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A Tale of Two Times

I began buying the New York Times regularly in 1956 at Fletcher’s on the Square in Bellows Falls Vermont when I started high school. The Times had always been around the house because my father subscribed to it off and on and I must have developed the habit of reading it regularly by ’56. Nothing was said about my buying it every morning when we already got it at home. I think my father quietly dropped the subscription and depended on me to bring it home. It was deemed a proper thing for a young scholar to affect. There was adolescent show in it, but I read it and respected it. Propaganda was notably absent. You could count on the Times to deliver balanced in depth coverage on a variety of topics. You still can – sometimes. Here is a classic example of the NY Times at its best done earlier this month by John Burns about Pakistan. As the title Ghosts That Haunt Pakistan implies the title puts the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in historical perspective:

For 60 years since its founding in the partitioning of British India, Pakistan has seesawed between military dictatorships and elected governments, and now new hope for stability is being placed on the chance that democracy there can be revived.

But while attention is currently focused on the failings of Pervez Musharraf, the latest in a long line of military rulers, Pakistan’s civilian leaders, too, have much to account for in the faltering history of Pakistani democracy. Over the decades, their own periods in office have been notable mostly for their weakness, their instinct for political score-settling, and their venality.

If serious journalism is, as Richard Landes says, the first draft of history then the NY Times has always stood out by giving its readers an historical appreciation of important current events. I think it is fair to say the newspaper’s insistence on including such material is what gives it weight. The primary basis for its claim to be taken seriously. And exactly what made it so satisfying to read. For me the old satisfaction comes reading this article when John Burns gets at the crux of the present dilemma when he explains why we in the West badly misread Pakistani political reality.

The legend cultivated by Pakistani politicians like Ms. Bhutto and her principal civilian rival, Nawaz Sharif, cast the generals as the main villains in stifling democracy, emerging from their barracks to grab power out of Napoleonic ambition and contempt for the will of ordinary Pakistanis. It is a version of history calculated to appeal strongly to Western opinion. But it has been carefully drawn to excuse the role the politicians themselves have played in undermining democracy, by using mandates won at the polls to establish governments that rarely amounted to much more than vehicles for personal enrichment, or for pursuing vendettas against political foes.

What has changed at the Times is that they now use their reputation for impartial analysis to foist propaganda on us. They push a political agenda with an unscrupulous disregard for the truth. The blogosphere, praise the Lord, regularly nails them for this betrayal of public trust. Sadly, it happens regularly to the newspaper that carries the reputation and the responsibility of being ‘the newspaper of record’. The latest example is this piece Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles.

Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories. Lakewood, Wash.: “Family Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife.” Pierre, S.D.: “Soldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress.” Colorado Springs: “Iraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings, Crime Ring.”

Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities. Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.

Cue the violins. It is a classic beat up. Or as the NY Post put it: “Lock your doors, America: Here come the killer vets!” The Wall Street Journal more soberly sums up the core statistical distortion thus:

The 7,000-word article contained no statistics on the size of the veteran population, or on the prevalence of homicide either in the general population or among young men, who are disproportionately represented among active-duty and recently discharged service members.

Various commentators performed their own back-of-the-envelope calculations, including Ralph Peters of the New York Post, who estimates that if the Times figures are accurate, recent war vets are only about one-fifth as likely to be implicated in a homicide as the average 18- to 34-year-old.

It turns out that these young men are better than the rest of their age cohort despite having literally been to hell and back. Right here, right now I find it necessary to say “Thank you gentlemen and to hell with the NY Times’. There is no compassion for what these young men have been through and there is no respect. And I have no compassion for a once great newspaper who’s reputation and stock price are steadily falling. A recent survey by the Department of Media Studies and Digital Culture at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University demonstrate there are consequences for this behavior that are by no means limited to the NY Times.

A Sacred Heart University Poll found significantly declining percentages of Americans saying they believe all or most of media news reporting. In the current national poll, just 19.6% of those surveyed could say they believe all or most news media reporting. This is down from 27.4% in 2003. Just under one-quarter, 23.9%, in 2007 said they believe little or none of reporting while 55.3% suggested they believe some media news reporting.

The very sort of trust I had as a boy in the NY Times is below 20%. And even more people can see exactly what they are up to:

The perception is growing among Americans that the news media attempts to influence public opinion – from 79.3% strongly or somewhat agreeing in 2003 to 87.6% in 2007.

And, 86.0% agreed (strongly or somewhat) that the news media attempts to influence public policies – up from 76.7% in 2003.

Even when asked about positive qualities the MSM don’t do very well:

The highest positive rating, 40.7%, was recorded for quality of reporting followed by accuracy of reporting at 36.9% and keeping any personal bias out of stories (33.3%).

Other low positive ratings included: fairness (31.3%), presenting an even balance of views (30.4%) and presenting negative and positive news equally (27.5%).

