Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, January 31, 2005


Many eloquent words of celebration have been written today. I will not add to them. Instead, I think this is a fitting moment to remember on all those who are no longer with us to celebrate them.

It is a time to reflect on the over 1400 US soldiers who served and died in Iraq. Today, their cause has been vindicated, and the goal for which they gave their lives has come much nearer to fruition. But instead of witnessing the revolution that they helped to bring about, they spent their last moments in a field or an alley, with the pain of a bullet or the shock of a grenade, leaving behind the question of why they did not fear pain and death as people are wont to do, and why they valued the welfare of others more than their own. The ancient mystery of courage.

It is a time to reflect on the 100,000 Iraqis who may have died in the past year and a half. While many of those were Baathist thugs or terrorists, many more were innocent civilians, killed as "collateral damage" by US forces, or murdered by Sadr's al-Mahdi army, by Baathist remnants, or by the soulless bloodlust of Musab al-Zarqawi's Monotheism and Jihad. Bush, Blair, and all those who made the decision for war knew that innocent people would die during the struggle, and decided that the struggle was worth it, and they were right to do so. But we must not forget the worth of those lives, or become hardened to the tragedy of their loss. There are bereaved mothers and fathers, wives and daughters and friends who can never fully forgive us in their hearts. That is the price of living by our convictions.

But most of all, it is a time to reflect on 1 to 6 million Iraqis, as well as Iranians and Kuwaitis, who are not here today because Saddam Hussein and his regime killed them. That their numbers are so uncertain is a chilling testament to the anonymity of victimhood to which he consigned them. A chilling example was reported in Samir Al-Khalil's Republic of Fear (1991):

The number of victims are not as important as the psychological atmosphere constantly being invoked… The pattern is for agents to pick someone up from work, or at night from his house. No explanations are proffered as there would be in an official killing. Unlike Central American "disappearances" in which the state denies complicity, the Ba'th give the event a macabre twist. What one assumes to be the corpse is brought back weeks or maybe months later and delivered to the head of the family in a sealed box. A death certificate is produced for signature to the effect that the person has died of fire, swimming, or other such accident. Someone is allowed to accompany police and box for a ceremony, but at no time is he or she permitted to see the corpse. The cost of the proceedings is demanded in advance, and the whole thing is over within a few hours of the first knock on the door… The lie that lives has replaced the grisly truth buried in the casket. (p. 64)

Now there is a new dawn of life and truth in Iraq, but why did the night that preceded it have to be so long? We could have overthrown Saddam twelve years ago. William Blake, walking through the streets of London, once lamented the "mind-forged manacles" that wrought misery upon its inhabitants. And it was mind-forged manacles that enchained the Iraqis: forged by the minds of those who "recognized" a tyranny, a system built upon fear, as a "sovereign" state.

The words "never again" have sometimes been spoken at such times. They seem the only fitting answer to the horrors wrought by totalitarianism, the only adequate declaration of regret. They are at once solemn and wildly ambitious to the point of dreaming. We said them after Auschwitz; but genocide happened again. And again. And again. We have no right on this day to say "Never again." Neither the world, nor we ourselves, could believe our promise.

Until we can, let us be temperate in our celebrations. We must be aware equally of the presences and of the absences; of this day when Iraqis freely expressed their desire for freedom and peace, and of the tens of thousands of days when they could not express themselves freely even to close friends and relatives for fear of informers, of torture chambers, of reprisals that might leave not only them, but also their families dead; of the visible voters who voiced their belief in democracy and rejected Iraq's dark past, and of the invisible ones, the voiceless dead, who constitute a judgment upon and a condemnation of Iraq's dark past which is more sacred, more absolute than any vote.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Food for thought:

Thousands of Iraqi exiles living in Iran have funded a lavish advertising campaign on Iranian state television in favour of the United Iraqi Alliance, a 224-strong candidate list of Shia parties running in Sunday's general elections.

Iranian state TV has also been carrying adverts for "List 169", a Shia grouping backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and led by Abdel Aziz Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Mr Hakim's party has close ties with the Iranian regime.

The French monarchy strongly backed the American revolution. The American revolution, in turn, inspired the French revolution which overthrew the monarchy. Are we about to see, once again, the geopolitical intrigues of a repressive regime backfire by inciting a discontented populace to pursue at home the transformations their rulers are helping to engineer abroad? The Islamic Republic of Iran wants their people to see Shia triumphing over Shiites. But maybe the people will see democrats triumphing over Islamists instead-- and try it at home.


Mark Steyn. Hard right? Or just common sense? Or is there a difference anymore? When even the New York Times (!) is reporting like this--

if the insurgents wanted to stop people in Baghdad from voting, they failed. If they wanted to cause chaos, they failed. The voters were completely defiant, and there was a feeling that the people of Baghdad, showing a new, positive attitude, had turned a corner.

No one was claiming that the insurgency was over or that the deadly attacks would end. But the atmosphere in this usually grim capital, a city at war and an ethnic microcosm of the country, had changed, with people dressed in their finest clothes to go to the polls in what was generally a convivial mood.

"You can feel the enthusiasm," Col. Mike Murray of the First Cavalry Regiment, said outside a polling station in Karada, who added that the scene in Karada was essentially true for the whole area...

"We now have our freedom," [Qasim Muhammad Saleh, 45] said. "After 35 years, we finally got rid of Saddam and now we can vote for whoever we want.

--the question now is: what do those who continue to oppose Operation Iraqi Freedom have to say for themselves?

Meanwhile, Steyn risks pushing his luck, first by blaming the insurgency on the Bush administration's too-sustained diplomacy and use of the UN channel:

If you want a good example of excessive deference to the established order, look no further than Iraq. I'm often asked about the scale of the insurgency and doesn't this prove we armchair warriors vastly underestimated things, etc. I usually reply that, if you rummage through the archives, you'll find that I wanted the liberation of Iraq to occur before the end of August 2002. The bulk of the military were already in place, sitting in the Kuwaiti desert twiddling their thumbs. But Bush was prevailed upon to go ''the extra mile'' at the United Nations mainly for the sake of Tony Blair, and thanks to the machinations of Chirac, Schroeder and Co., the extra mile wound up being the scenic route through six months of diplomatic gridlock while Washington gamely auditioned any casus belli that might win the favor of the president of Guinea's witch doctor. As we know, all that happened during that period was that the hitherto fringe ''peace'' movement vastly expanded and annexed most of the Democratic Party.

Given all that went on in America, Britain, France, etc., during the interminable ''extra mile,'' it would be idiotic to assume that, with an almighty invasion force squatting on his borders for six months, Saddam just sat there listening to his Sinatra LPs. He was very busy, as were the Islamists, and Iran, and Syria.

The result is not only an insurgency far more virulent than it would have been had Washington followed my advice rather than Tony's and gone in in August 2002, but also a broader range of enemies that learned a lot about how ''world'' -- i.e., European -- opinion could be played off against Washington.

