone or phrasing. So let me say that I would have presented the same alternative, but mostly as a means of showing what a limited set of options we have within the realm of acceptable behavior.

The complete thing is that I am so bloody sick of the notion of societies' "advancing" or evolving in a teleological sense that presupposes a goal that the last sentence of the letter comes awfully close to making me want to throw the whole, otherwise well-put, thing in the bin.

I'm not sure why I seem to have adopted a British lexicon in the previous paragraph--probably because I couldn't think of a more American way of avoiding much worse profanity--but that's all I have to say about that.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Holy what the mother of bleeping what alert

Via TPM:

A Louisiana justice of the peace said he refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any children the couple might have. Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, says it is his experience that most interracial marriages do not last long.

[...] Bardwell told the Daily Star of Hammond that he was not a racist.

"I do ceremonies for black couples right here in my house," Bardwell said. "My main concern is for the children."

Bardwell said he has discussed the topic with blacks and whites, along with witnessing some interracial marriages. He came to the conclusion that most of black society does not readily accept offspring of such relationships, and neither does white society, he said.

"I don't do interracial marriages because I don't want to put children in a situation they didn't bring on themselves," Bardwell said. "In my heart, I feel the children will later suffer."

Rumblings from Jordan

Just a snippet from this Marc Lynch column on Jordanian frustrations with the U.S. and Israel. Since my thesis will be at least half on Hamas and I've been interested in the group for about a year now, this was the bit that caught my eye:

There was also little optimism about a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation (and this was before the public exchange between Abbas and Meshaal which Daniel Levy wrote about for me this morning). Nobody thought that the profound gap in interests between the two parties could be bridged, particularly after the devastating impact of the PA's deferral of the Goldstone report on Abbas's popularity. Beyond that, with no meaningful peace talks in sight there was little reason for either side to make the painful concessions necessary -- whether on elections, on security sector reform, or on the existential issues of identity and commitment to negotiations.

Indeed, what I heard from a number of the more hawkish Muslim Brotherhood leaders suggests that at least some in Hamas see a greater interest in staying out. They generally admitted that Hamas faced tough conditions, with the blockade of Gaza and the escalating PA repression of its cadres in the West Bank. But that was secondary. The PA, by their argument, is in a death spiral. Talks with Netanyahu will inevitably fail, at which point Abu Mazen and the PA will no longer be able to keep up pretences. Signing on to such a PA would only compromise their own legitimacy and viability, alienating the vast mainstream of the Palestinian people without any commensurate benefits. Rather than be associated with the impending failure, they suggested, better to stay outside and wait for the fruits of that failure to fall into their lap.

I'm too tired right now to go into why exactly this is important information from my perspective--it's 5 am, I've been doing Arabic reading comprehension and a reading response on Weber's theories of charismatic authority vs. bureaucracy and discipline for four hours, and I chaired a 1.5 hour meeting today--but someday I hope all shall become clear.

Regardless, for most people this is probably the important takeaway:

Jordanian officials and the public alike are deeply, profoundly worried about the course of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Worried whispering about (or eager anticipation of) the outbreak of a new Intifada was everywhere. Confidence in Obama's ability to deliver, especially with regard to Israel, has collapsed. But most still hope that it's not too late for Obama to reverse course. His words at the UN General Assembly rallied their spirits briefly. But it won't last absent clear progress towards resuming the talks based on a clear, mutually acceptable framework for negotiations. If that doesn't happen by the end of the year, then we could be staring at the abyss.

Don't say I never did anything for you.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Gaza is cracking open

This past Saturday, Hamas and a group of Al-Qaeda loyalists clashed violently in Gaza.

What I find most interesting about this is the following: that both sides were from the same clan. This means that within one notable family we had essentially a splinter group of Salafi Al Qaeda supporters, despite the obvious benefits of sticking with Hamas when one lives in Gaza. Why is this? True Salafi religious fervor? (To be honest, I doubt it.) Perhaps the notion that Al Qaeda could get more done against the Israelis? A power struggle within the family? It couldn't have been a simple attempt to overthrow Hamas--or if it was, it was one of the stupidest things I think I've ever heard.

