Saturday, October 20, 2007

I've moved here.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Post-modern Spin

"I'm not going to rule it out.”

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on whether the president had authorized a domestic wireless wiretapping program from the Times.

"The attorney general's comments today should not be interpreted to suggest the existence or nonexistence of a domestic program or whether any such program would be lawful under the existing legal analysis."

Department spokeswoman, Tasia Scolinos the next day.

The Religious Left fights back

"Mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches have been pounded into irrelevancy by the media machine of a false religion; a political philosophy masquerading as gospel; an economic principle wrapped in religious rhetoric and painted red, white and blue."

Rev. Michael Livingston, the new president of the National Council of Churches of Christ U.S.A from the NYTimes

The Barbarity of the West

It has been a while since my last post. I’m busy with a project I’m working on. For more, check out this.

But I’ve been getting back into my news-reading habits recently. And I’ve come across a few nuggets. In an otherwise typical conservative screed against Iran, Victor Davis Hansen makes a case for Western irrationality and barbarism. He explains the probable negative consequences of military action against Iran: “further Shiite madness in Iraq, an Iranian land invasion into Basra, dirty bombs going off in the U.S., smoking tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, Hezbollah on the move in Lebanon.”

But his column still tries to make the case that invading Iran would be both rational (a possible scenario he imagines is that Iran would b humiliated and therefore shunned) and irrational (arising out of a kind of pique). His article seems to be addressed to Ahmandinejad, as he suggests that Bush might invade despite all rational and political hurdles. “Mr. Bush is capable of anger and impatience as well,” Hansen explains. Of course, any president who might decide to go to war out of anger and impatience does not deserve the office, but that is an objection for a different time. Hansen is trying to make a point. He then goes on to take a position that seems to me at the heart of contemporary conservatism intellectualism: an embrace of the most primitive stereotypically male instincts coupled with a sense of the superiority of reason and Western civilization:

It is time for the Iranian leaders to snap out of their pseudo-trances and hocus-pocus, and accept that some Western countries are not merely far more powerful than Iran, but in certain situations and under particular circumstances, can be just as driven by memory, history, and, yes, a certain craziness as well.

Ever since September 11, the subtext of this war could be summed up as something like, “Suburban Jason, with his iPod, godlessness, and earring, loves to live too much to die, while Ali, raised as the 11th son of an impoverished but devout street-sweeper in Damascus, loves death too much to live.” The Iranians, like bin Laden, promulgate this mythical antithesis, which, like all caricatures, has elements of truth in it. But what the Iranians, like the al Qaedists, do not fully fathom, is that Jason, upon concluding that he would lose not only his iPod and earring, but his entire family and suburb as well, is capable of conjuring up things far more frightening than anything in the 8th-century brain of Mr. Ahmadinejad. Unfortunately, the barbarity of the nightmares at Antietam, Verdun, Dresden, and Hiroshima prove that well enough.
So far the Iranian president has posed as someone 90-percent crazy and 10-percent sane, hoping we would fear his overt madness and delicately appeal to his small reservoirs of reason. But he should understand that if his Western enemies appear 90-percent children of the Enlightenment, they are still effused with vestigial traces of the emotional and unpredictable. And military history shows that the irrational 10 percent of the Western mind is a lot scarier than anything Islamic fanaticism has to offer.

So, please, Mr. Ahmadinejad, cool the rhetoric fast — before you needlessly push once reasonable people against the wall, and thus talk your way into a sky full of very angry and righteous jets.

This is certainly the most powerful expression of this particular conservative ideal I have seen—and it is so because it manages to be both moving and true.
Hansen manages to convey the hidden power and barbarity that lies beneath every ipod wearing denizen of this overflowing land. He uses the mythology of “the Good War” with its citizen soldiers called from their jobs as farmers, accountants, teachers, and mill workers to defend freedom, and transports this sense to today’s youth—complete with ipods and earrings. (I generally use mythology in the positive sense that does not relate to a story’s truth value.) He sees these youths are as capable of barbarism, violence, and awfulness as their predecessors, capable of waging war with a ferocity, totality, and ingenuity that is uncommon. (Shouldn’t we call this by its right name, evil? Arguably necessary evil, but evil nonetheless.) It seems to me that conservatives need a far more complex scale to judge morality with—beyond good versus evil.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Quick links

It will be light blogging for the next few days, but a quick round-up of interesting and worthwhile pieces:
Andrew Sullivan, as usual, making sense:
“…when mass-murderers specifically cite Muhammad as the inspiration for their terror, are cartoonists the actual blasphemers for depicting that connection - or the murderers they are criticizing? If Islamists blaspheme their own faith on a daily basis, then the West has every right to illustrate that fact. With no apology needed. What we're seeing here is the emergence of a special dispensation for Islam in the West - to be free from the kind of rough treatment accorded every other faith. The only rational justification for such a double standard is that Islam is somehow more sacred than Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and the like.”
And from across the ocean, an excellent article on the difference between Islamists and Rush Limbaugh fans.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Logic and plain English

Senator Specter to Attorney General Gonzales towards the end of his testimony after an especially dexterous session of doubletalk:
That just defies logic and plain English.
That about sums it up.