In short, the Bush administration's big mistake was not the lack of post-war planning, still less a "rush to war;" rather, it was too much delay, not enough pre-war boldness. I haven't heard this argument before, but it sounds right to me.

Steyn adds:

I don't believe Bush would make that mistake again. Which means he wouldn't have spoken quite so loudly if the big stick weren't already in place -- if plans weren't well advanced for dealing with Iran and some of the low-hanging fruit elsewhere in the region. Bush won't abolish all global tyranny by 2008 -- that might have to wait till Condi's second term -- but he will abolish some of it, and today's elections are as important in that struggle as any military victory.

Is Steyn right? Iran is a lot like the Soviet Union in the late 1980s: a totalitarian regime has gone through partial liberalization; it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the people, whose sympathies lie with the "Great Satan"; the mullahs' power is a bubble that could be pricked at any time. But that doesn't mean it will be pricked. A velvet revolution in Iran is possible, perhaps probable, but not, I think, inevitable. But Bush's re-election, and now the elections in Iraq, have made it much more likely.

More eloquent reflections here from a columnist at the Daily Torygraph, indignant at European anti-Americanism:

To European intellectuals, the term "American democracy" is probably an oxymoron. Though such sophisticated cynicism is contradicted by events in Iraq, where – just like in France 60 years ago – US soldiers have been sacrificing their lives to liberate a people from tyranny, anti-Americanism is now written into the European psyche, the last acceptable prejudice in a culture that makes a fetish of racial equality.

The European position is increasingly untenable. They celebrate their own liberation and deny it to others. There is an absolute contradiction between their professed belief in liberal principles of freedom, democracy, anti-totalitarianism and the moral imperative to prevent genocide, and their disdain for the action that realized all these principles in Iraq. Will the bubble of cognitive dissonance pop? How "deep" is the opposition to the Iraq war that shows up in the poll numbers? Will Europeans take another look at America and understand what America is, what America is doing, what America stands for? Will more pro-American leaders like France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel come to power?

My deepest congratulations to Iraq on this historic day! We are proud that we were able to help you rid yourselves of Saddam. We admire the courage, the love of freedom you have displayed today, as you defied terror by voting. We hope we have been friends to you in need, and already, as the moral influence of Sistani and the Shia faithful, who have rejected radical-Islamist nihilism and are embracing an honorable and humane form of your faith, you are proving to be friends in need to us. We realize that there have been many causes for disappointment in our conduct, both in our competence and in our moral standards. You have to come to know the best and the worst in us, and we hope that you will credit the former and forgive the latter. We wish you the best, and hope that this is the beginning of a long and deep Iraqi-American friendship.


At first, I was impressed by this WaPo column, which chides the Democrats for being in denial about Social Security. But then they propose 1) raising the $90,000 payroll tax cap, and 2) investing the Social Security fund in private stocks and bonds. They still oppose privatization. Raising the cap-- that is, a large tax hike on the rich-- is a bad idea, and for Bush to allow such a tax hike would betray all his campaign promises, but what is the WaPo thinking proposing that the federal government invest the trust fund in the stock market? This would make the government a major assetholder in most of corporate America-- a big step towards nationalization of industry. I'm in shock. How stupid can they be, not to understand that this is beyond the pale in America?

I'll say this for them though: congratulations on showing their colors! Now we advocates of partial privatization don't have to talk about the possibility of the government investing in private assets as an abstract bogeyman. A prominent institution has actually advocated this approach. Now our argument can run: "In order to resolve Social Security's unfunded liabilities problem, so that the promise of future retirement benefits are backed up by real assets, it is essential to create private accounts. The only alternative is to have the government invest the trust fund in private assets, and thus to compromise the private character of these assets and alter the very free-market capitalist nature of our economy, as advocated by the Washington Post..."

Friday, January 28, 2005


With two days to go before the elections, it's a good time to step back and reflect on what has been accomplished in Iraq.

Democracy in the Middle East. Two years ago, it was something I and many others barely dared to hope for. The West would probably not do the job right. Throughout the 1990s, despite vast military prowess of a certain kind, we were so casualty-averse as to be helpless against urban guerrillas, as we proved in Mogadishu. And democracy depended on culture and institutions, right? Surely there was something paradoxical or impossible about "imposing" it by force? This Cato paper sums up the conventional wisdom:

Why are Islamic (and especially Arab) countries' democratic prospects so poor? After all, in most Muslim countries a high level of popular support exists for the concept of democracy. In practice, popular support for democracy is a necessary, but is not a sufficient, condition for democratic institutions to emerge. Other factors are necessary. Hypothetical support for representative government, absent tangible support for liberal political norms and values and without the foundation of a pluralistic civil society, provides neither sufficient stimulus nor staying power for democracy to take root. That reality was borne out over the past generation in numerous countries where authoritarian regimes were displaced by newly democratic regimes but democratization failed because of shallow foundations.

The building blocks of a modern democratic political culture are not institutional in nature. The building blocks are not elections, parties, and legislatures. Rather, the building blocks of democracy are supportive cultural values--the long-term survival of democratic institutions requires a particular political culture.

Four cultural factors play an essential, collective role in stimulating and reinforcing a stable democratic political system. The first is political trust. The second factor is social tolerance. The third is a widespread recognition of the importance of basic political liberties. The fourth is popular support for gender equality.

Bush's vision of bringing democracy to the Middle East was dismissed by the cognoscenti as a sheer flight of fantasy, at once hubristic and so naive as to be almost childlike, and while bloggers like "Excitable Andrew" Sullivan may cheered, the intelligentsia of Europe and America was amazed and disgusted, banding together in grim solidarity against the Bush menace, murmuring against the administration with varying degrees of incredulity and apoplexy.

And yet here we are, two years later, and the Iraqis are about to vote. Well, Ted Kennedy's still calling for a withdrawal, insisting that

We must learn from our mistakes in Vietnam and in Iraq. We must recognize what a large and growing number of Iraqis now believe the war in Iraq has become a war against the American occupation.

Andrew Sullivan, too, was spooked by a Lawrence Kaplan article in TNR (subscriber firewall), for which Mickey Kaus ridicules him. The Economist headline grimly reads "Democracy at gunpoint." Sullivan, TNR, and The Economist were prominent war supporters. Why this disillusionment with the dream just as it is coming to fruition?