Hamas has managed more than any other recent governing authority in Gaza to break down clan power as well as dominate and control the other violent organizations present in Gaza. Clearly, they won this one, so nothing has changed too much--but why did this happen in the first place? What did "the sheikh" think he had to gain by declaring loyalty to Al Qaeda?

This Daniel Levy piece from 2007 has a lot to say on the subject. A sample:

There is a battle, both ideological and physical, taking place within the world of political Islam. Hamas have been targetted and criticized by Al-Qaeda. Most notably AQ number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, went after Hamas after it agreed to participate in Palestinian parliamentary elections and again after the Unity Government deal with Fatah. On both occassions Hamas were rejected as apostates and their actions as kufr - an abomination to Islam, they had sold out to the 'Zionists and the Great Satan'. All this does not automatically make Hamas a partner, but it certainly begs the question and demands a serious exploration of the alternatives. AQ is a franchise and any Gazan mutation if it gains a foothold, will threaten Palestinian and Israeli society alike.

He was commenting on the excellent piece "Jihadist Groups Fill a Palestinian Power Vacuum", which suggests that Hamas's control over Gaza has been weakening for some time. What is so ironic about the whole thing is that the deteriorating situation in Gaza is a result of the unrelenting embargo. The embargo was intended to weaken Hamas, but weakening Hamas is not actually, and never was, the most important goal. Without Hamas, no one rules Gaza, and no one can stop these groups. And yet even last year the American administration failed to understand this:

Bush administration officials say they are increasingly concerned that Hamas and even more radical groups may be hijacking the Palestinian movement. [...]

Mr. Taha’s fears are remarkable because of who he is: not a secular campaigner or a Fatah apparatchik, but a senior member of Hamas. In the violent underground of the militias, men like him have become unlikely moderates, calling for calm and seeking to build bonds with the other militias and the government.

Except that their status as moderates is neither unlikely nor surprising: it is obvious and to be expected. They have always had an interest in governing--and, of course, in maintaining their power--and so equilibrium, calm, and a controlled monopoly of violence has always been in their interest. Why this is so impossible for the West to understand is beyond me at times.

So it seems that the sheikh threw his lot in with the radical trend. Unfortunately for him, he misjudged the situation; Hamas still controls Gaza enough to take out someone like him, particularly when he makes rash statements and particularly when he is a member of a Hamas-loyal family, to which he was essentially a traitor.

A last note: the comments on the Ynet article are unpleasant. Should you click through, you've been warned.

Well said, sir

"America cares about the fact that you can get all the health care you need as long as you don't need any."
--Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL)

If this isn't the healthcare reform soundbite the Dems have been looking for, I don't know what is.

Now someone get that man a white shirt and a better tie.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Support the troops

H/t Digby we have this travesty:

A California company wants to convert an empty facility formerly used as nursing home into a trauma assistance center for as many as 88 female veterans, including those who have been sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers.

But some Taylor residents say they don't want the facility in their town.

"It would put veterans in a situation where they are going to a town that doesn't want them," said Cherri Wolbrueck, co-owner of a Taylor bookstore. She talked about her opposition after attending a zoning board meeting where representatives of the company — Center Point Inc., based in San Rafael, Calif. — spoke.

Wolbrueck lives across the street from the proposed facility where veterans would live. She said she fears that veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder might attack residents in the Buttermilk Hill neighborhood.

"They can have an episode where a flashback transports them back into a combat situation, and they can perceive anyone as a threat: an elderly person taking a walk around the neighborhood, or a child on a bike," she said.

