Saturday, July 31, 2004

No Free Lunches

David Friedman may be an anarcho-capitalist, but the following statements of his, quoted on the Adam Smith Institute's blog, capture very well the way in which the agendas pushed by special interest groups tend to work out in practice.

"Special interest politics is a simple game. A hundred people sit in a circle, each with his pocket full of pennies. A politician walks around the outside of the circle, taking a penny from each person. No one minds; who cares about a penny? When he has gotten all the way around the circle, the politician throws fifty cents down in front of one person, who is overjoyed at the unexpected windfall. That process is repeated, ending with a different person. After a hundred rounds everyone is a hundred cents poorer, fifty cents richer, and happy."
This is a bit of an oversimplification of course; what makes special interest politicking especially pernicious in real life is that some people are made far better off for having engaged in it, with the most successful raking in hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars from it, while the costs to the rest of the populace tend not only to be diffuse but also opaque to reckoning.

Why Did Rome Fall?

Or, to be more precise, why did the Western half of the Roman Empire fall? I'm well aware that the Eastern portion remained in existence until 1453, but the fact is that the civilization of which we are today a part, and whose influence predominates throughout the world, was born of the ashes of the Western half that collapsed in 476, rather than of the Byzantine state: as such, the continued existence of that other civilization, though undoubtedly of interest to historians, is, as a practical matter, of far less importance to understanding how our world came to be the way it is today.

Although I'm familiar with the sorts of moral reasons adduced by Edward Gibbon for the fall of Rome - enervating oriental luxury, sexual immorality, etc. - I'm not at all convinced that "moral decline -> civilizational decline" is in any way relevant to understanding what really went on. From my own reading, the correct answer must lie in some way with the economic conditions of the empire - in particular, with the ubiquitous institution of slavery, and the effect that the cessation of Roman expansion, and therefore, opportunities to seize vast new numbers of slaves, must have had on the economic viability of slave-based industry and agriculture. Ultimately, I think the attitude learned from the Greeks that work was something to be despised is the root cause of the decline that set in well before the barbarian hordes finally knocked down the rotting edifice.

If I am correct, there's a lesson in there for those on the left who take the attitude that there's something dishonorable about striving "too hard" to better one's material lot, and that leisure is more "civilized" than, and always to be preferred to labor, an attitude that is now commonplace throughout Europe, particularly amongst the more comfortable classes.

A Telling Remark

In this Crooked Timber thread on the appeal of Stalinism, in response to the following statement by Chris Bertram

Tidiness and orderliness were the reasons for a certain type of intellectual being attracted to Stalinism.
John Quiggin makes the following remark:
Support for tidiness and order may not be remarkably attractive, but they are not, in themselves, indicative of totalitarianism.
I cannot imagine a more obviously false statement. How can a supposedly intelligent person say such a thing? The strange thing is that John Quiggin actually is intelligent, as one can tell by reading his own blog. He's obviously fairly comfortable with a level of mathematical sophistication far out of the reach of most economists, and he seems quite well read, but when it comes to seeing the totalitarian consequences of many of the ideas he thinks worth championing, something just seems to go wrong somewhere in the mental machinery ...

Then again, Quiggin's variety of mental block seems to be a fairly common failing amongst those on the left, just as the inability to recognize the contradiction between legislating private morality and championing individual freedom is a difficulty for many on the right. One can more easily forgive such muddleheadedness when encountered in the less intellectually sophisticated, but coming from those who ought to know better, it really is difficult to take.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Bush as Ideological Extremist?

I keep seeing the same meme around the blogosphere, and it goes like this: "Bush won election by the thinnest of margins, and only by promising to govern from the center, but he's actually turned out to be an extremist." To this I can't help but ask "Extremist how?" How is spending like LBJ and yielding to protectionist lobbying on catfish, cotton and shrimp "extremist?" What exactly is "extremist" about creating a new entitlement that the opposition only disagrees with because it isn't generous enough? What's "extremist" about an education "reform" bill that gutted all the good ideas on this issue held by those within his own party, and which was bloated enough to meet with the approval of the equally bloated Senator Edward Kennedy?

Frankly, I wish Bush did govern like an extremist, by taking a razor to all sorts of worthless government programs, and slashing away at subsidies as if they were so much overgrown foliage. Instead he's chosen to govern like an old-school corporatist, pandering to any group he thinks he can buy votes from to the maximum extent his evangelical base will allow him to get away with. The problem with Bush is a lack of principle, not some mythical "extremism."

Christianity as a Religion of "Peace"

A little known fact: Ireland is the only country in the world ever to have been completely converted to Christianity without blood (usually mostly that of those to be converted) being shed in the process.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

A Quote-Worthy Comment

On occasion one encounters a comment that rises above the ordinary, and this one by Ian Montgomerie is a sterling example:

The battle to prevent labor restrictions has already been lost, ideologically. Speaking as a cosmopolitan leftist I have been utterly dismayed at how the outsourcing issue has revealed that the American left is, when it comes to jobs, just as much a bunch of nativist isolationists as the American right. Pretty much every leftist public figure I know of or have read books by, is completely in the "outsourcing is EVIL" camp. This position is strong enough that in articles about unrelated subjects, people will stick in a crack bitching about outsourcing. If anything, the left demonstrates MORE hostility toward it than the right. It's already been completely and totally accepted that the orthodox position of any pro-worker, anti-corporate-greed person should be to oppose outsourcing. It makes me want to puke.

I used to think that when people complained about free trade because Nike could pay third world workers peanuts to make shoes, it was a somewhat misguided sentiment but genuinely came out of concern for people in the third world. After all, the argument seemed to imply that if Nike paid third world workers a generous salary (at least by the standards of their country) and gave them good working conditions, that it would be fine and dandy for them to manufacture their shoes wherever they want.

The outsourcing issue proved my assumption completely and totally wrong - the mainstream attitude, left as well as right, really is "fuck those darkies in the third world, America first and I'll rationalize it however I want". Because according to the "anti-Nike" style arguments, the ideal situation would be one where third world workers weren't at all exploited, but instead had the skills to be competitive for jobs that offered good working conditions and good salaries. But when people actually noticed that happening, the OUTSOURCING PANIC started. (And I put it in all caps because it's so overblown, it relies on a series of anecdotes about jobs going offshore with zero perspective on the size of this effect compared to the economy and zero perspective on any countervailing tendency of the US to expand in new industries and sell new products to the developing world).

Essentially I have not seen any opposition to outsourcing which is not precisely equivalent to the worst sort of nativist protectionism. Even the rhetoric of the rationalizations is much more strained and transparent than the anti-Nike, anti-child-labor movements. Because fundamentally, people don't care about the reasons so they aren't paying much attention to making their rationalizations plausible. As soon as middle class Americans seemed to be directly losing their jobs to developing world labor, it was full on panic mode. Reason doesn't vaguely enter into it. I actually heard of a protest against a software company that layed off a bunch of people in silicon valley to move the jobs to Montreal, Canada. Problem: it was a Canadian company and it was moving the jobs to its head office in Montreal.
Couldn't have said it better myself. This Ian Montgomerie fellow really should get his own blog.

Interesting Comments by John Derbyshire

I wouldn't have expected the following words to issue from the pen of a guy like John Derbyshire. This is some serious reservation-straying we're talking about here.

Now, I've said this before and I'm going to keep saying it. It's not right -- it's improper, unseemly, unethical and dishonorable -- for a party with a Bush-Cheney ticket to mock John Kerry's service.

Yes, I know the temptation is strong; and I know there are all sorts of respects -- including this latest one -- in which Kerry's military service is pretty darn mockable.

But when all is said and done, he served. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney didn't, and they should have done. I say this as a Bush-Cheney voter. I like the ticket, and I'll be voting for it. I wouldn't vote Kerry-Edwards at the point of a gun. Yet if you ask me: "Doesn't it take some of the luster off the GOP ticket to know that when it came time for your guys to put themselves in harm's way at the nation's call, they ducked it?" my honest answer would be: "Yes, it does."

And yes, of course I suspect Kerry's motives in going to VN just as much as you do. It is still the case that he went. It is still the case that if some NVA round had passed six inches further to the left, he would have been maimed or killed.

The honor that we accord to our serving men and women is, in my personal opinion, indivisible. John Kerry is just as entitled to it as anyone else who served. That's how I see it, anyway.
Maybe Derbyshire's simply fed up getting his NR paychecks or something, as the magazine he writes for isn't exactly known for either high intellectual standards or a critical attitude towards those on the "right" side.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

How Some Kids Spend their Free Time

Reading this entry on the Volokh Conspiracy by Tyler Cowen, it's amazing that kids like Cedric Jennings and Cowen's daughter actually live in the same country: this kid is better educated at 14 than Jennings was as a Brown freshman!