There is a lesson here, I think, about the flow of history, and the way that even in the best of times, progress is juxtaposed on the tragic thread in the human condition. History is the story of dreams coming to Earth, with the image meant in two senses: first, that dreams become realities, that what was once only imagined, visible to the mind's eye, becomes fact, visible to the body's eye; second, that dreams crash to the ground, and are dirtied and bent out of shape in the process, so that the former dreamers may come to disdain them. Just as we have gotten used to factories, mass-transit systems, flight, vacuum cleaners, electricity and indoor heating, the disappearance of slavery, civil equality, the emancipation of women, and so much else, so we have already gotten used to the idea of elections in Iraq. If we could have fast-forwarded time from March 2003 to the present, and watched Iraqis voting for the first time, the world would have been amazed. By now, we have already come to expect them. And, of course, there are the costs. While Hamilton's Pamphlets blows to smithereens the notion that Iraq is another Vietnam (basic differences: in Vietnam we failed with 50,000+ casualties; in Iraq we succeeded-- the goal of the war was regime change, don't forget-- at a cost of less than 1500 casualties), the way the casualties have been presented to us, covered incident by incident on a constant basis for a year and a half, in a way that the victims of the mass graves never were, gives the statistically challenged (that is, most people) a very inflated notion of their importance. Psychologically, "Iraqi elections" become bound up with blood and beheadings and fear. Elections are good, but bloodshed is bad. Can the two go together? The mind becomes confused.

StrategyPage always does a great job of describing the situation on the ground:

For the last month, the population of Fallujah has been allowed back into their city. The government has a division (eight battalions) of troops and police in Fallujah, along with a regiment of American marines. Nearly 200,000 civilians are back in Fallujah. Anti-government fighters have been almost completely removed from the town...

The anti-government and terrorist gangs are under increasingly more effective attack. This is a war you don't see, as both sides have good reason to keep their operations secret. One not-so-secret part of the war is the role of the Sunni Arab media. The newspapers, radio and television broadcasts are still very pro-terrorist, although these killers are rarely called that. The Sunni Arab media describes them as "insurgents" and "resistance fighters." The European media likes to pick up on this as well, which helps recruiting terrorists among the millions of Sunni Moslems living in Europe...

It’s the economy, stupid. Iraqis are less concerned about democracy, than in making a living... When Saddam was thrown out of power in 2003, the economy began to revive...

For over two decades, the main purpose of the Iraqi economy was keeping Saddam in power.

The coalition authority immediately eliminated all of Saddam’s economic restrictions and made it easy to invest in Iraq. This worked in the Shia Arab areas, and was already working in the Kurdish north. But in the center, many Sunni Arabs, especially those who had recently lost their government jobs, were angry at having lost control of the economy, and the country...

After a year, it was obvious that the Shia Arabs and Kurds, because of reconstruction, and the absence of Saddam’s thugs and bureaucrats, were prospering, and the Sunni Arabs were not. But to speak out against the Baath Party and al Qaeda terrorists could be fatal. Sunni Arabs who went to work for the government or coalition were threatened, and sometimes killed. Sunni Arabs kept joining and working. The Iraqi economy was booming, but you needed a job to take advantage of it...

The Shia Arab majority in Iraq feels pretty invincible at the moment, and the Sunni Arabs fear that this invincibility will become a reality this year.

But if the reality is messy, the Iraqis have not forgotten what a great step forward is being made. Belmont Club has a great post in which he links to an interview with a Christian bishop who is impressed by the changes that have taken place. I'm always impressed by the tone of these Iraqis. Maybe this is something that no one who has not spent 35 years under Saddam's tyranny can ever understand. One day the dream will come to earth for them, too, and democracy will be mundane. But not yet. Meanwhile, the elections ought to wake some Westerners up to the way we have become prematurely disillusioned. Wretchard calls for Kennedy to be held accountable if proven wrong. Kennedy is far from being the only one.

I'd say the neocons have a right to crow a bit. Their dream was castigated, maligned, defamed, scorned, their names were denounced throughout the earth... and yet, despite all the chatter, the elections are taking place in Iraq. And certain questions that were asked rhetorically, with a sneer-- for example, "Can democracy be imposed?"-- will have to be asked again, this time with true curiosity, and a critical examination of the evidence. The old conventional wisdom was that

...the White House will be gravely disappointed with the result of its effort to establish a stable liberal democracy in Iraq, or any other nation home to a large population of Muslims or Arabs, at least in the short to medium term.

It is still possible that that verdict will be proven correct. But in two days, upwards of ten million Iraqis will be challenging it.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


While Tom Friedman portrays European anti-Americanism as being caused by Bush, the column also suggests it has to do with border restrictions:

Many young Europeans blame Mr. Bush for making America, since 9/11, into a
strange new land that exports fear more than hope, and has become dark and
brooding - a place whose greeting to visitors has gone from "Give me your tired,
your poor" to "Give me your fingerprints." ...

Stefan Elfenbein, a food critic nursing a beer at our table, added: "I know
many people who don't want to travel to America anymore. ... People are afraid
to be hassled at the border. ... We all discuss it, when somebody goes to
America [we now ask:] 'Are you sure?' We had hope that Kerry would win and would
make a statement, 'America is back to what it was four years ago.' We hoped that
he would be the symbol, the figure who would say, '[America] is the country that
welcomes everybody again.' "

Inasmuch as hatred of America stems from our practice of closing our borders to most immigrants, it is 110% justified. Just try to imagine the impact on world opinion of a constitutional amendment that stated: "Congress shall make no law abrogating the right of all persons, wherever born, to live and work in the United States."

Call it an extension of the Bush Doctrine-- there is no justice [between nations] without freedom [of migration].

While this article about Chile's experience with private pension accounts is mostly negative, this fascinating little nugget of information is buried near the end:

Those problems have emerged despite what all here agree is the main
strength of the privatized system: an average 10 percent annual return on
investments. Those results have been obtained by the pension funds largely by
purchasing stocks and corporate and government bonds, which have helped fuel an
economic expansion that has given Chile the highest growth rate in Latin America
over the last 20 years.

"The great success of the system is its high profit rate, more than double
what was initially projected," said Guillermo Arthur Errazuriz, executive
director of the Association of Pension Fund Administrators. "In total, workers
have set aside nearly $61 billion, which is invested in the sectors of the
economy that show the most potential."

Among other achievements emphasized by advocates of the privatized funds
here are the creation of a modern capital market, cheaper credit for companies
that formerly could turn only to banks when they wanted to expand and a brake on
deficit spending by the government. Critics respond that the privatized system
has been less successful in ensuring a dignified retirement for the elderly.

"What we have is a system that is good for Chile but bad for most
Chileans," said a government official who specializes in pension issues. "If
people really had freedom of choice, 90 percent of them would opt to go back to
the old system."

"Good for Chile but bad for most Chileans." Hmm. A paradox. Maybe it means that the system's inconveniences are readily apparent, while its macroeconomic benefits are diffuse. Better capital markets is the type of program benefit that is mystifying to ordinary people. Mystifying-- but precious beyond all the gold and silver of the earth.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


I wasn't all that pleased about this news:

The U.S. Army expects to keep its troop strength in Iraq at the current
level of about 120,000 for at least two more years, according to the Army's top
operations officer... the Army expects to continue rotating active-duty
units in and out of Iraq in year-long deployments and is looking for ways to dip
even deeper into reserve forces -- even as leaders of the reserves have warned
that the Pentagon could be running out of such units.

So I was pleased to read this column about likely progress in training Iraqi troops.