Seriously? Seriously? I have never heard of PTSD resulting in violence. If such a phenomenon has been documented, I would love to hear about it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Colbert: 1 Beck: 0


(Blogger didn't like the embed code, I don't know why. Alas.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Going in circles

Ta-Nehisi keeps the Willingham story alive. If you missed it, here is the New Yorker story that started all of this. In essence, a man was executed for a crime he almost certainly did not commit--as certain as science can make it.

Ta-Nehisi writes:

Texas justice is essentially sorcery, and there will be people who say that we can perfect it, that we can close the loop-holes. They're wrong. The problem isn't with loopholes--it's with us. We are fallible. Conservatives, more than anyone, should know that--it undergirds their entire philosophy. They don't think government can perfect much of anything. What makes them think we can perfect murder? I'd have a lot more respect if they just came out and said, "Yeah, it isn't perfect, but it's a price we should be willing to pay."

At first blush, I didn't have anything to say about this other than "Amen." But then, of course, I read the comments, and we all know what happens when we read comments.

The first:

Oddly enough I have been thinking about just this lately, but I have seen it from the exactly opposite perspective: Conservatives appear to believe that humans are, in fact, perfectable, but too often choose not to be perfected -- that if only people would chose better, if only we force better choices on the people who do not choose by our lights, humanity could be perfected.

Whereas liberals appear to have twigged that, no, actually, humans are walking piles of contradictions and misunderstandings, fallible at each and every moment. So let's create a system that guards against that, and allows us the room to pick ourselves up and make better choices, if it turns out that we've made bad ones.

This sort of thing drives me absolutely batty. I have seen arguments structured exactly like this from both sides and it's bullshit every time. It's bullshit for one really simple reason: Conservatism and Liberalism/Progressivism are just different takes on the exact same philosophy. They both come out of the broader liberal political tradition (I'm sorry, that's what it's called in academic circles. Reagan, epistemologically speaking, comes out of a liberal tradition no matter how right-wing he is, because he's descended from Adam Smith and Rousseau. Deal with it.) So when one side or the other sets out to prove how Conservatives have this particular take on the human condition and Liberals have another and this is why one is so much more reasonable or realistic than the other, to continue that same comment:

All of which makes the angry conservative make much more sense to me -- if you believe that human falliblity can be stamped out but people are choosing not to, you probably have a lot less patience for it, not to mention fury when other people's fuck-ups mess up your own Glory-bound life.

And yes, it is very frightening that people of this mindset make life and death decisions. Because they often don't understand human reality.

It just makes me crazy. You could just as easily say that "forc[ing] better choices on the people who do not choose by our lights" is what Liberal government programs do, and "a system that guards against that, and allows us the room to pick ourselves up and make better choices, if it turns out that we've made bad ones" is exactly what conservatives want in a free market. This kind of quasi-theoretical assignment of one thing to this camp and another to that is almost always just an exercise in proving why your team is better, but in what sounds like philosophical terms. If we want to argue policy, I say let's get into it. That's an actual discussion about actual differences (in some arenas, anyway). But this kind of "well my team has THIS take on perfectability which is SO much more realistic than your team's" thing goes nowhere.

A near-perfect example from later in the comments:

The line that chilled me was when Fogg said, "Science does not matter." He stands by his gut, what he calls "living in the real world."

I can't help but connect his thinking to the anti-science attitude of the religious right. In an effort to defend creationism, they've made it okay--even heroic--to spurn fact, testing, and reason.

The "science doesn't matter" attitude is not limited to the religious right or to creationists (as we know them today). It reminds me mightily of some of the proto-fascist writings of Carl Schmitt and some of the ideology in existence under Mussolini.

I know I sound like a winger right now, blathering about fascists and Italian dictators, but honestly fascists aren't the point--I'm not out to make anybody in this situation the political pariah that wingers are usually invoking when they say "fascist." What I care about is that there is a preexisting tradition in liberal politics (again, I'm referring to the intellectual tradition, not a political coalition) of privileging emotion, gut, and "my experience" over science or formalized knowledge. It gets down to different criteria for what's real or makes something real, and how one knows something or does not know it.