Jacob writes today about his experience with the "CTY" programs of Johns Hopkins. Basically pre-college kids take college-like classes over the summer. I just did a parent-teacher interview there (as the parent). Yana, who is fourteen, took a class on the philosophy of mind. She just started another class on the French and Russian Revolutions. This is her third year there, she calls herself a CTY addict. The year before she did Latin. This time we had her for two days between sessions. I heard about modal logic, Newcomb's Paradox, and mind-body reductionism. Yana now knows why she believes in free will, and why she doesn't want to be an undergraduate philosophy major. She loves CTY, and so do we.
Cowen is an economics professor, and as such hardly living from hand to mouth, but it's simply disingenuous to say that the gap between his child and those of the inner city would be closed simply by paying teachers any amount of money, or pumping any number of extra billion dollars into the public school system.

Coming from a professional household myself (father and several uncles doctors, grandfather a judge, plenty of academics all round, everyone went to university as a matter of course), I know for a fact that there are things one picks up in such a milieu that have nothing to do with anything on an official school curriculum; although I spent most of my early teens in Nigeria in circumstances a lot worse materially speaking than most Westerners would believe possible, like the young Miss Cowen, I too was familiar with much of Western philosophy by the age of 14 (and with an ungodly amount of material about human anatomy and endocrinology at 11, thanks to my father's textbooks), and intense discussions about economic policy and international affairs were routine amongst uncles, aunts and friends of the family. No one needed to teach me the meaning of so-called "SAT" words like "hyperinflationary", "denouement", "abnegation", "elocution", "cacophony" and so forth, as they were simply things one absorbed by osmosis, being around those who routinely used just such words. It certainly helped to attend good schools in which high academic performance was admired rather than condemned, but the primary benefit of such institutions was never in the quality of the facilities they provided - extremely rudimentary by American standards - but in making sure that students who enjoyed or at least respected learning were surrounded mostly by students who shared the same values.

With all of the above in mind, to say that cultural capital doesn't matter, or that any conceivable government program can be expected to make up most of the difference, is simply nonsense; what are people expecting governments to do, go into upper-middle class households and arrest parents who engage their children in discussions of phenomenology? Until the awful day when the scenario outlined by Harrison Bergeron becomes more than a work of fiction, the primary onus for making a better future for themselves is going to lie primarily with individual students and their parents. Even so, the least we can do for them is avoid making the obstacles they face even more formidable than they already are by keeping them trapped in human warehouses that are "schools" in name only, and amongst peers who are "students" in name only.

Al Qaeda's Branching Out Already

Here's hard evidence that al-Qaeda isn't about to wait until the "young swarthy Middle Eastern male" strategy starts foiling its operatives.

Harlingen, Texas - American federal authorities are investigating a South African woman whom they say tried to board a flight near the United States-Mexico border with an altered passport, amid reports that South African passports have ended up in the hands of terrorists.
Farida Goolam Mohamed Ahmed, 48, was arrested on July 19 at the McAllen airport and charged four days later with illegal entry into the United States, falsifying information and falsifying a passport. She was denied bail on Tuesday by a federal magistrate.
A senior federal law enforcement official said on Tuesday that investigators were trying to determine whether the woman had ties to terrorist groups. So far nothing has been substantiated.
South African officials have acknowledged that al-Qaeda militants and other terrorists travelling in Europe have obtained South African passports.

[............]

Ahmed was arrested as she tried to board a flight for New York and could not provide a visa to prove her legal travel within the US, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Special Agent Daniel Delgado said in an affidavit.
Ahmed provided a South African passport that was missing four pages, according to the affidavit. Authorities said she said that her visa was in New York.
Authorities searched Ahmed's bags and found a pair of wet and muddy pants in one and plane tickets and flight schedules in another.
They said that she later told them she was smuggled into the US from Mexico by crossing the Rio Grande.
"I did come here illegally, I came through the bush," Ahmed told FBI agents in a voluntary interview on July 21, the affidavit said.
She isn't young, she isn't Middle Eastern (at least not by nationality), and she sure as hell ain't male; so much for the assumption that al-Qaeda's religious beliefs would deter it from utilizing female operatives. One more thing worth keeping in mind - despite this woman's name and South African nationality, it isn't even a sure thing that she's "swarthy." I for one am glad that the investigators who arrested this woman weren't relying on any of the complacent notions that so many supposedly "aware Americans" have been demanding, otherwise they'd never have given her the scrutiny she deserved.

A Hope in the Unseen

An extremely thought-provoking book, and one that ought to be essential reading both for those who deny the reality of an "acting white", anti-intellectual mentality amongst poor blacks, as well as those who claim to be for the poor and downtrodden and yet refuse to support meaningful school choice.

Book Description
The inspiring true story of a ferociously determined young man who, armed only with his intellect and his willpower, fights his way out of despair.

At Ballou Senior High, a crime-infested school in Washington, D.C., honor students have learned to keep their heads down. Among the mere handful of students with a B average or better, some plead to have their names left off the "Wall of Honor" bulletin board; others hide during awards ceremonies; only a few dare to raise their hands in class. Like most inner-city kids, they know that any special attention in a place this dangerous can make you a target of violence.

But Cedric Jennings, the lanky son of a jailed drug dealer, will not swallow his pride, though each day he struggles to decide who he wants to be. With unwavering support from his mother, he studies and strives as if his life depends on it--and it does.

The summer after his junior year, at a program for minorities at MIT, he gets a fleeting glimpse of life outside Ballou--an image that burns in his mind afterward and fills him with a longing to live in such a world. In his senior year, walking a gauntlet of sneers and threats, he achieves a 4.02 grade-point average and then the impossible: acceptance into Brown University, an Ivy League school.

At Brown, finding himself far behind most of the other freshmen in his academic training and his knowledge of broader culture, Cedric must manage a bewildering array of intellectual and social challenges. Cedric had hoped that at college he would finally find a place to fit in, but he discovers he has little in common with the white students, many of whom come from privileged backgrounds and party hard while acing tests.

Even the middle-class blacks have trouble understanding Cedric, a straight-arrow church kid from the ghetto who seems like an obvious product of affirmative action. As he struggles to master classwork and think like a scholar, he realizes that faith alone can take him only so far. Having traveled too far to turn back, Cedric is left to rely on his intelligence and his determination to keep alive his hope in the unseen--a future of acceptance and reward that he struggles, each day, to envision.

Ron Suskind first wrote about Cedric Jennings in a pair of articles for the Wall Street Journal, which later won the Pulitzer Prize. Now, having spent three years at Cedric's side, Suskind delivers a triumphant coming-of-age odyssey that includes us all. Eye-opening, sometimes humorous, and often deeply moving, A Hope in the Unseen weaves a crucial new thread into the rich and ongoing narrative of the American experience.
And just in case anyone's wondering, this story does have a happy ending, at least so far. If anyone can read this book and still maintain that there isn't an intensely anti-intellectual culture in the inner cities, or that all failing schools need is yet more money, I'll be flabbergasted. It's well past time we came to terms with the fact that Cosby was right, however shocking his little speech might have been to those who are more accustomed to hearing "blame The Man™" rhetoric from their so-called "leaders."

POSTSCRIPT: Here's an article by the book's author which appeared in the Wall Street Journal way back in 1994, and which ought to give a tiny bit of the flavor of what Cedric Jennings had to go through.

Self-Criticism within the Democratic Ranks

Brad DeLong is frank about where his party falls short in the policy arena, and as to be expected when he says things that most economists would take for granted, but which a lot of liberals simply cannot accept as the truth, the reaction amongst quite a few of his readers is one of outrage. Still, the things he says need saying, and committed liberals are more likely to take them on board when it's coming from one of their own.

"You said the Democrats will have problems doing some things. What will they have trouble doing?"

"Well, dealing with outsourcing for one thing. It's coming--it's coming over the next generation. And the Democratic Party will have a very hard time figuring out how to deal with it constructively. It's likely to begin thinking that people in India who want jobs processing document-images for U.S. companies are our *enemies*. We can't afford to do that--a world in which Indians and Chinese in fifty years are taught that the U.S. tried to keep them poor will be a very unsafe world. A world in which we try to block expanded world trade will be a world in which we will be much poorer than we need to be. And as long as people see themselves as being pulled into better-paying jobs in other industries (rather than being pushed out of where they want to be by cheap foreign competition), we can make the coming generation's expansion of world trade--the coming generation's "outsourcing" boom--a source of wealth and development. But Democrats will have a hard time doing this.

"The most important way to open paths to opportunities is through education. And the Democratic Party will have a very hard time improving American education. One of the big problems with American education today is that we still imagine that we can underpay teachers--we still imagine that for teachers (and nurses) we have this large pool of constrained high-quality female labor to draw on. We need to upgrade the salaries of teachers--and we need to do this while at the same time upgrading the quality of teachers. The Democratic Party can do the former, but it will have a very hard time doing the latter. The latter means that lots of current teachers get fired, and a Democratic Party that has close links with the National Education Association cannot do that.
I think he actually understates the problem where the NEA is concerned, as there simply is no good reason to oppose school vouchers when they are already commonplace in many welfare states that liberals otherwise admire - no good reason, that is, unless the very idea of teachers having to compete makes one break into hives. What is truly saddening is to see so many leading black and Hispanic politicians uncritically buying into the NEA's failed mantras, when it is minority children stuck in hopeless inner-city schools who end up paying the price.

A Star is Born

Scanning through Blogosphere, it looks like Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic Party convention has gone down a storm, and not just because of some "he's so articulate for a colored man" nonsense either. I'm glad to hear this, and even though Obama's politics are unlikely to be my own where economic matters are concerned, I think his ascension into the US Senate will be a very positive development - at last there'll be a black leader* in the very highest political ranks who's not only been actually elected to the post he holds, but is also not to be dismissed as a clown, an ignoramus, or a racist paranoid. More power to you, Mr. Obama.

NB - Historically speaking, Obama won't be the first black person to be elected to the US Senate, of course; that happened as long ago as the Reconstructionist era, before Ulysses Grant made his deal with Southern whites at the expense of black voters. It's just occurred to me that Carol Moseley Braun was also a senator, but then again, this was the money-hungry, dishonest creature who kissed up to General Sani Abacha, so she doesn't really count in my eyes anyway.

POSTSCRIPT: Here's an interesting post by Fabio Rojas in which he discusses Obama's candidature and what it means for black politicians in America. Unfortunately, the TNR article he links to is for subscribers only, or I'd have linked directly to that instead (someone ought to tell the TNR folks that only financial periodicals like the Economist or the Wall Street Journal can get away with that sort of thing nowadays).

*Notice that I use the term leader without the scare quotes in this instance, as distinct from "leaders" like Farrakhan, Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

Math-Phobia and Wishful Thinking

Here's a thought: why is it that people who espouse ideologies like anarcho-capitalism, protectionist isolationism and socialism are so allergic to mathematically rigorous modelling of their theses? Could it be because their beliefs are more akin to a substitute religion than anything else, and they dread the prospect of having their ideas controverted by air-tight reasoning?

I think this is the ultimate explanation for the unpopularity of so-called "autistic" (i.e, neoclassical) economics amongst those who hew to the otherwise radically different ideological systems I've mentioned above - it prevents them from freely indulging in the sorts of meaningless high-flown rhetoric that is typical of the output of people like Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Murray Rothbard, Pat Buchanan, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and far too many other blowhards who enjoy a level of deference out of all proportion to their just deserts.

Geoffrey Sampson - Why Anarcho- Capitalism is a Non-Starter

An interesting article that appeared in The Journal of the Libertarian Alliance way back in 1980. Sampson makes much the same point I do: what anarcho-capitalists like to refer to as "Private Military Companies" or "Private Police Forces" have already been tried in the real world and found wanting - they're called Mafias and Warlord factions. One has to be naive in the extreme to believe that a body of men with more firepower than others around it would be content to leave those outside their circle at peace to enjoy their possesions, and it is just as naive to expect an equilibrium of forces to rapidly be achieved, or even that when it is achieved, the end result will be anything other than the same old state ACs set out to abolish. People who cling to such follies should examine not just the millenium-long history of feudalism in Europe, but also the 400+ years of feudal warfare in Japan before the Tokugawa shogunate, and also the several occasions in Chinese history when centralized authority broke down, right from the Warring States Period right down to the "Warlordism" of the early decades of the 20th Century.

One might well ask what it is about anarcho-capitalism that bothers me so much that I should repeatedly criticize it, and the answer is straightforward: by putting forward ideas which are so clearly unworkable, anarcho-capitalists help to deligitimize libertarianism as a whole, by providing an easy target in the same manner that hard-left types do for advocates of social democracy. Whether or not one thinks it fair, it is a fact of life that one is judged by the company one keeps, and marching in lockstep with fools and lunatics is a pretty good way to get oneself branded a fool and a lunatic as well.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Texts and Interpretations

Razib has a very good post up on an issue that likely would be of interest only to religious philosophers rather than to a general audience, were the temper of our times not what they are.

In The science of the text (see below) a reader correctly observes that: "The Quran is the word of God, and that's why Muslims believe in it 100%" I have pointed this out before to suggest that there are axiomatic problems with deviating too much from the text of the Koran. But note this from Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras (page 18):
It was this latter model that the Shi'a adopted...If the Qur'an was the actually Word of God, how could fallible mortals ever hope to comprehend its true meaning
God always leaves a loophole because the human mind can not comprehend his ways and his words, but humans must jump through the opening. The majority Sunnis (unlike the Daudi Bohras and to a lesser extent other Shia) emphasize the Koran and the Hadiths as axioms that guide their thinking, superseding the judgements of their religious superiors (at least de jure). But, I could imagine a scenario where textual liberals emphasize the Koran's opacity over its transparency as a nod toward the greatness of God, attempting to leverage the righteous piety of conservatives toward the ends of flexibility.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of what is being discussed here. As I've often noted in the past, while it is meaningless to make blanket statements like "Christianity is a religion of peace while Islam is not", it is nonetheless the case that the majority of the schools of thought in Islam today advocate positions that are outright irreconcilable with liberal notions like freedom of speech, the secular state and absolute equality of the sexes before the law. Since the likelihood of all of the 1.2 billion Muslims alive today either suddenly vanishing or abandoning their beliefs for Unitarianism is nonexistent, we must come to terms with the fact that the ongoing struggle with Islamic intolerance will largely be a contest of ideas rather than a mere clashing of arms. However successful we are in "draining the swamp" by killing the current brood of vipers who lead organizations like al-Qaeda, there'll always be more individuals to replace them as long as the ideology they represent seems to many Muslims to be an attractive and seemingly natural outgrowth of the tenets of Islam. With all this in mind, the question of how Islamic religious texts are to be interpreted takes on the utmost importance.

To all this, one can imagine members of both the "Nuke em all!" and "Death to the infidels!" camps insisting that all this talk of the correct "interpretation" is just so much waffling on my part, that the Quran and the Hadiths say what they say and need no "interpretation" to comprehend, and that the ideas they put forward ought simply to be taken at face value. This is a very appealing notion on an intuitive level, representing as it does the age-old idea that a text can "speak for itself", but it is nonetheless a false notion, for all its commonsense appeal. The fact is that words never speak for themselves, whatever medium we happen to encounter them in, and if they did we wouldn't need to learn the languages we acquire in the course of our development. Everything must be interpreted in some context in order to have meaning, and I can find no better illustration of this than the story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote:
It is a revelation to compare Menard's Don Quixote with Cervantes'. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):
. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time,
depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and
adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
Written in the seventeeth century, written by the "lay genius" Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time,
depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and
adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases--exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor --are brazenly pragmatic.

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard--quite foreign, after all--suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.
It's tempting to take the above as just more evidence of Borges' unique talent for playing literary games, but what he's getting at is highly significant. If a 7th century Arabian merchant writes religious edicts in the style of his times and within the context of his times, it's one thing, but when a Muslim scholar of the 21st century does exactly the same thing - writing and thinking as if he himself were a 7th century Arabian merchant - it's something else altogether, and quite definitely a conscious act of interpretation, as much a modernist (or even rather, postmodernist) affectation as Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon." In that sense, "Fundamentalist" or "Purified" Islam is no more "Fundamental" or "Pure" than the other varieties of the religion it denigrates as deviations from the One True Path.

The idea Razib highlighted in his post, and which I've tried to expand upon here, can be a powerful weapon in the fight against the spread of the aggressively militant Islam that seems to be taking much of the world by storm, and as such it needs to be in the intellectual armory of those who seek to combat it, especially for those occasions when they come face to face with the more intellectually sophisticated proponents of militancy.

Monday, July 26, 2004

CNN - EU to Push for Sanctions on Sudan

Now this is a refreshing change. It's certainly a departure from the original view expressed by everyone's champion of moral behavior in international affairs ...

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- European Union foreign ministers are to join the U.S. and push for United Nations sanctions against Sudan if its government does not move to end the bloodshed in the troubled Darfur region.
The EU ministers, in a draft statement, said they would take "appropriate further steps" if Sudan does not take action to end the fighting and resume peace talks with rebels.
An attempt by the African Union to host talks between rebels and the Sudanese government was suspended earlier this month when rebels walked out after Khartoum rejected some of their preconditions.
While not using the word sanctions, EU officials said the 25-member bloc would push for such a move by the U.N. Security Council if Sudan did not cooperate with efforts to end violence that has killed 30,000 in Darfur and caused 1 million to flee.
Some 2.2 million are in urgent need of food or medical attention, aid groups estimate.
"What is most important is to continue pressure on the Sudanese government," Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, told Reuters.
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was visiting el-Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, Monday.
I wonder what made the French change their position (if they actually have changed their position, as one never knows with that lot). Could it be that Chirac and the boys have some sense of shame after all? But as if to remind the world that mindless "us vs. them" rhetoric isn't the exclusive preserve of the Hysterical Annies of the world, there is evidence that some extremist groups are already reaching beyond the "oppression of Arabs" rhetoric to call for a "jihad" against Westerners who try to stop Muslims killing ... other Muslims, and this in the name of Islam of all things.
Meanwhile a group calling itself Mohammed's army called on Muslims to prepare to fight Western forces sent on any mission to western Sudan.

[............]

n its warning of action against western forces, the previously unknown group said in a statement obtained by Reuters: "We have seen and heard of the American and British interference in Darfur and there is no doubt that this is a crusader war that bears no relation to the citizens of Darfur."
"We call upon you to speedily head towards Darfur and dig deep into the ground mass graves prepared for the crusader army," it added.
Witness said young Sudanese men were handing out the statements to worshippers at the central mosque in the capital, Khartoum.
Now that's chutzpah for you. When did people like the poor woman below become "Crusaders"?
Sudanese refugee
Evidently some Muslims are more "Muslim" than others, with the decisive criterion being just how thoroughly identified they are with "Arabness." Bigotry hiding behind a mask of righteousness is by no means solely a Western failing.

Right on the Money About Tony's Crony

Said by a commenter on Frank McGahon's blog about Peter Mandelson:

Given the corruption and feather-bedding on Planet EU, I'm sure Mandy will fit right in.
Ain't that the truth. Always one for the highlife, even if it meant living beyond his means, this creep must have a pretty powerful hold over Blair to be given yet another appointment after being fired twice over money-related scandals. He'll fit in like a hand in a glove amongst the den of pick-pockets and time-servers who populate Brussels' ministries.

Sullivan Has Left the Reservation

Andrew Sullivan makes explicit what many a libertarian has been feeling about Bush for a long time: outside the War on Terrorism, there's virtually nothing on his agenda that's all that attractive to libertarians who have even a rudimentary grasp of economics. Separation of Church and State? Nope. Free Trade? Forget about it. Less Government? A totally foreign concept. Keeping the government out of people's bedrooms? You've got to be joking.

The cynic may suggest that Sullivan's Road-to-Damascus experience has occurred primarily because of the Republican Party's opposition to gay marriage rather than due to any deep concern with all the other issues that are of interest to libertarians, and I'll concede that I too harbor the suspicion that this is the case. But even granting that this is so, it does not mean that Sullivan's complaints about the Bush administration are therefore illegitimate, and an examination of just one of Bush's failings will show that Sullivan does have a point.

The tax cuts Bush has delivered are simply not sustainable given his unwillingness to keep spending in check - this is the first president since 1853 not to utilize his veto power once in a term in office, and worse still is that he's not just watched over an explosion in spending that would have put Clinton to shame, but he's actually initiated new entitlements to add to the burden of unsupportable expenditure. If this is "starving the beast", as Bush defenders like to make out, I'd hate to see what feeding the thing would look like. It may well be that Bush's policies will make it impossible for any future Democratic administration to initiate grand new programs, but the political unpalatability of cutting entitlements - especially those to older people who vote - virtually guarantees that Bush's tax cuts will be of a temporary nature, with the only net result being a wealth tranfer from today's well-heeled to tomorrow's middle-class strivers.

I'm not going to entertain the delusion that Kerry is going to be any more of a champion of individual freedom than Bush has been, but I do think that the mechanics of divided government will help to rein in the worst instincts of those in his party, and the uncompetitive nature of most House races ensures that the odds of the Democratic Party gaining control of that chamber are, to put it mildly, minimal. As such, I am not as worried as some are about the possibility of a Kerry presidency. Also factoring into my calculations is the reality that a government with the President and Both Houses of Congress from the same party finds it hard to disagree in public, meaning that all sorts of horrible ideas get passed into law in the name of party solidarity. This is the prime reason why Bush has been so reluctant to veto irresponsible spending, and with him out of office, it will go away. I'm no culture warrior, and too much "God" rhetoric from politicians grates on my sensibilities, so the demise of that part of Bush's agenda that appeals to social conservatives will be no loss as far as I'm concerned.

BBC - South Africa's Chief Prosecutor Quits

This story is far from encouraging.

South Africa's controversial chief prosecutor has handed in his letter of resignation, after leading a tough anti-corruption drive.
Bulelani Ngcuka has been at the centre of a political storm for the past year after implicating Vice-President Jacob Zuma in a corruption scandal.
But Mr Ngcuka's spokesman denied reports that he had come under government pressure to stand down.
President Thabo Mbeki has not yet said whether he will accept the resignation.

[............]

Mr Ngcuka last year announced there was prima facie evidence to suspect Mr Zuma of corruption in a multi-million dollar arms deal, but not enough to prosecute him.
Mr Zuma, a favourite to succeed Mr Mbeki, angrily responded that his reputation was being tarnished, but he was not being given the opportunity to clear his name in court.
Shortly after Mr Ngcuka's allegations about Mr Zuma, South African media reported that he had been an apartheid spy.
A presidential commission of inquiry was set up, which exonerated him.
I suppose accusing someone of having been an "apartheid spy" is South Africa's own rhetorical equivalent of what calling an American a "Commie Symp" was in the 1950s, and what calling a Palestinian a "Zionist collaborator" is today - a handy bit of ad hominem that's almost guaranteed to deflect the audience's attention from the real issue at hand.

Anarcho-Capitalism in Historical Perspective

It seems obvious to me at least that were anarcho-capitalists ever to attain their daydream of abolishing government in its entirety, we'd quickly end up back in the not so good old days of feuding clans and warlords; but this is just what Europe took more than a thousand years to escape from after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and even as well-established a state as France was only able to tame its "over mighty subjects" in the middle of the 17th century. What point would there be in giving up everything that has been so slowly and painfully gained in order to embrace a new feudalism? What new and wonderful freedoms would this hypothetical new dawn promise, to justify taking such a step?

Why Anarcho-Capitalism is a Pipe Dream

Three simple words: advantages of scale. Or here's another way of putting it:

  • Q: what do you call a private security company that's so big it can afford to build stealth bombers, supersonic cruise missiles, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and intercontinental ballistic missiles?
  • A: A government!
All the firearms* in the world won't do anything to preserve one's liberty in the face of such weaponry and an organization ruthless enough** to make full use of it if need be.

*Which isn't to say that I dispute the notion that the Second Amendment does indeed enshrine in the lawbooks the right to bear firearms of any variety, up to and including so-called "assault weapons." One can argue about whether or not this ought to be so, but I think it's simply dishonest to pretend that the language doesn't mean precisely what it means.

I don't buy into the old "the drafters of the constitution couldn't have forseen Uzis" argument either, as one could just as easily apply the same rhetorical technique to argue for the muzzling of press freedom in all media other than ye olde newsprint (not like that isn't already the case amongst many "liberals", what with their support for "Campaign Finance Reform" laws).

**It's worth noting that all the wars America has either "lost" or "stalemated" since the end of World War II have been so only because the USA wasn't willing to go anywhere near as far as it had the power to, and to the extent that there are presently difficulties with insurgents in Iraq, this is also still the case; were America half as ruthless as its detractors make it out to be, there'd be far more dead Iraqis than there currently are, and far fewer American casualties as well. It is this relative benevolence that makes American global hegemony so much more palatable than the alternative offered by less squeamish powers like China.

Something to Think About

Via Hit & Run comes this WaPo story.

Think you can spot an Arab American? If so, guess again. Most Americans are notoriously bad at identifying people by their race or ethnicity, asserts Jeremy M. Weinstein, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University.

"In a climate where discrimination against Arab Americans is on the rise, people are often getting it wrong," said Weinstein, who conducted the research with colleagues James Habyarimana of Georgetown University, Macartan Humphreys of Columbia University and Daniel N. Posner of UCLA.

That's an understatement. In tests conducted on the campuses of USC and UCLA in Los Angeles, nearly 100 study participants were shown a series of photos of young people and asked to guess their race or national origin. The images were selected to be a representative sampling of facial types of Asians, blacks, Caucasians, Latinos and people of Middle Eastern descent.

These students were able to correctly identify the ethnicity of Arab Americans only about 27 percent of the time.
And these were college students, mind you, and not students at fifth-rate institutions, for that matter. How well do you think most security personnel would fare at such a task, even if racial profiling were to be employed as many are demanding? And just how "Middle Eastern looking" are Ralph Nader and John H. Sununu anyway?

POSTSCRIPT: It's since been brought to my attention that there's yet one more well-known member of the "suspicious-looking Middle Eastern" races who's been lurking amongst us while Real Americans were going about their business unawares - Steve Jobs! PC-lovers always suspected there was something downright subversive and unAmerican about the Macintosh, and now we have the unequivocal proof.

Terror in the Skies - One Last Question

Given the paranoia that has been running rampant amongst many on the right about Hysterical Annie's little potboiler of a story, could someone please explain to me why the very same people who seem to have so little faith in the authorities insist that we regard George W. Bush as the "Security President?" Either security measures really are as bad as these people insist they are, in which case their man is clearly not up to the job, or they grant that government officials aren't all "politically correct" dunderheads in need of tutoring on security procedures from bloggers and writers for obscure financial magazines.

UPDATE: As it turns out, Sgt. Stryker has made the same point already. When it comes to worrying about "Homeland Security", Bush-supporters can't have their cake and eat it too.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Hiding Behind Anti-Imperialism

Sudan's Arabs have obviously mastered the art of using the rhetoric of Pan-Arabic "anti-imperialism" to quash external criticism.

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese Arabs on Friday attacked a U.S. congressional resolution describing atrocities in Darfur as "genocide," while people driven from their homes asked how Washington could make it safe for them to return.
"The international concern over Darfur is actually a targeting of the Islamic state in Sudan," Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, not commenting directly on the resolution, told a public meeting after Friday prayers south of Khartoum.
In Khartoum, 34-year-old driver Ismail Gasmalseed said: "Is Iraq not enough? Do they want to destroy us too? ...America wants everyone who is Arab to pay. They do not understand anything."
Rebels and human rights groups say Khartoum has armed and backed Arab militia known as the Janjaweed who have been forcing non-Arab African villagers off their land in Darfur in an extension of a long conflict over farmland and grazing.
Supporters of the resolution approved by the U.S. Congress on Thursday hope it will help mobilize the international community to protect Africans from the militias.
The accusation of "genocide" is highly controversial. The United Nations has declared the situation in Darfur the world's worst humanitarian crisis but has not called it a genocide, which would force it to take action.
The world body estimates that the 15-month-old conflict between Arab nomads and non-Arab farmers has killed at least 30,000 people and displaced more than a million, many of them driven from their homes by marauding Janjaweed militia.
It's nonsense like this that ought to make any thinking person reluctant to take Arab complaints against the "imperialist" West seriously. I don't know where it's written that respect for Arabs entails allowing them to get away with mass murder.

While we're at it, where are all those self-appointed black "leaders" like Julian Bond, Kweisi Mfume, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan, right when their influence could be most helpful? I know Charlie Rangel's been doing his bit to bring this crisis into the spotlight, but where are all these other much higher-profile, unelected "leaders" on this very issue? What pressure are they bringing to bear for the US to take decisive action, and how are the likes of Julian Bond supposed to make their views heard in the White House when they've so completely thrown in their lot with the Democratic Party?

Since there are no multi-million dollar shakedowns to be had by pleading for something to be done for poor black Muslims dying at the hands of Arabs, I won't hold my breath waiting for Jackson, Bond and Sharpton to have anything to say about this issue. Why a sizable number of black people should hold these men in such high regard is completely beyond me.

About Time Too

Looks like South Koreans are going to have to shoulder more of the burden of defending themselves from the North going forward.

The US and South Korea have agreed to relocate all of the US troops based in the South Korean capital, Seoul, to a new base further south.
The US said it would move the 8,000 troops to Pyongtaek, 80km (50 miles) to the south, by December 2008.
The Pentagon said both sides also agreed to eventually relocate 14,000 troops currently based between Seoul and the North Korean border.
There are 37,000 US troops stationed in South Korea.
However the US has already said it plans to redeploy 12,500 troops to other countries by 2006, as part of a global review of its forces.
The Pentagon says it will continue to defend South Korea from any threat from the North, insisting that longer range weapons and better technology will compensate for the reduction in numbers.
Excellent - a troop relocation combined with a 33% slash in force numbers is just what's called for. South Korea is more than wealthy enough to defend itself unaided, and if American help does end up being needed, Okinawa will serve just fine as a base of operations. The story does mention another development that's of strategic interest, however.
Last month, South Korea announced four candidates to replace the northern city of Seoul as the nation's capital.
Government and administrative functions will be moved, and possibly parliament and the supreme court, in a move scheduled for completion in 2030.
The potential new sites are all in the centre of the country. It is hoped the move will ease regional rivalry and re-balance Seoul's economic dominance.
I don't buy the notion that "regional rivalry" and "re-balancing" of Seoul's economic dominance have much to do with anything. This is clearly about relocating government functions further away from the Northern artillery arrayed just behind the DMZ, a very sound consideration.

These two developments, along with South Korea's steadfastness in the face of the whole Kim Sun-Il business, indicate that regardless of the popularity of anti-American sentiments amongst younger Koreans, those who hold the reins of power are still thinking clearly about the issues that matter - which isn't to say that they necessarily see their interests as being in complete alignment with those of the United States.

Beyond all the mushy rhetoric about "brotherhood" and so forth, the cynical reality is that South Korea's politicians aren't at all eager for reunification, as the prospect conjures up images of a more populous and far poorer version of East Germany ending up a burden on a populace that still lacks the economic and demographic heft of the former West Germany. Were North Korea to collapse tomorrow, the South would be flooded with destitute refugees, and if it takes cozying up to Kim Jong-Il to stave off this scenario, so be it, nuclear proliferation concerns be damned.

Al Qaeda in Japan

This story isn't exactly hot off the presses, but it does illustrate just how far-reaching al-Qaeda's tentacles are - and how dangerous it is to assume that only "suspicious-looking swarthy males" need watching.

NIIGATA -- To his neighbors, Lionel Dumont was a mystery.

When police and immigration officials asked about the Frenchman, Dumont's landlord had no idea who he was, even though the landlord lived right across the street and had only 36 tenants in his apartment building.

Lionel Dumont
Hardly swarthy, is he?

"They showed me a black-and-white picture and asked if I remembered him," Jubei Sato said. "I couldn't place him at all. I don't think I saw him once the whole three months he lived here. He blended right in, never caused any trouble. But I found out after he left that he'd only paid half his rent."

Last week, Sato -- and the rest of Japan -- found out why authorities were interested in the 33-year-old starting a few months ago.

Dumont, according to police, may be the first al-Qaeda operative to have infiltrated Japan since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. And he did it with amazing impunity, entering on a faked passport and repeatedly leaving and re-entering the country before slipping out again for good a year later.

Dumont's arrival in July 2002 should have raised red flags. He was put on an international wanted list in 1999 after escaping from a Sarajevo prison, where he was serving a 20-year sentence for the murder of a Bosnian policeman during a robbery. He was in Bosnia fighting alongside other Muslims.

[............]

Why Dumont came to Japan remains a puzzle.

Scrambling to find answers, police last week raided several businesses in and around Tokyo and arrested five men allegedly contacted by Dumont after he left Japan. The five -- three Bangladeshis, an Indian and a Mali national -- were arrested for alleged immigration violations or the falsification of documents.

The Dumont case has prompted calls from the highest levels for heightened vigilance, including an order by Public Security Intelligence Agency chief Takashi Oizumi for authorities to act as if "Japan were at risk of being the target of a terror attack tomorrow."

But what is most frightening about the Dumont case for many is the challenge it poses to a deeply held assumption -- that while the post-9/11 world is a dangerous place, this island nation is too homogeneous or too isolated to be penetrated by foreign terrorists.

[............]

Prosecutor Joachim Ettenhofer, who handled the case in Europe, said the French extradition request cited only robbery accusations and did not mention terror-related activities. But French investigators have linked the Roubaix gang, named after the city where it was based in the mid-1990s, to a radical Islamic network, contending that robberies were used to finance extremist activities.

Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian convicted in the United States of planning to bomb the Los Angeles airport during millennium celebrations, was linked to the gang. A lack of solid evidence meant that terrorism-related charges were never brought against Dumont or other members.

Japanese police also reportedly suspect Dumont might have been laundering money, noting he made several trips to Europe and Asia before leaving Japan for Malaysia in September 2003.

Dumont might have sought refuge here because entry is relatively easy for Westerners. As the bearer of a French passport, the blue-eyed Dumont would not have been as closely scrutinized as a Middle Eastern visitor. (emphasis added)
These extremists are obviously diligent with their homework, as they knew enough to play on the high regard the Japanese have for 白人 (gringos).

David Brooks Gets It

God knows David Brooks can be awful at times, but when he's good, he can be very good indeed, and today he's on a roll.

We're not in the middle of a war on terror, they note. We're not facing an axis of evil. Instead, we are in the midst of an ideological conflict.

We are facing, the report notes, a loose confederation of people who believe in a perverted stream of Islam that stretches from Ibn Taimaya to Sayyid Qutb. Terrorism is just the means they use to win converts to their cause.

It seems like a small distinction - emphasizing ideology instead of terror - but it makes all the difference, because if you don't define your problem correctly, you can't contemplate a strategy for victory.

When you see that our enemies are primarily an intellectual movement, not a terrorist army, you see why they are in no hurry. With their extensive indoctrination infrastructure of madrassas and mosques, they're still building strength, laying the groundwork for decades of struggle. Their time horizon can be totally different from our own.

As an ideological movement rather than a national or military one, they can play by different rules. There is no territory they must protect. They never have to win a battle but can instead profit in the realm of public opinion from the glorious martyrdom entailed in their defeats. We think the struggle is fought on the ground, but they know the struggle is really fought on satellite TV, and they are far more sophisticated than we are in using it.

The 9/11 commission report argues that we have to fight this war on two fronts. We have to use intelligence, military, financial and diplomatic capacities to fight Al Qaeda. That's where most of the media attention is focused. But the bigger fight is with a hostile belief system that can't be reasoned with but can only be "destroyed or utterly isolated."

[............]

We also need to mount our own ideological counteroffensive. The commissioners recommend that the U.S. should be much more critical of autocratic regimes, even friendly ones, simply to demonstrate our principles. They suggest we set up a fund to build secondary schools across Muslim states, and admit many more students into our own. If you are a philanthropist, here is how you can contribute: We need to set up the sort of intellectual mobilization we had during the cold war, with modern equivalents of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, to give an international platform to modernist Muslims and to introduce them to Western intellectuals.

[............]

Last week I met with a leading military officer stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose observations dovetailed remarkably with the 9/11 commissioners. He said the experience of the last few years is misleading; only 10 percent of our efforts from now on will be military. The rest will be ideological.
I'll also venture to add my own two bits: seeing as publicity is the oxygen of these movements, it's about time we stopped taking the fight to them in the daylight. Our motto ought to be "By way of deception, thou shalt do war", which will mean using every dirty trick in the book to undermine these movements without showing our hand - using disinformation, sowing internal discord, facilitating untimely "accidents" which look like accidents, setting up morally* compromising situations, etc, etc. Most of the Cold War was fought out of the limelight, and this war will need to be even more so.

*Morally compromising by their standards, of course, morality being largely a subjective thing.

Here's Your Arab "Solidarity"

Guess who the latest victim of the murderous thugs "resistance fighters" happens to be?

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 23 - For the first time in the conflict in Iraq, insurgents here have kidnapped a diplomat, identified Friday as the third-ranking official at the Egyptian Embassy here, in a continuing spate of abductions aimed at American allies and nations that might assist the new interim Iraqi government.

Kidnappers here have apparently been emboldened by the Philippine government's decision to withdraw its 51 troops in Iraq in exchange for the life of a Filipino truck driver. Two days after the final Filipino soldier left on Monday, insurgents kidnapped seven more truck drivers - three from Kenya, three from India and one from Egypt - and threatened to behead one every three days unless their demands were met.

On Friday, the Arab news channel Al Jazeera showed a man identified as Muhammad Mamdouh Qutb, of the Egyptian Embassy here, seated in a chair before six men dressed in black, at least one of them armed, with white headbands. The kidnappers, calling themselves the Lions of God Battalions in Iraq, demanded that Egyptians not assist American forces in Iraq.

Earlier this week, the new Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi, met in Cairo with his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Nazif, who said his country would help Iraq combat terrorism and asked in return that Egyptian companies be allowed to pay a role in reconstructing Iraq.

Al Jazeera reported that Mr. Qutb's kidnappers said in a videotape, "The abduction was in response to comments by Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif that Egypt is ready to offer its security experience to the temporary Iraqi government."

[............]

The issue of hostage taking, as well as beheading, has divided the many groups opposing the American military presence in Iraq, with several that have encouraged resistance against the Americans drawing the line at taking and killing hostages.

On Friday, the rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who lead an uprising against American forces in April, rejected beheading hostages as a tactic of resistance. "We denounce those who decapitate prisoners," Mr. Sadr said at the main mosque in Kufa, south of Baghdad. "Islamic law does not permit them to do this, and anyone who does can be counted a criminal and be punished if seized."

It was the first time in two months that Mr. Sadr, who had gone into hiding to escape arrest by American troops, had delivered one of his usually fiery sermons in public, and his appearance seemed to underscore the shifting political ground in Iraq as the new government seeks to contain the violence here. (emphasis added)
I said Gloria "Idiot" Arroyo's craven attitude would be paid for in the blood of far many more men than the one she saved, and how true that is proving to be already! Al Jazeera has had a grand old time portraying these bloodthirsty brutes as if they were merely noble Arabs resisting Western imperialists, so it'll be interesting to see how they play up this latest kidnapping. One good thing that will come of America's handing over the reigns to the Iraqis is that there'll no longer be half as much room for Arab propaganda channels like Al Jazeera to continue to spill their bile without having some of it splash on their very own viewers.

I think it's really telling that Moqtada al Sadr, of all people, has come out publicly to condemn the kidnappings and beheadings that are taking place. The NYT reporter interprets it as mere political posturing, but I think there's more to it than that. This insurgency is looking more and more like an attempt by the Sunni minority to obtain by force what it could never have under a democratic government, namely a monopoly on power to which it feels entitled by right, having enjoyed it for so long without interruption.

Friday, July 23, 2004

TypePad für Deutscher

Heiko Hebig has announced that a German version of TypePad has just been launched, to which I can only say "What took you so long?"

TypePad ist ein Weblog-Dienst. TypePad besticht durch seine einfache Nutzung und bietet sehr umfangreiche Funktionen. Nutzer können sich sofort ein Weblog aus schicken Vorlagen zusammenstellen und in wenigen Minuten Beiträge veröffentlichen. Beispiele: Reisetagebücher, Konferenzberichte, Geschäftsblogs, Familienalben, usw. Die Möglichkeiten sind vielfältig! TypePad ermöglicht Nutzern die Kommunikation über das Internet, sowohl öffentlich als auch privat. Sie haben die Wahl.
Seriously, I don't get why it's taken so long to carry out the elementary internationalization that would have been required to provide this service in at least French, German, Japanese and Spanish versions, and I don't even see why they have to be under country domains like "de", "fr", "jp" and so forth; what guarantee is there that anyone writing in a given language is located in the country or countries in which said language is primarily used?

Israelis Acquiring EU Passports

Here's a story that throws some doubt on recent claims that "Europe" is currently undergoing a wave of anti-semitism.

More Israelis with European ancestry are applying for EU passports since the union's enlargement in May. Some see the burgundy-colored document as an insurance policy should the conflict in the Middle East escalate.
Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon's recent appeal to French Jews to leave their home country and emigrate to Israel was harshly criticized by French government officials -- and they weren't the only ones.
French Jews themselves were unhappy about Sharon's statement, fearing that anti-Semitic attacks would increase as a result.

[............]

One in five Israelis eligible

Since EU enlargement, every fifth Israeli is eligible to receive an EU passport: people who come from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic or one of the 22 other EU countries and escaped the Nazis or survived the Holocaust. Their descendants are often also entitled to EU citizenship.
Many Israelis of German descent are also starting to think of their forefathers' home country and apply for a passport. The German embassy in Tel Aviv issued 3,000 passports last year alone.
German law grants citizenship to "former German citizens, who lost their citizenship for political, racial or religious reasons between Jan. 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945" -- the duration of the Nazi dictatorship -- as well as their descendants. According to unofficial estimates, about 70,000 Israelis are also German citizens.
Continental Europe has certainly seen a surge in high-profile anti-semitic incidents, but that has been from a very low base, and in most cases, the perpetrators have been Arabs, not members of the majority ethnic group. I see Israeli tourists ambling about undisturbed all the time, and it's ridiculous to claim that Jews walking the streets of London would feel themselves under any threat whatsoever. None of this is to deny that EU governments and their state-controlled media do tend to operate on a double-standard where Israel is concerned, however.

In an ideal world in which terrorism and the Palestinians had ceased to be an issue, Israel and the EU would have a much closer association than they currently do, including free movement of goods and capital, as well as much freer movement of people, though I can't envision completely free movement as long as Israel remains concerned about retaining its Jewish character; the threat of being swamped by Northern European homebuyers looking for a place in the sun to spend their sunset years might prove too much for Israeli politicians to stomach, while Israeli laws against selling land to non-Jews (as mandated in the Talmud) would be ruled discriminatory under EU regulations.

Return of the Malkin

Via Expat Yank, here's yet more nonsense from the ever-so-predictable Michelle Malkin.

WNBC investigative reporter Scott Weinberger reported on Joe Scarborough's MSNBC show tonight that the 14 Syrians on Northwest Flight 327 ALL had expired visas. He said his sources told him that law enforcement officials xeroxed the men's paperwork without looking at the dates. The visas had expired nearly a month earlier, according to Weinberger.

This does not give me much confidence in the background checks that the Joint Terrorism Task Force, FBI, and LAPD may or may not have conducted on the men before letting them walk away. Would you trust the terrorism investigation of officials who apparently neglected to verify whether these men--coming from a designated state sponsor of terrorism, flying on a day on which Department of Homeland Security officials had issued a warning about a possible terrorist attack--WERE EVEN IN THE COUNTRY LEGALLY?!?!?!

If Weinberger's reporting is accurate, I won't be surprised. The 14 men join a club of at least an estimated 2.3 million illegal visa overstayers currently living in the U.S. today. Until September 11, 2001, the Visa Overstayers Club also included "student" Hani Hanjour and "businessmen and tourist" Nawaf al-Hazmi and Satam al-Suqami.
This is so laden with stupidity I find it hard to decide where to begin. How exactly does diverting precious manpower to hunting down visa overstayers help Homeland Security? Even if the authorities were to start throwing out visa overstayers at every opportunity, does Malkin imagine that there's some law of nature binding terrorists to wait until their visas have expired before committing outrages? It doesn't seem to occur to her that overburdened government employees with a mandate to put counterterrorism above all else just might consider hunting down swarthy visa regulation violaters a pointless diversion, nor that the sorts of measures that would be required to root out all of the "2.3 million illegal visa overstayers" she claims (without any references whatsoever) to be staying in the U.S, might actually end up hurting the counterterrorism effort, by making those overstayers and their protectors who might have information to share with the authorities reluctant to come forward.

This is Michelle Malkin we're talking about, and I suspect her thought processes don't reach that far. Instead, as soon as she saw the words "overstay", she immediately thought "illegals", and like a Pavlovian dog, the anti-foreigner drool immediately began to issue forth. Any opportunity to push a "seal our borders" agenda, however marginal, must not be overlooked as far as the likes of her are concerned. Disgusting.

POSTSCRIPT: Here's a blog post that debunks another bogus claim Michelle Malkin's been hard at work propagating, namely that there's some sort of regulation on the books preventing the secondary questioning of more than two people of a given ethnic extraction on a given flight. First the whole "Terror in the skies" nonsense is shown to be racist hysteria, and now this too turns out to be a lie; is there anything that issues from this woman's pen that can be believed?

POST-POSTSCRIPT: Winds of Change's Armed Liberal has a post up that ought to prove a revelation. It turns out that there was a threat on the flight Annie Jacobsen was on, only the threat was ... Annie Jacobsen! Here's what one news source has to say:
LOS ANGELES | July 22, 2004 – Undercover federal air marshals on board a June 29 Northwest airlines flight from Detroit to LAX identified themselves after a passenger, "overreacted," to a group of middle-eastern men on board, federal officials and sources have told KFI NEWS.
The passenger, later identified as Annie Jacobsen, was in danger of panicking other passengers and creating a larger problem on the plane, according to a source close to the secretive federal protective service.
The biggest threat to airline security isn't "PC liberals" who are afraid of taking muscular measures against swarthy Middle-Easterners, but panic-mongers like Annie Jacobsen and Michelle Malkin. Perhaps someone ought to remind them of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said after another outrage some 63* 71 years ago - "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

*Corrected on the advice of Ken Hirsch.

POST-POST-POSTSCRIPT: A reader by the name of "BorderAgent" has just alerted Michelle Malkin to the fact that US visa laws don't in fact mean that one is necessarily out of status as soon as one's visa expires. To quote:
[A]s you must surely know, just because a person's visa has expired doesn't mean they are "out of status." A person is deemed to have "overstayed" when they have exceeded the time allowed him or her to stay in the U.S. by DHS/ICE. This time is put on the alien's I-94 card when they enter the U.S. In fact, if the Syrian musicians entered the U.S. on P-1 visas, as I suspect, the visa, i.e., the stamp in their passport issued by the U.S. Consulate, would have expired the instant it was used. Syrian P-1 visas can only be issued for a single entry...And even if they entered with B-2 visas, which can be issued to Syrians with more than one entry, just because the visa itself has expired doesn't mean they've overstayed. To determine whether the Syrians overstayed we'd have to see their I-94 cards.

[............]

Musicians typically have a P-1 visa and without a doubt a Syrian, entering on a P-1 visa would only be allowed a single entry on that visa and the visa would then expire immediately upon entry. The Visa only allows them to enter, while the I-94 allows them to stay here for the duration, whatever that might be, of the I-94.

As Michelle said earlier, in lay parlance, "overstaying a visa" could also mean having an expired I-94. But even then it would not necessarily make them an overstay. You see, you can actually apply for an extension of your I-94 while you are here at an inland office with BCIS. And the funny thing is, when you apply for an extension you are legally allowed to stay, even if you documents expire, until you receive a response, which generally takes longer than 45 days. So basically, you can automatically extend your stay for up to 45 days if you merely receive a peice of paper saying that you are waiting for a response.
In other words, even that claim on her part isn't necessarily (or even likely to be) true - figures, doesn't it? At least she had the decency to publish this information, as unpleasant for her thesis as it may be, I'll give her that much. Not that she refrains from one last weak attempt to put a negative spin on it ...

Seeing Patterns Where None Exist

The whole Annie Jacobsen nonsense is indicative of a phenomenon I've long been fascinated by, namely the tendency of the human mind to grasp for patterns everywhere, even when none exist. Now Boing Boing provides a link to another story that is indicative of this tendency.

Crowds are flocking to a hardware store in Rio Grande Valley, Texas, to see an image of Jesus that has appeared on a tinted window at the business.

The image first appeared on a True Value store window on July 19 and caused employees to wonder where it came from.

Since being discovered, the image has not faded.

People at the store agree that the image resembles the face of Jesus Christ with a crown of thorns.
Maybe there's something wrong with my eyesight, but no matter how hard I try, I can't make myself see the "Christ with a crown of thorns" mentioned in the story, at least not from the accompanying picture (included below).

Christ with Thorns?

It's incredible just how strong the need to see patterns can be: for instance, try listing any old bunch of random numbers in a sequence, and soon enough someone will step up and confidently tell you about their supposedly hidden significance. The Bible Codes rubbish (also see here) preys on just this human failing, as do all conspiracy theories.

POSTSCRIPT: There's actually a technical term to describe the sort of erroneous pattern-recognition I'm talking about - Pareidolia.

Does Superinfection Exist?

Andrew Sullivan provides a link to the abstract of a paper questioning the reality of the phenomenon of superinfection, i.e, the sequential acquisition of multiple strains of HIV. Sullivan is quite naturally pleased by the paper's findings, for reasons I'll let him state in his own words:

If neither man can get reinfected, they can also dispense with condoms
Now, it may well be that superinfection really is a myth, but Sullivan, last I heard, was not a virologist (nor am I, for that matter), and it is hardly for him to make the call as to whether or not the science points in one direction or another. Furthermore, there's a very strong incentive for him to wish to seek out only the evidence to support the viewpoint he'd prefer to be true, so his being able to dig up a single paper that buttresses his convictions isn't reason for anyone else to be convinced that he's given us the final word on the subject. Indeed, running a PubMed query for "HIV" and "superinfection" turns up 200 papers, and all of the recent papers disputing the reality of superinfection happen to have had a certain RM Grant as one of their authors, hardly indicative of an independent replication of results.

It may well be that the case against superinfection will strengthen with the passage of time, but to propagandize against it in lieu of replicated findings disputing it, as Sullivan is currently doing, is extremely dangerous. If he wants to go barebacking with other HIV-positive men, that's his own business, but it is hardly fair to these other men to downplay the possible risks when all the science isn't yet in. It would be one thing if the paper Sullivan links to had been out there for long enough that other researchers would have had the time to scrutinize it closely, but it just isn't so - the publication date was July 11, or only 12 days ago, and every scientific field has its share of researchers who obtain a series of miraculous results that no one else is able to come up with under the same study conditions.

A Cheap Shot

Over at The Corner, Jonah Goldberg links to a Reuters article about free plastic surgery being offered by the US armed forces to enlistees, presumably as a way of indicating government waste. As much as I'd normally be inclined to agree on such matters, this is one occasion on which I have to demur.

As the Reuters article points out, the reason this treatment is being offered is because military surgeons need the practice, and if one knows anything at all about the history of plastic surgery, one would be aware that it was precisely to tend to the reconstruction of body parts shattered in warfare that the field was born in the early decades of the 20th century. As nice as it is to know that the war in Iraq has only claimed 900 American soldiers' lives thus far (despite all the media hysteria that would suggest a far higher death toll), the reality is that for every soldier who dies, there'll probably be 10 or more who are injured in some way, and a large fraction of those will need some sort of reconstructive surgery - and yes, that'll often mean a nose job or something close to a face-lift (burn victims), and nowadays, with women in the armed forces, even breast work. It's simply idiocy to choose a practice like this to use to sneer at the US armed forces as Jonah Goldberg has done.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Interesting Factoid of the Day

A little something to cheer the hearts (and possibly other regions) of Britain's male population - according to one survey, British women are unusually mammarily endowed.

A survey suggests British women have the largest breasts in Europe.
The survey of 5,000 women shows more British women than those in six other countries wear bras of size D and above.
Around 30% of British women between 30 and 39 use D, E and F cup sizes.
The Dutch are second with around 20%.
Denmark, Belgium and France come next. Sweden and Austria have the smallest percentage of women using larger bra cups sizes.
German women weren't part of the survey.
Rob Brand, a spokesman for Triumph bras, says: "We're not sure, but we think hormones in the contraceptives or in the food may cause breasts to become bigger.
"Otherwise it's hard to explain why British and Dutch women have the biggest breasts. They're not the fattest women in Europe."
The study was carried out by GfK Fashion Scope, a market research company from Rotterdam.
Perhaps GMOs are good for something, after all? And to think British women had a reputation for being unattractive! The myth that Sweden is simply saturated with big-breasted blonde bombshells also takes a hit with this announcement.