While I support the struggle of the Iraqi people for democracy against tyranny and terror, at some point we do need to renew the distinction between our cause and their cause-- especially if we want to live up to the promise in Bush's speech, in which case our cause is much bigger than freedom in Iraq.

The courage of young men willing to fight and die for their country is a critically important and non-renewable national resource. The 1000+ soldiers who died in Iraq did not die in vain, as the elections will soon show. (Here's a good summary of the situation in Iraq on the eve of the elections, which highlights what has been achieved.) But they will never again fight for their country. And many others have been exhausted, disillusioned, or wounded so that they can no longer fight. While it's safe to assume that most soldiers become soldiers in order to soldier, and that calling on them to soldier a little bit may increase morale, increase the appeal of the armed forces, inspire courage, and thus expand the resources of that power, my sense is that for American civilization that effect is likely to subside quickly. I think we are already living off our soldiers'-morale capital.

Sometimes you want to do that, of course. Removing Saddam's government was a critical humanitarian mission as well as a welcome strike against the UN's Hobbesian notion of sovereignty.

But the foreign aid case for the Iraq war is weakening. Two years ago the Iraqis were among the neediest people in the world, desperately poor in economic wealth and in freedoms. Now they are much better off in those terms. Why should we be devoting so much money to helping Iraq when other peoples might be able to use the help more?

For the moment I'm willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt here. But after the elections we should begin to articulate what we think our duty in Iraq should be, and where it should end. When can US forces withdraw to bases and just guarantee the peace? When can the Army and the Marines begin looking back on the operation as a whole, appraising their performance, learning the lessons, improving their tactics, technologies and doctrines, so that future regime-change operations (should the need arise) will run more smoothly?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


I like this response to Bush's "realist" critics:

A foreign policy that makes freedom a touchstone will of course entail some
self-contradictions and hypocrisies and doubts about our sincerity. The same was
true when President Carter elevated human rights to a new prominence.
Nonetheless, in doing so he changed the world for the better and advanced
America's interests. It was embarrassing when President Carter fawned over the
Shah of Iran and the Communist dictators of Poland, Romania and the USSR. But
where are those men now, or the governments they headed?

Despite the skeptics, all historical evidence suggests that democracy
can indeed spread further, that America can serve as an agent of its
advancement, as it has done all over the world, and that democracy's spread will
make the world safer. And for those who doubt that President Bush is earnest
about his campaign for freedom, I refer them to Mullah Omar or Saddam Hussein.

That said, Bush may have exacerbated the American tendency to be naively starry-eyed about democracy. Because our own history worked out in such an oddly fortunate manner, we are inadequately aware of the sequel to our own democratic revolution: the French revolution, which destroyed France's traditions and plunged the country into an orgy of bloodshed. (See my defense of tradition if you haven't already.) The French sequel to democratic revolution has been as common as the American one since then.

The Aristotelian distinction between monarchy and tyranny could be usefully remembered today, first, by anti-war conservatives, second, by those who want the Iraq war to herald a universal democratic transformation of the world, a group which perhaps includes Bush. Aristotle's political theory identified six forms of government:

One RulerKingshipTyranny
Few RulersAristocracyOligarchy
Many RulersPolityDemocracy

Tyranny is distinguished from monarchy chiefly in that it is new, not sanctioned by tradition. Why is a new one-man regime worse than an old one-man regime? Because those who secure absolute authority through their own devices, overturning tradition, typically do so through murder and/or deceit. Hereditary monarchs are likely to be no more evil than the average person, and sometimes their upbringing and a sense of their responsibilities make them somewhat better. But when traditional regimes unravel, in the chaos that follows a rule of "survival of the worst" is likely to ensure that those who emerge as masters are uniquely wicked, both by nature and by nurture. Thus Lenin and Stalin were worse than the tsars; Hitler was worse than the Kaisers; Ayatollah Khomeini was worse than the shah; and so on.

Saddam was a tyrant, a revolutionary leader who betrayed his own revolution, a man whose power was built on a series of highly public murders of a range of people from his closest political allies to Jews. To oppose his overthrow on conservative grounds is to fail to understand conservative principles, to be a conservative for the wrong reasons. Edmund Burke would have supported the war in Iraq. The same case against tyranny applied to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It might also apply to the SLORC regime in Myanmar, the Communist regime in North Korea, the fascist dictatorship in Turkmenistan, the mullahocracy in Iran, the Castro regime in Cuba, the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, the genocidal dictatorship in Sudan, and the Baathist regime in Syria. But it does not extend to the Saudi regime, which is legitimized by deep traditions. Nor should it apply to Communist China. The Communist Party in China came to power as part of a national struggle against Japanese imperialism. Their ideological heritage is unfortunate, but the Chinese people respect them for restoring order after a particularly miserable period of chaos. To my mind, the experiments of Mao, however catastrophic and misguided, were motivated by generous goals rather than hatred, and the regime does not bear the mark of Cain in the same way that the Soviet regime, the Nazi regime, and the Baathist regime in Iraq did. And since 1978, the Communists have governed China wisely; much more so, indeed, than most democratic governments in the Third World.

Bush's Second Inaugural called for a redefinition of legitimacy. And such a redefinition is certainly needed. The fact that Saddam's government, which had not the slightest sanction from either tradition or elections, which was the enemy of its people and did not enjoy the consent of the governed, which committed every conceivable crime without the least compunction, which was a sheer murderocracy; the fact that this government was recognized by the UN and the international community, to the extent that the Secretary-General, and hundreds of thousands of protesters, called the liberation of the Iraqi people from such a vampire regime "illegal"; is the most damning possible testimony against international law as it was before 1993. In siding with dissidents against tyrants everywhere, Bush is revoking the legitimacy of the worst regimes; he is withdrawing American support from this vicious, Hobbesian form of international law, which subtly makes us collaborators in all manner of oppression.

But if we're going to change the meaning of legitimacy, let's be careful about it. Democratic legitimation of governing institutions is very difficult, and the road to it is full of tragic pitfalls. Where checks and balances are weak, where literacy is limited, it all too often brings scoundrels, or rabid nationalists, to power. We should accept that legitimacy flows not from one source only-- democracy-- but from two sources-- democracy and tradition. And the former is not always preferable.

While rewriting the law of nations, let's bear in mind an Aristotelian distinction. Let tyranny remain a concept with a narrow range of application.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Tories turn to the dark side:

But the Tory leader, while acknowledging the contributions to British
society made by generations of immigrants, argued that Britain cannot absorb the
numbers seeking to come here, and that stricter controls are essential for the
maintenance of good race relations.

Meanwhile, the New Republic was impressed by Bush’s Second Inaugural.

I want to quibble with in this article on “The dangers of exporting democracy.” Hobsbawm attacks “the dangerous belief that its propagation by armies might actually be feasible.” This reminds me of Mark Twain’s response when asked if he believed in baptism: “Believe in it? Hell, I’ve seen it!” Democracy was propagated to Germany, Japan and Italy by armies. That’s historical fact. Hobsbawm has failed to mention that this “dangerous” belief is also true. However, Hobsbawm is always worth reading, and his problematization of the problem of spreading democracy is valid. I have made similar arguments here:

when Woodrow Wilson made national self-determination part of this Fourteen Points for peace, thus establishing it central to a new conception of legitimate sovereignty, he sowed a field of dragon’s teeth for the 20th century. Yet he had little choice. The American creed was democracy. He could not become a partisan of the Hapsburgs. Democracy was “rule by the people,” so there had to be a “people.” And a people is a nation. Nationalism is democracy’s unfortunate prerequisite, its necessary but sometimes vicious companion. Wilsonian national self-determination, in the decades after World War I, dissolved all the world’s empires, first the ancient autocracies of Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Russia (though Russia soon re-emerged in a new form); then, after World War II, the colonial empires; then the Soviet Union. Leaders of these “new nations” had to hammer national consciousness into their people, often through crude propaganda that debased the culture, and at the expense of minorities who came to be seen as “foreign.” Indeed, none of these phases of imperial dissolution took place without large-scale displacement of peoples and genocide in its wake.

And three cheers for Harvard President Larry Summers, whom Will Saletan defends here. (Summers got in trouble for suggested that differences in achievement between men and women in science may have a basis in genetics.) I have no idea whether or not Summers is right. But the reaction of outrage that the possibility was raised­—outrage, not critique—is brilliantly revealing. We should be able to question any conventional wisdom. Harvard cannot carry both the message of freedom of thought and the baggage of political correctness.

Friday, January 21, 2005


Here's one of the most potent and troubling images in Bush's speech:

we have lit a fire as well - a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.

William Safire suggests a substitution:

A metaphorical nitpick: he said our liberation of millions lit "a fire in the minds of men ... and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." I would have replaced "this untamed fire," which could be dangerous, with "the light from this fire," which would have illuminated the "darkest corner." (Once a speechwriter ...)

I prefer the metaphor as it stands, because it hints at the dark side of revolution. Freedom is like a fire: it can energize, it can warm, but it can also destroy. Against Bush's metaphor of freedom-as-fire, consider another metaphor: culture, which can describe both human civilization and plants, and which describes human civilization as a metaphor to the growth of plants, gradual, intricately structured, fragile. They are beautiful in a more enduring and wholesome way than fire is.

As fire burns plants, so the revolutionary embrace of freedom can destroy authority, tradition and culture. Sometimes fire is needed, to clear away overgrown growth, or to melt ice.

A post on an old blog of mine, "In Defense of Tradition," may be re-read as an answer to Bush's radical ideology.

Arguments in defense of tradition and culture against "untamed" freedom have been misapplied as arguments against the Iraq War. Saddam did not represent a culture or a tradition, but the rape thereof. His rule was based not on tradition but simply on systematic murder and pure fear. Iraq was a rare case of a country where even the worst-case scenarios of anarchy and misrule which were likely to follow a war of liberation were better than the status quo.

Unfortunately, when it comes to immigration, most Americans are on the wrong side:

Many adults in the United States want the government to implement tougher immigration controls, according to a poll by TNS released by ABC News and the Washington Post. 76 per cent of respondents believe the U.S. is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants out.

Even now, my mother-in-law, who has a job, a husband, and an apartment in Russia, couldn't get a visa in order to attend her only daughter's wedding. Our immigration restrictions are already insanely tight, and are damaging our economy and our image in the world, and yet most people want to make the problem worse. It's important to remember that our democracy has never been absolute. The power of the people has always been constrained by the common-law tradition represented by the courts, as well as by civil disobedience on the part of conscientious individuals.

Like segregation in the past, immigration today is the issue on which the will of the people must be defied. I salute George W. Bush and the 7 million illegal immigrants on our soil for doing so.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


I’ve been inspired by most of the Bush speeches that I’ve seen in the past year. This one, while impressive, did not quite inspire me. It was an attempt to frame a national ideology, of a very radical character, and rooted in an almost Manichean worldview: freedom and decency vs. tyranny and terror. The only way in which the ideology was “conservative” (the label traditionally applied to the Republican party and its constituency) was in its effort to draw on US history and synthesize it into a narrative that buttresses the ideology and renders it an extension of tradition. This effort was fairly successful, and I think American history lends itself to that interpretation.

The speech reminded me almost of the Communist Manifesto, with its clear, prophetic goals, its universal ideals, its proclaimed solidarity with the oppressed and opposition to tyrants. “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” would not have seemed out of place. If the exact same speech were made in 18th-century France, it would have been a call for revolution.

If the same speech were made by Clinton in the 1990s, on the other hand, it would have seemed vapid and rhetorical. Of course we all like freedom. But, oh yeah, it is to be achieved “not primarily by force of arms.” In other words, we do nothing but wish people who want freedom well, right? If the same speech sounds cogent and unanswerable while slightly frightening coming from Bush, that is because of the event that was never mentioned by name: Iraq. He challenges critics of the war to explain themselves, to reconcile any lip service they may want to pay to freedom and democracy with their preference for leaving Iraqis under the totalitarian rule of a murderous tyrant. The challenge is unanswerable because most critics of the war have always been in bad faith: most of them are not willing to utter the endorsement of Saddam’s continuing rule that was logically implied by their anti-war stance.

Bush’s radical worldview—“Trotskyite libertarianism,” a colleague of mine aptly called it—is too narrow, too dogmatic, and afflicted with irony deficit. I think I can already sense the coming day when Bush will be ready for the dustbin of history. But not yet. For the moment, Bush—or his speechwriters, or whatever—is the world’s most important political thinker. The world needs to listen and internalize a lot of what he has to say before we’re ready to move on.

Four more years. Congratulations, America!

Meanwhile, here’s a challenge to Republicans to put their conservative political philosophy into practice. And a reminder that, by the way, ten years after the Contract with America Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994, they haven’t done a lot to roll back government. Paul Gigot makes good points against the notion that Bush represents the far right. That was always a lot of baloney. But I give the Contract with America credit for more accomplishments than some do. For example, I think they deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the 1990s boom.

Andrew Sullivan grudgingly admits that Bush has a chance at a legacy like Reagan’s. Finally he figured it out. (Just filter out Sullivan’s anti-religious bias.)

I support open borders on grounds of justice—to dissolve a global caste system stratified by place of birth—but immigration has also accelerated productivity growth in recent years.

Europe is depressed about Bush’s second inauguration, reports Thomas Friedman. But I think Bush’s re-election will force Europeans to take a second look at Bush. Lately I’ve been reading Cowboy Capitalism, a book written about the American economy, to Germans, by a German, with the hope of deflating anti-American myths and persuading Germans that American-style capitalism is something their country would do well to embrace. The most startling part of the book is finding out what Germans are ready to believe about America. Friedman reports Dominique Moisi as saying, "It is not that we are so much against America, it is that we cannot understand the evolution of that country.” Yeah, they don’t. To understand us better, Europe needs to do less lecturing and more listening. And those who think Europe is a “blue state” must not count racial equality as a Democratic strength anymore. America—red-state and blue-state alike—has licked racism much better than Europe has.