If you read the original New Yorker article, these fire experts talk about fire like a spirit that talks to them. There is no scientific way to discuss fire like that--they're operating out of a totally different framework. Now on the one hand, we could sit back and say, well, it's pro-death-penalty Southerners (easy code among many for right-wingers--Lord knows I'd be surprised if these guys voted Obama) now, and it was fascists last time--sounds like a right-wing problem! Lefties, pat yourselves on the back.

But that, too, would be bullshit. Because how many times has the right wing criticized the left for overprivileging individual experience and worldview? What is moral relativism--with which I generally agree, for the record--if not the assertion that at least some important aspects of our reality are created by emotion, experience, and culture, and not by science or natural law?

The political coalitions we know today as Liberal and Conservative are not on a spectrum from one extreme to another. They're one iteration of many possible Venn diagrams, or cluster pairs, or arrangements around a circle--whatever image you prefer--that use all the same ingredients. Every failing of the right's can be found to be a virtue of the left's, and vice versa.

Which is why I hate it when people get into this thing about who understands human nature better. We all pretty much understand human nature the same. It's what we think that understanding means later that matters, and unless we're talking practical applications I don't want to hear about which party is better. They're the same. They're fraternal twins: all the same DNA, slightly different appearances. Use the same DNA a couple other times and you'll get other, slightly different appearances. On a genetic level, those differences are insignificant. On a practical level, it's how we tell the twins apart.

And that's all I really care about. Unless one of these two parties is currently proposing to abolish the death penalty, what good could it possibly do to debate which coalition better understands human nature or whose fault the Willingham travesty is? Neither party is doing anything about it; it's both of their fault, then. There's work to do, so let's quit yammering about Conservative vs. Liberal understandings of human nature and start trying to end executions of the innocent. People who want to sit there and yammer about the above are guilty of what gjeffries describes:

A man was put to death by us, as a society, under nothing more than character conjecture and those responsible for doing so merely shrug their shoulders and justify their actions? That's what affects me. It's not about the bias or ignorance; it's about the lack of reflection, lack of recognition of a higher purpose. It's not about them, it's about us. We can't let this happen.

If we were to reflect on it properly, we might come to a more productive conclusion about what's happening here:


I'd have a lot more respect if they just came out and said, "Yeah, it isn't perfect, but it's a price we should be willing to pay.

I think the subtext of so much of the behavior of the people responsible for Willingham's execution, at least as depicted in the New Yorker article, was a more chilling version of this. Killing him, whether or not he was guilty of the crime with which he was charged, WAS a price they were willing to pay. To them, Cameron Willingham was nothing but trash. Even if he wasn't guilty of murdering his three children in cold blood, he was guilty of being poor and distasteful to respectable white Texan society. Their world was better off without him cluttering it up, so why bother taking the necessary pains to provide him with justice under the law?

Doctor Jay

...we can't expect the people that perpetrated this to recant. They did what they did in good faith, believing that they were the instruments of justice, acting on behalf of the best interests of the community. And they made a terrible mistake. We do need to fix things, and get them out of the loop.

For starters, let's hope this goes somewhere.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Magical realism

“There is nothing against you. But there is no innocent person here. So, you should confess to something so you can be charged and sentenced and serve your sentence and then go back to your family and country, because you will not leave this place innocent.”

--U.S. interrogator to Fouad al-Rabiah at Guantanamo Bay. H/t Andrew Sullivan.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Muammar Qaddafi is such a BAMF.

It's incontrovertible.