Although the survey emphasizes broadcast journalism the NY Times rates a mention along with the usual suspects:

By four-to-one margins, Americans surveyed see The New York Times (41.9% to 11.8%) and National Public Radio (40.3% to 11.2%) as mostly or somewhat liberal over mostly or somewhat conservative.

By a three-to-one margin, Americans see news media journalists and broadcasters (45.4% to 15.7%) as mostly or somewhat liberal over mostly or somewhat conservative.

And, by a two-to-one margin, Americans see CNN (44.9% to 18.4%) and MSNBC (38.8% to 15.8%) as mostly or somewhat liberal over mostly or somewhat conservative.

Just Fox News was seen as mostly and somewhat conservative (48.7%) over mostly or somewhat liberal (22.3%).

I take all polls with a grain of salt, but I think there has been a big shift in public perception of the media over my lifetime. The older standards I grew up with that required a duty to the truth have faded and I think that development is a general cultural change. I certainly saw it in my own work as an academic which began in the late sixties. I noticed that it became increasingly proper to have an agenda in one’s teaching and research. As time went on the duty to truth morphed into a duty to have an agenda. Reminders about truth faded. I think people of my generation made the mistake of assuming that the commitment to truth was still present and were rudely shocked to discover that, as time went on, it was not. And I must say it – discovered even in themselves that the commitment to truth had eroded. And as I have learned the hard way – to hell with that.

Asus eee PC

I bought an Asus eee PC yesterday. What is special about the Asus eee PC is the form factor. It is really small. I have read umpteen reviews, many with good pictures showing the size – but it didn’t prepare me for how small it was when I saw it. Here it is with several size references:

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I own a ruler and know how to use it and I even determined before I first saw it that it could probably fit into a large pocket on a ‘hunting ‘vest I use for traveling or a winter coat pocket. It did – just – as you can see:
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Rupert Goodwins writing for ZD Net UK hit the nail on the head for me when he wrote this comment to his own post here:

What the Eee has done is categorically underlined one of the great and
damaging myths of mobile computing – that extreme portability is a
desirable luxury. It’s not. It’s essential, but it has to be
affordable. Once that idea finally gets into the head of the marketing
men, it’ll affect all the sectors.

Exactly. I paid $499 Australian dollars (US$450) and anything that could be considered competition in Australia is north of AUD$2000. And it is beautifully made – definitely not cheap and nasty. I’ve wanted one of these since my sister bought an HP Jordana about 10 years ago so she could write on the computer in her easy chair. It was just too small.

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Sorry no size reference – it is less than half the size of the eee

The eee isn’t. It feels just right to me for browsing on my lap. It connected to my wireless router first time. So far the keyboard is hard to get used to. It really is small, but it is still usable. Several reviews say that the keyboard gets easier to use with practice and I can feel it happening already even after one day.

Rupert Goodwins says it is the screen most people find limiting.

There are two reactions to people’s first encounter with the Eee. The
first is ‘want one’, the second is, ‘and if they did x, y and z, it’d
be so much better’. A bigger screen is always x.

I intend to use the eee as an e-text reader as well as a blogging tool so my next step is to try some Project Gutenberg files and some home brewed PDFs to see if I can use it to read text easily. That should tell me a lot about the screen’s usability. Ellen Hage of Tech From and E-booker’s Viewpoint, the best e-book hardware blogger I’ve found, likes her eee PC just fine as a reader although she prefers the Samsung Q1. Goodwins post has some helpful reader suggestions in the comments like getting more screen real estate by using autohide and adding the Littlefox plugin to Firefox. I’ll try to do my next post on the eee on my experiences using it as an ebook reader.

The Dark Side

I was recently happily surprised to see a US presidential candidate – any candidate would do – show an awareness of the nature of the new media environment created by the Internet and in particular its darker side. I ran into this exchange near the end of this Pajamas Media interview of John McCain by Roger Simon. Pretty well unprompted by Simon, McCain felt obliged to make this point:

But we face significant challenges. And that overall challenge right
now is radical Islamic extremism, which is hydra-headed. And I think
that challenge is going to be military, diplomatic, intelligence, and
ideological. We’ve got to do a better job in the use of cyber space.
Osama bin Laden, just in the last two weeks, has got messages out to
billions of people to recruit, motivate, and instruct radical Islamic
extremists.

McLuhan says that it takes a long time for awareness of a new media environment to to enter general awareness. When Richard Landes put on his Media as a Theater of War conference in Israel in 2006 he found that bloggers were very aware that the media environment had shifted radically (they were living it) while Israeli politicians that attended were not. The politicians saw the world where the established media held absolute control of ‘the narrative’ as unchanged – they didn’t get it. Other candidates for the US presidency may get it too – I just haven’t heard them speak on the issue. If anyone has encountered this kind of insight into the media environment from other candidates please comment.

There is a second aspect that McCain points to that I think is extremely important – the negative potential of the networked media environment. Asked about the effect of the Net on radical Islam McCain responds:

That’s because they’re getting on the Internet, they’re getting — they’re feeding on each other. They’re getting a radical message from the Imams, and then this cyberspace is getting — is having significant effects. Look at the effect that it’s having on pedophiles. Internet child pornography is one of the greatest evils that is afflicting the world today, and it’s because of the Internet. So we’re going to have to understand this new technology and this new information world we’re in and do a lot better.

The man is clearly groping with the issue – trying to come to terms it, but he has gotten to the point where he is beginning to generalize – to see the larger pattern. I’m a technological optimist, but I know better. I naturally respond to Eric S Raymond’s explanation of why in some, not all, ways the open software development model (Linux) is more effective than the proprietary model used by Microsoft. But I know very well that the frustration that Bill Gates encounters when trying to compete with Linux arises from the same structural base (the Internet) as the West’s attempts to cope with the networked insurgency of al Qaeda or child pornographers. Or the dilemma faced by a friend recently who discovered his 12 year old daughter presenting herself as an 18 year old on multiple Facebook and Myspace sites. The new media environment can be used for good or ill and I have no postmodern relativist compunctions in seeing some of those uses as clear evils. It is perhaps instructive to note that Carl Jung would be utterly unsurprised to see the human shadow alive and well on the Internet. Or that a student of literature like McLuhan would point out that these negative aspects of human nature have been explored in Western literature going back to the Iliad.

It seems to me that a useful theory of media has to explain the dark side of new media environments as well as the positive side in the broadest possible terms. Last night my son was talking about the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. He talked about how technological optimism got out of control and created the Web 1.0 tech bubble, but that now instead of public companies with no absolutely understanding of how to make money crashing we have privately held companies with better business plans but still vulnerable to over optimism and self delusion. He thinks that we could be seeing dot bomb 2.0 in the making. Perhaps or perhaps not, but the human forces set lose are recognizably the same ones that fueled the Dutch Tulip craze in the 17th century just as the 13th century Children’s Crusade should tell us something about the contemporary Muslims who think it is an act of high morality to throw away a medical education trying to blow up an airport.

Crossposted at Newmediatheory

A Shot Across the Bows

As someone who follows the war in Iraq closely it has surprised me that the Democratic candidates are still very negative about the surge and still refuse to acknowledge the progress General Petraeus has made even when put on the spot during the New Hampshire debates. It is unremarkable that pro Republican sites have been calling attention to it, but much more significantly the Washington Post recently printed this outspoken editorial, See No Good. It attacks Obama and Hillary directly and by name and is an editorial representing the newspaper’s position not just that of a single pundit in an op-ed. They put the question as bluntly as any Republican blogger would – “Can they concede that the “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq has worked?” And they continue in the same vein listing the positives: the “major blow” against al Quaeda, the “receding” prospects of a civil war, and the “second lowest” monthly military casualties of the war. They strengthen their argument by making it clear that they are not attacking from a pro surge, much less a pro Bush perspective:

A reasonable response to these facts might involve an acknowledgment of the remarkable military progress, coupled with a reminder that the final goal of the surge set out by President Bush — political accords among Iraq’s competing factions — has not been reached. (That happens to be our reaction to a campaign that we greeted with skepticism a year ago.) It also would involve a willingness by the candidates to reconsider their long-standing plans to carry out a rapid withdrawal of remaining U.S. forces in Iraq as soon as they become president — a step that would almost certainly reverse the progress that has been made.

Indeed. It is a perfect opportunity to reconsider those withdrawal plans with plenty of room left to debate Iraqi political progress or lack of it. Continuing to insist that they will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is not good for them and it is not good for the country. It is good for the Republicans and even for Bush, and probably a key reason why the president enjoys a 35% approval rating while the Congress enjoys a 25% approval rating. I think that is exactly why the WAPO as a liberal newspaper is putting such a clear shot across Hillary and Obama’s bows. There is no doubt about their target – it is Obama and Hillary – not Bush who only gets a conditional rebuke:

Even more disturbing was the refusal of the Democrats to adjust their
policies to the changed situation. Ms. Clinton said she didn’t “see any
reason why [U.S. troops] should remain beyond, you know, today” and
outlined a withdrawal plan premised on a defeat comparable to Vietnam
(“We have to figure out what we’re going to do with the 100,000-plus
American civilians who are there” and “all the Iraqis who sided with
us. . . . Are we going to leave them?”). Mr. Obama stuck to his plan
for “a phased redeployment”; if his scheme of a year ago had been
followed, almost all American troops would be out by this March.

Ms. Clinton made one strong point: Even the relatively low number of “23
Americans dying in December is . . . unacceptable” if there is no clear
prospect of eventual success. So far, the Bush administration has been
slow and feckless in pressing for the national political accords it
says are required for a winning outcome. If these are unachievable in
the near term, the administration owes the country a revised strategy.
But any U.S. policy ought to be aimed at consolidating the gains of the
past year and ensuring that neither al-Qaeda nor sectarian war make a
comeback. So far, the Democratic candidates have refused even to
consider that challenge.

It’s rising February boys and girls and we all know you have to move to the center on the issue if you want to get elected. General Petraeus and his hard working heroes have given you the perfect political cover to make that move – wait much longer and no one will believe you when you suddenly change you tune.

A Real Race

To me one indication that the Obama phenomena is real is the simultaneous success of Mike Huckabee. Huckabee is a much less well known and a less attractive candidate on the issues to conservatives than Obama is to liberals. Huck seems to be a big government Republican – which also describes the present occupant of the White House – as small government Republicans often remind us. I think a critical factor driving the sudden popularity of both candidates within their own parties and among independents too is that they are fresh faces from outside the political establishment. And both natural politicians in their own right.

As I write this it looks like Hillary will win New Hampshire by 2-3 points, but the events of the past week have convinced me that she is much more vulnerable than I had previously thought. Even though I have felt that she was the most likely next president, I have been saying for some time that Hillary is the kind of candidate who has a natural limitation on how much support she can hope to get. In short, she’s beatable. There are a lot of people who just wont vote for her. What Obama’s and Huckabee’s challenges have shown me is that there is a real hunger for fresh faces. And that both Bush and Clinton fatigue are real, albeit elusive factors, in the this suddenly volatile race.

I got a new insight into this ‘fatigue’ phenomena reading this review by Noemie Emery of For Love of Politics Bill and Hillary Clinton by Sally Bedell Smith. The opening lines go right to the point:

Between January 20, 1993, and January 20, 2001, the Clinton White House was home to three boomers of boundless ambition, high expectations, and vast self-regard, all three of whom thought that they ought to be president. Of these, only one–Bill Clinton–really was president. But the other two–his wife Hillary and his vice president, Albert Gore Jr.–firmly believed that they should be and viewed Bill’s terms in office as the jumping-off place to their own.

Unfortunately, only one–Bill, again–was a born, or even a good, politician, making the two others dependent upon him, first to lift them to within striking distance of power, and then to help them campaign.

My first thought was – that’s the problem with Bush too, only double. Both he and his father only got to the White House because that other ‘natural’ of the late 20th century – Ronald Reagan – chose Bush senior as his running mate. Suddenly it’s clearer why I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for either Bush or Gore in 2000. And easier to see why the wheels seemed to so suddenly fall off Hillary’s campaign this week. A couple of relative outsiders with a fresh approach really ignited the public’s imagination. It feels good to have strong and talented candidates in the race even if they arguably lack experience.

So what happens next? With Hillary and Obama splitting the first two contests the race looks a lot more even than the press had us thinking going into the New Hampshire primary. The best analysis I have read of the remaining primaries on both sides of politics is by Jay Cost – aka The Horserace Blogger – here at Real Clear Politics. Cost explains the strategic ins and outs and how the present contests do and do not resemble the run up to Super Tuesday in 1992 when Bill Clinton made his famous comeback. Here is a taste:

I do not believe this race is over – and I say that as somebody who predicted that Obama would be a real threat to Hillary a while ago. Here’s my bottom line on the Dem race: Clinton has the money, the prestige, and the support to stay in the race through at least Super Tuesday, even if she loses all of the early contests. She also has, at least according to the latest national polls, much of the traditional voting coalition that has won her party’s nomination in year’s past. And remember – most Democratic primaries allocate delegates to the national convention proportionally, which means that losers still win delegates. So, Clinton could stay a close second through most of the season, and surge late to win the nomination.

Now we have a real race!

Addendum: Jay Cost has an eye opening follow up post here giving a back room analysis of who supported Obama and who supported Clinton and how she won in New Hampshire.

Belling the Cat

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Peter Magnusson is engaged in a project to try to pin down Quality on the Web. He points to the crux of the matter thus: “on the Internet, everybody can see if you’re an idiot, they just can’t do much about it.” He does not disclose exactly what he is trying to do about it because he trying to develop a commercial product. Given that he is a software engineer I will presume that he is working on a computer program that will help us find the good stuff and avoid the bad. It is a brief and engaging explanation of the problem so if the topic is important to you, please read it all. It is full of high quality references and ideas and clues to the scope and nature of the problem. For the more casually inclined here is a brutally edited summary of Magnusson’s basic thesis:

Various flavors of moderation, participant editing and/or voting, and variations of reputation systems are being used today to leverage the crowd without falling victim to it’s vices.

But history would teach us that this isn’t so simple. Past efforts to tame the crowd, to encourage and coerce it to only yield “good” results (in some sense), have met with limited success. The dilemma lies in the subtleties of group behavior.

So today there are multiple efforts to define sets of checks and balances. But these easily become complex, and they also easily become essentially a political system.

In a political system, being right or wrong doesn’t matter, all that matters is staying in your position of influence. When your rating/voting system becomes a social group, then social dynamics and organizational psychology kick in. And they quickly become a game of social position, not of optimizing the quality of the result. Anybody who has worked for a large organization knows exactly what I’m talking about.

And that, in a nutshell, is the key challenge for the next generation of online discourse. We must find a better way.

Bloggers and readers of blogs will recognize what Peter Magnusson is talking about too. Because he uses the word ‘quality’, I am personally reminded of Robert Persig‘s book Lila which, while a novel like his earlier and better known Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is primarily a philosophic treatise on ‘quality’. I don ‘t know if Peter Magnusson will find a philosophic discussion of ‘quality’ helpful, but his project makes me wonder if I should be using Persig’s ideas about quality in developing a media theory. While Persig’s basic argument – that quality is more fundamental than our usual division of the world into subjects and objects – is well beyond the scope of this post, it should still be understandable to say that he divides the world into two kinds of quality – static and dynamic. Dynamic quality takes many forms but for this discussion he is talking about genuinely new and creative phenomena. By static quality he means the structures, rules, institutions etc. by which we learn to preserve the good, dynamic quality, things we create. Static quality often gets a bad rap from lovers of dynamic quality because it sometimes stifles creativity or dynamic quality. But without it we can’t preserve progress. Breakthroughs just dissipate in the absence of structure. Persig further argues we need both kinds of quality and introduces the idea of ‘static latching’ to explain why. The idea is taken for the ratchet and pawl:

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When the gear turns forward the pawl prevents it from turning right back and losing the gain.

In Persig’s terms Magnusson is making the case for static latching when he says:

Enthusiastic though we all are about the notions of long tails, the
wisdom of crowds, and emergent behavior, the reality is that the
quality of online discourse has progressed little from the days of
ARPANET mailing lists, USENET FAQs and The Well in 1980s. Good
structure still requires editors, good content still requires writers,
and good discussions still require moderators.

Long tails, the wisdom of crowds, and emergent behavior all refer to dynamic quality. Editors, moderators and more particularly the rules they apply create static latching. Can those rules be expressed as algorithms and made into computer programs that help us sort the wheat from the chaff? I hope so. For example, I use the Akismet spam filter on this blog and it catches thousands of comment spam messages. It lets a few through and when I mark them as spam it learns to recognize them as such, not just for me, but for all Akismet users. It turns the numerous victims effectively against the spammer. Identifying the positive is a much harder task and I have little idea how Mr. Magnusson will proceed, but I think there is evidence that we have already developed some positive static latching strategies in our software tools.

The obvious example is the success of Linux and more particularly of its creator Linus Torvalds in managing – that is successfully applying static quality principles – to the project as he went along. In addition to previously known software engineering static quality procedures like well documented code Torvalds has managed to keep the project thriving through building a social structure that has kept the Linux development community not just together, but handling enormous increases in complexity without bogging down. Eric S. Raymond in his The Cathedral and the Bazaar (available here or free online here) puts forward a compelling description of the structures that have made open software development successful. In Persig’s terms it is worth noting that the discovery that these social structures could apply to an alternate model of software engineering was in itself an outbreak of dynamic quality.

I believe some, not all, of the lessons learned by the Open Software community may apply to the development of better quality discussion on the Internet. Already a new form of civil society has become available on the Net for those who actively seek it out. I recently blogged about it here. One obvious problem is usually referred to as the echo chamber effect on the Net. That is, people just reinforcing each other’s opinions and not developing any new thinking. When a discussion becomes predictable it has become too static – there is no dynamism in it and it goes nowhere new. But the opposite goes nowhere either and for good reason. You don’t try to run a cop’s bar and a biker’s bar on the same premises. Or if you do you must apply Wyatt Erp’s static quality rule of making them check their guns. Kidding aside, I noticed the term BOF (Birds of a Feather) in Peter Magnusson’s post and that tells me he is probably thinking about this problem too. BOF is a usage that developed at computer conferences for informal interest groups that spring up to discuss a particular topic. Such a group draws people because the exchange is at least potentially fruitful. I notice something similar draws me to particular blogs and threads on the net. I have to agree sufficiently to feel it worthwhile engaging. In my experience the range of views has to be narrow enough so that there is the possibility of productive interchange. It will be interesting to see if there is any way to take the measure of that productive aspect -distinguish between the echo chamber and the BOF group – such that it can be identified by a program.

Another area of difficulty I see that Persig’s two kinds of quality illuminate is the problem of people gaming any program that humans can invent. It helps to remember that dynamic quality is always a moving target. For example, a little over 100 years ago my great grandfather, OJ Gude, created a successful advertising company by using electric light bulbs in outdoor advertising. That was then. Today, my son and daughter in law are trying to build a successful Internet advertising business they call Local Na8ion. The limitations and opportunities for using lighting in outdoor advertising are relatively well known and therefore quite static compared to the opportunities in Internet advertising. So Peter Magnusson has set himself a very difficult task because he is trying to pin down something that is by its nature very dynamic. He is trying to bell the cat. What happens to me is that just when think I have ‘belled the cat’ I hear a kitten mewing somewhere in the underbrush.

Crossposted at Newmediatheory.

Without Luther, No Jefferson

In a recent post on the Iraqi Shiites I discussed Reuel Marc Gerecht’s Why the Worst is Probably Over in Iraq which takes the view that the moderate Shiite support for democracy led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani had survived the civil war.

In the course of looking more deeply into Gerecht’s his work I found this 2004 monograph entitled The Islamic Paradox. It is available in full as a PDF and is about 50 pages in length. More than any other single work I have read it plausibly advances a possible long term approach to defusing Islamic extremism grounded in cultural understanding and knowledge of the Muslim world. This kind of thinking stands in stark contrast to the projection of Western ideas on the Muslim world by ideologues of the right or left. Gerecht gives us insight into the diverse ways that Muslims are trying to enter the modern world on their own terms and precisely how we miss the importance of differences in the history of religion in the Muslim world and in the West. Here is a sample:

The intellectual connections are undeniable between “mainstream ‘ Islamic fundamentalism, which grew from al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood and Mawdudi’s Jama’at-i Islami, founded in 1941, and the holy warriors who struck us on 9/11. This is not to suggest, however, that all fundamentalists approved of bin Laden’s terrorist attacks. Many Islamic activists condemned the terrorism. But the common roots allow us to see, in part, why bin Laden became and remains a cult figure throughout much of the Muslim world. More important, they allow us to understand how bin Ladenism must be fought—from the inside out. The liberal and neoconservative hope that Muslim moderates or liberal secularists can compete with and vanquish mainstream fundamentalism, which ultimately is the wellhead for bin Ladenism, in a Western context, is to imagine Thomas Jefferson without Martin Luther.

Which is to say that the Muslim world can not enter into the modern world without passing through a process something like what the West experienced as the reformation. Reading Gerecht one quickly realizes that any Muslim reformation will be quite different from what happened in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is precisely in the various schools of Muslim clerics – Sunni and Shiite – that this transition is being tentatively hammered out. It is easy for us to dismiss the role of the clergy because, as modern Westerners, we see their role as peripheral, but the impact of clerics like grand Ayatollah Sistani are just as important as Luther’s was in his own day. Gerecht’s explanation of the difference between Sistani’s clear support ofdemocracy and Khomeini’s theocratic approach is even starker than I
realized. He begins with a critical quote from Sistani from soon after the invasion in 2003 asserting the democratic rights of Iraqis:

“The Occupational Authority in no way has the authority to
choose members for the drafting committee of a Basic Law. In no way
does any authority exist for such a drafting committee to represent the
lofty interests of the Iraqi people or to translate into law the wishes
and basic identity of the Iraqi people, the pillars of which are the
glorious faith of Islam and society’s values. The current [American]
plan discussed is fundamentally unacceptable.

Accordingly, popular elections are necessary so that each Iraqi who is
of voting age can choose his representative for a constituent assembly.
And then any Basic Law written by this assembly must be approved by a
national referendum. It is incumbent upon all believers with their
utmost commitment to demand this, and asserting the truth of this path
is the best way that they can participate in this process.”

Our Western ears, unaccustomed to giving weight to any clerical opinion, might easily miss the significance of Sistani’s words or dismiss them as pious waffling by someone trying to make himself relevant to the political process. Gerecht’s commentary takes Sistanis’s words out of our context and places them firmly in the context of the internal Muslim debate – the very center of that ‘inside out place’ – from which he argues bin Ladenism must be fought:

In the history of Islam, this opinion is revolutionary, equal to
Khomeini’s assertion of clerical supremacy. There is little reference
in this judgment, which was issued on June 28, 2003, to Islam, and what
reference there is, for a senior cleric who has devoted his life to
the study of Islamic law, verges on the pro forma. It makes no allusion
to any duties that man owes to God (huquq Allah), the common theme of
both traditional and modern fundamentalist thought. Sistani is talking
about inalienable rights that Muslims possess. In its essentials—one
man, one vote and the moral obligation to have a constitution written
by elected representatives and then approved by popular referendum—the
fatwa is flawlessly secular, clearly and concisely asserting the people
as the final political arbiter. Sistani’s opinion is striking when
compared to Khomeini’s antidemocratic statements and actions before and
after the revolution.

Venezuelan Devaluation

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In a move expected since last year Venezuela has ‘revalued’ the bolivar by a factor of 1000. The Reuters news story opens:

CARACAS, Jan 1 (Reuters) – Venezuela opened the New Year on Tuesday by revamping its bolivar currency in an effort by the government of President Hugo Chavez to tackle the highest inflation in the Western Hemisphere.

The bolivar’s official exchange rate is now 2.15 bolivars per dollar, compared with the previous official rate of 2,150 per dollar. The change does not constitute a devaluation since the prices of goods in bolivars are expected to be reduced by the same amount. (Emphasis added)

Consulting Wikipedia on the subject of devaluation:

Generally, a steady process of inflation is not considered a devaluation, although if a currency has a high level of inflation, its value will naturally fall against gold or foreign currencies. Especially where a country deliberately prints money (a usual cause of hyperinflation) to cover a persistent budget deficit without borrowing, this may be considered a devaluation.

OK, normal inflation is not considered devaluation but ‘deliberately printing money to cover a budget deficit’ sadly describes exactly what Venezuela is doing. Toward the end of the Reuters article the government’s self deception is evident:

Government leaders say the measure will have a positive psychological effect on consumers by demonstrating the strength of the bolivar.

Venezuela’s 2006 inflation was 17 percent, and reached 18.6 between January and November of 2007.

Elsewhere in the same article they say 20.7% in the 12 months to November a slightly longer period – but who’s counting! It gets worse – here is Wikipedia again:

In some cases, a country may revalue its currency higher (the opposite of devaluation) in response to positive economic conditions, to lower inflation, or to please investors and trading partners. This would imply that existing currency increased in value, as opposed to the case where a country issues a new currency to replace an old currency that had declined excessively in value (such as Turkey and Romania in 2005, Argentina in 2002, Russia in 1998, or Germany in 1923).

Again the second case applies to Venezuela. Wikipedia left out Zimbabwe in the list of epic inflations. I witnessed the initial stages of the Zimbabwe hyperinflation personally including the strikingly similar governmental rationalizations. Mugabe waited so long to ‘revalue’ that it was essentially too late to even be workable. Zimbabwe is now reduced to barter or using South African currency. Chavez isn’t in that bad shape yet, but he is working on it.

Both Chavez and Mugabe are buffoons adept at manipulating their image as heroic revolutionary socialists while pursuing risibly ruinous economic policies. I think this second picture of Chavez from Google Images catches that combination of Marxism and machismo peculiar to Latin America:

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The Little Town Time Forgot

I went to high school in the small Vermont town of Bellows Falls – there were just under 100 in our graduating class of 1960. Once an bustling railroad and paper town on the Connecticut river the town has only gotten sleepier since my time there. The last time I went through on the train the conductor announced it as ‘the little town that time forgot.’ Still I was surprised by the following story from the Brattleboro Reforemr. (Brattleboro is evidently still awake 20 miles to the south):

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Mystery Door

Thursday, December 27
BELLOWS FALLS – Whatever ghosts that hang around the Square might find it a little harder keeping warm this winter. A room of furs was recently uncovered in a basement vault under the Snow & Lear office supply store. For the past 30 or so years, the furs have been hanging on their racks in a climate controlled room that was probably once owned by Royal Furriers, an area business that closed sometime in the late 1970s.

Sam Haskins, the new owner of J&H Hardware, bought the whole building that includes the hardware store this past year. After walking around the basement Haskins guessed that there must be a couple of thousand feet of usable space hidden behind the walls.

He had not heard of Royal Furriers, and had no reason to believe that there was any hidden treasures within the wall. Instead, Haskins thought, as any good businessman would, that if he was paying for the space then he might as well put it to use.
His son, Jeremy, found some hinges bent backward where it appeared someone had tried to get in to the room. There was no way in, so the Haskinses decided to pound their way through. First they rented an electric hammer and started hacking away at
the wall. The next day they returned the hand-held hammer and rented a jackhammer.
They got through 18 inches of brick and mortar only to find another wall. They kept boring through four inches of wall board, and then another wall of cement. When they finally got through, the lights were on, the fan was spinning in the climate controlled vault, and the six-or-so furs were hanging on their racks, awaiting pick-up.

After reading through some of the records he found, Sam Haskins figured that no one had been in the room since the mid-70s. There were also a dozen or so suits, dresses and hats. “The fans were spinning and the furs were spotless,” Haskins said.
“Everything inside was very nice and clean. The fan was set on 65 degrees and that is exactly what the thermometer read. Everyone wants to know who has been paying the electricity bill.”

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As a New Englander, that’s what interests me too. Read the whole thing here and Happy New Year!!!

House to House by David Bellavia

I just finished David Bellavia’s House to House, an infantry Sargent’s account of the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004.

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In personal terms it is about one man’s struggle to come to terms with his own shortcomings as a soldier and even as a father and husband. In military terms it is a detailed account of the tactics used by the insurgents and the counter tactics the Western military – in this case the US Army – used to deal with them. In that sense . The battle of Fallujah is not typical of the war in Iraq, but a set piece of 20th century urban warfare in the midst of a 21st century war. One of my favorite independent journalists, Michael Yon, who was himself a soldier and embeds regularly in Iraq, says here that we made one of our biggest mistakes in fighting it.

…crushing Fallujah backfired. If only because the timing assured a near total Sunni boycott of the first and most important national election, the start of nation-building politics, the same process that is now so widely acknowledged as the only path to a secure and self-sufficient Iraq.

With respect, I am not sure because I think we may have had to take up the insurgent’s challenge to prove we had the will to defeat them on their chosen ground on their own terms. I am genuinely unsure if Fallujah impeded or hastened the Sunni Awakening movement. Either way House to House is a valuable addition to our knowledge of the battle.

Just beneath the surface of Bellavia’s story a bigger picture is visible. Most of the civilian population was gone, the city fortified with freshly made walls inside houses designed to funnel attacking troops into prepared positions, booby traps or very large bombs. It was a city turned into a fortress but it was also a jihadi stage set in the information war. Perhaps they were attempting to repeat their victory over the Russians at Grozny similar to the way they down choppers for their cameras to create replays of Blackhawk Down. It was certainly a carefully prepared opportunity to showcase their willingness to die.

Even though Bellavia intensely dislikes journalists he comes to respect Australian Journalist Michael Ware who was embedded with him in Fallujah. At one point he writes. “Ware is an authority on the enemy. He knows more about them than our intelligence officers. I hang on every word and try to remember everything he told us.” (p 181) Ware had personal experience of the insurgents and was willing to talk in detail to Bellavia and his fellow soldiers during breaks in the battle:

“They know they can’t win. Look at all the firepower they face. But they’ll take out as many of you as they can before they die. That’s their whole reason for being.”

The more Ware talks, the more surprised I become by his confidence in his assessment. Ware is giving us a lecture. And the more he speaks, the more we realize he knows what he is talking about.

Ware launches into a story about the insurgents he’s met. Early on, in 2003, he would sit and drink beer with them and smoke. They talked about money, girls, soccer, and Pan-arabism. A year after the invasion, though, things have changed. Those who have survived have been radicalized. They wear beards down to their chests and quote the Koran. They don’t drink with him any more. They speak only of God and destiny. They’ve become jihadists.

We’re not fighting nationalists here. We’re fighting extremists infected with a virulent form of Islam. They seek not only to destroy us here in Iraq, but to destroy American power and influence everywhere. They revile our culture and want it swept clean, replaced with Sharia law. The cruelties of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan showed us all what that meant.(p180)

Bellavia and his men’s subsequent experience with the “insurgent global all-star team” made up of “Chechen snipers, Filipino machine gunners, Pakistani mortar men, and Saudi suicide bombers” (p181) confirms what Ware has told them. The story does not spare the reader the rough words of the infantryman’s vocabulary or shy away from dealing more frankly with the details of combat than accounts of earlier wars generally do.

When Bellavia gets back to the US he experiences the coverage as false and misleading as many of his fellow veterans do as well as many of us in the blogosphere with an interest in media. In particular, he describes much the same problem with the manipulation of Western media by Iraqi stringers as Richard Landes does with Palestinian photojournalists at The Second Draft.

Even those who read the paper of watched the evening news didn’t get it. The reason for that was clear: the type of reporting in Iraq left much to be desired. The Michael Wares of the war were few and far between. The majority of the journalists covering Iraq stayed in the Baghdad hotels, where Arab stringers with dubious motives fed them their raw material.

In most mainstream news agencies today, we read stories and see images that stem from foreign national stringers without journalistic schooling. Rarely do those stringers get a prominent byline. The home front audience has no idea of their ethnic, political, or religious bias. Oftentimes, the footage we see of IEDs blowing up is actually filmed by the insurgent cell that triggered the blast. Then the nightly news plays the video at at six and eleven. The line between good and evil is now permanently smudged in Iraq. (p.290)

Even though Sargent Bellavia is pushed again and again beyond his limits he does not fall into fanaticism himself. He is willing to see the humanity in his opponents when he encounters it as well as revile their extremism. He recognizes what it is to encounter an enemy of cultural absolutists without becoming one himself and without losing his understanding of good and evil. He was clearly deeply marked by his experience. One of the sub-themes in the book is how he comes to understand why his best friend changed after being severely wounded prior to the battle of Fallujah. After Fallujah he realizes that, like his friend, he too can no longer tolerate – to use the infantryman’s term – bullshit.

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Fallujah today (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Stephen M. DeBoard – courtesy Michael Yon-online)




Welcome to The Yankee Wombat

I'm an American in Oz. This blog grows out of my experiences post 9/11 when politics forced itself into the foreground of my awareness. I found myself feeling strongly about political issues and felt I had something to contribute to the debate from an expatriate point of view. This blog is the result. Thanks for joining me. Comments are monitored and either accepted or rejected at my pleasure.

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