Here’s a good summary of where Blair stands, by Timothy Garten Ash. Hopeful about Bush. Wants Britain to endorse the EU constitution, but Rupert Murdoch disagrees. Ash says if he fails, it will be because of Iraq. Whatever else happens, Blair is certainly a remarkable politician.

I once heard a European expressed horror that Gonzales referred to the Geneva conventions as “quaint.” Here's Mark Steyn's reality check for devotees of the Geneva conventions. One of the most distinctive features of contemporary leftists is the way their pieties crowd out critical reasoning. (This is not to dismiss all criticism of the Bush administration's human rights record, some of which is welcome. But uncritical faith in the Geneva conventions is as wrong-headed as uncritical faith in Bush.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


I visited CBS News's main page today for the first time, and immediately ran across a great example of why it's difficult to read the MSM after you get used to blogs. The third paragraph of the lead story, amidst paragraphs consisting of clear, indisputable facts, is as follows:

Bush won re-election by besting John Kerry on the issue of who could best handle the terrorist threat and by casting his arguments in moral and religious terms.

How does CBS know? Indeed, what would the statement even mean?

The first problem with a statement like this one is that it is a generalization where generalization is highly dubious. Bush won because he got 3.5 million more votes than John Kerry. Why he got them varies with each vote: some were voting against abortion, some because they liked Bush personally, some were supporting the troops, some admired Bush for liberating Iraq, some wanted to keep taxes low, some didn't trust Kerry.

In view of all this, could any one-sentence generalization beginning "Bush won re-election by..." be valid?

Unless every single Bush voter voted for the reasons CBS states, the meaningfulness of any such generalization depends on some kind of statistics. For example, if 35% of voters supported Bush because they like his hairdo, 10% of voters supported him because he comes first in alphabetical order, and 6% of voters supported him for a variety of policy-related reasons including Iraq, tax cuts, and loose environmental policies, we could justify a statement such as

"Bush was elected because of his appealing hairdo and his last initial."

because most of Bush's supporters voted for him for one of those reasons. We would ignore the policy-related voters because they were relatively few.

Yet on the other hand, without the 6% of policy-related voters, Bush would still have lost. Those voters were necessary to give him a majority, so perhaps it is unfair to exclude them. Let's now suppose that 37% of voters supported Kerry because they preferred his hairdo, and 12% because his name came later in the alphabet. In this case, Kerry leads among hairdo voters and among alphabet voters, but Bush gets all the policy voters. Since the policy voters tipped towards Bush and gave him a majority despite his trailing in the other categories, we might justify the statement:

"Bush was elected because his policies were more appealing to swing voters than Kerry's were."

So, even if all voters have well-defined reasons for their choices and we have perfect information about those reasons, any brief generalization we make about the reasons for the electoral outcome will be in large part arbitrary.

In real life, voters have many and complex reasons for their choices. A peacenik free-trader might say: "I would have voted for Kerry if he promised to withdraw from Iraq, but since Kerry wasn't offering a clear alternative, I voted against Kerry because of his protectionism." Is this voter voting based on trade, or based on Kerry's failure to define his positions? A Christian fundamentalist might say, "I stayed home in past elections because the Republicans didn't convince me they were really pro-abortion; Bush did, so I voted for him." Should we consider this guy a swing voter? And what if someone said "I opposed Bush on the deficit and the Patriot Act, but I supported him on the war in Afghanistan, tax cuts, and trade; I decided the positives outweighed the negatives." Which issues is this voter voting "on?"

More importantly, we don't know the reasons for voters' choices. We have patchy evidence in the form of polls, but polls have to resort to crude simplifications of people's real opinions in order to standardize them and compile them into statistics. In the process much is lost, and much is read back in.

Now what is really remarkable, even weird or shocking, about CBS News's statement is that it is placed in an article alongside all sorts of straightforward facts like:

The schedule begins with a Military Gala on Tuesday, January 18th and ends with a National Prayer Service on Friday, January 21st.

This mixing-up of cold facts with conjectures is highly deceitful, because it implies that all the statements in the article have the same epistemic quality.

Now if a blogger made CBS's statement about why Bush won, he or she might feel the need to offer justification for the statement, including, for example, links to and analysis of, polls. If the blog had comments it might touch off a debate. Even if the blogger did not justify the statement, at least we would understand that the statement was offered as an opinion, and in good faith.

But when CBS puts the statement in a news story, my reaction is different. Because they mask opinion as fact, I don't even trust that they hold the opinions in good faith. They have an agenda, and they manipulate the facts to match the agenda, rather than letting their views be guided by the facts. They feel entitled to do so.

I've gotten spoiled. After the epistemic honesty of the blogosphere, reading the MSM makes me feel violated. And that's probably not a good thing. Because the blogosphere will probably not adequately substitute for the MSM's functions for a long time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Poor Tories:

Tory MPs were demoralised by a Populus poll for the News of the World of 202 marginal seats showing Mr Blair is on track to win a third landslide in May with a 160-seat majority.

That could leave the Tories with just 163 MPs, two less than they returned at Labour's 1997 landslide and their worst showing since 1906.

The party of Churchill and Thatcher is losing its viability. David Brooks wonders if the same fate could be in store for the party of Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

The Democrats and the Tories have the same problem: no good ideas. Their lack of good leadership is a function of the lack of ideas.

Why have Labor and the Democrats, on the one hand, and the Tories and Republicans, on the other, diverged so much? The strange thing is that in 1997 Tony Blair looked like an echo of Bill Clinton. But to the extent that Bill Clinton represented ideas rather than just energy and personality, the Democrats failed to embrace those ideas.

(Hat tip: MaxedOutMama, my #1 news source on Europe.)



If Congressman David Dreier gets his bill through Congress, and if it succeeds, millions of people working peacefully in the United States, many of them poor, may be thrown out of their jobs.

Employers, including farmers who hire migrant workers, small businesses who hire floor employees, and middle-class suburban households who employ nannies and cleaning help, will be forced to choose between throwing people they know and are close to into destitution, and risking ruinous fines and/or jail time.

Law enforcement personnel, who are currently charged with the administration of justice and the prosecution of criminals, will be diverted into repression, sabotage of the economy, and persecution of innocent people who live by honest labor.

Stop David Dreier's bill.

Friday, January 14, 2005

I think I'm pretty good at understanding other points of view. I can understand why people would support socialized medicine, or oppose Social Security reform, though I disagree with them. I can understand supporters and opponents of gay marriage. I can understand why a lot of people around the world resent America's cultural influence. I can understand creationists and evolutionists. I can even understand why someone would want to wage jihad on the west or start a revolution to establish a communist utopia.

But one opinion that baffles me is when former Iraq war supporters change their minds:

EVEN DONALD RUMSFELD, in his more private moments, must wonder if the invasion of Iraq was really such a good idea. It has become obvious to almost everyone else, including many such as myself who originally supported the war, that it has been a huge mistake.

I've heard this before. I just don't get it. Is this guy aware that a dictator who killed between 1 million and 6 million people would still be in power today without the war? Is that not registering somehow? Has this guy read Iraq the Model, the Mesopotamian, Healing Iraq, or any of dozens of others? Not that they support everything we do-- some of them are quite critical of us sometimes, of course-- but wanting to shut them up in Saddam's prison-state again is something I just can't imagine.

It's like saying, "You know, maybe we should have just left Hitler alone. Heck, most of the Jews were dead anyway by the time we got there..."

The soldiers' morale has held up just fine the whole time, and they've done tremendous brave work. How can you justify the home front-- people who aren't even taking any risks!-- losing their nerve?

The guy makes the valid point that the invasion of Iraq encouraged Iran to build nukes. But still. We know the Iraqis had nowhere to go but up two years ago. The soldiers are volunteers and proud to be making history and spreading freedom. There have been no attacks on US soil. Elections are on the way. There's trouble, but we know who the good guys and the bad guys are. Stay the course. What's hard to understand here?


I invested a lot of hope and youthful idealism in Bush this past year. In "Bringing Neoconservatism Home" I wrote:

George W. Bush, like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, is a man on whom privilege has had a salutary effect. He is able to stand taller, think bigger, see further, to rise above the mud-slinging media and keep his eye on America's ideals...

I was even more enthusiastic in "George W. Bush for President":

"Transformational" is the word for George W. Bush. His has been a transformational presidency—transformational for the economy, transformational for foreign affairs and the world order, and transformational of George W. Bush himself... Bush has accomplished plenty, if anything, too much. After a landmark tax cut, a new prescription drug bill, an important education reform, and two wars to overturn totalitarian regimes, the public is gasping for breath...

Bush's principles—freedom, opportunity and accountability—are simple, yet their consistent application is so revolutionary that even after four years of Bush a vote for him is a venture into the unknown.

So far, I'm thrilled with my choice. Bush is on a roll.

This Tech Central article reviews the Bush economy in the past four years. While you've probably figured out by now that the weak economy was smoke-and-mirrors, but it's nice to read the details. This news about unemployment was especially interesting:

As one can plainly see from the following chart, unlike the data depicted by the Establishment Survey [which shows an increase of 2.2 million in 2004, reversing the job losses early in the first Bush administration], the Household Survey shows an increase of 2.5 million jobs since Mr. Bush took office, and a 4.5 million rise from the January 2002 recession low.

So, why the huge disparity in these reports? Well, since the Establishment Survey only includes people who are employed by companies or governments, it fails to address -- as the Household Survey does -- those who work for small businesses, or are self-employed, consultants, or independent contractors. For instance, mortgage brokers, insurance agents, accountants, beauticians, manicurists, lawyers, etc. This is why the Establishment Survey is actually understating employment by about 8 million workers. Consequently, the jobs picture in our nation is much stronger than has typically been reported.

This suggests that the apparent high unemployment may have been a side-effect of changing economic structure, a shift towards more self-employed and more contractors-- a change for the better. Meanwhile, the deficit is shrinking on the strength of strong economic growth.

Bush, meanwhile, is headstrong, bold, and right. In a recent interview, he mentions two big issues to push on the domestic front during his second term:

At home, I'm really excited about working on some big issues: Social Security and immigration reform, policies to keep the economy growing.

Wow! He couldn't have picked two better issues to focus on. The odd thing is that they're both, at bottom, left issues. Or should be. Social Security is funded by the most regressive tax in our system, and distributes money mostly to the middle class, including many with incomes over $75,000. And immigration is one of the rare issues where freedom (from fear, to work) and equality (it helps the poorest people in the country) are on the same side. And on both issues he is challenging public opinion: Social Security is the legendary "third rail" of politics, and immigration touches on sensitive issues on sovereignty and the privilege of birth in a rich country.

Bush could end up in the same position as Tony Blair, standing for lofty principles of freedom and justice in the face of a skeptical and hostile public, and facing down revolts within his own party:

Tancredo, who heads up the 71-member House Immigration Reform Caucus, said he is determined to block the legislation and is arguing for stronger policies to block illegal immigration.

"Why is this so important to the president?" Tancredo was quoted as saying. "Is it just the corporate interests who benefit from cheap labor? Do they have such a strong grip on our president so that he is actually willing to put our nation at risk, because open borders do put our nation at risk? Is it petulance, because we were able to stop it in the last Congress? Why is it so important to give amnesty to people who have broken the law?.”

Because it is right, Mr. Tancredo. Because it is just. Because we must treat our fellow human beings with respect, particularly those who are less fortunate than we are, but who are trying to improve their lot through honest labor. Because Bush is a man of conscience.

All I can say is: O Captain my captain!

Thursday, January 13, 2005


Here's Ted Kennedy's speech on the future of the Democratic Party. Summary: they never learn. First, he minimizes the defeat:

2004 was... a replay of 2000... a switch of less than 60,000 votes in Ohio would've brought victory. Unlike 2000, it would've been a victory against an incumbent president in a time of war.

Small swings in other states could also have given Democrats control of the Senate or the House or even both.

The Dems had a lot of advantages this year. Bush is a risk-taker, a bold leader, who alienates portions of his constituency. Conservatives like Andrew Sullivan and Daniel Drezner actually endorsed Kerry because of issues like the deficit. Giuliani could get these votes back for the Rs without even trying. The MSM did its darnedest to portray the economy and Iraq as disasters, expending valuable credibility capital that they can probably never regain. Donors poured a huge amount of money to the Democrats. The Dems have been losing ground for a generation. When will they realize they're on the wrong track?

It's deeply insulting when Democrats talk about uniting the country

Unlike the Republican Party, we believe our values unite us as Americans instead of dividing us...

Despite resistance, setbacks and periods of backlash over the years, our values have moved us closer to the ideal with which America began, that all people are created equal.

And when Democrats say, all, we mean all...

Our progressive vision is not just for Democrats or Republicans, for red states or blue states.

while speaking this contemptuously of the policies which a majority of Americans have endorsed:

The challenge has been needlessly compounded because Republican Congresses and administrations have consciously chosen negative policies that diminish the American dream.

On Iraq, Kennedy remarks:

Our challenge now is to convince George Bush that there is a better way ahead in Iraq instead of continuing to sink deeper into the quagmire.

And yet he offers no alternatives, no congratulations to the Iraqis on the upcoming elections, no support for the troops, and not a hint of what the "better way" might be. How can we take this party seriously?

About Bush's radical plan to give the workers a chance to own the means of production, Kennedy says:

I categorically reject the deceptive and dangerous claim that the outcome last November was somehow a sweeping or even a modest or even a miniature mandate for reactionary measures like privatizing Social Security...

