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.