Zompist's Rant Page : 2003

OK, this year the format will be completely different.

Oh, just kidding.

Rants for 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007

9 Dec 2003: More to worry about: Islamo-fascism
I've just finished Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism. He's against the former and for the latter. His basic aim is to question the new conventional wisdom that we face a "clash of civilizations", a milennial battle against Islam. His claim is that Islamic fundamentalism-- and Baathi secularism-- are simply forms of fascism. He makes a good case; as he points out, communism took pains to have the same symbols and doctrines all over, but fascism, always allied with extreme nationalism, took equal care to seem local and traditional. So Mussolini tried to recreate the Roman Empire, Franco was more Catholic than los Reyes Católicos, Hitler glorified a mythical pagan Teutonic past. Islamist evocations of the vanished early Caliphate are not much different.

In Berman's view, terrorism and totalitarianism both derive from the West-- indeed, from a peculiarly Western rejection of its own liberal impulses, in favor of a cult of suicide and death. Utopia is hard, let's go chopping. He analyzes in detail the views of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian ideologue who has inspired most of the Islamist movements, including bin Laden's, and finds plenty of room for Western influence. (Qutb had a master's from the University of Northern Colorado.)

He reviews the history of Islamist movements-- responsible for murderous events and hundreds of thousands of deaths in Egypt, in Sudan, in Algeria, in Palestine, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Iran, in Indonesia-- as well as the Iraqi Baathists-- and asks why many in the West, instead of resisting this resurgent fascism, make excuses for it or celebrate it. He makes an analogy to Paul Faure's wing of the Socialists in pre-WWII France, who went out of their way to understand possible German grievances, and ended up allies of Hitler in the Vichy regime. Basically it's a form of denial: civil, liberal people often just can't believe that truly murderous mass movements could exist. Or if they do, then their opponents must be truly monstrous-- a trope which Berman uses to explain many intellectuals' disturbing portraits of Israel, as well as Noam Chomsky's amazing dismissal of 9/11.

You might wonder if Berman is a neocon; he's not-- he thinks the neocons are scary, and failed utterly with their geopolitical management of the first Gulf War. Since it wasn't a war for liberal democracy, it arguably strengthened both Baathism and Islamism. Far from establishing American "credibility", the war convinced many that America could be resisted (Hussein was still there, after all), and far from being grateful, the Saudis were exporting Islamism and funding Palestinian terror bombers.

The fact that the question comes up, however, is a warning sign. If progressives have no good answer to Islamism and other antiliberal movements, or if they convince themselves somehow that they are allies, they cede the floor to Bush and the neocons.

18 Nov 2003: Insurgency infestations
Fred Kaplan in Slate wonders about the Iraqi insurgents, and whether they'll back down in the town of Ramadi if the US passes the responsibility for security there to Iraqi security forces.

This seems like a naive question, and I don't think the answer is difficult: no. The logic of the question is that the resisters are primarily interested in attacking the US. And we already know that they aren't: they've mounted high-profile attacks on the UN, the Italians, Iraqi police trained by the US, and Iraqi Shi'ite clerics, among others. Surely the new Iraqi security forces will be viewed as "collaborators" and targeted.

The same question arises about moving up the reestablishment of Iraqi sovereignty. Unfortunately, the insurgents are not likely to be people who are just blowing up things in hopes of getting a moderate, popularly elected government.

Still, that step seems like the right thing to do. It only has a chance of working, however, if the new government isn't perceived as an American colony or an American protectorate. If the neocons were smart-- instead of merely thinking they are-- they'd orchestrate a public quarrel and a private understanding between the US and the new government, and make sure the French and Russians got some juicy contracts.

10 Nov 2003: Strike three
Christopher Hitchens, who's already proved stupid, is at it again, concerning a story in the New York Times about a supposed last-ditch Iraqi attempt to stave off invasion.

A few things to note:

Why might the CIA have been skeptical? I can think of several reasons: the contact (a single Lebanese businessman) might not be trusted; even if he is, the Iraqis he represented might not have the authority to make the commitments they promised; even if they did, it might be judged as a stalling tactic; it's difficult to stop a war once mobilization has begun; and despite the apparent breadth of the concessions, they stopped far short of "regime change".

Diplomacy (including its bastard offspring, war) is not easy; there is always too much information, much of it conflicting. The temptation is always to filter it through an ideology, just to make it digestible; but the facts ignored that way always come back to bite you.

27 Oct 2003: Can bullies be outlawed?
Ann Hulbert has an article in Slate purporting to be a critique of the antibullying movement. The article is so consistently snarky that my first thought was that Hulbert was either a bully herself in school, or was fortunate enough to escape being bullied.

The article is surprisingly sloppy as either journalism or criticism: it gives no clear idea of what the antibullying program is and whether it works; and about the only criticism she can muster is that it "encourages a hypervigilant wariness". Oh sure, there's no need for more than moderately vigilant wariness.

It reminds me of C.S. Lewis's autobiography (Surprised by Joy), in which he describes the extremely nasty English public schools he attended-- he considers them much more unpleasant than his time in the trenches in WWI-- and yet almost has to apologize for not liking them. A certain kind of adult (obviously common in Lewis's time) thinks that bullying builds character, or that opposing it means you're some sort of a wimp.