Here there be magical thinking

Through a bunch of web-hopping (I think from The American Scene to Postmodern Conservative to Front Porch Republic to De Rogno Christi), I've spent the last hour reading a bunch of very abstracted conservative thought with a lot of roots in critical theory as well as theology and probably a bunch of stuff I wouldn't recognize, coming as I do from a completely different direction. I wouldn't say I agree with all or probably even half of what I've read, but I definitely have found it an interesting hour. Anyway, I wanted to reproduce this from Caleb Stegall at De Rogno Christi:

Anglo-catholics like Lewis, Tolkein, Chesterton, Eliot, etc., all understood the Church as a crypt in which the essential and primary blood and soil paganism of Europe was embalmed and allowed to stare up at us out of the waters. Think Tolkien’s ghostly undead kings of the past coming back to help the heroes/true church at its time of need. I don’t know exactly what Tolkien meant by that, but they are a cursed and unfriendly lot. This isn’t really redemption but a lingering paganism that speaks to this not entirely appropriate collaboration and amalgamation between Christianity and paganism in the west, which Protestantism/enlightenment/modernity has tried to efface and now has completely forgotten. This forgetting has caused all kinds of problems which was the most basic point of Tolkein’s books. The foremost problem is that Christianity as a depaganized political religion is Liberalism, radicalized and out of whack with reality in which one must at times do evil and even commit mortal sins for temporal goods that are the charge of those with political power. And then seek absolution in the magical appeasement of the gods. The medieval church allows, or found a way to admit and cope with this. It is a deal with paganism. Take it away and you get a devolution from Protestantism into liberalism. You get the new American personal faith Christianity (evangelicalism) with the magical thinking of overbought homes on ARMS and credit cards and daycare and building democracy in Iraq and all the other delusional magical thinking of late-modernity in the capitalist-state. And you get a whole new class of materialist therapeutic witchdoctors rising up to give the newest incantations: ‘your best life now!’ ‘your purpose driven life!’ or whatever.

So now we see American Christianity “emerging” more and more into universalism. It is in the water. All roads lead to ruin as Eliot knew. And for those who see this, the desire for “tradition” or whatever you call that which is largely lost and haunting us is a partly sick desire to unearth the dead.

We are at a dangerous crossroads. Messing with the dead is dangerous stuff. But it must be done. But like Tolkein understood, it can only be done by the “true King,” by the church, and even this is not without debilitating and compromises. This is connected to what I have been arguing about being able, at least occasionally, to admit that the narratives of tradition and church history are to an extent myths that legitimize what I would call the “mojo” … or the magic … the authority of the church. The simple yet profound truth that at the very bottom, we have very little to go on other than “because the church says so.” So this is in part what I mean by repaganizing … that our churchmen need a hint of witchdoctor in them, or if you prefer, a touch of Gandalf or Merlin. They have “powers” as my kids would say. This is completely flattened out in a rationalistic modernizing deracinated disenchanted liberalizing protestant culture. And the inchoate need for magic and appeasement of the gods gets shifted in very unhealthy materialist directions which can be exploited by those who understand the psychology.

(I know that was long. But come on, it was interesting.) This is fascinating stuff for me for a few reasons. First let me say that I don't really agree with the idea that a depaganized or sanitized church is the same thing as liberalism, largely because I don't agree with what he seems to think about liberalism. Possibly this is because he is using the word in a different sense than any I can think of, and if I were to ask him what he meant maybe that section would become clearer to me in the form of something I with which could agree to disagree.

That said, I find it interesting because I think the general point that a sort of paganism or a magical thinking is endemic to being human is completely true. We all like fairy tales, we are all superstitious to some degree, we all have our rituals and our sense, however vestigial, of some kind of cosmic justice ("What did I do to deserve this?"). For me, as an atheist, this has always been completely decoupled from any sort of intermingling with religion; and as a rationalist with a lot of economic privilege I've had what is probably the luxury of avoiding magical thinking in the sense of lottery tickets, a purpose-driven life, et. al. But it's obvious to me that we have witch doctors in our society, whether they are televangelists, Alan Greenspan, therapists or dieticians. Last year I wrote this:

Current discussions of economics and the economy contain a bizarre contradiction: On the one hand, the Free Market Rulz OK because the economy is too complex, diverse, and fast-moving to be comprehended sufficiently by any planner or regulator. It is, to a certain degree, unknowable and all-powerful, if benevolent. This idea is roughly analogous to ABVC's description of a puppeteer with no will--"the laws of cause and effect. You have a will, but it is not free, it is the effect of lots of causes." [...]