Opposing viewpoints

Ted Rall and the editorial board of the Christian Science Monitor pose two directly opposing views of the cartoon jihad.

Rall, though not my favorite writer, here makes the argument for free speech in as extreme a manner as possible. He takes the position any good liberal must:
What if millions of people take offense? What if some of them turn violent, even murderous? So what? No one can make you angry. You decide whether or not to become angry. If journalistic gatekeepers worry about the mere possibility of prompting outrage, they'll validate mob rule and undermine our right to a free press, one that covers the controversial along with the bland.

While deciding what goes into the paper and the evening news, good journalists ought to be guided by only one consideration: Is it news? If the answer is yes, send it out. Even if it's tasteless as all f---.
Ironic, isn’t it, that in an article on censorship, the word “fuck” is censored?

The Christian Science Monitor on the other hand makes this off-base analogy:
His plethora of illustrations was a cultural assault akin to staging a neo-Nazi rally in a Jewish neighborhood. It bordered on yelling "fire" in a crowded theater - not a matter for censorship but judgment.
Did they see the cartoons? (And if it bordered on the fire hypothetical, wouldn’t that mean it almost should be censored, and that something worse, like cannibalistic rabbis, should be prohibited?) Though the article condemns violence it sidesteps every question raised by this ruckus. Shame on them.

Post Opinions

David Ignatius in the Washington Post gets the solution to the FISA debate correct but buys Rove’s spin about the “liberal position”. From Senator Feingold to the diaries over at the Daily Kos, the main liberal position has been to castigate the president for overriding Congress and the courts while acknowledging that stopping terrorism is primary. Ignatius claims that “both the administration and its critics are pursuing absolutist agendas—insisting on the primacy of security or liberty”—creating a false dichotomy. He source for this is apparently that he has been “told” that “liberal interest groups” are pressuring Democratic congressmen not to amend FISA.

Ignatius apparently does not realize that this debate has little to do with liberty versus security. Democrats and Republicans agree that wiretapping terrorist suspects is necessary. Ignatius ignores the Post’s own reporting of Senator DeWine’s attempts pass legislation allowing a broader interpretation of FISA which the White House opposed.

I have the feeling that Ignatius knew all this but felt his column would look better if he was coming down on both sides of the debate, placing himself in the middle as the reasonable observer. He took the extreme views of the left and set it against the White House’s views—that ploy that Rove has pulled off many times. Except this time, the extremists on the left come out about as unreasonable as the White House.

It’s time to be honest, David. Stop pretending to be the mediator between two teams of absolutists and stand up for the Democratic and Republican critics of the Bush administration. If you took the time to listen—perhaps to Senator Feingold’s speech—you might notice that he has almost the exact same position as you. No more mediation. Take a side.

Applebaum slams the right-wing blogosphere

Also on the Post’s opinion page today, Ann Applebaum on the hypocrisy of the right-wing blogosphere in blaming Newsweek for the rioting and violence regarding the Qur’an story and then rallying to support the Danish cartoonists:
“We defend press freedom if it means Danish cartoonists' right to caricature Muhammad; we don't defend press freedom if it means the mainstream media's right to investigate the U.S. government.”

An epidemic of outrage

The whole cartoon jihad insanity seems to me to be a perfect example of a social epidemic reaching a tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell talked about in his 2000 bestseller (that I only got around to last year.)

Based on my GoogleNews searches, no one seems to have brought this up yet, but the point is fairly obvious.

Gladwell postulates that ideas need certain characteristics in order to form the foundation of a social epidemic.  One is stickiness—which essentially means that the idea needs to either reinforce a stereotype or fit in within an already present understanding of the situation.  Another is the “Law of the Few” which explains how small number of people with particular skills (the relevant people in this case would be connectors and salesmen) cause epidemics.  

A small number of outraged Muslims try to get others outraged.  This fits perfectly into already present Muslim anger at the West as well as stereotypes of Westerners disrespecting Islam.  The idea is sticky, so people listen to the Danish Muslims and pass it on to friends and acquaintances.  The likely reason this epidemic took so long to take off would be explained by the fact that the initial Danes were not well-connected in the Arab Muslim community.  The idea was sticky enough that it kept growing though—like a flu virus that has an extremely high rate of transmission, but few symptoms.  Another example of an idea epidemic with few symptoms would be the conspiracy theories about America’s actions in Iraq which are common in the Arab world.  They reinforce stereotypes.  But their potency is diminished by the fact that the only people who feel empowered by them are those unhinged enough to become terrorists.  Distrust of America is a sticky idea, but with few conspicuous symptoms generally.  Suddenly though, in the past few weeks, the outrage over the cartoon snowballs and leads to riots and countless news stories, probably creating a bigger ruckus than such significant events as the US invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan.  

What caused this epidemic to reach its tipping point and not the others?  I would suggest that it was the call for a boycott of Danish goods.  Up until that point, the idea was sticky but useless.  Suddenly, an action was associated with the idea and it became all the more attractive and empowering.  At the same time, a boycott made news headlines all over and fanned the flames more.  The unknown face of this cartoon jihad, the person perhaps most responsible for the current chaos, would be the Egyptian who convinced his fellow businessmen to boycott Danish goods.  

Based on Gladwell’s theory, this new super-virus idea of anger coupled with the empowering action of the boycott led directly to the recent chaos.

The sex lives of squids

Due to “bizarre mating methods” (to use the scientific term), female giant squid become inadvertent cannibals, eating pieces of male squid.  Insert joke here.

A Hell of a Speech

Russ Feingold gives a hell of a speech on the President’s warrantless wiretapping program. Some highlights:
The President suggests that anyone who criticizes his illegal wiretapping program doesn't understand the threat we face. But we do. Every single one of us is committed to stopping the terrorists who threaten us and our families.

Defeating the terrorists should be our top national priority, and we all agree that we need to wiretap them to do it. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to wiretap terrorists. But we have yet to see any reason why we have to trample the laws of the United States to do it. The President's decision that he can break the law says far more about his attitude toward the rule of law than it does about the laws themselves.


The President was right about one thing. In his address, he said "We love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it."

Yes, Mr. President. We do love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it. We will fight to defeat the terrorists who threaten the safety and security of our families and loved ones. And we will fight to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans against intrusive government power.

As the President said, we must always be clear in our principles. So let us be clear: We cherish the great and noble principle of freedom, we will fight to keep it, and we will hold this President - and anyone who violates those freedoms - accountable for their actions. In a nation built on freedom, the President is not a king, and no one is above the law.
I would have stressed a bit more the acceptance of wiretaps and the necessity of fighting terrorism. But an almost pitch perfect message. Read the whole thing.

Gonzales's word dance

Thanks to georgia10 over at dKos for highlighting this nugget in the transcript of Gonzales’ testimony, responding to Joe Biden:
“Well, Senator, obviously if Congress were to take some kind of action, and say the president no longer has the authority to engage in electronic surveillance of the enemy, then I think that would put us into the third part of Justice Jackson's three-part test, and that would present a much harder question as to whether or not the president has the authority.”
As georgia10 points out, didn’t Congress already take such action in 1978 with FISA?

Gonzales is trying to get around this by maintaining that FISA has to do with non-enemies like criminals, the mafia, etc. But this is an entirely extralegal reading that has no basis in current law to my knowledge.

The mythogenesis of Ronald Reagan

William F. Buckley quotes Lance Morrow in his most recent column about Ronald Reagan’s mythogenic status:
“Reagan—completely American, uncomplicated, forward-looking, honest, self-deprecating—became American innocence in a 73-year-old body.”
This strikes me as a good description of Reagan the myth. The description is good because it shows how easily any of these qualities can be looked at in a negative light. “Uncomplicated” is good, but simplistic is bad. Being “completely American” is good, but limiting. Innocence is often dangerous. This Reagan myth is almost cartoonish, but in a mainly positive way.

Whatever else can be said of him, Reagan was a great American.

Disappointed with McCain

I have always thought highly of Senator John McCain, as an independent-minded Democrat. In 2000, I was willing to support (and did support with countless annoying e-mails) McCain and Bill Bradley. I wanted anything but Bush vs. Gore.

(I recently browsed through my high school senior yearbook and noticed a message to me from some girl I barely remember saying that she was glad that we got along even though I was a “conservative Republican” and she was a “socialist feminist”—she based this ideological profile entirely on my McCain endorsement; little did she know that I would go on to star as one of only two men in my college’s production of The Vagina Monologues.)

But McCain’s actions today have led him to diminish in my view. First—I have heard the allegation that McCain promised no Republicans would be indicted in his Abramoff hearings, and this makes me suspect his motives. How can he promise this before the hearings, and still go on with said hearings in good faith?

Second, McCain appeared on the tv show 24, the show which has done so much in recent years to portray torture as a positive thing. This might be unfair—I oppose torture, and I’m a fan of the show. But I would feel conflicted about appearing on the show given

Finally, his spat with Obama has left him looking like a jackass. As best as I can tell from the letters that have been made public, McCain is concerned that the Republican party will be hurt by the scandal and has sponsored a bill that will allow Republicans to save face while making some real changes. Obama is supporting a bill which has no chance of passage, but more clearly responds to the Republicans’ “indiscretions”. Overall, Obama has showed real class, and McCain, has just acted like a jackass.

I still consider myself to be a fan of McCain—and more, a fan of his prospects. I think the ideal candidate in 2008 would be a one-term moderate Republican in order to cool down the country and allow national security and the War on Terror to become bipartisan (rather than wedge) issues. But all this has me doubting his judgment.

Well, on the upside, I will just be less disappointed come 2008 when McCain tries to run for president as a Republican and fails because of the rabid right-wing base.

Cartoon jihad updates

  • Chechnya's acting prime minister announced a ban Monday on all Danish organizations.  Smart, because Chechnya is doing pretty well right now.  This ban includes the Danish Refugee Council, one of the largest aid groups in the region, which feeds 250,000 Chechnyans monthly.

  • Over in the United Kingdom, a student editor of a college newspaper has been suspended and the issue recalled.

  • Meanwhile, the Islamic protests have extended to the internet where over 600 Danish websites have been attacked, as well as sites in Israel and Europe.  Many have been defaced with Arabic graffiti (and an English translation) condemning the cartoons.  One posted an image of the London bombings and threatened an attack “very soon.”

  • On an indirectly related note, over at the Strategy Page, the US Marines apparently now “advertise themselves” as the “Jihadi Travel Agency”, “capable of quickly dispatching holy warriors to paradise.”  As with all jokes about death and the beliefs of others, I am not quite sure whether to judge this funny or quasi-offensive.  In any case, it is an interesting tidbit revealing a bit of the morale of the troops in Iraq.

  • And for all of you trying to catch up, here is the best comprehensive chronology of the whole affair that I have found.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Just saw Mr. & Mrs. Smith last night.  Despite all the semi-negative reviews I read, I thought the film was brilliant.  Perhaps it could have gone for some deeper emotion—but it didn’t.  It was a parody that had more honesty in it than most serious films.   But it was never about emotional resonance, but rather cleverness—clever acting, clever lines, clever situations.  An excellent movie.

Dog Eat Doug by Brian Anderson

A funny new comic strip that is just getting syndicated.  A little cutesy, but always good for a smile or chuckle nevertheless.  And two more links, here, and here.

One Sentence Jihad

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, bureau chief of the German newsweekly, Die Zeit , in the Washington Post with the best one-sentence description of the cartoon controversy:
In this jihad over humor, tolerance is disdained by people who demand it of others.

Monday, February 06, 2006

National security v. the War on Terror

Nothing much new here, but worth skimming: Alberto Gonzales’ Wall Street Journal piece. I plan on bringing this out more later, but demonstrates Gonzales shows the problem with conceiving national security concerns as a War on Terror. Essentially, Gonzales argues that intercepting calls of American citizens is fine because they are not calls, but enemy communications:
In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush charted a course of action to respond to the worst attack on our homeland in history. He promised to use every tool available to defeat al Qaeda and pledged to take the fight to the enemy abroad as he worked to prevent another attack. As he said in the State of the Union address, "Our country must remain on the offensive against terrorism here at home." The president has the constitutional responsibility—and authority—to lead this response…The use of signals intelligence—intercepting enemy communications—is a fundamental incident of waging war.
The key concepts here are: remaining on the offensive and war. I have been loathe to describe the fight against terrorism as something other than a war—at least in part due to Andrew Sullivan’s influence. It is true that our enemies are evil and ruthless, and that their ideology precludes our free existence. But it is precisely this conception of “war” that the Bush administration uses to muddy the waters.

Terrorism and Islamism are threats—but they are not threats that should be met with open warfare. We have not yet invaded Saudi Arabia, and we should not. We do not seek to destroy every Islamist, and we should not. Terrorism is a weapon we must prevent, punish, and make unacceptable. But none of these can be the aims of “war”, which seeks to destroy an enemy. In this war, we have no enemy except terror; it is a war without an end. War begets terror and extremism rather than prevents it. Most of our military efforts today do not involve fighting terrorists but insurgents; the efforts Bush describes as the War on Terror are really a war on the fringes of terror, and though in the long-run it may have beneficial effects for the Iraqi and Afghani people, it will not stop Islamism or terrorism.

Given the Bush administration’s commitment to remaining on the offensive, I am becoming more certain that they feel the need to open a new front in the War on Terror. Bush does not seem to know how to act if he is not on the offensive.

What we need

What we need is not an offensive war on terror whose main goal is the idealistic drainage of the swamps of tyranny (a worthy goal to be sure, but only connected to terrorism at best indirectly). But rather we need a national security strategy that is built primarily on directly preventing, punishing, and combating terrorism; and secondarily on defensive measures in our society—protecting weak points, running counter-terrorism drills, and passing laws that allow our counter-terrorist forces to effectively combat the enemy without making Americans themselves fearful of governmental interference.


So, Santorum is taking a morally hollow but politically expedient path, which is surprising only in that he portrays himself as one of Washington's great moralists.

Let me make a suggestion. The Santorum camp keeps calling for televised debates with Casey. I think it's too early for that.

How about a series of televised events where Santorum debates himself on the two sides he's been taking on issues? Heck, I'd pay to watch that.
Tom Ferrick, Jr. of the Philadelphia Inquirer lambasting Santorum in his home state.

The courge of soldiers and the cowardice of a president

On the day before President Bush's eminently disposable State of the Union speech, I heard a story that I'll never forget. It was told by Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who was addressing a small audience in Washington. A military helicopter pilot from Iowa, serving in Iraq, was killed when he noticed a ground-to-air missile headed his way and, in a split-second reaction, swerved his chopper so that he and his co-pilot would take the hit and his 18 passengers would be spared. Vilsack placed a condolence call to the widow, who stopped him in midsentence. "I think about it this way," the woman said. "Those 18 men needed my husband more in that split second than I'll need him for the rest of my life."

Vilsack, who is probably running for President—and should be—used the story to illustrate the sacrifice and sense of community that is at the heart of a successful democracy. The current Administration, he said, "is ripping away at the fabric of the American community." The story lingered as I listened to Bush once again ask nothing from the American people in his speech and, worse, issue his annual call for lower taxes.


Perhaps Democrats should nickname estate-tax repeal the Paris Hilton Empowerment Project. Whatever you call it, it is an obscenity to ask nothing of heiresses while helicopter pilots are giving everything.
Joe Klein in Time magazine. Read the rest. An unpretentious column that simply exposes the shallow politics of our callow president.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Weekly quotations

I will study and get ready, and perhaps my chance will come.
I have come across that quote several times—first in a biography on Lincoln, and more recently in Bill Clinton’s autobiography. This coupled with Robert E. Lee’s imagined words as spoken by Martin Sheen in the early nineties version of Gettysburg:
The issue is in God’s hands. We can only do our duty.
form an almost complete picture of my current state of mind. I have worked hard—preparing, reflecting, planning, strategizing, e-mailing, calling, writing, reading—and now, I am hoping to reap some benefits.

Perhaps one more short quote is needed to fully capture my feelings, a short prayer of fishermen from a small island in Nova Scotia:
Dear God, be good to me;
the sea is so wide
and my boat is so small.
I feel I must accomplish something soon, if only through sheer will—and I desperately need a more normal job on top of it all. I have come about as far with preparation as I can alone, and now I need to begin doing. Here’s to hoping, and praying.

At least, let us hope and pray that Christopher Hitchens doesn’t crack and come after me with some sort of combination of tantrums and random violence.

Kubrick's The Killing

Just saw an excellent film post-Super Bowl: Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. According to IMDB, the film is cited as a huge influence on such modern day classics as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction—and I could see it perfectly. Tarantino barely improved upon or added Kubrick’s formula—or at least, all he managed to add was flashes and bangs rather than anything more of substance.

Kola Kwariani, a professional wrestler who appeared only in this film, stole every scene he was in with these philosophical musings and a quirky delivery as he played a down on his luck wrestler whose favorite haunt was a chess club.

My favorite sequence (aside from the inevitable way in which such a perfect plan becomes spoiled—think of the original Ocean’s Eleven) is this little bit of dialogue between Kola and a minor character:
Kola: I'd like you to call this number and ask for Mr. Stillman. Tell him that Maurice requires his services.

Acquaintance: Sounds pretty mysterious. What's it all about?

Kola: There are some things, my dear Fisher, which bear not much looking into. You have undoubtedly heard of the Siberian god Heather who tried to discover the true nature of the sun; he stared up at the heavenly body until it made him blind. There are many things of this sort, including love, and death, and...maybe we'll discuss this later today. Please remember to make that call if I'm not back at 6:30.

The best writer I despise

Christopher Hitchens is the best writer that I despise. He is able to make a lucid argument while exposing his own inner bigotry. He is pompous, asinine, despicable, in general, a prick, and also, brilliant. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that he must be a very unhappy person—because his prose always sounds bitter. But I wander off topic.

As is typical, Hitchens wrote a relevant and interesting piece on the “cartoon jihad”.

He captures almost perfectly the Islamist attitude towards Western values:
But if [a Muslim] claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.
And he very clearly explains another element of the idiocy of the State Department’s response (as well as Clinton and many other observers):
[A]nother reason for condemning the idiots at Foggy Bottom is their assumption, dangerous in many ways, that the first lynch mob on the scene is actually the genuine voice of the people. There’s an insult to Islam, if you like.
But of course, no piece is complete without some pompous posturing whereby Hitchens demonstrates how much he hates all those fetishistic religions, and suggests a kind of equivalence between “suicide-murders” and the pope:
It is revolting to me to breathe the same air as wafts from the exhalations of the madrasahs, or the reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers, or the sermons of Billy Graham and Joseph Ratzinger.
I wish I understood where this hatred of religion comes from. It seems so quirky, so pronounced, so irrational, so visceral. But I cannot understand Hitchens’ revulsion at sharing human nature with religious people anymore than I can understand how Islamist terrorists dehumanize their victims. At least I can give credit to Hitchens for not “wreaking random violence on the nearest church” or erupting into “babyish rumor-fueled tantrums”; instead, he writes persnickety columns. And good for him.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A useful and joyous polemic

On a more positive note, Der Speigel has an article by a dissident Muslim living in America defending the freedom of expression. Some highlights:
A democracy cannot survive long without freedom of expression, the freedom to argue, to dissent, even to insult and offend. It is a freedom sorely lacking in the Islamic world, and without it Islam will remain unassailed in its dogmatic, fanatical, medieval fortress; ossified, totalitarian and intolerant. Without this fundamental freedom, Islam will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality; originality and truth.

Unless, we show some solidarity, unashamed, noisy, public solidarity with the Danish cartoonists, then the forces that are trying to impose on the Free West a totalitarian ideology will have won; the Islamization of Europe will have begun in earnest. Do not apologize.


Why do they all want to immigrate to the west and not Saudi Arabia? They should be taught about the centuries of struggle that resulted in the freedoms that they and everyone else for that matter, cherish, enjoy, and avail themselves of; of the individuals and groups who fought for these freedoms and who are despised and forgotten today; the freedoms that the much of the rest of world envies, admires and tries to emulate." When the Chinese students cried and died for democracy in Tiananmen Square (in 1989), they brought with them not representations of Confucius or Buddha but a model of the Statue of Liberty."

Freedom of expression is our western heritage and we must defend it or it will die from totalitarian attacks. It is also much needed in the Islamic world. By defending our values, we are teaching the Islamic world a valuable lesson, we are helping them by submitting their cherished traditions to Enlightenment values.
I have a few quibbles with Ibn Warraq’s approach. He seems to let off the West too easily by comparing the West’s record with that of Islamic empires in the past and with Muslim societies today rather than comparing the West’s record to the West’s ideals. Both approaches are needed for balance. But Ibn Warraq here is not striving for balance, but rather he writes a useful and joyous polemic, a reminder of what the West stands for at its best.

Side note: Ibn Warraq is not the author’s actual name, but a traditional pen name used by dissidents that the author has used in writing several books previously.

Selections from Arab news

Well, if you’re sick what better thing do I have to do than post a few more times on a Saturday night. It’s better than trying to sleep.

One thing I always try to do is to read and understand the perspectives of those who disagree with me—that’s why the National Review is one of my most read sources. It is also the reason I read the Arabic dailies Dar al-Hayat and Al Jazeera. As I have no understanding of Arabic, I am forced to read the English versions. Based on this, Al Jazeera is the more moderate—though my guess is that the site is merely more professional and caters more to an English reading audience. A number of the pieces are written explicitly for non-Arabs, and it is remarkable at how similar the site’s headlines are to CNN’s. Dar al-Hayat on the other hand, is a site in which every piece feels translated. It makes for a more unpleasant reading experience. (“The Israeli and US campaign waged on Hamas, along with its European upshots, abounds with hypocrisy,” begins an opinion piece.) But I believe it gives a more honest view of Arab views.

side note: I am thinking of making this the first in a weekly series of pieces that go over opinion pieces in Arab newspapers. I am still experimenting here with what is the best method, and what is the end purpose of going over this. It is often frustrating, but I think when done properly, it is worth it. I will try to explain and make sense of these pieces without indignation (all my energy would end up being wasted in indignation otherwise), but with a critical eye aimed towards understanding these works in context. I do not assume that any author represents all Muslims or Arabs, but merely that their views represent some portion of them--that their views are common and strong enough that a newspaper editor saw fit to publish them.

The racist agenda of Europe

Recently, I have come across a few articles that struck me as especially revealing in one way or another. The first is from Al Jazeera and is by a researcher for the University of London. She makes a number of very strong statements and a number of compelling points about Western hypocrisy, but overall her argument is held together by a strong feeling rather than a coherent point. The article is titled: “Europe should accept its Muslims.” The main point of the piece is to equate the right-wing politics of Europe and America with the West as a whole while accusing Westerners of hypocrisy and blaming Europeans for not integrating Muslims into their society. She is especially incensed at the West’s reaction to 9/11:
Instead of driving European governments to forge more open relations with their socially deprived and institutionally marginalised religious and ethnic minorities and to review their policies of illegitimate military expansionism, September 11 has turned into a pretext for clinging to a right wing aggressive agenda at home and an arrogant foreign interventionism.
She blames Europe for not integrating Muslims economically into their society, suggesting that Muslims would “acquire the necessary linguistic tools” and have a “greater openness” if more native Europeans reached out to them; but unfortunately, Europeans are too caught up in racism, ignorance, prejudice, and stereotypes to do this. She believes the current struggles over multiculturalism and what she calls “essentialism” embody this antagonism towards Islam. She is furious at those who try to state that Europe’s society is based on certain values, claiming that any attempt to do so reeks of a revival of the “white man’s burden.” She portrays the Muslims of Europe as people who just want to integrate, but are faced with prejudice and hate:
Europe’s minorities are in other words the cause of all its social, political and economic deficiencies. The remedy lies in suffocating them through stringent legislations and ruthless practices, from stop- and- search and surveillance, to control orders and shoot- and- kill police tactics.

They and their faith have been reduced to a security problem to be dealt with exclusively by the intelligence services. However much Europe’s Muslims attempt to prove their allegiance to the nation-state, they remain in the eyes of its strategists a fifth column and a threat to homeland security.
Her penultimate statement is a puzzling one, and I am not sure if I understand what it might mean—though I can sense the strong sense of indignation behind it, I cannot fathom what she is trying to say.
Some liberals are particularly fond of the following question: How, they ask, is it possible to be tolerant with the intolerant? But with the recent assaults on civil liberties and the drive to police the public sphere and encroach into the private realm of the citizen in Europe and the US, this inherently flawed question has been reversed.
How does one reverse the question: "Is it possible to be tolerant with the intolerant?" The only possibility I find for the reverse is: "Is is possible to be intolerant with the tolerant?" In which case the answer is a resounding, "Yes", but I find no greater point made.

Reading this, I do begin to wonder if she might be right—that the biggest problem in Europe is not that Muslims are intolerant, but that Europeans are. But how then does one explain the vehement response to all the cartoons? How does one explain the deaths of Pim Fortyun and Theo van Gogh? The terrorist incidents in Madrid and London? The chaos in France? She cannot ignore all this in making her case and expect to be taken seriously.

Whatever the case, I would bet that Soumaya Ghannoushi’s feelings are representative of many Muslims—somewhat confused, indignant, angry, perceiving hypocrisy in the squishy concepts of multiculturalism, tolerance and freedom. What some in the West seem to have forgotten is that these are only public values within a broader framework of other values. There are many who speak as if these values were good unto themselves, but how easily can tolerance of difference turn into tolerance of evil, and how quickly can freedom balanced with responsibility turn into mere anarchy. Multiculturalism values other cultures, but if we are to have any values at all, we cannot treat all cultures as equals.

Poor Palestine

Next are two pieces from Dar al-Hayat. The first piece again accuses the West of hypocrisy for its dealings with the Palestinians. Abdallah Iskandar explains:
This hypocrisy was manifested in two main issues. The first pertains to twisting the meaning of territory in exchange for peace, so that Israel can enjoy peace while the Palestinians are left with nothing. The second is related to the free choice and democracy entitled to the Palestinians in conformity with the meaning of this twisted peace.
The author believes that Hamas is a reasonable and pragmatic organization and “part of the peace process”. The only people who are unreasonable are the Israelis and the West for trying to force the Palestinians to leave Israel in peace while Israel has a “policy of invasion and killing.” Iskandar makes a more interesting (that is, unusual) point towards the end of his piece: that if the West stops funding Hamas, then it may become more radical:
It is obvious that the best way to fend off "Hamas" from the promised pragmatism is to let it handle single-handedly its affairs during the expected crisis, and leave it under the mercy of the new financing sources and their policies, which are not necessarily pragmatic.
Of course, it is difficult to see how Hamas could become more radical, but I am sure it is possible. The author in making his point though starts from an assumption that I would wager most Arabs agree with: Israel is, and always has been the aggressor in this conflict, and the Palestinians are only victims. With that assumption unassaibly in place, the rest of the piece makes more sense.

Conspiracy Theories

The second piece by Abdel Wahab Badrakhan verges into the territory of conspiracy theory. The piece is interesting to me less for its argument (if there is a thread connecting these disconnected thoughts) than for its possible insight into how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is viewed. The common theme in every one of these works has been the accusation of the hypocrisy of the West, and it is repeated several times in this piece as well. Here is a selection of interesting passages:
It is weird that elections marked by violations and forgery, are considered with understanding and disregard, while elections, deemed to be free and acceptable by everybody, are met with threats.
Europe seems to be more concern and remote from the humane "principles" attributed to it. If not, what does this insistence on cutting off aid means? According to many observers, it is part of premeditated agendas to carry out a starvation plan. They wanted to announce to the Palestinian people that it will pay the price for voting for "Hamas" by inflicting to them starvation, upsetting their living, and restricting the fare, education, and future of their children. In other words, the West is not only striving to be on a par with the Israeli war criminals but to outperform them.
It is irrefutable that the Western, European and American, stances are free to call on "Hamas" to "recognize Israel" but they never called on Israel, openly, to recognize the Palestinian people and their rights.
Notice—by cutting off international aid, the Europeans are trying to outperform the “Israeli war criminals”. The author also denies that Hamas wants to destroy Israel and suggests that this is merely an Israeli ploy to discredit them. The most interesting part of the piece is the ending where Badrakhan suggests that as the West rejects as a partner each extremist group, a more extremist one comes into its place:
Of course, they will reject "Jihad" tomorrow, just as they rejected "Fateh" and "Hamas," to probably open the way for "al-Qaeda". The latter cares less to be accepted or rejected, its only concern is to resume war, just Israel and the US wish to do.
Somehow, within all this web of conspiracy, there seems to lie a desire for peace, or at least an acknowledgement that peace is better than war. But it is well-hidden, and covered by anger, resentment, and fatalism.

Reading these is a bit like looking at an alternate universe; it is confusing to see so many things that seem familiar turned upside down. I hope to find some more coherent pieces in the future, but as with most newspapers, the opinions end up being fluff rather than substantial. Most non-columnists who write op-ed pieces—both in Arab publications and Western ones—seem to hold their pieces together with emotion rather than reason. This makes true analysis difficult, but I think such pieces provide a more true insight into the minds of the author. I feel I barely scratched the surface with these musings, but I will do better next time.

Liberals and the "cartoon jihad"

Georgia10 over at the Daily Kos has an oddly neutral post about the “cartoon jihad” as Der Spiegel is calling the whole conflagration. Though titled, “The Art of Free Speech”, she only lukewarmly takes the side of the liberal artists against the violent fundamentalists. She seems to equate this scandal to NBC’s canceling of “The Book of Daniel” and other religious protests in America. She neglects to point out that in America, the scandal was not about whether any particular people have a right to publish such things (as is the case of the cartoon jihad), but rather whether or not the government should fund anti-religious art (in the case of the Virgin Mary covered in dung) or whether or not a commercial television station could air a show that many of its viewers found objectionable (in the case of “The Book of Daniel” and “Nothing Sacred”). No one has challenged the right of NBC to produce these shows. (Though I do believe the latter example is disturbing for numerous reasons.)

Georgia10 concludes her piece:
“Should the restrictions or sensitivities of a specific faith--whether it be Christianity or Islam or whatever—act as a muzzle on freedom on expression? Even if the artist is not a believer of that faith? What level of deference—if any—should artists accord to religious considerations? The recent controversy is just another chapter in this debate, a debate all nations have engaged in—and a debate without a clear answer.”

What liberalism?

This is, I believe, an astounding conclusion to come to for a liberal. How can a liberal so easily abandon free speech?! What does liberalism stand for if Georgia10—as a prominent liberal on a prominently liberal site—cannot say: We believe in free speech. I would bet that she opposed the attempts of Christians in the case of “The Book of Daniel” and to withdraw all public funding from the dung Virgin. The Daily Kos is a sanctuary for the most vile anti-religious bigotry, virtually all of it anti-Christian and anti-Catholic. There are many users who are not bigots in this way, a large majority are not—but those who are bigots are given a wide latitude in expressing their contempt for God, Jesus, religion, Christianity, evangelicals, etc.

To me, this awkward stance by a quality commentator such as Georgia10 indicates the extent to which liberalism has lost its way. Tolerance has come to mean a hatred of the opinions of majority; multiculturalism, an embrace and defense of the bigotry of other cultures; liberalism to mean a hatred of one’s self. (I simplify in my annoyance.)

Liberalism is not yet the caricature that Ann Coulter and other morons of the right portray it as—an ideology that favors anarchy, totalitarianism, and anything that opposes tradition and America. But I am distraught (can you tell?) when I see such hand-wringing over whether or not to oppose a religious group that threatens violence when a person exercises their right to free speech in a free society. We live in a free society—that means any cartoonist can lampoon whomever they wish; and any religious figure may condemn the cartoonist. These Muslims who are so angry over these caricatures do not share the values of the West—the values of a free society. The question is not—as Georgia10 put it, whether restrictions should be placed on artists because of religious sensitivities. The answer to that for any conservative, or especially any liberal, is clear: No. Christopher Hitchens has as much right to mock the Pope and Mother Teresa as some jerk-off in New York has to mold the Virgin Mary out of shit; and cartoonists in Denmark have just as much right to draw Muhammad with a bomb as his turban; and Muslims in Denmark have a right to protest and be angry and demand apologies. But all of this only makes sense if the Muslims living in this free society share the value that our society places on free public discourse. And from the actions and words of many of these Muslims, they do not--threatening violence, demanding the government apologize, trying to prohibit similarly blasphemous art.

The question that Georgia10 should be asking is not the one she poses, but rather, whether and how a free society can allow a minority to exist in its midst that shares so few of its public values. How can a free society value free speech if a group denies the right of any speech that offends them? How can a free society value tolerance if a group denies its obligation to tolerate anything that offends them? These are the questions liberals should be struggling with—not half-baked questions about what free speech is, and how much of it we should give up.

Why I am scared of right-wing politics

Here’s Glenn Reynolds excerpting an interesting and rational point by Lee Harris, and taking the precise opposite lesson from it that any reasonable person would. After an analysis of why a madman swinging a gun around his head is scarier than a policeman, he suggests that:
“the United States probably needs to be scarier and less predictable itself.”
Then of course, Reynolds links to some kook who uses the phrase “warmongering pacifists”—in quasi-jest it seems, but such an Orwellian turn of phrase can do no good.

I was always shocked when my friends from grammar school would casually suggest that we nuke China and get it over with. The suggestion was generally made in half-jest, but it underscores an indifference to the lives of others that is disturbing, and most of all, an indifference to the delicate nature of international relations. But what can you expect from children?

The sentiment reminds me of a quotation from a favorite author of mine about a person who, if you overloaded him with information, “would just kill you to make things simpler.” I think that a portion of the base of the Republican party is merely a grown-up version of these kids who casually suggest nuclear war. As kids, they do not really know what this entails; they do not try to appreciate the waste and evil; it’s all really too silly to dispute—they know nothing about these people halfway around the world, except that they are making trouble for America and we are capable of destroying them. As adults though, the attitude is manifest in a seemingly more benign attitude: the assumption that America has a right to act in whatever way it sees fit while the rest of the world must watch helplessly. The same principle is at stake, and the same disdain for the respect of the people of the world. Reynolds, in his more childish moments, shows this immature disdain, as so many of the UN bashers (but not all—there are real problems there). This visceral sense of American entitlement and just-ness in doing whatever it pleases is precisely what the neo-conservatives appeal to in their domestic strategy to buttress foreign policy; and it is also precisely what has led to the worldwide drop in how well people view America.