I escaped most bullying myself, although I was geeky enough to invite it; I've always figured that it's because I was tall even as a teenager. The bullies in my school preferred to beat up a smaller guy. I don't find anything character-building on either end of that, though I wonder how a school actually prevents it. The oldest trick in the bullies' book is to wait till the adults aren't around.

22 Oct 2003: You may not want to hear this, but...
I've talked about the importance of opposition and the adversarial process before, but I'd like to state it more strongly: Everyone needs opponents. All the more so if you're in a position of power: you need to listen to opposing views.

An article in this week's New Yorker, by Seymour Hersh, makes this painfully clear, The Bush administration made it a practice to bypass senior intelligence analysts. It didn't like what the senior analysts were saying, so it routinely hassled them over any reports that Iraq was not dangerous, while credulously scooping up raw reports from the field that said it was. The fake Niger connection is only the most glaring instance of this.

This makes it sound like a turf battle, and to an extent it is. But it's more than that: it's that the Bush administration has set itself up to receive no news that upsets its assumptions. The simplistic accusation is that Bush lied to the nation. That's not really the case; Bush wasn't simply knowingly telling untruths. He simply thought he knew the facts better than the experts, and made sure that no actual truths could ever penetrate into his office.

Though there's a moral difference there, the end result is the same: the administration is basing its policy on untruths, has purposely made it impossible to correct the untruths, and American soldiers are going to die because of this.

A couple hundred years ago, people realized that absolutism is a pretty stupid way to run a country. (If you want another example, despite there being many warning signs, Stalin refused to believe that Hitler was going to double-cross him and invade Russia. Who the hell was going to beat the truth into Stalin?)

Unfortunately, we haven't learned the full lesson yet. It's great that a determined majority can kick Bush out (and please, voters, do just that). But the idea of democracy isn't simply have absolutists who are elected. It's that policy in general is better in an adversarial environment. There's nothing better than opposition for squashing stupid ideas and speaking unpleasant truths.

Someone, possibly James McCawley, has pointed out that an academic really needs a good enemy. Friends and allies can help, but only an enemy will sit down for a month and subject every line of your article to impassioned scrutiny. An honest academic can learn a lot from this. An honest politician, too.

8 Oct 2003: Geek report
I've gotten two new computers this year, which is about as much fun as a computer geek can have.

One is at work, and there's not much to say except that it's lightning-fast. I do a lot of computation-intensive tasks, so this saves me a lot of waiting around.

More fun is the new Mac, which has done a good deal to heal my previous bad feelings about Macs. It actually doesn't crash, which is a big, big change.

I thought I wouldn't care for OSX, but I like it. I don't know if it really multitasks, but it sure feels like it (OS9 felt like it was faking). It's interesting to have Unix underneath-- though I'm annoyed that the Mac's Unix can't understand Mac text files, so a standard console app has to be rewritten to handle them. It runs OS9 programs better than OS9... except, dammit, for my Sam & Max game.

Best of all, though, is the humongous 20" display. I can finally see an entire page of text at once-- two facing pages at once, in fact. Movies look really good on it, too (playback sucked on the iMac). Heck, it'd be perfect if it was, well, a little taller.

I have Photoshop Elements now-- it came for free with the new Wacom tablet-- and that is way too much fun. It's also why the graphics on this site are slowly improving.

The dock is incredibly stupid. It's the one area where the Mac designers surrendered to the Windows model of flashy screen-eating uselessness. I'm really glad that I don't have to run Windows XP at work... the candy colors and handholding would drive me crazy. (And having to beg the system to show me my own damn files; and the spam pop-ups.)

26 Sep 2003: Mordor, Inc.
As you all know, the music industry is evil. To be specific, it's evil in precisely those aspects where it differs from the publishing industry. Such as:

The music industry isn't so much evil as stupid for not being able to change with the times. Its business model is based on hyping and distributing relatively expensive blobs of matter. The web, however, can hype and distribute very cheap streams of bits pretty much by itself. There's very little room for distributors to make a lot of money-- certainly not in the volumes they got accustomed to. They're like department stores: once a big part of the economy, but now a very inefficient way of getting goods to people.
Edit: To be precise, what music industries copyright is the performance, not the composition. This introduces a complication not really present in book publishing; but I think the point remains. Why is the distributor copyrighting anything, much less charging the artist to produce it?

6 Sep 2003: Opposition
Americans seem to have a weak grasp on the concept of an opposition party. They are continually surprised that the opposition actually opposes things.

I usually notice this in the Republicans-- e.g. whining that Democrats filibustered to stop the Estrada nomination, or that Al Gore exercised his right to a recount under Florida law. Sorry, dudes, but that's how the rules work. The Constitution gives the Senate consultation over judicial nominees; nowhere does it suggest that this is a rubber stamp. The Democrats are doing the job they were elected to do: use the legal means available to keep the country from being entirely destroyed by the libertarians and theocrats.

It is a bipartisan thing, though, as we see in California. It may not be cricket to try to recall a governor after little more than a year-- but it is California electoral law. If this convinces people that the law is stupid, then let them change it.

We all instinctively know how to oppose, but somehow we don't like other people to oppose us. Perhaps it's a carryover from high school pep rallies, or the drive in business to fall into line behind the CEO's latest brain movement?

15 Jul 2003: Iraq and Thatcher
One of the more interesting perspectives I've seen on the war lately, from Roz Kaveney. By analogy, one of the things to fear about the war is that it could let Bush & Co. do anything they wanted to for the next six years.

A few counter-thoughts occur, though.

1. They would have done that anyway.

2. Short wars have no real mileage in American politics. Look at Bush's father.

3. Winning the Falklands war might have been bad for Britain, but it was good for Argentina and all of Latin America-- since it finally discredited the generals and led to general democratization.

Things are always complicated. Kaveney's journal is good to read, by the way. It seems rare these days to find a commentator who understands that reasonable people may disagree.

14 Jul 2003: White House waffling
Bush's reaction to the "media frenzy" should be an embarrassment to anyone who worries about, say, the President's character. Instead of taking responsibility or admitting mistakes, he's minimizing the problem, blaming the CIA, blaming the media, blaming the opposition... in short, he's being Bill Clinton. I warned you about this three years ago.

The White House has tried to spin this as a minor problem with "sixteen words" which are the CIA director's fault anyway. There are all sorts of problems with this.

One: it was not the CIA director's speech. It was the constitutionally mandated annual report of the President, one George W. Bush, to Congress. Bush has a responsibility to get his facts right, and if he got something wrong, to admit it.

Two: it's not a matter of George Tenet's poor editing. Why did the claim get into the speech in the first place? It's just not going to fly that preparing the State of the Union address was the first Bush had heard of this claim. He had better have thoroughly discussed this and everything else in the speech-- and not just with George Tenet. We're talking about the basis for sending U.S. troops into the line of fire. This is something you have to get right.

Three: it's true that it's only one of the reasons Bush gave for going to war... but all of the main reasons he gave are now in question. Read them; Bush claimed that Iraq had not accounted for 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons of nerve gas, 30,000 chemical warfare-capable munitions, mobile biological weapons labs, and an advanced nuclear weapons program. Where are all of these things?

One possible answer is that, although we now control the country, have access to thousands of ex-officials, and can go anywhere we want to, and have had three months to search, we've just missed all this stuff so far. According to Bush, "there's no doubt in my mind, when it's all said and done, the facts will show the world the truth." That's not good enough. You should not declare war because you think the facts might eventually turn up to support your case.

It's a valid question, by the way, what happened to Hussein's biochemical weapons, as amply documented by UN inspectors a decade ago, and if they were destroyed, why he refused to prove it. But Bush isn't taking this tack; he's just carrying on with the same claims. "[Hussein] was still reconstituting his nuclear program", explains his spokesman. Now more than ever, we'd like to know what that statement is based on.

9 Jul 2003: How that Iraq thing went
There's a lot of noise right about the Niger connection-- one of the supposed bases for Hussein's nuclear program, now known to be a forgery. As usual, people are overfocussing. The only importance of the forged document is that it's easy to prove. The real problem (which the intelligence community has been buzzing about for weeks) is that Bush sold the war and sent American troops into danger based on intelligence which was either wrong or purposely manipulated. As I noted before, most of the justifications for the war in Bush's State of the Union address were because of weapons of mass destruction. And none have been found.

This doesn't eliminate the case for war... but it nearly eliminates Bush's case for war. Bush was never able to clearly explain why he wanted to toss out a half-century of international law and return to gunboat diplomacy. There was at least a hope, however, that the intelligence community had better evidence than we were hearing. After all, previous inspections had found evidence of WMD, and we knew that Hussein was playing games.

There's still an untold story here: what did Hussein do with his weapons, and if he really destroyed them, why continue to play games?

On the other hand, the peaceniks aren't off the hook either. The war itself was so short and intensely directed that it has changed the morality of war. The wars of the 20th century were brutal slogs which, most of the time, no one "won". World War I and the Vietnam War were enough to give many people a visceral horror of war: war is Always Bad. This was tempered somewhat by World War II, which for Americans remains a justified war; but its example was misused so often by the US that many people concluded that the US government is Always Bad.

Sure, war is hell. But fascist dictatorship is also hell. An antiwar site, iraqbodycount.net, currently estimates the civilian deaths from the war at 7706.

Now, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 290,000 Iraqis disappeared under Hussein. That's 14,500 a year. And that doesn't include soldiers killed in the wars Hussein instigated.

In other words, leaving a dictatorship in place can lead to more deaths than war.

I expect this statement to infuriate many antiwar activists. Frankly, however, a lot of this will be because they're stuck in the old paradigm, formed during the useless Vietnam War. People are usually prisoners of their epoch, and can't easily adapt to new circumstances. If you've defined yourself as an antiwar activist, it's not easy to see that there are worse things than war. My hope is that people growing up today will (though continuing to keep a close watch on US hubris) come to believe that dictatorship is no longer acceptable. That would be the great reward after the brutality of the last century: to discredit not only the major totalitarian movements, but the little ones, tolerated for so long in the name of anticommunism or order or nationalism.

Of course, winning the war will do little good unless we also win the peace. So far the peace effort, unlike the war, has been roundly incompetent. The situation isn't just routine snafus; it's a direct result of the hubris of the Bush team. Virtually every commentator predicted that the occupation would be the hard part. They were right, and there isn't much evidence to say that Bush even now realizes it.

Will voters punish Bush in 2004 for this? I wish they would, but I suspect they won't. An article in Salon today suggests that this is because Americans are "afraid", and instinctively trust their leader. I don't see this. I think that the traditional American indifference to the outside world has reasserted itself. If Iraq falls into anarchy or riots against Americans, well, most Americans think foreigners are untrustworthy anyway. Hard as it is to believe, the American public as a whole, even after 9/11, just does not connect American foreign policy to foreign attitudes toward America.

The real danger for Bush is that continuing recession will annoy people out of their complacency. If the Democrats are smart, they'll ask the voters if they are more secure; but they'll spend more time asking if the $100 tax cut they receive next year is worth $400 billion deficits, declining government services, and rising unemployment.

16 Jun 2003: Bush's record
I haven't commented much on politics lately, partly because it's been so predictable. The other day, though, I saw a political cartoon (that's usually a bad idea right there) whose point was that Bush should be praised rather than condemned for "cutting taxes" and "telling off the U.N."

Sigh. In three years, Bush has turned the $236 billion surplus Clinton left him into a $400 billion deficit. Arguably, the Republicans prefer huge deficits in order to have a reason to attack government spending... but in the short run, they're in no hurry to shrink government: government spending has increased 20% in the same period.

I don't understand why people insist on making themselves stupid about this. People hear "tax cut" and their brains stop working: "There's a tax cut, that's gotta be good!" No, Jethro, it's not good, if the government's spending money it doesn't have. Thanks to Reagan, the percentage of federal spending thrown away on interest went from 8.9% (1980) to 14.7% (1990). Clinton's financial reponsibility reduced this a bit, but Bush's giveaway will drive it up again.

Below most people's radar, the Bush administration is also working to let big business do whatever it wants, no matter what the cost to the rest of us. The recent FCC decision to allow companies to own more of the broadcast market is typical, and so outrageous that even William Safire is protesting.

As for "telling off the U.N."... consies really need to get to a headshrinker on this. For half a century they've had a visceral fear of damfurriners telling us what to do. Meanwhile, in reality, the U.S. does whatever it wants to do. Reflect on these figures (all for 2001):

U.S. federal budget:  $1,863.9 billion
New York City budget:    $40.5 billion
U.N. budget:              $2.5 billion 
If the U.N. were a nation, it'd have less economic power than Haiti. If it were a corporation, it wouldn't even make the Fortune Global 500. It is not a burgeoning World Government. It's basically an aid agency with a debating society annex.

A correspondent recently asked what the problem was, if Bush destroyed NATO and alienated everyone in the world but Tony Blair. Man... once you get past the testosterone thrill of saying "Haw! Haw! Who needs the Frenchers and Germanese?", is this really so hard to answer? The next time the German Interior Minister gets a report on Islamic fundamentalists plotting attacks on the U.S., does it make us more secure if what goes through his mind is Donald Rumsfeld's last string of anti-German insults? (Hint: No.)

As for Iraq, I think it's a fine thing to have gotten rid of Hussein. It's looking like Bush had no good plans for what to do afterward, however; and again, will we be more secure if there's an election and Shi'ite fundamentalists win? Or if there's no election, just an unending occupation with a few G.I.s killed every week?

And by the way, where are all those weapons of mass destruction Hussein was supposed to have? At worst Bush lied to the nation-- you may remember that this was supposedly Clinton's real crime-- and at best our intelligence sucked. Either way, it's a good reason to throw him out in 2004.

19 May 2003: Where to find guerrillas
Last night I saw The Dancer Upstairs, John Malkovich's film which retells (in lightly fictionalized form) the story of Sendero Luminoso in Peru. No one film can do justice to the subject, but Malkovich covers most of the bases.

While he gives Sendero's brutality its due, Malkovich emphasizes the surreality of the struggle-- from this picture you might think that Sendero was some gruesome form of performance art. Virtually none of the surrealism is invented; however; Sendero really did begin by hanging dead dogs from lampposts; it did employ teenage girls as commandos; a major clue was indeed found in a videotape of the rebel leader dancing like Zorba; its leader Abimael Guzmán was found not in the Quechua communities whose support he sought, but in a middle-class neighborhood in Lima.

The obvious reaction to terrorism-- whether in Peru or Israel or George Bushistan-- is indiscriminate military action. As many as 30,000 people were killed in the Peruvian war, as many by the government as by Sendero. The military was brutal and stupid; but it's all too easy to simply condemn them, without understanding the enormous frustration of dealing with an invisible and utterly amoral enemy. Sendero's model was the Khmer Rouge's Cambodia: kill all the 'social enemies' and hope that a just society emerges from the bones.

Tellingly, however, Guzmán was captured not by military action but by painstaking detective work. A select group of police headed by Benedicto Jimenez, working for Ketin Vidal, tracked Guzmán down-- relying, among other things, on sifting through garbage to find the leader's psoriasis medicines. (There was some CIA support, too.) Vidal refused to hand Guzmán over to the military, which would simply have shot him. Vidal became a national hero-- though he ran afoul of the country's infinitely corrupt spymaster, Vlademiro Montesinos. When Montesinos was disgraced and fled to Venezuela, Vidal led the task force sent to Venezuela to bring him back.

Any Peruvian would probably find the American reaction to 9/11 rather naive. Terrorist groups are not only dangerous in themselves, but in the lawlessness they provoke within the government. The revolutionary is the reactionary's best friend: they each give the other leave to indulge their darkest impulses.

(The film exemplifies, by the way, the narrative difficulty of storytelling involving other languages. Malkovich, like the recent Frida biopic, uses mostly Hispanic actors speaking English; yet anything written is in Spanish. Quechua, by contrast, is used directly, with subtitles. This is probably as good a choice as any, but there's something ineffably weird about it. It gives the picture the slightly deracinated feel of one of those European films that are shot in English for the international market.)

7 May 2003: More consieology
So William Bennett, consie moralist and author of The Book of Virtues, is a problem gambler-- running through as much as $8 million. Nice; it's always great to see a Tartuffe implode.

He's been defended by other consies on libertarian grounds: he had the money, he wasn't hurting anyone. Slate's William Saletan explains why this won't wash: Bennett's shtick is precisely to oppose moral libertarianism: he condemns marijuana use or homosexuality even if you can handle it and it doesn't hurt anyone.

The Libertarian Party likes to hawk a two-axis view of politics, distinguishing economic from moral authoritarianism. This incident helps clarify why this is a misleading picture. According to this view, libertarians should feel just as comfortable with liberals (who agree with them on personal liberty) as with conservatives. In fact, as George Lakoff argues, libertarians are a subspecies of conservatives, who embrace personal liberty for conservative reasons: for them it's a corollary of the virtue of self-reliance.

Why do right-wing libertarians defend Bennett instead of opposing him, since they clearly disagree with him?

5 May 2003: Movie Night
Periodically I get together with Spinn, Raven, and Bob to watch cheesy movies, the worst we can find (la la la). Last night we managed to get through three:

Blacula (1972)
Cheese level: High. Gotta dig the '70s fashions tho'.
Riffability: Good. No lack of material; fairly watchable.
Our favorite scene: The doctor hero convinces his girlfriend to go dig up a body with sweet talk and kisses.
Most regrettable directoral decision: Blacula's wife's name sounds like Loofah.
Skeeviest bit: The animated bat humping cartoon women in the credits.
Notable holes: There's only one cross in Los Angeles?
Unresolved questions: What happened to Luva's skeleton?
Kickline: "That is one straaaaange dude!"

Soylent Green (1973)
Cheese level: Whoa, there's some actual plot here.
Riffability: You'd expect the whole movie is ruined since everyone already knows the ending. But we stayed busy.
Skeeviest bit: Worrying whether Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson were going to get it on.
Notable holes: The people scoopers would only be useful against idiots.
Unresolved questions: How do all those folks on the stairways make a living?
Most needed: Some catharsis. You know Heston's boss isn't going to do anything.
Kickline: "Celery!"

The Swarm (1978)
Cheese level: Awful as only a big Hollywood director can make it.
Riffability: It's a long, long, long movie.
Skeeviest bit: The leering doctor going after his patient.
Ripest corn: Olivia de Havilland and her two suitors.
Most regrettable directoral decision: Allowing Southerners to refer to fighting "the Africans".
Notable holes: Might be a better way to set a building on fire than to walk through it with a flamethrower. Also, wouldn't bees this nasty have made more news in Mexico? Also, how can someone in a helicopter, even with binoculars, watch insect activity on the ground?
Unresolved questions: How does Michael Caine manage to be everywhere at once?
Kickline: Alpha male Michael Caine barking at the general.

24 Apr 2003: Do the aftermath
A war is a confounding thing; anyone can be excused for having to reevaluate any number of cherished assumptions afterward. And the war in Iraq has changed almost everything.

Ha ha! I'm kidding, of course. Actually it's pretty remarkable how the war has cemented positions both pro- and anti-war. Antiwar people I know are already enumerating the evil consequences and making sure they're against them even before they happen. On the other side, Christopher Hitchens is already writing lapdoggerel in favor of the Pentagon's favorite Iraqi expat, Ahmad Chalabi. Someone else may be responsible for the subhead in Slate-- "Iraq could do much worse"-- but it looks like Hitchens, the supposed Orwellite, is all for one man one vote in Iraq-- that one man being George Bush.

Liberals and lefties had better watch out: the neocons have turned the table on us. Twenty years ago, it was consie doctrine that "authoritarian" regimes were necessary for reasons of realpolitik; it was laughable idealism to seriously believe in democracy and human rights, and they could see no difference between Ted Kennedy and Stalin. Now the neocons are talking about democracy washing over the Islamic world, and many leftists find themselves muttering about how Iraq is not ready for democracy and how Bush's human rights record is worse than Hussein's.

That's a losing attitude. Rather, let's hold the neocons to their word: let's insist on real democracy in Iraq. Let's see some elections, not a charade to install the Pentagon's man, à la Afghanistan. Let's push for a constitution that respects Iraq's Shi'ite majority, without letting it trample over the Sunnis, Christians, and Kurds. Let's fight for significant reconstruction, so that Americans are remembered in Iraq as the people who rebuilt the country, not as the ones who invaded and then hustled out as quickly as they could.

The neocons' weak point is their otherworldly notion of democracy: they imagine that the Arab people, against all evidence, yearn for moderate Republican regimes. Most of them, right now, want something religious and anti-Western. And they should get it-- with constitutions that allow them to throw it out when they get tired of it in five or fifteen years.

This just in: David Plotz in Slate is running a series on making democracy work in Iraq. The world has had a lot of good and bad experiences with democratization in the last twenty years, and there are lessons to be learned. (One of them is: don't be looking for a quick exit.)

29 Mar 2003: Politics and other crackpottery
I've had a number of political arguments lately; also a linguistic one, with a guy who's convinced himself that all languages derive from Dravidian. There's not much difference, really. People generally can't communicate with others who don't share the same starting point-- they find certain things obvious, and they can't articulate why. The brain just gives up: "If you can't see it, I don't know what to do with you." That doesn't exactly convince the other person who doesn't find the point obvious.

My linguistic correspondent, for instance, will spend a paragraph or two breezily making statistical arguments (usually wrong), then two or three pages excoriating the linguistic establishment for standing in the way of his Dravidian theory. Arguments for and against the war are not very different; often they're based on congenial assumptions and sources, and have little credibility for someone who doesn't already agree.

And yet science advances, while politics hardly ever does. "Well, duh,", you may say. People make themselves stupid in politics; it's dominated by ideology; it's inherently adversarial. All true enough, but it really doesn't address the paradox, because these things are true of science as well. Noam Chomsky, for instance, is as witheringly intolerant in linguistics as Donald Rumsfeld is in politics. Day-to-day science is civil enough; but scientific revolutions are full of very human conflict, and often play fast and loose with the rules.

Perhaps science has better reward mechanisms, in that bad theories eventually accumulate convolutions and contradictions. On the other hand this factor isn't absent from politics. Part (not all) of the disappearance of communism, after all, is due to its failure to run societies better than capitalism. (Despite some high-profile anecdotal cases, I think conversion is rare in both fields. A scientific theory or a political ideology really only disappears when its supporters die off.)

I don't see any theoretical reason politics couldn't do better at learning from mistakes. It's how I try to think about it. If something doesn't work-- and an adversarial process is great at finding things that don't work-- then we shrug and try to find out why, and approach the next crisis better informed. The last decades, for instance, can be seen as an intensive seminar in how to handle dictatorships and ethnic conflict.

Moralism is usually part of the problem. My linguistic correspondent thinks that historical linguistics is immoral; but that doesn't really help anyone-- it just makes him narrow his eyes and consequently fail to understand the discipline he's criticizing. War is such an emotional issue that it's usual for people pro and con to end up unable to stand each other. That's not helpful either; no one can learn from those one no longer listens to.

9 Mar 2003: Godwin's Law Part Deux
American attitudes toward France are generally strange and neurotic; but lately I've seen reports of people picking on the French because of the French President's opposition to a war on Iraq; and if this was you, I want you to stop it right now. In particular, I'd like to put the kibosh on two annoying memes.

1. "We saved their asses back in WW2." No, "we" didn't. Maybe your father or grandfather helped out, fifty-eight damn years ago. And if so, so what? Did it create a sense of permanent obligation? It's true that remembering historical debts is rather charming; we might start by remembering that it was French military assistance that helped win our Revolution, and for that matter that the French sold us about a third of our own country.

2. "We surrender HAHAHA!" Yeah, sure, they were beaten by the Germans in 1940. There's many reasons for this... but frankly, the whole story is in this single table:

Population (in millions)
Year France Continental rivals Britain
1600 15 Spain 18.5, Austria 7 4.5
1715 19 Austria 16.5, Spain 9 9.5
1815 30 Austria 30 19
1848 36 Austria 36; Prussia 16.5 27.5
1871 36 Germany 41, Austria 36 31.75
1910 39.5 Germany 65, Austria 50 45
1930 42 Germany 66 46
Figures are from McEvedy's atlases and refer to contemporary boundaries. E.g., Spain was larger in 1600 because it then ruled most of Italy.

Between armies at the same technological level, as in European wars, higher population makes for bigger and therefore winning armies. France used to be bigger than any of its continental rivals; by 1940 it was faced by one that was half again bigger. (It had Britain as an ally; but as anyone who's played Civ knows, logistics matter too; Britain was bigger than France, but only had 10 divisions on the ground to the French's 94.)

Why is a big fuss made over France falling to a bigger power? Pretty obviously it's a historical remnant: till its defeat in 1871, everybody in France-- indeed, everybody in Europe outside Germany itself-- assumed that France would continue to act as it had a century or two back as Europe's predominant land power.

If there's humor in that, well, we should be aware of how we look to others. America's self-image is about a century out of date: we still look at ourselves as brash up-and-comers, thumbing our nose at the Great because we're smarter than they are. This nose-thumbing comes off as something very different, however, now that we're the world's dominant power and dedicated above all to stasis.

20 Feb 2003: Fighting Iraq
I'm still undecided about this war. So, I think I'll argue simultaneously for and against it. If you are a Star Trek robot, this will make your head explode.


I don't trust George Bush. He has parlayed a moment when every decent human being on the planet sympathized with America into one where hundreds of thousands of people are marching in the streets against us-- and not in Egypt but in Rome. I never thought I'd miss the diplomatic skills of Bush Sr.

Anyone who thinks about the situation knows that the tricky bit begins once Hussein is out. It's possible to turn an unfriendly despotism into a valued, democratic ally... but it takes a huge investment in time, energy, and effort. Some of Bush's aides seem to know this; but Bush doesn't talk about it, seems to have no concerns about it, and our record in Afghanistan-- remember Afghanistan?-- isn't promising.

Bush, as Molly Ivins pointed out the other day in Salon, is very, very provincial. He comes out of a Bible Belt mentality that's highly contemptuous of the rest of the world (and for that matter of the majority of its fellow citizens): if they don't think and act like the Dallas-Ft. Worth Chamber of Commerce, to hell with 'em.

This isn't necessarily a liability when it comes to getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Self-righteousness means never having to waver. But it's a lousy attitude for dealing with anyone else... Kim Il-Jong, for instance. Or Yasser Arafat. Or Joschka Fischer. Emboldened by "success" in Iraq, the Bushies may embark on, or rather continue, a program of ever-broadening imperial hubris.

We've been here before: after the Korean war. We tried, we really tried, to learn something from WWII: stand up to the totalitarians early, when it's easier to stop them. It more or less worked in South Korea-- leading to increasingly dubious adventures in Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, and more. People rarely realize that mistakes come in paired opposites.


Much of the antiwar frenzy strikes me as either fantasy-based or completely immoral.

The antiwar people always include a caveat about how they know Hussein is bad. Bad, but not in any way that would ever justify intervention. How bad does he have to be?

Folks, he's an egomaniacal, homicidal fascist. He's attacked his own people with poison gas. He invaded one of his neighbors, causing perhaps a million deaths, conquered another, and fired missiles at Israeli cities. He's known to have pursued chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Iraq is the only state to have weaponized aflatoxin, a biological agent with no battlefield gain; its effect is to cause liver cancer, especially in children. He may not be directly linked to al-Qaeda, but he supports terror bombers, and any rogue dictatorship hostile to the U.S. is a threat to us, now or later.

I can't fathom an ethics whose chief principle seems to be state sovereignty. People will demonstrate in the streets to protest global trade arrangements that marginally increase corporations' freedom of action... but a genocidal dictator who's a proven danger to everyone around him has to be left alone? Sorry, that's not the leftism I signed up for.

Short shameful confession: I was against the Gulf War at the time. The arguments on both sides were extremely similar; but I thought sanctions should be tried. Well, I've come to see I was wrong. Sanctions on Iraq do nothing to harm Hussein-- he has an unlimited capacity to bear up under his people's suffering.

Unfortunately, if sanctions don't work, there's really no alternative to police the international community except war.

The antiwar position seems to be "Oh, but he can be contained." This is where the argument dives into fantasy. Hussein has a very public track record; why won't he continue to act that way? He's "contained" because a) we fought a war with him 12 years ago, and b) we're still fighting that war on a low level. There are inspectors in Iraq right now; the only reason for this is that we mounted a very credible demonstration that the alternative was immediate invasion. There's a nonzero cost to maintaining this sort of pressure forever; and if you're worried at all about antagonizing the Islamists (and you should be), low-level containment does that as well. Remember, one of Osama's beefs was our troops in Saudi Arabia, and they're part of the containment people think is working.

And whatever happened to people's fear of nuclear weapons? Anyone remember the nuclear freeze movement? If it's bad for the US to have nukes, why is it OK for dictators in Iraq and North Korea and Pakistan to have them?

Yes, I know Hussein doesn't have nukes right now. We need to keep it that way. We know he's tried to get his hands on them; we know that he's been playing games with the inspectors up to the present moment. Can't people see any downside in waiting to deal with the proliferation issue till he actually has them in hand? Like, say, a regional nuclear war?

(As Thomas Friedman points out today, before applauding the French for their moral courage or disdaining Bush for his oil interests, reflect on the fact that France sold Hussein his first nuclear reactor. Apparently, commercial interests are only damning if they're American.)

The antiwar folks don't usually say outright that we should never fight; they say war should be a last resort. They just place conditions on war that will never be met. E.g., Hussein should actually be nuking us, rather than merely seeking nukes to use on his neighbors. We shouldn't fight till the inspectors are done-- and inspections will never be done.

The problem with this sort of stealth pacifism is that of all pacifism: it's counter-productive. Pacifism creates war. We know from Osama himself that he considered the US to be weak: he wasn't offended by our reprisal attacks, he was contemptuous of them, and that encouraged him to plan ever-bolder attacks. And Hussein isn't dissuaded by inspectors or sanctions or UN resolutions or really severe eyebrow-archings.

I believe the burden of proof is on both sides. If you're for the war, you should explain why, and have a strategy, not just wishful thinking, for an improved postwar Iraq. If you're against it, you should explain why, and have a plausible strategy, not just wishful thinking, for dealing with genocidal dictators.

7 Feb 2003: Guerrilla glamour
Since 1994 rebels in Chiapas have been fighting what, at first, seemed a savvy post-modern sort of war: attack just enough to get attention, start negotiations, and get your commander free newspaper space. Many people, after all, still romanticize the Latin guerrillero, a macho figure still sweaty from La Lucha and festooned with ammo, fighting tirelessly for The People but never too busy to grant an interview. Subcomandante Marcos seemed to realize that it didn't take much actual fighting to take on the role; you could virtually skip right to Che-style grandeur.

Now all the rebels can think of to do is is harrass tourists and beat up fellow Mexicans. They're not confronting United Fruit here; their target is a 26-acre ranch (that's about two and a half city blocks) owned by a couple of Americans who are trying to promote eco-tourism.

This in itself isn't a great tragedy; it's just sad. The tragedy is the continuing appeal of the romantic image of revolution-- an idea that's led to horrific crimes or pointless thuggery more often than liberation.

The characteristic error of the left (and it's worse the farther left you go) is that it has very little interest in how to create prosperity-- though this should be the preoccupation of anyone who wants to help the poor and oppressed. There's a vague idea that if Bad People are kicked out, everyone will be better off. But it doesn't do any good to simply destroy the means of production. The Chiapas rebels can destroy jobs and opportunities that exist today; they have no idea how to create new ones. (Similarly, Zimbabwe's Mugabe can appropriate high-producing white-owned farms, but he has no way to keep their level of production.)

Give a bunch of teenagers guns, and all they'll want to do is point them at people. And there's very few problems that can be solved that way.

30 Jan 2003: After the rout
Michael Kinsley points out that the Iraqi gas attacks on its Kurdish citizens, cited by Bush in his State of the Union address as evidence of Hussein's "evil", occurred at a time when his father was tilting toward Iraq, since it was fighting Iran at the time. And the horrific torture methods also cited by Bush are by no means limited to Iraq; they've often been employed by U.S. allies. The implication is that Bush's indignation at human rights abuses is highly selective.

However, after reading Bush's actual remarks on Iraq, I don't think this is a fair criticism. It's a footnote: two paragraphs, compared to 14 paragraphs devoted to biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Rhetorically, it's being used to confirm, not to explain, the threat posed by Iraq's weapons programs.

Now, it would be a lot more satisfying if the inspectors had found, say, a warehouse full of A-bombs. 16 warheads isn't exactly proof of Hitlerian levels of threat. I think Bush sounds silly when he implies that failure to find weapons proves that they're there. If Bush has evidence that they still exist, he should show us. It's not enough to just say "Sorry, can't show you, national security." He wants us to go to war; he wants people to give their lives for this. He doesn't have to give us all the evidence or reveal all our intelligence methods, just enough to show the reliability of his estimate of the Iraqi threat.

Still, Hussein's record is bad enough that it's very possible that Bush is right about his weapons and long-term goals, and he may even be bad enough that he's worth replacing as a favor to his country and the world. After Bosnia and Rwanda, a policy of letting dictators do whatever the hell they want to their own citizens and to their neighbors doesn't seem like an evolved stance; it looks like abetting genocide.

What worries me is that Bush's speech has not a word about what happens after the war. The implication is that getting rid of Hussein is "liberation" enough. Does Bush really think this? Aren't there some lessons in, say, what happened in Afghanistan after it was "liberated" from the Soviets? What are Bush's plans for making Iraq a democratic, secure, prosperous state? Or if that's not his concern, how can he assure us that, like other weak states are, it won't become a haven for al-Qaeda, the people already at war with us?

The other worry is that the muscle-flexing in Iraq is only a warmup. Could the U.S. embark on a program of unilateral invasion for flimsier and flimsier reasons, perhaps even replacing democratically elected regimes that displease us ideologically or inconvenience American companies? Is that cynical? No, it's our historical record in Latin America.

22 Jan 2003: I'm sorry, I'm so very sorry
Here's why politics remains part of the entertainment industry, not science: politicians never apologize. We should be hearing things like this:

10 Jan 2003: Another reason to vote!
A correspondent asks, "Why 2004?" She makes a good point: local elections arguably affect us more, and since they usually have low turnout, they're a lot easier to influence. The creationists and other right-wingers know this; if you don't vote, they'll fill the school boards and town councils.

4 Jan 2003: Why vote?
My pal Spinn had some reflections on voting which bugged me. He suggested that if you know statistics you might as well not vote. This isn't the usual complaint that your vote "can't affect the outcome"; I think it's the more sophisticated idea that voting behavior is predictable, like consumer preferences: if you polled a hundred people at random, you'd get the same result as having everyone vote. So, in fact, why have everyone vote? Why not let the smaller sample decide?

Now, part of my reaction is visceral: I like democracy. I think any elite with a monopoly of power, whether it's white people or Heinleinian technocrats or Communists or the Second Foundation, will abuse their power. At the very least, the vote lets the people throw the bastards out. (If they can't-- and it's a fair election-- then the majority of "the people" are happy with the bastards, which is an entirely different political situation.)

Some of the arguments people use to urge people to vote don't quite work:

While I'm at it, I want to briefly address some arguments for not voting. Are there any good arguments that address Spinn's objection? I think so. That's it for now. I'll tell you in Nov. 2004 if Spinn voted.

Get me outta here!