Sunday, December 31, 2006

It's time for ICBW's annual prediction review and predictions...first, a look at last year's predictions:

  • The focus in Iraq will turn to the corruption and ineffectuality of the newly elected government. The US will reduce its troop presence in the country, claiming as its justification the improving order-keeping capability of the Iraqi armed forces and police. But the insurgency will continue, public safety will be roughly as poor as it is today, the economy will weaken, and dissatisfaction with the squabbling, dealmaking and embezzlement of their elected politicians will sour the Iraqi public on democracy. Iraq will likely be in for a few more years of the same before eventually finding a Saddam-lite/Vladimir Putin-equivalent to de-democratize and restore order.

I apparently overestimated the Bush administration's PR skills. I assumed that they'd adopt the sensible strategy of pretending that everything was going according to plan--regardless of actual conditions on the ground--and simply declaring order more or less restored, to set the stage for subsequent troop withdrawals. Perhaps if they had followed this path, another of my failed predictions below would have been more accurate....

  • There will be neither a military strike at Iran's nuclear facilities (recent reports notwithstanding), nor a test of an Iranian nuclear weapon. By the end of 2006, things will be as they are today--Iran apparently barrelling towards nuclear capability, and the West hemming and hawing over what to do about it.

Spot on, although I concede that this was an easy one.

  • Some kind of joint Hamas-Fatah government will be established in the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority. It will be about as effective as the current government--that is to say, not at all--at battling the chaos that reigns there. A small-but-steady stream of rockets and mortars will rain down on the areas of Israel bordering on Gaza. Israel will respond with regular incursions. Terrorists will continue to attempt to infiltrate into Israel, and will occasionally succeed. Further Israeli withdrawals, if they occur, will have as little effect as the Gaza withdrawal.

Another spot-on prediction. I failed to predict the whole Lebanon fiasco, of course, but my assessment of the Gaza situation was pretty accurate, if I may say so myself.

  • President Bush's popularity will continue to strengthen during the first part of the year, but will nose-dive thereafter in response to the scandal referred to in my aforementioned prediction for 2005. The Republicans will lose ground, though not control, in both houses of Congress in the November elections.

Well, the strengthening was pretty much a blip of a month or so, and the decline was more of a bouncing-along-the-bottom than a real nose-dive. The "scandal" turned out to be something that started in 2003--the Iraq war--not 2005, and the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress. So this one was pretty much dead wrong. In keeping with the zeitgeist--and my other prediction above--I blame it all on the Bush administration's incompetence.

  • Interest rates will rise a little, then decline as economic growth slows. The US dollar will resume its descent after its 2005 rally. The housing market will continue to cool. Oil prices will be down slightly, and inflation will remain under control. The major stock market indices will end the year down modestly from their current levels.

This price chart showing treasury bond prices (the inverse of interest rates) fits my prediction nicely. The dollar has indeed descended, and the housing market has indeed cooled. Oil prices were up for most of the year, but are now only slightly above their starting price. Similarly, inflation rose earlier in the year, but now seems to be in a comfortable range. My only real economic oopsie this year was failing to predict a second-half stock market surge--but I fully expect it to be transient (see below).

  • The Conservatives will form the next Canadian government.

Getting this one right wasn't too surprising, but neither was it entirely certain back when the prediction was made.

  • The usual suspects--Chavez, Khamenei and Kim--will remain in power, barring natural or accidental death.

Another easy one--although some might have predicted trouble for Chavez, who was up for re-election.

  • Kofi Annan will remain UN Secretary-General until his term expires at the end of 2006. And despite signs of trouble, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will also remain in power through the coming year.

Slightly harder than the previous ones--yet still correct.

  • The controversial surprise popular culture hit of the year will be a fictional work (film, television broadcast, play, novel, song, or perhaps some other form) that dares to vividly depict Islamist terrorists of Middle Eastern origin as evil villains.

I had high hopes that this movie would bail me out, but it fizzled at the box office. This docudrama made a bit of a splash, but more because of the controversy it generated than because of its ratings--and it's unclear whether the villains were the terrorists or the bungling politicians who failed to stop them. I guess my finger just isn't quite perfectly aligned atop the pulse of popular culture.

Now for this year's predictions:

  • Any "surge" by US troops in Iraq, if it occurs at all, will be perfunctory and ineffectual. Likewise, any diplomatic initiative aimed at Iran or Syria will be half-hearted and come to nothing. Instead, Bush will rely on congressional pressure to force his hand, allowing him to reduce the American troop presence in Iraq while protesting that the mission would have succeeded if not for the meddling of lily-livered Democrats. More generally, the administration's popularity will improve now that it has a Democratic congress as its foil, although Iraq, and foreign policy generally, will not be the main arena of confrontation (see below).
  • The conflict between Hezbollah and Israel will not flare up again this year, as Hezbollah will be preoccupied with consolidating and increasing its power in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Israel will be preoccupied with the continuing chaos in Gaza, which will spill over into the West Bank as well. The low-level civil war between Fatah and Hamas will continue, with numerous outside interests lining up on one side or the other. Rocket launchings and other attacks from Gaza into Israel will continue, and Israel's response will be sporadically violent, and sufficient to reduce but not eliminate them.
  • Attention in the US will turn away from foreign policy and towards the economy, as (1) the economy slows and (2) economic policy becomes the focus of the Democratic congressional agenda--and of conflicts between Congress and the administration. Trade, taxes, fiscal policy, entitlements and regulation of business will be key flashpoints, against a backdrop of slower growth, a weakening dollar, a continuing real estate slump, and a retrenching stock market. Oil prices will drop slightly, though, and interest rates will decline slightly--although not enough to juice the economy, owing to lingering inflation worries.
  • In addition to the usual suspects all making it through the year (barring accident or illness), Ehud Olmert will surprise many by remaining in power as prime minister of Israel. (Navigating Israel's byzantine political ecosystem is the one thing he's serious about and competent at.)
  • Neither of the two current frontrunners for the Democratic party presidential nomination (Clinton and Obama) will be considered a frontrunner by the end of the year. On the other hand, at least one of the two current frontrunners for the Republican nomination (Giuliani and McCain) will be considered a frontrunner at the end of the year.
  • (This one contributed by someone I know) A scandal will tarnish the sterling, upscale image of Whole Foods.

Over the years, of course, my prediction record has been pretty awful. But as the mutual funds say, past performance is no guarantee of future results....

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Our blog has been selected to be part of a survey of political bloggers and their readers. If you'd like to participate, you are invitd to do so here.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The now-famous video of Michael Richards' racist tirade at some black hecklers has provoked a lot of shock, disgust and disappointment from people who wonder how such an entertaining comedian could express such ugly hatred. My reaction is very different: I'm not only not shocked--I'm not even convinced Richards has demonstrated himself to be a racist. Rather, his rant struck me as a totally normal explosion of the seething rage that exists inside many, perhaps most, stand-up comics.

A large fraction of comedians are deeply damaged people, filled with obsessive, solipsistic self-loathing (as one female comic explained it, "I'm a piece of crap that the world revolves around") and incapable of normal social interaction, let alone emotional intimacy. As a result, they find themselves so desperately lonely that they will gladly accept the humiliation of making fools of themselves in front of a large audience of strangers--just so long as those strangers are willing to listen to them. In a way, their comedy is a form of payment to the audience, with which they buy the attention and acceptance they crave, and cannot get otherwise.

Of course, such an intense need inevitably stokes equally intense bitterness and resentment towards that same audience, further fueled by a searing sense of rejection when their acts occasionally (or, at the beginning, frequently) bomb. So when a small group of hecklers, by talking during Richards' act, reminded him just how much he needed them to listen to him, and how little his need was reciprocated, they caused him more pain than they could possibly have imagined, and he naturally lashed out in the most vicious, hurtful way he could think of.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if Richards bears no hostility against blacks in general. (In the past, apparently, he's resorted to anti-Semitic slurs, as well, when heckled. Is he really likely to hate all the Jews involved with Seinfeld?) But for those particular blacks who on that one night exposed his greatest weakness and most shameful pathological need, his hatred knew no bounds, and no insult would have been too harsh.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Although I've made fun of international relations theorists in the past, there is one IR concept which, when properly applied, has its uses: the realist doctrine of "equilibrium", which can be interpreted in the Machiavellian sense of, "help my weaker enemy against my stronger enemy". This tactic can have several outcomes, all net positive: the stronger enemy could defeat the weaker enemy, but at a greater cost than had the weaker enemy not been helped; the weaker enemy could make use of the help to defeat the stronger enemy, effectively knocking the stronger enemy further down on the "enemies list"; or the conflict could drag on, preoccupying both enemies and thus reducing their opportunities to make trouble elsewhere. The most famous modern example of this strategy in action is the assistance that the US and Britain gave the Soviet Union once it was attacked by Nazi Germany in 1941. Needless to say, that strategy worked brilliantly.

Of course, if the weaker enemy defeats the stronger one, then the weaker enemy can become a problem in itself, and it can seem superficially, in retrospect, as though the strategy has backfired. These days, the most commonly cited example of this "blowback" phenomenon is the assistance that the US provided to Islamic fundamentalists--including, apparently, one Osama bin Laden--in fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. (For some reason, the Cold War is never described as blowback from "lend-lease".) Now, neocon Michael Rubin is describing Iraq's 1991 invasion of Kuwait as blowback from American aid to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.

Both interpretations are sheer nonsense. Global Islamist terrorism is a serious threat, but it can't begin to compare to the threat previously posed by the Soviet Union. Assuming that American assistance to the Afghan rebels in the 1980s actually helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union--and its contribution seems in retrospect to have been substantial, if not decisive--the investment paid off spectacularly. In fact, had the Soviet Union not fallen, there's a good chance that Islamist terrorists would be an even greater threat to the US than they are today--thanks to the kind of assistance from the Soviet bloc that anti-Western terrorists received during the 1970s and 1980s.

Likewise, American support for Saddam Hussein during his long war with Iran was hardly a failure. On the contrary, it kept two deadly enemies of the US preoccupied for nearly a decade--a decade during which they made relatively little trouble for the rest of the world. Again, had the US withheld aid, and had Iran managed to defeat Iraq as a result, it would likely have been able to topple Saddam Hussein, and achieve political dominance over its neighbor. Its rebuilding of its military and financial resources--not to mention its nuclear program--would also have started sooner and taken less time. In short, had that assistance not been given to Iraq, Iran would likely be far richer, more powerful and more dangerous than it is today.

Of course, defenders of the first president Bush's decision not to help topple Saddam Hussein in 1991 use exactly the same logic: without Saddam Hussein as a counterweight, Iran would have had a freer hand than it did. The problem with this argument is that by 1991, Saddam Hussein had stopped being an effective counterweight to Iran. On the contrary, he was more of a burden to the US--which had to station tens of thousands of troops to guard the Saudi flank from him, while devoting a portion of its air force to protecting Iraqi Kurdistan--than a hindrance to Iran, which spent the 1990s building and arming Hezbollah, strengthening its ties with Syria, and revving up its nuclear program.

What does this history suggest about America's current situation in Iraq? Well, it would have been nice, of course, if Iraq could have been a peaceful, stable, pro-Western democracy, acting as a bulwark against the various anti-American radicalisms in the region. But given that that unrealistic goal has not been achieved, it seems unlikely that America's worst enemy in the world today is the collection of mutually antagonistic sectarian terrorist militias springing up there. On the contrary, since they all seem to have far more enthusiasm for slaughtering each other (or at least, each other's civilians) than for attacking American troops, it seems far more reasonable for the US to let them have at it than to try to stop them. As Daniel Pipes noted, civil war in Iraq "would be a humanitarian tragedy but not a strategic one". Indeed, it may provide interesting strategic opportunities: by supporting the more anti-Syrian/Iranian groups, the US might be able to draw those countries further into the conflict, forcing them to use more of their resources exerting their influence in Iraq than they would otherwise need to apply.

Now, it has been speculated lately that the Baker-Hamilton commission will recommend instead addressing the Iraq problem by attempting a rapprochement with Iran. Stupidity is never out of the question, of course, but I'm skeptical of that prediction. Whatever else may be said of James Baker--anti-Israel, Arabist, State Department-style schmoozer of dictators--his (and the State Department's) absolute number one favorite anti-Israel Arab dictator to schmooze has always been the reigning monarch of Saudi Arabia. And by siding with Israel, of all countries, against Hezbollah, the Saudis have made it crystal clear that their foremost concern these days is the threat of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis.

Assuming, then, that Baker stays true to his old loyalties, don't be surprised if American policy in Iraq, far from moving towards reconciliation with Iran, takes a sharp turn, as it were, towards the Sunni side of the street.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A recent study published in the British medical journal Lancet claims to have measured 650,000 "excess deaths" resulting from the US invasion of Iraq. (These include deaths indirectly attributed to the invasion, such as those resulting from the post-invasion weakness of Iraq's economy, basic services and infrastructure.) Opponents of the war are using this figure to bolster their argument that it was foolish and morally wrong; one commentator has even argued that America ought to pay reparations to Iraq in penance for invading.

Pro-US bloggers, most notably Megan McArdle, have been blasting the study's calculations, claiming that the final result is self-evidently grossly exaggerated. They may be right, but their quibbling over numbers, in my view, misses the point entirely. In fact, the number of "excess deaths" in Iraq since the invasion is probably quite high--presumably in the hundreds of thousands. But that that fact alone says very little about either the wisdom or the morality of the American action.

Consider the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The number of excess deaths it generated in Chechnya alone--to say nothing of the many other hotspots that have flared up within its erstwhile borders, the lethal effects of the economic catastrophe that befell the entire region once the command was removed from the command economy, and the associated surge in alcoholism, AIDS, and other health problems of the kind that invariably flourish when the social order breaks down--likely dwarfs the claimed total attributed to Iraq. And the prospects for democracy in Iraq today are arguably better than in the former Soviet Union, where most of the republics are currently experiencing a resurgence of Soviet-style government. Does it follow, then, that the end of the Soviet regime was a disaster, and that the countries of the West should have done their best to prop up, say, the 1991 coup plotters, to save the country from chaos?

Or consider post-Tito Yugoslavia. Again, Western countries had the choice of embracing Slovenian and Croatian independence, thus encouraging the breakup of the country, or of rejecting these secessions and encouraging the central government to exert its authority. They chose the former path--and hundreds of thousands died in the bitter, bloody civil war that followed. Can we conclude, then, that the West should instead have done what it could to shore up Yugoslavia as a unified state?

Now, one could in fact argue that the correct answer to the above questions is actually "yes"--that the fall of the Soviet and Yugoslavian regimes was a humanitarian disaster in the medium term, and should in retrospect have been impeded to the extent it was possible to do so. But to take such a position is to focus the blame for the post-collapse misery in a very strange direction. After all, the collapse itself may have made the misery more likely, but it's the assorted thugs, thieves, terrorists, apparatchiks, strongmen and so on who have made life miserable for their countrymen, instead of participating productively in the reconstruction of their respective nations, who have actually caused the misery. To blame those who permitted or assisted in the collapse of these nations' dictatorships for the subsequent chaos, rather than the perpetrators of the chaos themselves, is to assert in effect that that chaos was as direct a consequence of the disappearance of the previous dictatorship as of the actions of perpetrators--that is, that the peoples of those countries were doomed to fall into Hobbesian disarray when freed from the lash of an iron ruler.

Such assertions are not entirely unheard-of--especially out of the mouths of iron rulers themselves. (For example, it was the justification that General Jaruzelski used when declaring martial law in Poland in 1981: that it was necessary to stave off civil war. The then-Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, infamously concurred.) But such confident determinism ignores history's long list of seemingly unprepared countries that nevertheless successfully managed the transition to democracy. It also implies a level of contempt for the nations in question that ought to give anyone pause. (Consider, for example, the assertion that the horrible decay of Zimbabwe following the end of white rule was inevitable, and should have been prevented by perpetuating the subjugation of blacks. How, exactly, is the corresponding statement about the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia--or Iraq, for that matter--less objectionable?)

Then again, let us even suppose that in some particular case it's actually true--that a particular country really is doomed to collapse into chaos if a given dictator is removed. (Some certainly made that claim about Iraq--and even I was none-too-optimistic about that country's prospects for the kind of democratic renaissance that the more starry-eyed supporters of the war had hoped for.) Suppose, furthermore, that the current dictator of the country in question is a run-of-the-mill absolute ruler--not a monster of the Saddam Hussein variety, but a grey Party stalwart in the Brezhnev-Tito mold. Might one argue that in that case, at least, the dictator is preferable to the post-dictatorship alternative?

The problem with that argument is that dictatorships never last forever. The eventual collapse of, say, the Soviet Union was inevitable, and if chaos was certain to be the aftermath of its collapse, then that, too, was inevitable. It follows that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 rather than, say, half a century later had no net effect other than sparing the population an extra fifty years of oppression under Soviet rule. The misery we are seeing today would have occcurred regardless, but by coming sooner, it hastened whatever improvement is likely to follow. If what follows is to any degree better than what preceded it, then the people will have benefited.

The catch in this line of reasoning, mind you, is that it assumes that what follows the current dilapidated state of the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia will be an improvement on the Soviet/Titoist era. That seems quite likely, but I'll concede that a cynic might predict Soviet-like rule for those countries for decades or even centuries to come. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that what follows the current strife-torn state of affairs in Iraq will not be an improvement on Saddam Hussein, one of the most brutal dictators in Middle Eastern history.

To be sure, there is ample room for criticism of American handling of Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (not that we'll ever know whether implementing any particular different strategy would have saved lives, of course). But the mere fact that the post-Saddam era in Iraq has been disturbingly violent in no way refutes the claim that the war that overthrew Saddam Hussein was every bit as justified on moral grounds (putting aside the enormous strategic benefits) as the US-supported political maneuvers that broke up the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Indeed, given the unusual brutality of the Iraqi regime, the moral argument for overthrowing it is even stronger than the case for encouraging the collapse of the old Communist regimes. And even after acknowledging the ugly condition of some parts of the old Communist realm, who today seriously wishes that the Soviets and Titoists had never lost power?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Bush administration apparently wants to amend the War Crimes Act, so that
humiliations, degrading treatment and other acts specifically deemed as "outrages" by the international tribunal prosecuting war crimes in the former Yugoslavia -- such as placing prisoners in "inappropriate conditions of confinement," forcing them to urinate or defecate in their clothes, and merely threatening prisoners with "physical, mental, or sexual violence" -- would not be among the listed U.S. crimes, officials said.
The usual suspects are up in arms, of course. But their fury aside, it occurs to me that by opposing the criminalization of “degrading treatment”, the administration is depriving itself of a golden opportunity to extricate itself from its Gitmo problem. After all, under the broader definition, the US government could simply set up a tribunal and try the Guantanamo detainees for war crimes related to their maltreatment of their guards.

After all, if it's a terrible crime when perpetrated by American guards against Al Qaeda terrorists, then surely it's at least as terrible a crime when perpetrated by Al Qaeda terrorists against American guards--right?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Apparently Charles Murray's new book talks up a fairly old idea: a universal guaranteed income. Supposedly, providing everyone with a government salary of a few thousand dollars a year would solve the problem of destitution (i.e., provide a "safety net"), while not giving people enough comfort to discourage them from improving their standard of living through hard work.

The underlying assumption--which seems to be almost universally taken for granted--is that guaranteed income programs only risk creating a dependent underclass when the guaranteed income is too generous. The American experience with AFDC ought to have put paid to that assumption. Contrary to popular belief, the American welfare system was never all that extravagant, and the American urban underclass during (especially) the 1980s lived very meagerly indeed.

It's true that AFDC also added an extra disincentive to work, in the form of reduced benefits for the legally employed. However, illicit, unreported employment was widely available during the welfare era, and most welfare recipients supplemented their incomes with it on a casual basis. The result was not a thriving underground economy of industrious low-wage workers--as we see today among illegal immigrants, for instance. Rather, welfare cultivated a pathology-rich urban underclass ridden with crime, violence, family breakdown, substance abuse and (of course) grinding, seemingly inescapable poverty. And the same type of social safety net, writes British doctor and social critic Theodore Dalrymple, has now generated an underclass with comparable pathologies in Great Britain.

How, though, could a miserly welfare program, with paltry benefits, have such a profound negative psychological effect on its recipients? I would argue that in fact, the key pernicious attribute of guaranteed income programs is not their generosity, but rather their stability. A guaranteed government income is even more stable than most jobs (which, after all, can disappear overnight). And for a not-insignificant fraction of the population, the stress of trying to hold down a job with a respectable salary is less attractive than the comfort of guaranteed work offering only a subsistence income--let alone a subsistence income that requires no work.

If I were to design a welfare program, I'd take it in exactly the opposite direction from Murray. I'd make it at least as generous as all current programs combined, and focus it exclusively on the needy. However, I would treat it as a government-operated charity program, rather than as an entitlement program. An all-encompassing "charity budget" would be set each year through legislation, and its funds would be doled out in the form of matching grants to registered charitable organizations helping the needy. The usual oversight would be necessary, of course, to ensure that the charitable funds are disbursed honestly. But no charity--and hence no recipient--could ever be sure of receiving as much money in any given month or year as in the previous month or year. A local natural disaster, for instance, might divert much charitable giving towards its victims, thus reducing the amount available for the chronically poor.

Such a system, I claim, would make welfare dependency much less attractive than an entitlement system would--even if it provides the same overall amount of money to the needy. Unlike the recipient of a guaranteed income, a "charity case" under this system would have to endure not only a lower income, but also more instability, than a gainfully employed citizen. This instability would be a powerful incentive to work even for those who are comfortably able to tolerate a financially constrained lifestyle.

As I've pointed out before, the whole concept of entitlement is based on a flawed conception of human need. We cannot hope to end human want--as entitlement programs implicitly aim to do--because human want is infinite and eternal. On the other hand, we are (I believe) morally compelled to contribute to the well-being of our fellow humans, through charitable giving. Government entitlement programs, by straying from the donor-centered ethos of charitable generosity, have managed to end up hurting both the donors and their beneficiaries. The solution, then, is to abandon the false hope of "entitlement", and return once again to the ideal of charity.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

As Volokh Conspirator Ilya Somin notes, Author J,K. Rowling is apparently hinting lately that Harry Potter may die at the end of the seven-book series. Now, I haven't read any of the books, but after seeing the last movie, I concluded that the most natural ending for the series would be for Harry to sacrifice himself to save his child and kill Voldemort--just as his parents did before him. How else, after all, to tie up the plot threads of Harry's mysterious origins, his strange connection to Voldemort, the improbably great expectations placed on him by everyone around him, and his interminable tests and demonstrations of "character", implicitly defined as willingness to take great risks, face great challenges and make great sacrifices for the sake of those around him?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Some political scientists at the University of Toronto have started a letter-writing campaign on behalf of a former colleague, Ramin Jahanbegloo, who has been imprisoned by the government of Iran on trumped-up "espionage" charges. Crooked Timber's Henry Farrell points out (approvingly, mind you) a rather unusual feature of this campaign: the organizers
ask that you be careful to adopt a respectful tone and avoid political condemnation. Bear in mind that our purpose is to secure Ramin’s safe release, not to make statements of principle, however valid.
Now, imagine if, for example, the letter-writing campaign had instead been aimed at getting the US government to release the accused Taliban and Al Qaeda members imprisoned at its Guantanamo detention facility. Is it even conceivable that the organizers would have asked participants---let alone expected them to agree---to "adopt a respectful tone and avoid political condemnation" of George Bush, the Republican Party, US imperialism, and so on?

Worse still, Jahanbegloo himself was pretty clearly imprisoned for failing to "adopt a respectful tone and avoid political condemnation" of the Iranian government's actions. The campaign's organizers are thus effectively undercutting the case for their own hero's release. After all, if they're willing to forgo "statements of principle" about the Iranian government when expediency dictates, then why shouldn't the Iranian government expect the same of Jahanbegloo?

Of course, none of this really matters unless one believes people's political positions should exhibit some kind of principled consistency. For the vast majority of the population, however---and I include political scientists, such as the ones who organized this campaign---all politics is "identity politics". That is, one chooses one's political stances the way one chooses one's clothing styles---as a way of affiliating oneself with certain groups of people, and distancing oneself from others.

By this criterion, the decision to counsel restraint in addressing the Iranian government makes perfect sense. Who, after all, are the sort of people who launch into tirades about the evils of the Iranian government? Certainly not the sort one is likely to find at the Political Science Department of the University of Toronto. Happy though they may be to stand up for one of their erstwhile colleagues, they would never do so in a manner that might make them appear more like a frothing neocon, or a born-again redneck, or a white-shoed Bush Republican, than---well, than the sort of people they are. (And why do all those disparate groups of people---neocons, Christian fundamentalists, plutocrats, and the rest---so often sound exactly the same when talking about Iran? Why, to avoid sounding like University of Toronto political science academics and their like, of course....)

Unfortunately, wearing one's political views as a fashion statement doesn't necessarily lead one to exhibit rigorous intellectual consistency at all times. Ramin Jahanbegloo, a former University of Toronto academic, Harvard fellow, and admirer of Noam Chomsky's---Chomsky having coincidentally just completed a friendly visit with the Iranian mullahs' fanatical Lebanese proxies, Hezbollah---would no doubt understand completely.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

I apologize for the lack of recent postings--since April 2nd, I've been preoccupied with a special project. Posting will resume when I have more time....

Friday, April 14, 2006

The differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam
Since it is looking more and more likely that the eagerly anticipated Iraq civil war may finally be upon us, a number of readers have written to me asking: "LTEC, can you explain the differences between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam?"

I'd be glad to. Keep in mind, however, that this is a very complex issue. The answer is not simple, but if my readers will be patient and stick with me, I think they will find this explanation of the differences between the two major sects of one of the world's great religions to be both informative and illuminating. So here goes.

Sunni Islam split off from Shiite Islam (or maybe it was the other way around) a very long time ago, due to some event or other that no one in their right mind gives a rat's ass about today. Ever since then, Sunnis have wanted to kill Shiites for no particular reason, other than that there weren't enough worse infidels around; and Shiites have felt similarly about Sunnis. There are a few other, very minor differences, but they make even less sense.

I hope you've found this explanation useful. If it is well received, I plan to post other explanations about the world of religious thought. I am currently working on a post explaining the theological complexities of the disagreements between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A joke for Islam Awareness Week
Islam Awareness Week, sometimes called Muslim Awareness Week, is celebrated at different times around the country. In honor of this event, here is an old but relevant joke.

A congressman is touring a mental hospital. He comes across an especially heavily guarded room, and asks permission to speak with the patient. As soon as they are alone together the patient says:
Please congressman, you've got to help me. I'm not really crazy, but my relatives plotted to put me here so they could steal my money. You don't have to take my word for this -- you can verify it for yourself. The entire trial at which I was committed was a sham. If you look into it you'll see that the psychiatrists that testified were bribed by my relatives, and that all the lawyers had been convicted of numerous fraud charges in the past. Please check out my story, and if you see that I'm telling you the truth and that I'm completely sane, then get me released from here.
The congressman promises to look into his story.
Do you promise, do you absolutely promise?
The congressman promises to look into the matter as soon as he leaves the hospital. As he is turning to leave the room, a brick slams into the back of his head sending him reeling to the floor. He's in incredible pain as he turns around to look at the patient, who says:
You're sure you won't forget?

Monday, March 13, 2006

A Russian joke for International Women's Day
A (Soviet) Russian joke goes as follows:
Word gets around that a particular butcher shop will actually have some meat on the following day. That day, by 3AM, there is already a huge line winding around the block outside the shop. At 7AM there is an announcement: "We're sorry comrades, but the shipment of meat is smaller than we expected. All Jews must leave the line." The rest of the people continue to wait, and at noon there is another announcement: "Sorry again. Even less meat than we thought. Everyone who is not a member of the Party must leave the line." At 4PM: "Not very much meat coming. You must leave the line if you are not a member of the Central Committee". At 7PM, the final announcement: "Sorry, no meat at all". As two people leave the line, one of them grumbles to the other:
"Those Jews have all the luck!"

The connection with International Women's Day comes from a Toronto Star article about that event entitled, "More women on their own: Study". It begins by telling us:
Bridget Jones had it right — there are more women living alone these days than ever before, at least in Canada. Women are marrying less, divorcing more and outliving the men they do stay with, according to a Statistics Canada study released yesterday.
It's that last comment about the plight of women that I wish to comment on. The article is essentially saying: "Those men have all the luck!". That is, the men (on average) have been kicked off the line.

This sentiment is actually quite common. When someone complains about government policy toward the aged, it is often stated that these policies are anti-woman because most old people are women. Our student newspaper once complained that the government policy of raising university tuition was anti-woman, because a significant majority of university students are women. (Oddly, they didn't compliment the government for being pro-Black.) From my Encarta 2005 encyclopedia article about the Taliban, we learn that one of the (many) problems faced by women was:
[W]omen were forbidden to work outside their homes. In a country where hundreds of thousands of men had been killed in warfare, widows found themselves unable to work to provide basic necessities for their families.
Once again, men have all the luck.

Finally, here is my own joke in honor of International Women's Day, inspired by George Costanza from Seinfeld. (Frankly, I'm not really sure how it relates to the above rant.)

Upon being told how awful it is for a woman to outlive her husband, a man replies, "I hope that doesn't happen to my wife."

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

again with the academic freedom
I wrote a post on Academic Freedom, Dan responded, I responded to him, he responded to me, and this is my response to that.

1) Industry versus academia
First, to clear up one misunderstanding: I oppose (strongly) cracking down on gratuitous politicking in the classroom, but not because of the need to allow professors to say (for example) gratuitous antifeminist things. In fact, I'm against anything that I go out of my way to label "gratuitous". In fact, I'm against gratuitous antifeminism in the classroom as much as I'm against gratuitous feminism. Rather, I oppose such a crackdown because I'm afraid it will have the effect of chilling non-gratuitous, necessary and appropriate speech in the classroom.

But I certainly believe we need to allow free speech in the university (to non-captive audiences, as explained here), and I still think that nothing approximating this exists in industry. Dan claims that this blog is a counterexample, but I'm skeptical. Rather, I believe, its continued existence is due to its small readership. The typical IT employer is constantly bemoaning the lack of women in IT, and apologizing for it and saying: "we have to do more", and announcing efforts to make the workplace more woman-friendly. Now what would happen if a NOW type complains to the press about the horrible antifeminist attitudes of an employee of this hypothetical company? Would we have a simple statement from management such as "he has a right to express his opinions"? Or would there be a Summers-style blood-letting? The fact is that I see no well-known outspoken antifeminists in IT (although I have good reason to believe many antifeminists exist in IT) and I see no such controversies. To translate into the modern vernacular: the reason there are no protests is because the cartoons just aren't being printed (where enough people will see them).

I'm perfectly willing to admit that I might be wrong here, and I'd be happy if this were the case. I wish I could see a lot of serious public discussion about the whole "women in IT" issue from people in IT, but I just don't see it. Anywhere.

2) Which whistle-blowers should be on hiring committees?
Another misunderstanding, since I thought I said this. What standards should be used for choosing whistle-blowers? They should be chosen only as they are needed, and in a very conservative fashion. Since there is glaring proof in my department and my university of blatant, inappropriate discrimination against anti-feminists (and I am not referring here to indirect evidence, such as a shortage of antifeminists), antifeminists are needed as whistleblowers. There is no such proof (or even evidence) of discrimination against Elvis-sighters, and there is proof of nondiscrimination against the extreme left, so whistle-blowers for these groups are not needed. Whistleblowers should be used only in the most extreme and clearcut situations. (Why can't Dan believe I'm sincere about this, and not self-serving?)

Dan says, "if there are good, capable researchers and university-level teachers who are being denied an opportunity to enter academia because of political bias ..." (emphasis mine). Does he actually question whether or not this is the case? The Summers case (that I refuse to link to again) is an aberration only because Summers stepped out of line a wee little bit. Most of us never step out of line.

3) Why not competing "free-speech" universities?
Many people have noted that the market in high-quality, private universities has been frozen for many decades. None of these universities have shut down, and no new ones have started up. I don't fully understand the reason for this, but it is a fact and it is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. (Note, however, that it is possible for universities to change to take advantage of the existence of people desiring more free speech. George Mason University may be an example.) My guess is that when he is not arguing with me, Dan will readily admit that most current such universities are suffused with a stultifying, regimented, extreme-left atmosphere. The real difference between us is that Dan would be happy (I think) to have competing high-quality universities with different stultifying atmospheres, whereas I want an atmosphere where people feel free to speak (to willing audiences), and where people feel no right not to be offended. This difference between myself and Dan also exists in the realm of newspapers, where there really is a marketplace.

4) Can newspapers be improved?
Dan is happy (I think) as long as the marketplace gives us competing, ideologically different newspapers. I think that we (as a society) can do better. There are two reasons I prefer one newspaper that makes a reasonable effort to be relatively unbiased, to two (ideologically opposed to each other) that do not. One reason is that I often go to a news source to find out information -- not to be told something that I already know. I would like, therefore, a news source I can trust. The second reason is that I want both myself and my fellow citizens to have access to moderate, sensible reporting rather than two (or more) sets of screaming loonies. Dan seems to think my dream is impossible, but his only evidence is that it hasn't happened; more specifically, it has happened a little, but because of external pressures rather than because of internal discussions of opposing viewpoints leading to moderation.

Why has no internal mechanism worked? Maybe it's because it can't, but maybe because it's because it hasn't been tried. I would really like to know what goes on inside the New York Times. Imagine the discussion about what to put into the paper, that occurred just after Al Gore gave a speech in Saudi Arabia apologizing for the sorry state of civil liberties in the U.S. and advocating closer ties with the Saudis. Did someone at the table say: "Maybe Gore's speech is news. We've certainly ran enough stories accusing Bush of being too close to the Saudis, so let's run this story."? If no one said this, then there is no internal mechanism that can be accused of failing. Alternatively, if someone did say this but it had absolutely no effect on the mindset of the others, then my proposed internal mechanism has failed (at least in this case). Until we learn more, I'm still hopeful.

Monday, February 20, 2006

I recently drew an analogy between rioting Muslims today and rioting African-Americans in past decades, concluding, based on the American experience, that alienated and violent minority groups do not necessarily stay that way forever. And as I later pointed out in a comment on one of LTEC's posts, the reaction of the society at large to rioting members of a minority group--in particular, whether they appease or condemn the rioters and the leaders who inflame their grievances and promote their violence--plays a huge role in determining the frequency and disruptiveness of future violence and mayhem. I would argue that two major causes of the decline of racial tensions in the US in recent years have been the rise of public expectations for law and order in large US cities--most notably New York--and the decline in the public standing of such rabble-rousing leaders as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.

Well, my analogy has now been picked up by Robert Wright in a New York Times Op-Ed--but with a bizarre twist. Wright views the decades of racial hostility that plagued America from the 1960's through the early 1990's, and the fawning attitude towards rioters and their cheerleaders that perpetuated it, as a healthy phenomenon:
Remember the urban riots of the 1960's, starting with the Watts riot of 1965, in which 34 people were killed? The St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, in his 1968 book "From Ghetto to Glory," compared the riots to a "brushback pitch" — a pitch thrown near a batter's head to keep him from crowding the plate, a way of conveying that the pitcher needs more space....

Amid the cartoon protests, some conservative blogs have warned that addressing grievances expressed violently is a form of "appeasement," and will only bring more violence and weaken Western values. But "appeasement" didn't work that way in the 1960's. The Kerner Commission, set up by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to study the riots, recommended increased attention to the problems of poverty, job and housing discrimination, and unequal education — attention that was forthcoming and that didn't exactly spawn decades of race riots.
Now, it may be nothing more than a stunning coincidence that decreased attention to the problems of poverty, job and housing discrimination, and unequal education during the late 1990's--starting with the welfare reform of 1996--was accompanied by a significant improvement in race relations, after years of tension marked by the (1977) New York, (1980) Liberty City, (1982 and 1989) Overtown, (1991) Crown Heights, and (1992) LA riots, and many, many smaller conflagrations. But it's hard to argue that increased attention to these issues results in improved race relations, when the historical pattern is so strikingly inconsistent with that claim.

Likewise for Wright's other prescription:
But the American experience suggests that steadfast self-restraint can bring progress. In the 1960's, the Nation of Islam was gaining momentum as its leader, Elijah Muhammad, called whites "blue-eyed devils" who were about to be exterminated in keeping with Allah's will. The Nation of Islam has since dropped in prominence and, anyway, has dropped that doctrine from its talking points. Peace prevails in America, and one thing that keeps it is strict self-censorship. [emphasis added]
Now, the Nation of Islam may have"dropped in prominence" lately, but it was still going strong in 1995, when its leader, Louis Farrakhan, organized the "Million-Man March" on Washington. Was his fall from prominence aided or impeded by the "strict self-censorship" that made the lunacy of his views a taboo topic in the press until his bizarre speech at that event made ignoring them impossible? Likewise, was Jesse Jackson's career as a racial shakedown artist helped or hindered by the "strict self-censorship" (occasionally fortified by threats of violence) that suppressed from public view his shady dealings and personal indiscretions? And have race relations in America improved or declined since these leaders ceased being the objects of widespread veneration?

Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds said it best: "when you reward violence and efforts at violent intimidation, you'll get more of them." After years of racial-guilt-induced blindness to that simple principle, Americans have finally acknowledged it with respect to their African-American minority, and the result has been far greater racial harmony. We shall see which countries, if any, apply it in turn to their dealings with their Islamic minorities.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Some points in response to LTEC's latest arguments about academic freedom:

1) I'm glad LTEC agrees that "to the extent that all 'time' is well-defined as being either company time or private time, politicking should be done on private time." But he goes on to say he opposes applying that standard to universities by cracking down on gratuitous politicking in the classroom. His reason? That there are things that can't be said openly in industry--he uses the example of workers in the IT industry making statements about women in IT--and universities should be places where people are able to say them.

As a worker in the IT industry, I find that argument hugely ironic. After all, I'm not the one blogging under a pseudonym. In fact, I feel quite comfortable saying lots of controversial things on my blog, including controversial things about the IT industry. It's true that I'm quite careful about what I say about my own employer--but I'm generally happy to talk freely about other people's employers, as they no doubt are to talk freely about mine. And the IT industry in general is, as far as I'm concerned completely fair game. (I imagine that if I felt the slightest bit uncomfortable saying the kinds of things LTEC has said on my blog about women in IT, then I would probably feel roughly as uncomfortable lending LTEC my blog for the purpose of saying those same things.)

Many of my co-workers know about my blog, some of them even read it, and I've never felt anything like the pressure that LTEC claims to feel in his academic environment to conform to a "party line" on broad topics like "women in IT". If that's the crying need that "academic freedom" is supposed to fill, then we really don't have any need for it.

2) LTEC went to great lengths to insist that he's not advocating "affirmative action" for views he thinks deserve more representation on campus, and that he merely wants everyone to be free to express their opinions. But he never answered my question: if every hiring committee should have a non-feminist "whistleblower", then why not an non-elvis-is-dead whistleblower, a parapsychology-is-real whistleblower, a Holocaust-denial whistleblower, and so on? Which opinions get whistleblowers, and which do not? By what standard do we choose them?

3) LTEC's analogy between academia and journalism is flawed in two ways. First of all, journalism, unlike academia, has a natural, useful point of reference against which to assess bias: the audience. If a journalist's audience suspects the journalist of bias, then they stop trusting that journalist, and start paying attention to somebody else. That's the sense (and, as I've repeatedly argued, the only sense) in which many of North America's major journalistic institutions exhibit political biases.

What, though, is the comparable basis (apart from LTEC's personal judgment) for assessing biases in academic institutions? After all, academics are supposed to be judged by their peers, not by students, politicians or the public at large. We thus arrive at the problem I identified above, of distinguishing opinions worthy of protection against "bias" from those that aren't. Is the low number of, say, academic Elvis-sighters, compared to their numbers in the public at large, a sign of pervasive bias that should be remedied? Do more of them therefore need to be hired into faculty positions? Do we need "whistleblowers" in hiring committees to identify bias against them?

Second, to the extent that the availability of diverse views has improved journalism lately, it has been--by LTEC's own admission--a result of external competition, not internal measures such as his proposed "whistleblower" program. It has yet to be seen whether any press organ has actually lessened its degree of bias in any direction in response to a "whistleblower on the hiring committee" rule, or any other such internal mechanism--even if the desired effect of diversifying viewpoints in the press at large has been achieved. I'm similarly skeptical about any such mechanisms working in academia.

On the other hand, if there are good, capable researchers and university-level teachers who are being denied an opportunity to enter academia because of political bias, then the obvious solution is for some enterprising university administrator to begin courting and recruiting them, thus building up a faculty far better than he or she would be able to attract by conforming to the prevailing academic prejudices. As long as universities have the power to do that--that is, as long as "academic freedom" as it was originally intended exists--good academics will be sure to find a receptive haven in which to work.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Academic Freedom, again
I wrote a post below on Academic Freedom, and Dan has posted a response to it. This is a response to Dan's response.

I will defend myself against Dan's charges of hypocrisy below but I'll
begin with a discussion of issues of more general interest.

1) What is "academic freedom"?
Dan complains that my definition is too recent, and that we should stick with an older definition. The first definition he offers is, "the premise of academic freedom was that academics should not be constrained regarding the ideas that they express in their work". I alluded to this definition briefly in my post. It seems to me that this notion makes little sense, since "the ideas they express in their work" are precisely what academics should be constrained on.

Dan then suggests (what seems to me to be) a different definition: "academic freedom was intended to protect scholars ... from external pressures -- particularly governmental censorship." As nearly as I can tell, this definition corresponds to my notion of "academic freedom of the university" (rather than within the university). This notion is well-defined, as long as we don't consider the issue of government funding, or giving tax breaks to, universities. Under this notion, for example, Bob Jones University would be free to do push its religious agenda, and Harvard University would be free to discriminate against students for being the wrong color or against army recruiters for discriminating in their own ways. The problem comes in when the government is expected to give funding or tax breaks, but in a way that respects "academic freedom", and then it's hard to figure out what the thing means. A similar problem arises when we discuss "artistic freedom" in the context of government funding of the arts. A similar problem arises in my definition when we discuss funding of a department within a university, and I have little to say about this. My definition implies, however, that funding of student groups should be done in a content-neutral way.

From now on, I will stick with my definition.

2) Should there be academic freedom within universities?
Dan thinks it is arbitrary to have academic freedom in universities and not elsewhere, and he thinks that in any case it is a bad idea. One reason he thinks it is a bad idea is because it leads to professors gratuitously pushing their politics in class. I agree this is not a good thing, and I'll discuss it more below. He also implies that academic freedom leads to professors neglecting their proper work and speaking politics instead. I doubt this is true, but in any case, professors should be judged according to how well they do what they are supposed to do, not according to how much time they spend doing other stuff. I suspect that Dan has a day job, and doesn't feel that writing on the internet (blogging) makes him a worse employee. I do agree that to the extent that all "time" is well-defined as being either company time or private time, politicking should be done on private time. As far as anonymity goes: sometimes a political writer is writing on a topic within his expertise, and then it would be good to write as an authority; other times it would be better to be anonymous; sometimes the expertise and the politics mix, and then it's not clear. Some people are such craven cowards that they write anonymously no matter what.

But what's so special about universities? Here is an example. Does Dan think it is at all possible that an employee of Google or Microsoft or Yahoo would be able to say, as I have, that nearly all that is written on the subject of women in information technology is nonsense? Would this employee be able to openly say this, in his own name, in a forum that many other people actually read, without being fired? Wouldn't it be good if someone who comes from IT can be able to openly say such things? Universities should be such places. If they are not, let's try to fight to change them, rather than complain that academic freedom is, at the moment, working quite poorly and therefore shouldn't exist at all.

3) Am I a hypocrite?
Dan implies that my suggestions are merely self-serving, that I only want academic freedom for those whose views I share, and that I support affirmative action for such people. However, I explicitly said I do not support such affirmative action ("the goal is not that we should discriminate on the basis of feminist views, but rather that we should not"), and the single "whistleblower" I want on each hiring committee would not have the power to cause such action. Furthermore, I have made sufficiently many statements on this blog and in private, including support for the academic freedom of the disgusting Ward Churchill, that Dan should know I am consistent in this matter. I would not object to my department hiring the Princeton prof I wrote about (assuming
he doesn't spend too much time proselytizing in the classroom), even though his political statements (linked to) on his web site make Ward Churchill look reasonable. I also supported FIRE's support for the academic freedom of Sami Al-Arian, even though I hope he will be convicted of terrorism (and even though I won't mind if he is executed).

4) What about gratuitous politics in the classroom?
I tried to make it clear that (except in the most extreme cases) I don't support the most direct and obvious way of dealing with this problem because I believe it will lead to less academic freedom, not more.

5) Should Elvis-sighters be "welcome" in my university?
Absolutely, and I expect they are a lot more sane than most of the people who are here now. In fact, I think Elvis-sighters would be good balance against all those who believe eyewitness accounts of gunmen on the Grassy Knoll, or of a guided missile hitting the Pentagon. I don't think that any supporter of freedom of speech believes that all speech is equally good, and I certainly don't. Free speech is necessary in order for good speech to be allowed, and for ultimately reasonable public discussion to take place. Reasonable discussion can take place, even if Scientologists and psychics are also allowed to speak; people can choose who to listen to. But they can only choose if speaking and listening is allowed. (I discuss the issue of speakers and listeners getting together here.)

6) Why are most universities so extreme-left dominated?
Dan thinks it's because of "rigorous multi-year winnowing", and gives no credence at all to my theory that is just might be related to conscious, brutal suppression (in most universities) of anyone who says anything opposed to the extreme left. I'll let the reader decide.

7) What would be the result if universities were places where all views could be expressed?
What if newsrooms were populated by a broader class of people, including many reasonable, moderate people? I take the idealist view that this would result in many people with extreme views becoming more moderate. I gave no evidence for this and Dan gave none against it. In fact this is the contrapositive of a widely held view that when like-minded people get together and become isolated, they gradually become more extreme.

I consider this to slightly support my view. Everyone seems to agree that major newspapers are recently very eager to avoid impressions of liberal bias. (There's some disagreement on how successful they are.) Why is there this sudden eagerness? It's not because of diversity in the newsroom, but it is because of diversity on the internet. This is a very new phenomenon, and it is at least somewhat positively affecting newspapers. Note: CBS did not have to respond to internet sites claiming it is a Venusian conspiracy, but they did have to respond to criticisms of those "memos". Reason and good writing is very powerful once people can write and be read. Of course, our universities remain largely internet-immune.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

I recently had the pleasure of seeing a much-talked-about recent film on the subject of doomed, forbidden love. It follows the story of two lead characters who are immediately attracted to each other when they meet, but know that society expects them to pretend otherwise. They soon consummate their smoldering passion in a beautiful rural setting, but part ways shortly thereafter, expecting never to meet again.

Yet they do meet again, and immediately embark on a protracted sequence of steamy trysts. The complications are daunting--duty to a loving wife at home, a family of wealthy in-laws to be placated, job schedules to be juggled, and of course the whole problem of extreme social disapproval of their illicit passion. But despite the obstacles, they simply can't keep their hands off each other, and continue to meet in secret.

The film, of course, is Woody Allen's Match Point, about an ambitious lower-class tennis pro who strikes up a friendship with a rich pupil, and ends up dating and marrying the pupil's sister--while carrying on a torrid affair with the pupil's sexpot current-then-ex-fiancee. But you might have been forgiven for thinking I was describing Brokeback Mountain. Much has been made of the latter film's achievement in bringing gay romance into the film mainstream. But surprisingly little notice has been taken of its distinctly unflattering portrayal of a long-term gay relationship. For while the characters themselves are portrayed as highly sympathetic, their relationship is disturbingly similar to the sleazy affair between the duplicitous creep and the flighty siren at the center of Match Point.

To this straight male viewer, the protagonists' passion in Brokeback could at best be compared with an adolescent first love, rather than a mature partnership. Never, during the entire film, did the couple display any hint of emotional bonding, tenderness, protectiveness, mutual self-sacrifice, or any of the other characteristics of romantic love, other than intense, focused lust, and perhaps relief at finding an outlet for it. In fact, apart from their "fishing weekends" together--which, it is strongly hinted, were devoted solely to nonstop sex--they had no interaction of any kind, let alone mutual care, support or even kindness. In one case, when one was kept away from the other for longer than expected, the other simply headed south to seek his solace with male prostitutes in Mexico.

Fans of Brokeback offer various defenses of its leads' tawdry, unsentimental partnership, but none of them really holds water. Certainly, homosexual love provoked widespread, venomous hatred in the time and place of the film's setting, and therefore needed to be kept completely secret. But then, the same could be said for extramarital love, then and now. Yet one of the most famous on-screen romances of all time, between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, was extramarital--and still, it was a paragon of mature, self-sacrificing, and (despite Rick's protestations) noble passion that stands in striking contrast to both the lurid affair in Match Point and the strangely celebrated one in Brokeback.

Likewise, the tenderness and unselfishness of Humphrey Bogart's hardbitten, hard-drinking Rick towards his forbidden lover in Casablanca puts the lie to the claim that the lovers in Brokeback were plausibly deprived by their taciturn, homophobic cowboy upbringing of the opportunity to learn the finer points of love. In fact, one of Brokeback's protagonists is shown actually managing for four years to maintain a reasonably sturdy, affectionate and respectful marriage, and displaying every sign of understanding, accepting and fulfilling his duties as a husband and father. Had he only treated his supposed lifelong love interest as sweetly as he initially treated his wife, his affair would no doubt have come across as much more compelling and sympathetic.

Now, I know better than to assume that a single fictional film like Brokeback Mountain is a fair portrayal of gay relationships in general, any more than, say, The Bridges of Madison County--which celebrates a married woman's four-day fling with a handsome itinerant photographer as if it were the perfect romance--is a fair portrayal of straight relationships in general. Nevertheless, the gay community's and its supporters' unanimous, unqualified idealization of the relationship presented in Brokeback Mountain raises the question of what advocates of gay equality--proponents of gay marriage, for instance--really have in mind, both for gay men and for society at large. If Brokeback Mountain is to be our new model of romance, after all, then why not, say, Match Point?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

On the subject of "academic freedom", my co-blogger, LTEC, is of the opinion that--well, actually, he has numerous opinions on the subject, most of which I disagree with. I will try to address them one by one.

  • "Within the University, the most important thing that Academic Freedom means is that no member or job applicant is discriminated against because of his views, unless those views interfere with his work." Well, it's generally considered a Good Thing--in theory, at least--not to discriminate against employees in any workplace on the basis of their "views". In practice, though, people are discriminated against on the basis of their views all the time, if their views are sufficiently bizarre or extreme. They are also discriminated against if their demeanor is too unpleasant, their appearance too plain, their attire too dishevelled, their manners too boorish, or on the basis of any number of personal traits that do not directly affect their job performance. In vocations that involve close collaboration--and academic professorship certainly is one such--discrimination of this type is particularly common, and widely condoned as necessary for "group morale", "unit cohesion", or (in academia's case) "collegiality".

    Where, then, did the idea come from that academics should have a special dispensation from the conformist pressures that affect every other occupation? Originally, in fact, the idea of academic freedom had nothing to do with extraneous personal traits such as political views. Rather, the premise of academic freedom was that academics should not be constrained regarding the ideas that they express in their work. An academic, once accredited (i.e., tenured), should, according to the principle of academic freedom, be able to conduct and disseminate his or her research irrespective of what views it may implicitly or even explicitly contain.

    Of course, the point of academic freedom was never to protect academics from the conformism of their colleagues. On the contrary, academic freedom has always gone hand in hand with "peer review"--the idea that a scholar's work is to be judged solely by his or her colleagues. Instead, academic freedom was intended to protect scholars whose work had gained the acclaim of their peers from external pressures--particularly governmental censorship.

    Over time, academics in America have gradually intermingled the idea of academic freedom with a particularly American notion of "free speech", under which everyone is in some sense free to say (or to loudly proclaim the right to say) absolutely anything to anyone at any time, for any reason, without fear of retribution. The result: a reinterpretation of academic freedom as the untrammeled right of academics to speak uninhibitedly about anything outside of their area of scholarship, at any time.

    I can see nothing whatsoever to commend the application of this expansive notion of free speech to the academic world. As LTEC attests, it certainly doesn't protect academics with unpopular views from ostracism. Rather, it allows academics to neglect the scholarship they were hired to pursue, and instead to exploit the platform of their position by pontificating at length to anyone who will listen--and to students who often have no choice but to listen--on subjects about which they are manifestly ignorant. This abuse of the professor's lectern has in fact become so common that even those who rail against it--such as LTEC--only think to complain about its political lopsidedness, rather than its overall pernicious effect on the serious pursuit of scholarship. Perhaps if scholars were obliged to conduct their non-scholarly ranting, political or otherwise, on their own time, outside their workplace, and without invoking their irrelevant credentials--anonymously, on a blog, perhaps--the quality and volume of scholarship conducted at universities would improve somewhat.

  • "Unfairness can involve unfair grading, not allowing students to voice their opinions, lack of presentation of alternative views, and gratuitous imposition of political opinions." ....Or demanding work, favors or even sex in return for grades. Or failing to teach--or teach clearly and effectively--the appropriate course material. Or evaluating students too harshly--or too leniently. Or any number of other things. Horrendously bad teaching is endemic in academia, and most of it has nothing to do with politics. Why are the particular forms of bad teaching that involve political bias of such interest to LTEC, and to (primarily conservative) critics of academia?

    Often, when someone focuses on a specific minor injustice, to the exclusion of large classes of related ones, it's because the intended solution is not to remedy the injustice, but to counterbalance it--that is, to favor the allegedly wronged person or group. Thus, those who focus on racial discrimination in academic admissions neglect the obvious solution of hiding, where possible, information about the race or sex of applicants, and instead advocate the granting of special preferences to the groups allegedly discriminated against. Similarly, the obvious solution to politically motivated descrimination in university teaching would be to crack down on gratuitous expression of political views in academic settings. But LTEC has a different solution in mind:

  • "I propose that the State should insist that every hiring committee have at least one anti-extreme-left person on it." I've expressed my views of "affirmative action" (i.e., quotas for certain politically blessed groups) so many times that I don't think I need to say more about the indefensibility of this proposal here. But in addition to justifying the many forms of quotas he despises, what outcome could LTEC possibly even hope to achieve with it--apart, of course, from an externally mandated boost in the number of professors who happen to agree with him?

  • "Imagine what would happen if the university were more like the real world, with all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time." Actually, opinions in most real-world environments are pretty uniform, since the demographic composition of most real-world environments is also pretty uniform. University environments are even more uniform than most, since they consist primarily of academic scholars, a rather exclusive class of people who have been selected by a rigorous multi-year winnowing process that has marked similarities across disciplines. Moreover, as I've mentioned repeatedly before, a university "with all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time" would be very different from the traditional academic institution, where opinions on a large number of topics--those on which scholarly consensus has been achieved--are expected to be uniform, and those who express contrary views are denounced as "bad scholars" and denied academic credentials.

    Then again, I don't believe that LTEC really wants "all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time" at universities. Claims of evidence for paranormal phenomena? Scientologist dogma? Sightings of Elvis? There's a reason, after all, why LTEC has proposed an "anti-extreme-left" representative on every hiring committee, and not an "anti-Elvis-is-dead" representative on every hiring committee. And the reason isn't hard to figure out.
  • Academic Freedom
    Amongst supporters of academic freedom, there have been many criticisms of David Horowitz' "Academic Bill of Rights" and, more recently, the academic freedom campaigns (here, here, here). (I'm ignoring criticisms that are thinly disguised efforts by enemies of academic freedom to stop people from interfering with the status quo.) Here is what I think is going on.

    Firstly, I am talking about academic freedom within an institution, not of an institution. So, for example, if the government penalizes a university because that university denies academic freedom to its members (this has happened to Bob Jones and Harvard Universities), then this is certainly interfering (whether rightly or wrongly) with the academic freedom of that university.

    Within the University, the most important thing that Academic Freedom means is that no member or job applicant is discriminated against because of his views, unless those views interfere with his work. (One additional meaning has something to do with the "freedom" to choose research topics. This is confusing, and it makes no sense unless one first has the academic freedom discussed here.) By "interfering with his work", I do not include the fact that people who don't like his views choose not to work with him. Good examples are: someone who doesn't believe in evolution might be a good mathematician, but he would make a poor evolutionary biologist; someone who is against feminism can be a good biologist, but shouldn't teach a course (or even pass a course) in Women's Studies. (An argument can be made that a field that is as purely political as Women's Studies shouldn't exist in a university, but that is a separate issue.)

    I believe that in most major North American universities there is very little academic freedom, and in most (but certainly not all) cases the victims are anyone who openly opposes the views of the extreme left. Much of this has been documented by FIRE. There are many examples I know of in my own university; for example the administration tried to fire a computer scientist for expressing anti-feminist views in a public forum outside of class; for example, a student newspaper was shut down for blaming Native American cultures for the problems of Native Americans.

    Of course, it is very hard to get statistics about this. My favorite way would be as follows. Ask University Presidents the question, "In your university (outside of Women's Studies), do anti-feminists and feminists have the same right to speak and the same right to offend?" I think very few presidents would answer at all, and almost none of them would answer, "yes". (Lawrence Summers would probably die on the spot.) There are other questions about women, Islam, or homosexuality that would work as well.

    Unlike a number of supporters of academic freedom, I do not think there is anything subtle or unconscious or accidental about the lack of academic freedom in universities. If a department goes out of its way to try to fire someone for expressing a particular view, are we supposed to believe that their unwillingness to hire a person with the same views is unconscious? Should we even need examples of such non-hires before we suspect this department of discrimination in hiring? One evidence that is often given of political discrimination in hiring/firing is the high proportion of Democrats versus Republicans on university faculties. Although these statistics suggest improper discrimination, there are other possible interpretations. A few well-posed questions to university administrators would, however, remove all doubt.

    Let us assume that there are many more liberal than conservative faculty at a particular university. (Or more accurately, assume there are a large number of extreme-left faculty and very few faculty who express opinions contrary to the extreme left.) Let us ignore the reason this situation came about. (Maybe it's unrelated to the constant repression that takes place; maybe it's because Republicans are religiously obsessed morons, as has often been
    suggested.) Is this imbalance bad? After denying that the imbalance exists, and then seeing statistical evidence to the contrary, the typical response of the supporter of this situation is to say that it's not because of discrimination but because "conservatives" are stupid, and then to say that in any case it doesn't matter, because left-wing professors are generally extremely fair in the classroom.

    It is the issue of fairness in the classroom that especially concerns Horowitz and It is their lack of good proof that concerns their (reasonable) critics. Unfairness can involve unfair grading, not allowing students to voice their opinions, lack of presentation of alternative views, and gratuitous imposition of political opinions. Since grading is subjective, and since the topic of the class and the academic freedom of the professor mean that under many circumstances professors will and must say things that offend some students, it is very hard to accumulate the proper statistics here.

    But what do we expect from a professor who wants to fire a faculty member or shut down a student newspaper because they express views he doesn't like. Do we expect him to be a paragon of fairness in his own classroom? This is not merely unlikely; it is virtually out of the question. If we suspect a professor of abuse, a few well-chosen questions of him (see above) would settle the matter quickly. Often these professors brag about how they view it as their mission, no matter what the class is, to enlighten their conservative students with the truth. For example, one professor interviewed here is especially horrible. This should be contrasted with a brag I once heard from a (conservative) professor. He said that after a semester in which controversial issues were discussed at length, the students said that they couldn't figure out what his own opinions were. This may not always be possible or desirable, but this is an example of a professor who doesn't want to abuse his power. They're usually pretty easy to tell apart from the ones that do.

    I see a hint of how bad the abuse is in the non-sciences, by looking at my own science department. I don't attend many courses but I do go to many talks. It is surprising how often I hear nasty, gratuitous political remarks by the speaker or his host. One well-known scientist began his talk with a completely irrelevant joke, the point of which was that anyone who voted for Bush over Kerry is a moron. Do we seriously think this person is careful not to similarly impose his political views on his students (in Princeton)?

    So what should be done about this classroom misbehavior by professors? Horowitz wants some constraints imposed by the University, or failing that, the State. Although I like the idea of general principles of proper classroom behavior being enunciated, I think that attempting to enforce these principles -- except in very special cases -- will cause more problems with academic freedom than they will solve.

    It has also been suggested that the situation would improve if there were less of an imbalance in the faculty, but there is uniform dislike (or at least stated dislike) for having affirmative action for the anti-extreme-left. Here is my concrete suggestion. In my university, a rule says that there has to be at least one woman on every hiring committee, even if there have been no accusations of discrimination against women in that department. Since there is proof positive of repression of the anti-extreme-left in my university and my department, I propose that the State should insist that every hiring committee have at least one anti-extreme-left person on it. One version of this idea that I especially like is replacing the "at least one woman" rule with a "at least one anti-feminist" rule in my (science) department. The goal is not that we should discriminate on the basis of feminist views, but rather that we should not.

    But how would the classroom situation improve if the faculty were more balanced? The typical answer is that students would now see -- perhaps have imposed upon them? -- alternative views. There is some truth in this, but I see things very differently. I ask myself why the Princeton prof mentioned above made his nasty joke. Was he trying to be controversial? Was he trying to insult some members of his audience? I don't think so. I think he wanted to inject some humor into his talk and he was interested in politics, so why not make a political joke? Surely the audience would enjoy it. He never met (or so he probably believes) anyone at Princeton who wouldn't enjoy the joke, and he couldn't imagine there would be anyone in the audience in my university who wouldn't. This is the problem with imbalance. The professor who has successfully repressed all contrary speech will now use the lack of contrary speech as proof that everyone agrees with him and that he must therefore be right.

    Imagine what would happen if the university were more like the real world, with all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time. Every professor would expect most of his opinions to be controversial, and he would have a good idea of which ones would be considered most extreme. There would be no point in making a joke which half the audience found funny only because it insulted the other half. Rather he might (if he wished to take up class time) respectfully explain why he thought Kerry was a better choice than Bush, fully expecting this to lead to an actual discussion.

    I feel that newspapers would similarly benefit if there were more balance on the news staff. The result would not, I believe, be two kinds of stupid, extreme articles. Rather, I think, the result would be more intelligent, less extreme articles from everyone.

    Friday, January 06, 2006

    I find the recent encomia to stricken Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as an utterly irreplaceable visionary leader to be somewhat baffling. Put aside, for a moment, his rather checkered history prior to his election as prime minister of Israel. Even in office, his major initiatives, now touted as revolutionary master strokes (no pun intended), were in fact--with one glaring exception--nothing more than the obvious, necessary actions that any Israeli prime minister would have taken in his place. Indeed, they were rather more timid than they needed to be, or than a more decisive leader with a more pristine record would likely have been able to pull off.

    First, there was the re-invasion of the West Bank in 2002. This military action was in fact inevitable from the moment Arafat launched his "Al Aqsa Intifada" in September of 2000. Once he committed himself to violence, Arafat had no strategy available other than escalation until victory or defeat. And escalate he did, working all-out to stoke terrorism against Israel pretty much till the day he died. Yet Sharon, after being elected in February of 2001 on a get-tough-with-terrorists platform, nevertheless barely responded for over a year and a half. He continued to restrain himself even after 9/11, when the support of his main ally, the US, in the battle against terrorism became virtually certain. He only stirred himself to initiate large-scale miilitary operations after an horrific month of suicide bombings in March 2002 effectively forced his hand.

    Then there was the security fence. Again, its necessity became glaringly obvious almost from the moment the second intifada began, as terrorists easily infiltrated into Israel from the towns controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Yet Sharon didn't stir himself to act until well after Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002. Even then, his commitment to the fence was somewhat perfunctory, and to this day large sections of it have yet to be built.

    Finally, there was the evacuation of the Gaza settlements. This really was a bold, unforced move, and it remains defensible as a long-term strategic decision, albeit with major short- and medium-term costs. However, it does not by itself solve any problems. Rather, it can be seen as a clarifying step, placing the ball in the Palestinians' court and making possible a much more unified Israeli stance in the future. In this respect, it parallels another bold gesture by an Israeli prime minister: Ehud Barak's peace proposals at Camp David. Both Sharon and Barak essentially granted the Palestinians explicitly what Israel had long been implicitly willing to concede, and thus successfully exposed and clarified the depth of Palestinian rejectionism in the eyes of the world--and more importantly, of Israelis themselves. Barak's move thus paved the way for the national consensus in favor of resolute action that Sharon finally got around to embracing in 2002. Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza will likely have a similar effect, persuading a solid majority of Israelis to abandon negotiations altogether for the foreseeable future, and to concentrate instead on consolidation of territory and military interdiction of terrorist organizations.

    Of course, Barak is now vilified as a clumsy naif for his earlier clarifying act, while Sharon is glorified--for now--as a visionary for his. Perhaps that's because Barak's decision shattered the illusions of the Israeli left, while Sharon's shattered the illusions of the Israeli right. The hard-liners who vilify Sharon today don't dominate Israeli politics and culture the way the doves of 1999 did. Nevertheless, I predict that as the situation in Gaza deteriorates, Sharon's move will increasingly come to be seen, somewhat unfairly, as a blunder--just as Barak's is today.

    I also predict that the next Israeli leader, faced with the increasing militarization of the terrorist operations emanating from the twin Augean stables of Gaza and the West Bank, will be compelled to launch large-scale military operations into both of them from time to time. He will then be celebrated as a bold, decisive leader, merely for doing what Levi Eshkol was forced to do in 1967, what Golda Meir was forced to do (with Sharon's help) in 1973, what Menachem Begin would eventually have been forced to do at some point anyway after 1982--and what Ariel Sharon was forced to do in 2002: sending Israeli troops once again into enemy territory, in pursuit of Israel's relentlessly bloody would-be destroyers.