On the other hand, we flatter ourselves that with enough math, studies, models, and theorizations we can understand how these things work.... This effort is roughly analogous to the notion of "seeing the strings", or trying to.

We understand the economy as both a reflection and the driver of our entire world.... This is a bizarre combination of The Economy's being by and of us while simultaneously being completely alien to us. We do things to it, we figure it out and profit off it, we game it, we live in it, but occasionally it completely swamps us. It's a force of nature--it is to us as the sea is to fishermen, or the Euphrates was to Mesopotamian farmers (floods are a central mythic trope in ancient Mesopotamian religion).

Furthermore, even when I come out of my academic funk enough to take the crisis at face value, the degree to which nobody has any idea what is going on or what is to be done about it, and the degree to which any one opinion can be convincingly argued against, certainly suggests that while the phenomena at hand are real, our understanding of them is merely a comforting fiction.

[...] But we persist in believing, very firmly, that policymaking and many other arguably more quantitative fields are rational processes of improvement, whose wildly unpredictable results are owed more to the complexity and difficulty of the problems or questions these disciplines engage than they are to the complete disconnect between what we think we are doing and what is actually going on.

This, of course, is the joke. We think we see the strings, but they are far too long for us to comprehend them as such.... The punchline is that we don't actually understand the economic forces around us, nor do we understand our interactions with them. It's all fooled by randomness with a healthy dose of storytelling and myth. A form of paganism, if you like--believing that human actions affect natural phenomena. (Thank god we burned a Yule log this year, or the sun might not have come up in January either.)

I stand by that. And in my own rationalist, atheistic life, I have still harbored a fascination with the pagan or the mythic. For as long as I can remember I was fascinated by mythological traditions--Norse, Irish, and Anglo particularly--and I've read a few theoretical unpackings of fairy stories (notably Diane Purkiss's At The Bottom of the Garden) that have left me convinced that fairies are the things we fill in in liminal spaces: life changes (from childhood to adulthood, maidenhood to motherhood, prince to king, maturity to old age) and events (birth, death, loss of virginity, quest fulfillment); literally liminal spaces and moments like threshholds, twilights, and borders; unknown areas like forests, the bottoms of ponds, mountain fastnesses.

We still have fascinations with these liminalities, and we still have ceremonies surrounding them. Boomer fascinations with pre-birth rituals like reading baby books and carrying eggs around and such are basically magical rituals intended to make birth and becoming parents easier, to ensure it goes well. We still have sweet sixteens and graduation parties and the insane coming of age ritual known as applying to college (which is a process chock-full of magical thinking). The old magical rituals are basically the same as our current endeavors because they both represent attempts to colonize and control these spaces. Leaving offerings for fairies before, during, or after birth is not that different from, say, insisting that your boyfriend light candles and strew the bed with rose petals when you plan to lose your virginity. Neither will have much effect on how this completely scary and unknowable (till it happens) event goes off, but hey, at least we tried, right? There may not be fairies in the forest these days, but we still make movies about giant octopi preserved in glaciers since the Cretaceous (or whenever) at the bottom of the ocean. Even the notion of extraterrestrial beings who sweep you up in their ships and do weird things to you maps almost perfectly onto the fairy kingdom under the hill.

And of course this kind of pagan ritualism has its analogues in religion. What else is a Confirmation or a Bat Mitzvah? Christmas is famously full of old English pagan rituals.

My point is that even without a personal connection to what one might call a paganized church, and even without what I would call a spiritual identity, I get what he's saying (for the most part) and I find the discussion interesting from the point of view of my own interest in paganism, mythology, and their persistence in a supposedly rationalist contemporary world.

And it's become clear to me that I really need to read more T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis.