Saturday, December 30, 2006

It didn't happen, and they're here to finish the job

UPDATE: And then there's stuff like this ....
Wasn't it surreal, that Holocaust denial conference in Tehran? It had all the air of a malevolent witch-doctors' convention, and I don't mean to insult witch doctors :) What is it about this subject that brings out all the kooks? Anti-semitism is a kind of mental disorder; when it becomes widespread in a society, especially among its elites, it signals a societal or civilizational crisis. Anti-semitism is usually not about Jews, but typically about something else, and that "something else" is the real clue to the crisis.

The world's most important Holocaust-denier/minimizer is David Irving, the British historian who wrote a semi-respectable book in the 70s on World War II from the German point of view, but even then drifting over to the dark side; then in later decades showing up at neo-Nazi konklaves and the like. He claimed that Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt libeled him, sued her in the UK, and lost his case. Irving was just released from jail in Austria and served in absentia as the star of the Tehran conference.

Several countries in Europe have criminal or civil laws on the books banning Holocaust denial. These sorts of laws, from an American point of view, seem like an out-of-bounds infringement on free speech, even offensive or ridiculous speech. However, Americans aren't used to having large fascist/racist parties in their political culture. Anti-semitism in American society has declined dramatically since 1945 and is now a fringe phenomenon - plus America has never had a movement of political anti-semitism. Not so in Europe: certain European countries, like Austria, Germany, and France, do have such parties - and had them far worse in the recent past - and so Europeans might be excused for having such laws. Nevertheless, such laws are a misguided approach to the problem. Malevolent misinformation needs to be answered with more and better speech, not a ban.

The conference also marked the emergence of a new and frightening alliance: neo-Nazis and radical Islamists, along with a handful of anti-Zionist Jews and fringe radical left kooks (requires subscription). (I wonder if you can "present" a paper at such "conferences," then put it on your CV.) The burgeoning alliance of these groups has been unfolding for almost a decade. People are known by the company they keep, and we must avoid the false but common liberal assumption that better-educated people are immune to such thinking. In the Islamic world, the elites are especially saturated with it. (Ahmadinejad is an engineer.) They believe in it as an all-purpose pseudo-explanation of what their sorry excuse for a civilization suffers - here is today's relevant clue. The analogy with the German-speaking world, especially after 1918, is obvious: there too the core of the anti-semitic movements were made up of a large number of educated people, and Germany more generally was the best-educated society in the Western world. Evidently, it isn't just quantity that counts, but the quality and content of education. And of course, Germany was saturated at that time with its own kind of baneful "identity politics."

Unlike the European/Western world, where reminding people of the basic facts of the Holocaust and the immense evil it represented is largely preaching to the choir, the problem in the Muslim world is a combination of self-interested denial and simple ignorance. Ignorance is the natural state of humanity, while the denial stems from that mixture (again!) of the post-modern and the medieval: bogus claims of victimhood (unless we count collective self-victimization) and religious intolerance. Muslims, especially but not solely in Arab countries, live in, not so much a civilization, but the collapsed ruin of one; in those ruins, they are subject to a flood of official and semi-official anti-semitic propaganda that the Western world has not seen since the 1930s. There is no generally accepted background of historical knowledge to counter this flood, and its effect, especially on Muslims born since about 1970, has been profoundly pernicious.

That needs to change. The agencies best positioned to fight the flood (such as the Anti-Defamation League and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum) have been misguided and myopic in this area, obsessed with relatively marginal threats in the Western world, and only slowly turning their attention to the center of contemporary anti-semitism, the Muslim world. (A future posting will expand on these failures of Jewish institutions and leadership.) The Holocaust Museum did recently start an overdue program directed at the "new" anti-semitism, engaging the help of one of the most important Muslim critics of the Islamic world, the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She discusses anti-semitism in the Muslim world here (requires registration).

Another striking development is Robert Satloff's new book on the Holocaust in North Africa and Arabs and Muslims who helped to rescue Jews under German or Vichy French rule. Satloff is interviewed here; his book is reviewed here (requires subscription). One of the astonishing conclusions of Satloff's research is that the descendants of these Muslim rescuers in question do not want their ancestors recognized as righteous gentiles or listed at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial. Modern anti-semitism has a long history in the modern Middle East, stretching back to the 1920s or before, but its virulence and spread have jumped in recent decades. That makes developments like this (PDF) all the more understandable and necessary. There are Middle Eastern voices speaking out against these trends, but they are few in number, marginal, and under constant threat.

And while we're at it, we should also keep in mind the persecution and (sometimes) genocide of Christians and non-Arabs in the greater Middle East, from the late 19th century on, from the Kurdish mountains to the Sudan. The Armenian case of 1915-17 is merely the best known; the Darfur situation, just the latest.

The general thrust of these efforts has to include overcoming the deeply ingrained liberal prejudices of white guilt, cultural relativism, and "noble savagery" in connection with the Muslim world. More generally, we should ultimately expect the Muslim world to observe basic decencies that we take for granted in the civilized world. The Islamic world, especially in the Middle East, is a long way from that, but there's no better place to start than with Holocaust-denial, anti-semitism, and genocide-incitement.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Jimmy you will have with you always

Rabbi Shmuel Boteach has written an interesting essay on why Jimmy Carter isn't an anti-semite, but a disturbing something else, a clueless moralist:

Jimmy Carter is not so much anti-Semite as anti-intellectual, not so much a Jew-hater as a boor. The real explanation behind his limitless hostility to Israel is a total lack of any moral understanding .... Carter wants to do what's just. His heart's in the right place. He just can't figure out what the right is. He is, and always has been, a man of good intentions bereft of good judgment. He invariably finds himself defending tyrants and dictators at the expense of their oppressed peoples. Not because he is a bad man, but because he is a confused man.

Carter's confusion is rooted in the unreliable "underdog" theory of morality, mixed with a heavy dose of white guilt. Carter's book title is not only an insult to Israel, but, as Boteach points out, an insult to black South Africans as well. The Palestinians cannot be placed in such company - they don't deserve to be.

(BTW, what Boteach says about the 70s really is true: it sucked big time. The leisure suits were made with polyester. What a horror :)
POSTSCRIPT: Here's further comment on Jimmy Carter's book, from another disillusioned Emory University professor.

One sub-lie, constantly repeated by Carter, of the Big Lie of the Middle East, is that the decline of Christians in Israel/West Bank is due to ... Israel! In reality, Christians have been in decline over the whole region for most of the last century, for obvious reasons having nothing to do with Israel: see this from the Boston Globe - not the most Israel-friendly newspaper in America either.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Year-end round-up and a merry ...

Random thoughts on the year's best books and movies ....

* Lawrence Wright's The Looming Towers: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 is the best narrative history of the 9/11 attacks so far. It's tightly focused on the primary actors and shows you through personal vignettes how the attackers succeeded and how the defenders failed. For more background, see this posting. C-SPAN's BookTV interviewed Wright recently.

* The year's best political book is Mark Steyn's America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It. We're living through an era of rapid geopolitical change, and unfortunately, our political elites mostly spent the post-Cold War period asleep, misunderstanding, or lost in absurd partisan follies. Steyn's book will get you thinking, get you infuriated, get you to agree or disagree - but most of all, it will get you to wake up, open your eyes, and pay attention. As a bonus, it features Steyn's trademark zany humor and wordplay. He's shamelessly promoting it over on his Web site (greedy bastards, these conservatives :).

In connection with the theme, consider Niall Ferguson's much larger tome, The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West and this related posting.

* Another Big Book is Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation, released in paper this year, and the best one-volume history in a long time. It focuses mainly on the religious and social aspects of the Reformation, but also lays into the relief the unintended consequences: the simultaneous growth of religious freedom and oppression, the separation of religious authority and civil government, the divergent histories of western and central-eastern Europe, the rise of skepticism and the Enlightenment, and the rise of the nation-state. Useful for understanding the modern Western political system and to compare with the many-centuries decline of the Muslim world. (Don't let all that oil $$ fool you!) A tale both interesting in its own right and highly relevant to our current mess.

* For popular science, I've beaten the subject of string theory and its failure to death, but remember Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong and Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics.

On a more positive note, don't forget Nina Planck's Real Food, reviewed here. Related is The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I haven't read, but have heard good things about.

* It has nothing to do with 2006, but I rediscovered it this year, William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways, a quintessentially American book about a quintessentially American thing, the road trip - in this case, around the US in 1978 in a van called Ghost Dancing. A good companion is another, rather different classic also based on a road trip, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the first book I read in college and never forgot.

Both books are sometimes compared to Kerouac, but either one is far better.

* The year's funniest movie is Little Miss Sunshine, a sweet, sharp barely-functional family comedy of mini-epic proportions, with an unforgettable ending.

* The year's sexiest movie: The Devil Wears Prada. It's really a chick flick, but no healthy male should pass up two hours with Anne Hathaway. Plus it has KT Tunstall's catchy theme song.

* NOT the year's funniest movie, but still worth watching for its bizarre scatology and unique "plot," is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Sacha Baron Cohen brings Ali G. and his questionable antics to America, to impress and awe the unwashed natives. The BBC was less impressed: see please here for BBC reviewing of Borat cinema.

* And don't forget United 93, a small gem of a movie that never got the attention it deserved. Democracy in action: airliner passengers don't wait for Homeland Security; they figure it out for themselves and act.
On Donner, on Blitzen ... on Donder, for purists ... oy ... and to all the nice goyim out there, merry Christmas and happy new year ... and to all, a gut yuntif :)

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Post-modern physics?

A persistent if sotto voce criticism of string theory during its period of dominance (post-1984) has been that it's "theology," "unverifiable," "pure sociology," and so on. These perceptions contain a large grain of truth, and then some, but they've also made string theorists extraordinarily sensitive to the charge that they're not doing science. Occasionally, a string true believer strikes back with attempts at "tu quoque" ("you too!"). Perhaps psychologists of the future can analyze the faulty defenses of string theory in terms of projection.

One of the strangest of these charges is that the critics of string theory are dangerous post-modernists or nihilists. Certain string theorists have leveled this charge against Smolin in particular, entirely without foundation. Smolin's recent book is a fair-minded, politely polemical, if ultimately devastating, look at what's gone wrong with fundamental physics in the last 20 years. If he were a post-modernist as charged, he wouldn't care about these questions enough to have written the book. But even more, the book exhibits a concern and thoroughness with regard to foundational questions about spacetime and quantum gravity that makes it absolutely incompatible with post-modernism, which after all rejects "foundational" anything as nothing more than ideology. The charge of post-modernism should be dropped and, if anything, is better applied to string theorists.

Or perhaps string theorists are more pre-modernists, naively believing in their theory on faith, that it "must" be true, even though there's not only no way of knowing, but not even a theory, properly speaking. It's situation that brings to mind what Galileo called a state of "guilty innocence," here the not-so-innocent dishonesty and self-deception rampant in high-energy theory for the last decade. The guilty innocence is reinforced by a fad-driven culture where fashions are set by small number of powerful senior people, who are rarely the source of major breakthroughs in science in any case.

A perfect compliment to Smolin's book is the new book by Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong. Woit's argument is more compact, more detached (he's a mathematician with a strong interest in string theory and quantum field theory), but also more blunt. Some readers will find the alternation between journalistic and technical prose jarring. But Woit is concise and also devastating, and his killer instinct rarely fails him. He nails every weakness and absurdity in the culture of string theory and shows how the field has drifted into fantasy and abandonment of scientific standards - again, demonstrating that it is string theorists, not their critics, who are on the wrong track.

Let's imagine string theory had never gotten its hold on theoretical physics and go back to the situation in the mid-80s. We fall back on the achievements of gauge theory, grand unification, supersymmetry, and supergravity. Although baryon number violation has not been observed, neutrino masses and dark matter have been, and these can be counted as tentative successes. Beyond that, it's clear that no further progress is possible without a quantum theory of gravity, and string theory is not that theory.

Feynman put it perfectly in 1987: string theorists make no predictions, only excuses. That used to be an objection to string theory. String theorists have tried to turn this objection into a new sort of "science" - the way the media and Wall Street flacks tried to justify the stock bubble of the late 90s by redefining every canonical standard of value and turning economics on its head. It's trying to "win" the game by twisting the rules. Of course, economics and the theory of stock value were right; the stock bubble was just that, a bubble. So is string theory. As an example, Woit discusses the disturbing Bogdanov affair, a kind of reverse Sokal hoax, where two physicists were able to get published, in 2002, several completely nonsensical papers about quantum gravity - in serious technical journals. This is surely a giveaway sign that something has gone badly wrong. Another sign is the difficulty Woit had in getting his book published by a scientific press. (It was eventually published by Basic Books.) The book was subject to hostile anonymous criticism for not being "in" with the right crowd - but no significant technical errors were found. Not Even Wrong is also a model of clarity and brevity, unlike so much of the physics literature these days, which exhibits a disturbing similarity to the work of another "in" crowd, the humanists laboring under the degenerate and authoritarian obscurantism of post-modernism.

While too much as been sunk into string theory, string theorists like Witten and others have made very important contributions to old-fashioned quantum field theory and thereby stimulated some important new lines of mathematical research. This has been an important feature of the strange era of strings, wherein most high-energy theorists are fashion-followers, and every academic physics department feels it has to scramble for the crumbs from the string table. But it also indicates that string theorists are very smart people - they just labor under the delusions created by the false-messianic expectations surrounding string theory as the putative Theory of Everything. It's clear now that string theory is actually of Theory of Anything (anthropic principle again) or maybe a Theory of Nothing.

Not Even Wrong makes many of the same points that Smolin's book does, but being shorter, it's more demanding on the reader; Smolin is more leisurely and parses the physics more explicitly for the non-technical reader. That shouldn't deter Woit's potential readers. A generation of theorists have worked in an ultracompetitive environment, constrained by limited resources, under a cloud of intellectual failure. Theoretical physics should not be allowed another generation to stew in such a dead-end. As a mathematician, Woit has a different approach to getting theoretical physics out of this rut. Without experiment to keep them honest, theorists need to adopt an attitude much closer to mathematics, one where rigor and precision take the place of experiment as guiding lights. String theory has been neither good physics nor good mathematics. It's not physics in the usual sense - there are not only no experiments, there are not even predictions - but it's too speculative, conjectural, and full of holes to be serious mathematics. A lot of important work in pure quantum field theory in the last 25 years does fit this bill, however, and that should be a starting point for the future.

Woit also points out that physicists have barely made use of the full power of symmetry and symmetry representations. Strings add no new symmetry principle to physics. For all the hype surrounding string theory as a beautiful theory, the theory is actually quite ugly and full of apparently unresolvable difficulties. That's another sign it's the wrong road.

Woit's mathematics makes a nice complement to the more physical arguments of Smolin. Both books are superb pieces of popular science and deserve to be taken very seriously by physicists, academic and goverment leaders responsible for the direction and funding of science research, and the general reader.

POSTSCRIPT: Smolin moved in 2001 to the Perimeter Institute in Ontario. Woit has a very readable blog at his home base (Columbia), with lots of interesting links.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Mel Gibson returns :: Jimmy Carter disgraces himself

Mel Gibson's new movie Apocalypto is out, and it's supposed to be pretty good (requires registration). But poor Mel can't escape some well-deserved ribbing - click here for SNL's priceless send-up of the trailer.

And as for bagels, well, see my earlier posting :)

Jimmy Carter is back as well. You've probably heard about JC's new book on the Israel-Palestine conflict, a new low in post-Presidential books - bad enough to provoke the resignation of the head of the Carter Center, Ken Stein. (Carter then denied that Stein had anything to do with the Carter Center - Alzheimer's? See for yourself.) Given his earlier history of humbuggery with North Korea, Rwanda, Venezuela, etc., is this any surprise?

Lots of people have been all over the book since it was released, and Jimmy is in deep trouble with the discovery of the book's plagiarism, fallacies, half-truths, and historical and geographical errors. Especially damning is Carter's apparent rip-off and silent changing of maps and tables from former ambassador Dennis Ross's much more important book on the same subject. See here and here for two important reviews. (And see here for more from Dershowitz.) Doesn't anyone edit books any more?

Carter's claims to moral leadership are questionable, starting with his fence-straddling during the civil rights years. And let's not forget how Carter abandoned the Shah, which Iranians themselves now regard as a catastrophic mistake, for failing to take radical Islam for what it is. That year, 1980, marked the Great Change in the Middle East, the decline of nationalism and Marxism and the rise of jihad.

Carter is the most recent in a long line of self-important Christians who enjoy lecturing Jews on how to be better Christians. Consider Hugh Fitzgerald's hilarious definition of Carterism: An extreme form of holier-than-thou self-righteousness, prompted by a manic desire for self-aggrandizement .... And on a more serious note, ponder Fitzgerald's careful discussion of a well-known mental pathology and how it presents in Carter's case. Is he just an old-fashioned Christian anti-semite? No, he's a new- fangled, pseudo-liberal preacher of fake piety, who once called Khomeini "a man of faith I can trust." For his and our sakes, it would be best if Carter refrained from any further political embarrassments.

BTW, Fitzgerald and Spencer are stellar among Christian writers against jihad for being entirely free of this same mental disorder, making them quite different in this respect from, say, Pat Buchanan, even though all three are serious Catholics. Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo. Maybe Mel could use that advice too.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Two cool new blogs

Well, at least new to us. And they are cool, no question.
  • The 910 Group blog, hardcore opponents of the global jihad and the brain-dead conventional media and political wisdom that appeases it. But there are two blogs, the original and the expanded. Give them your attention, they deserve it.
  • A curious new libertarian blog, Cause and Effect World, started by Samantha Clemens. If you're conflicted about conservative versus libertarian and concerned about the big-guvmint turn of the Republicans, this is a blog for you.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Reality and unreality in the Middle East

UPDATE: Maybe the ISG is just a decoy blowing smoke in our faces and the real action is elsewhere. Everybody who's somebody in the Middle East has a sponsor. The Kurds have us, in effect, as their sponsors. Willingly or not, the Iraqi Shi'ites have Iran as their sponsor.

That leaves only the Iraqi Sunnis without a sponsor. Hmmm ... I wonder who could fill that role (hat tip to Reynolds). And there's more ... and this ....
Tom Donnelly of the Center for Strategic and International Studies puts it better than I can:
It just hasn't worked out the way the punditocracy planned: The "adults" of the Bush 41 administration were supposed to talk Bush 43 off the ledge, get him to give up his dream of democracy in Iraq and return to reality. But the main recommendation of the Baker- Hamilton "Iraq Study Group" - withdrawal by early 2008, covered by negotiations with Iran and Syria - has little value outside Washington, and none in Baghdad or the region.
The ISG report (the Hamilton part) actually has valuable advice, similar to the 9/11 Commission Report, on changing how the US government works. But the diplomatic part (the Baker part) is mostly a fantasy of misguided and/or obsolete ideas. (The funny thing is the early 2008 withdrawal date was the original Pentagon plan - that's how Washington works: you present your original plan as a bold breakthrough and radical departure. :-) The Washington Post's editorial board weighs in cogently on this aspect, and former Reagan-Bush-Clinton diplomat Dennis Ross discusses the Iran-Syria axis at length here in the New Republic (requires subscription). And read this as well. Or, if you prefer your politics in the form of cartoons, US News obliges with this priceless offering: a grim situation can't be made cuter than that.

Iran and Syria aren't friendly or ready to help - they're only ready to deal if they're afraid of us or want something we can give them, as Max Boot explains (requires registration). What happens months or a year or two hence, when we no longer have anything to bargain with, and they're no longer afraid of us? Chaos, that's what - a full-blown proxy war in Iraq, Lebanon, and maybe elsewhere. Lebanon is already feeling the intense Syrian pressure again, as Hezbollah prepares to destroy what's left of the Cedar Revolution.

The ISG report did reach its real audience, the news media, incessantly asking, "Will Bush listen?", never asking the right question: "Will the media listen?" Of course, the media has largely given up on reporting from Iraq. Most of its reporting is from Washington, which makes sense: that's where the main quagmire is.

The tragedy of the neoconservative democracy crusade is that it's pre-empted real conservative policy possibilities, a "really real" realism based on correct understanding of the Middle East and the conflict were now in, instead of the ever-misleading and now-obsolete Baker-Scowcroft "realism," or the well-intentioned but now-fading-into- history liberal-internationalism.

What we need to recognize is that the policy paradigms of the Cold War era are exhausted and obsolete. "Realism" is dead. The old standbys (it's Israel's fault! start up the "peace process" again! suck up to the Saudis!) will no longer work. (For one thing, the designated fall guys for the US-Iraq mess - Israel and the Kurds - are not lining up to be sacrificed - why should they? That era is over.) What we need is new ME policies reconsidered from scratch with the oil factor and Israel playing no fundamental role. The ME's basic problems have to do with a toxic mix of Islam, political illegitimacy, and religious reaction. The region's dominant and long-indulged groups (Arabs, Sunni Arabs in particular) are largely unwilling to face their own problems and instead obsessively blame outsiders or "deviants." The oil money hugely exacerbates these problems, fueling an extreme fantasy of grievance and entitlement, while flooding the region with the by-products of modern civilization: electronic media, modern weapons, etc., that reinforce the Islamic world's growing reaction and intolerance.

The resulting conflict is a clash between civilizations, but also a clash within a civilization, giving rise to a series of wars (Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, etc.) that are not "civil" in the strict sense - they do not respect national boundaries, because Islam denies the legitimacy of the nation-state. The conflict is a composite of smaller conflicts, between Sunnis and Shi'ites, between moderate and extremist Muslims, between Arabs and non-Arabs, and between Muslims and non-Muslims, all simultaneously. Superficially, these wars are just internal tribal and sectarian conflicts. But when you look closer, you discover that in Iraq, as in Lebanon, local conflicts are blown up and made much more difficult by the sponsored-proxyship phenomenon, a classic feature of the modern ME "dark ages", inflamed by the honor-shame system. The sponsors here: Iran and Syria (sponsoring the Shiites and even helping the Sunnis) and private parties in the Gulf sponsoring the Sunni jihadists allied with al Qaeda. As with Israel and the Palestinians in the 90s, attempts like the Oslo "peace process" to move towards conflict resolution are defeated when the most extreme parties can look towards hardline rejectionist states like Iran and Syria for support. Local conflicts become swept up in global jihad and are transformed from difficult to impossible.

Meeting these challenges means breaking with classical American and Western policy, largely driven by the need for oil, protecting oil supplies and oil regimes, and recycling petrodollars through contracts. (The resulting corruption-for-oil-$$ needs to be seen for what it is and so often isn't. See here, for example. Unlike the ludricrous "blood-for-oil" lies of a few years ago, the oil-$$-realism-sucking-up-to-the-Saudis/ Iranians/whatever phenomenon is very real.) In the case of Europe, important additional factors include a non-fatal but persistent anti-semitism and the weird combination of prejudice against Muslim immigrants while pandering to the worst elements of the Islamic world, especially a factor in France.

This kind of cynical "realism" seems, well, "realistic" - workable at least in the short run. But we've outlived the short run and today live with the consequences, like al Qaeda. "Realistic" policies like this are myopic and destructive in the long run. And remember: we're living in that long run now.

The wrong-headed thing called "realism" today (the Saudi-Egypt-Kissinger-Baker- Scowcroft axis) is superficially like the real 19th century thing, but at a deeper level, has little connection with reality. Today, we're faced with a clash of civililzations even farther from 19th-century balance-of-power realism than the 20th-century clash of ideologies.

There are real barriers to implementing better ME policies. The oil-$$-corruption factor plays a large and insidious role here, as it is not only in play among Washington power brokers, but also fuels "radical" "Middle East studies" in academia. It is rarely reported in the American news media, unless a catastrophe like 9/11 happens. Notice how the issue came up after 9/11, but then faded away. The news media returned to "the" ME conflict, which is supposedly just Israel and the Palestinians. The news media almost never register the truth: there is one big meta-conflict (jihad, or violent political Islam), made of up lots of smaller conflicts, of which Israel is a piece.

The news media itself is a major barrier to better thinking. It endlessly recycles obsolete and wrong ideas and policies, if they fit its dimwitted and warped view of the world. And since there is so little shame in public life any more, people associated with policy and intellectual failures get to peddle their wares endlessly too, long after they've overstayed their welcome. They're never kicked out of the public square and can clog it with no end of distractions and junk. Only the better-educated editorial writers and experienced commentators can act as a counterweight to the flow of political detritus through the "news" and "news analysis" (read: BS) columns.

POSTSCRIPT: A remarkable and prescient essay (in French) "Towards a New Foreign Policy" appeared in 1992 that (fourteen years ago!) predicted the decline of traditional realism in the post-Cold War period with a startling clarity that elites all over the Western world haven't yet caught up with. The anonymous essay in particular dwelled on the obsolete and destructive Arabist policies that de Gaulle inaugurated in the mid-1960s. The pseudonymous author is reportedly now a highly-placed French diplomat. His essay is discussed and quoted at length (in English) here.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Mazal tov! :: Further thoughts on energy independence

Speaking of life, Kavanna has already heard from me about his new addition, little Jacob or "Jack," born this past Monday - but here I am in public: congratulations! Binah hopes he'll be posting some pictures soon. We want to see :)

And speaking of making the world safer for Jacob's generation, here's a sensible discussion about US energy dependence and the need for international cooperation to moderate demand. It's a roundtable of academics and others associated with Stanford. They also discuss the strange nature of the oil-gas market, how it's both close to a perect market in some ways and, in others, thoroughly political. Here's one participant's take on the bad influence that natural resource extraction economics has on countries that heavily depend on it:
The real problem is that energy—oil, especially—doesn’t operate according to normal market principles. Something like 75 percent of the reserves of oil and gas are controlled by companies that are either wholly owned or in effect controlled by governments, and there’s enormous variation in how those companies perform. Some of them are just a disaster ... and others can work at world standards.... Some of these governments ... use oil revenues for political purposes that undermine U.S. influence. High prices do not automatically generate new supply or conservation, partly because suppliers can drop prices to undercut commercial investment in alternatives. Second, we have what has become known as “the resource curse.” There’s a lot of evidence that the presence of huge windfalls in poorly governed places makes governance even worse. Revenue that accrues to oil-exporting governments is particularly prone to being misspent, often in ways that work against U.S. interests.
Similar thoughts expressed by two other participants, who also note the need for stable higher prices, to promote both conservation and new investment:
The key factor in normalizing market conditions is assuring the market that high prices are here to stay [....] If oil is discovered in a country before democratic institutions are in place, the probability of that country becoming democratic is very low. In countries where the state does not rely on the taxation of its citizens for its revenues, it doesn’t have to listen to what its citizens want to do with that money. So instead of building roads or schools or doing things that taxpayers would demand of them, they use their money in ways that threaten the security of other countries, and, ultimately, their own.
Exactly. This is a refreshing departure from the depressing "realism" we keep hearing about, or the even more ridiculous "blood-for-oil" libels of a few years ago. It's especially important now that a new Democratic Congress is coming in, one with a distinctively anti-globalization, isolationist, and xenophobic tendency - the "Lou Dobbs Democrats." Read the whole thing.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Baby Jack

Kavanna is proud to announce that baby Jacob "Jack" was born on Monday, November 27. His middle name is "Amadeo," Italian for love of G-d. He is a long noodle at 21.5" and 9 lbs., 2 oz. I've seen other peoples' babies before, but never noticed the range of expressions that flicker across their faces. Jack will stare into your eyes, "ooh" with his mouth, scan the room, get red-faced and ready to wail, and turn his head while shifting his upper lip almost Elvis-like searching for food from Mommy.

I hope the world settles down from its current madness so that it becomes safer for Jack and his generation.

Mon Dieu! Postscript on the social contract, and bagels ...

In my posting on why America is not an empire, I inexplicably forgot a fourth critical theorist of the social contract, Spinoza. How could I? He came after Hobbes and Descartes, and his influence on Locke's political and metaphysical theory is obvious. And from Locke to the American founders is but a short step ....

On a totally unrelated note, Trader Joe's carries my favorite brand of bagels, the Bagel Spinoza: It Bagels the Mind. I hope our blog here is exactly what the Bagel Spinoza is: chewy, filling - and really delicious toasted with peanut butter. I wonder what Spinoza himself would have thought.

POSTSCRIPT to postscript: Friday's Wall Street Journal has a nice column by science columnist Sharon Begley on the dubious nature of the anthropic principle. Nice to see outsiders noticing and joining in the fray - on the side of science and reason.

Unfortunately, it requires a subscription. But here are two key grafs:
For years, many scientists viewed anthropic reasoning as "the last refuge of scoundrels," says cosmologist Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University. "It was what you resorted to when you couldn't think of other explanations. But science has always tried to explain why the universe is the way it is. With the anthropic principle you're saying you can't explain why the fundamental constants have the values they do. It's giving up before you really get started."
Exactly. (Krauss has a new book out, Hiding in the Mirror, that discusses the anthropic controversy in his larger exposition of the higher-dimension concept.) And a recent "what-if?" thought-experiment paper provides a striking counterexample to anthropic reasoning and shines light on why life might happen under a range of conditions:
The anthropic principle was further undermined when scientists calculated what would happen if the universe lost one of its forces. There are four: gravity and electromagnetism, plus the strong force and weak force that act only at the subatomic level. The physicists erased the weak force and adjusted other physical parameters (all done mathematically), they reported in August in Physical Review D. Their calculations showed that the resulting pseudouniverse still made atoms, galaxies and stars that burned and cooked up elements like those in living beings, says Graham Kribs of the University of Oregon, Eugene.
Here are the preprint and published versions of that paper.