NB - The critically impaired are advised to take all of this with the odd swimming pool or two full of salt.

9-11 Commission Report

Should have been available from here as of 11:30 Eastern Standard Time, though the only information currently available on there is on how to purchase a hard copy. Ah well, probably best to wait till tomorrow anyway. Hopefully the confusion will be sorted out by then.

UPDATE: The report is actually already available, only at a different link than the one indicated above - look here instead.

Was I Right? Yes I Was!

Time for me to indulge in a little gloating: here's a story that vindicates my longstanding belief that providing search functionality would prove to be a gold mine in the long run, the bursting of the tech bubble notwithstanding.

SEARCH engines like Yahoo and Google have spawned bidding wars among a growing number of marketers who want to place their ads next to search results. That is a beautiful thing for Yahoo and Google, of course, but in the long term, some analysts think it could haunt them.

According to a report to be released today by the Internet research firm Nielsen//NetRatings, the demand for search advertising is growing far more quickly than the supply of available advertising spots. The report's author, Kenneth Cassar, said the implications could be far reaching.

"In the long term, we'll hit a wall where a lot of the search buys that make sense today won't make sense anymore because prices will have risen so high," Mr. Cassar said. "So for the search engines to grow their revenues, they'll have to increase supply."

In search advertising, "supply" is a somewhat slippery concept. Unlike in print or television, search engine advertisers buy spots without knowing how many times their advertisements may be seen. They buy placement and pay according to the number of times the ad is clicked on. (They can, however, set a cap on the amount of money they are willing to spend). The number of spots available near search results depends on how many users visit a particular search site and how frequently they type a query for, say, "airline tickets."

Roughly 85 percent of Internet users rely on search sites to navigate the Web, industry executives said. And although the growth in Internet users in the United States is slowing - 77 percent of Americans are online - the average Internet user is searching more. According to NetRatings, online users conducted 1.2 billion searches in May, a year-over-year increase of 30 percent.

The rapid increase in high-speed Internet connections should continue to bolster that growth. NetRatings reported last week that 48 percent of Americans that are online have broadband connections, making it much more likely that users will rely on the Web for quick searches instead of using yellow pages, dictionaries and encyclopedias.

But Mr. Cassar said that even a 30 percent growth in new searches was not enough to keep pace with the demand for advertisements that appear alongside search results. Over the course of 2002, marketers increased their spending on search advertising by 184 percent, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group.
We've come to a pretty pass when the problem facing search engines is how to increase supply of a good with essentially zero marginal cost! I said that search would be the killer app way back when, and as is now clear, I was right. It's just too bad I didn't have deep enough pockets to stick around to share in the good times that are now here. Nonetheless, the inventory supply problem indicates that there are obviously still major opportunities available for the seizing for those who can identify a gap in the market that needs filling, so who knows ...

Reaching Out Beyond the Base

The New York Times details GOP efforts to reach out to black and Hispanic voters, and I find myself struggling to stifle a yawn. We've heard all this before, and nothing's about to change now; it isn't as if the Republican Party's difficulties with these groups is some sort of mystery that's too deep to fathom. As long as the GOP remains the home of the immigration restrictionists, the Bell Curve aficionados, the "Racial Profiling Now!" brigade, and the "Confederate Pride" contingent, blacks and Hispanics will continue to stay away from the party in overwhelming numbers - it's as simple as that. Far too many prominent Republicans seem to think it a point of honor to go out of their way to emphasize their disdain for the less-than-pale in complexion.

So Much for "Terror in the Skies"

If the National Review is to be believed, it turns out that those Syrian "terrorists" carrying out "dry runs" are actually members of a band called Nour Mehana.

Nour Mehana

There's your swarthy terrorist leader, ladies and gentlemen. This ought to bring shame to the faces of prejudiced paranoids like Michelle Malkin and Annie Jacobsen, but if there's one thing that's for certain in this world, it's that such an emotion is totally foreign to such people; rather than issue mea culpas, they'll just take this latest revelation as evidence of the thorough preparation of the "terrorists", who we're supposed to believe are now going to all the trouble of establishing international reputations for themselves just so they can go hijack American planes some day. Unfalsifiable theses like this one are the mark of a conspiracy theory, not of a well-thought out position worth taking seriously.

Winged Rats

Just goes to show why it's meet and proper to hate pigeons, those vermin of the skies.

AMSTERDAM — A pigeon has damaged a 17th century painting by Dutch artist Thomas de Keyser in the Amsterdam Historical Museum after slipping through the automatic sliding doors to the "shooters" gallery.

The dove pecked a hole a couple of centimetres in size in the canvas "Het Korporaalschap van Kapitein Jacob Symonsz. De Vries en Luitenant Dirck de Graeff" painted in 1633.

Museum staff tried in vain to hunt the pigeon outside when they saw it was flying around the gallery passage, between the Kalverstraat and the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. One worker even spent a night in the museum to keep watch on the bird.

But when colleagues noticed the next morning that a painting had been damaged, it was decided that the pigeon needed to be shot and killed, newspaper De Telegraaf reported.
If only this solution scaled!

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Why Grandmas Need Searching Too

At the risk of flogging this one issue to death, I'd advise any doubters still out there to look closely at the case of Nezar Hindawi and draw the appropriate lessons. Note that all this happened way back in 1986.

Nezar Hindawi was convicted of attempting to place on an El Al aircraft at London (Heathrow) Airport a device likely to destroy or damage the aircraft contrary to Section 1(1) of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981 ... he was sentenced to 45 years' imprisonment on the major charge and 18 months on the minor charges. The judge commented that "this was a well-planned, well-organised crime, which involved many others besides yourself, some of them people in high places. A more cruel and callous deception and a more horrendous massacre it is difficult to imagine"

Experts testified during the trial that had the device, containing 1.5 kg of military explosive, been detonated, it would probably have caused the total loss of the aircraft and the deaths of all 375 passengers and crew.

Hindawi's trial
Nezar Hindawi had been arrested on 18 April 1986 at a hotel in West London. During interrogation, he admitted having handed his pregnant Irish girlfriend a bag containing an explosive device for her to take on a flight to Israel.

[............]

Using his Syrian official passport in the name of Share, Hindawi returned to London on 5 April, and stayed at the Royal Garden Hotel posing as a member of a Syrian Arab Airlines (SAA) crew. He was passed a bag containing Semtex, a powerful military plastic explosive of Czechoslovak manufacture, together with a calculator, by Adnan Habib, whom he believed to be an official of SAA. Hindawi contacted his girlfriend and, although already married to a Pole, proposed marriage and a honeymoon in Israel. She accepted. On 16 April Hindawi took the bag containing explosive, which he had left for 10 days at his father's home, to her flat where he filled it with some of her clothes. The following day he took her by taxi to Heathrow Airport and, during the journey, activated the detonator by putting a battery in the calculator; after explaining that he would follow on a later flight, he left her to board the El Al aircraft.(emphases added)
They don't get much more ruthless than that, do they? It's hard to believe that anyone could do such a thing to a woman carrying his child, and yet it happened. Had El Al been operating the sort of "security by skin color" procedure so many hysterical bigots are currently advocating, this young woman and 374 other souls would currently be no more than ashes and decaying body parts scattered all over Europe or the Mediterranean. By all means let's thoroughly search and question swarthy Arab males, but let's also do the same for trusting grandmas and toddlers, as well as Ann Coulter and Annie Jacobsen lookalikes.

POSTSCRIPT: This TSA article is also worth reading - yes, you guessed right, the wee children must join in the fun too!
Teddy Bear of Death
Suspicious-Looking Swarthy Male?

The Outing of Guido Westerwelle

If the Spiegel is to be believed, the German press seems to be having a field day over the revelation that FDP leader Guido Westerwelle is gay, with the tabloid Bild leading the charge, headlines blaring "Guido Westerwelle Loves this Man". It isn't at all clear to me why this should matter. Wasn't the lesson of the Lewinsky business supposed to be that Europeans were too sophisticated to care about such things?

What's particularly irritating about this is that the FDP is about as close to a classical liberal party as it gets in Europe, far closer to the ideal than anything to be found in Britain and France - this has never been a party to go on and on about "traditional family values", so one doesn't even have the excuse of pointing out hypocrisy to go on here. This exposé is purely about the titillation of nosy people.

At any rate, I wonder what certain sections of the CDU and the CSU have to say about all this, what with the "C" in both parties standing for "Christian" ...

POSTSCRIPT: Just to make it clear for those who don't read German, the Spiegel article indicates that this "outing" was very much a carefully choreographed event initiated by Westerwelle himself. That said, I still stand by eveything I wrote above: if the Germans really were as blasé about such things as they affect to be, the story wouldn't have made any media impression whatsoever.