Reactionary is a funny word for Democrats to be throwing around. It is they who are always "reacting" and over-reacting, always opposing, always looking to the past. The reactionary left.

Meanwhile, Kennedy follows the new Democrat trend of baiting damn foreigners:

The hopes of average Americans have faltered, as global forces cause the economy to shift against them.

Those ominous "global forces."

If Kennedy represents the Democrats, it's urgent that we crush them even worse in 2006 and 2008.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Howard Fineman writes:

[T]he notion of a neutral, non-partisan mainstream press was, to me at least, worth holding onto. [But] it's pretty much dead, at least as the public sees things.

Andrew Sullivan (the Mirabeau of the Blog Revolution) has his regrets:

Blogs are strongest when they are politically diverse, when they are committed to insurgency rather than power, when they belong to no party. I'm particularly worried that the blogosphere has become far more knee-jerk, shrill and partisan since the days when I first started blogging.

While I think this can be translated as "the blogosphere is trending away from agreeing with my views," Glenn Reynolds also perhaps betrays a bit of worry when he hopes that the New York Times won't switch to paid prescription. Wouldn't it be good for blogs if the major newspapers start to switch to the pay-per-view model? Yes, unless he's afraid the blogosphere isn't ready to fill Big Media's shoes...

Even revolutions that are ultimately beneficial can be bloody in the short run. Big Media may be biased, elitist, sub-competent, and all that, but it has at least a tradition of high-minded inclusivity. Few bloggers I know want to bring it down, they just want to put it in its place. But we might kill it without meaning to.

[UPDATE: Peggy Noonan weighs in. Good piece, but this quote struck me:

[A] change... has already occurred. And that is that the mainstream media's monopoly on information is over. That is, the monopoly enjoyed by three big networks, a half dozen big newspapers and a handful of weekly magazines from roughly 1950 to 2000 is done and gone, and something else is taking its place. That would be a media cacophony. But a cacophony in which the truth has a greater chance of making itself clearly heard.

Two assumptions underlie Noonan's welcome of the "media cacophony":

1) In debate, the truer idea or argument beats out the less true, so that the process of debate brings us closer to the truth.

2) It is good and beneficial for people to hear and to know the truth.

Well, maybe. But as for (1), bad arguments often beat good ones in the short run, both in the eyes of the masses and in the eyes of the intelligentsia, in different ways. And free-wheeling debate may lead, not to truth, but to confusion or doubt. Tradition often contains greater wisdom than what freethinkers have to offer, at least until they are chastened by the suffering that their ideas lead to. As for (2), the truth may be that we know much less than we think we do. The fifth-century Athenians prefer to think they knew much than to be made to understand the truth of their ignorance; that's why they killed Socrates.

I recently read The Russian Idea, by Nikolai Berdyaev, in which he describes the vigorous and brilliant trends in Russian thought at the end of the 19th century. What was sad is that, although the 19th-century Russians found a poignant wisdom of sorts, it lasted only for a brilliant moment; meanwhile, they dissolved the traditions that had upheld the tsarist order, and the death of authority paved the way to a Bolshevik bloodbath. Freethinking and truth are rare commodities in the history of mankind, and dearly bought.]


Andrew Sullivan overreacts:

"President Bush said yesterday that he doesn't 'see how you can be president without a relationship with the Lord,' but that he is always mindful to protect the right of others to worship or not worship." So, out of his beneficence, he won't trample on others' religious freedom. But the White House? That's for Christians only. No Jews? Or atheists? Notice also the evangelical notion of a personal "relationship" with the Lord. That also indicates suspicion of those Christians with different approaches to the divine... The president surely needs to retract the statement.

C'mon now, Andrew. When I imagine what it would be like to be president, the first thing I think is: I would need a much healthier prayer life before I would even think about it. Thinking and reasoning have their place, and I feel like I can do those decently well on my own, but leadership requires making decisions of huge consequence-- and you don't have time to think them over properly first! Intuition is required. And with every decision, nay every word, reverberating around the world and potentially affecting millions of lives... it would break me, psychologically, unless I could rely on the feeling of a relationship with God (far stronger than I have now) for emotional support. That's me. And apparently that's Bush. Others may feel differently.

Bush isn't calling for a constitutional amendment to bar atheists from the presidency. He's saying, I guess, that he wouldn't vote for one. His opinion. Can't the president express an opinion, Andrew?

It's because of posts like this that I've renamed Sullivan "The Grand Inquisitor" in my blogroll.

[UPDATE: In response to a reader who made a similar point, Andrew explains his position:

One of the tasks of liberal citizenship is to eschew our religious convictions as guides to the equality of other citizens. It is, in my view, a failure of the liberal temperament to regard some who have a different faith or no faith as somehow less qualified for public office, let alone the highest public office.

This is a popular but untenable view. It represents an extreme variation on the doctrine of separation of church and state, according to which the barrier between church and state must exist not only at the institutional level but also must regulate the mind of every citizen, inasmuch as he or she engages in public affairs. It is unfeasible not only because the mass citizenry could never be trained to do this, but because the the church-state distinction could never be articulated in a cogent way at all: religion and citizenship overlap in too many ways. The effect of Sullivan's view if implemented (held by many others as well, of course) would be to reduce Christians to a second-class citizenship where they must practice self-censorship throughout most of their lives. Already, Christians and other religious people are taxed to educate their own children in a manner that marginalizes, undermines, and sometimes directly contradicts their beliefs.]


I just finished reading Law's Quandary, and I recommend it highly. It serves, almost inadvertently, as a very readable introduction of sorts to metaphysics, semantics, and 20th-century legal thought, while cogently addressing the question: Do lawyers really know what they're talking about?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Add this Weekly Standard article to the evidence for the Guelfs vs. Ghibellines hypothesis that I made a first stab at articulating here, and added to with this post. My claim, which is related to Robert Kaplan's argument in his brilliant essay "The Media and Medievalism", is that an intellectual polarization is emerging today which is analogous to the Guelf-Ghibelline rivalry in the Middle Ages: a struggle for the moral high ground between a great military power and an entity whose power was less tangible. Then it was the empire vs. the papacy. Today the US and the UN head the antagonistic parties.

But is the UN a plausible antagonist for the US? I believe that the UN is easy to underestimate, because we often fail to understand the power of ideas, and the strategic importance of the moral high ground. But what would the UN's version of Canossa, 1077 look like? This article has a clue of the answer.

Last June, a distinguished Argentine human rights attorney, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, took office as chief prosecutor of the new ICC. Earlier this year, with the ink barely dry on his appointment papers, Moreno-Ocampo unveiled his jurisdictional views... that officials of multinational corporations could be held accountable before the ICC for directly or indirectly facilitating conduct that leads to violations of international law. So, the ABA journal relates, if companies engaged in trading natural resources pay money to a government that uses it to fund soldiers who commit war crimes, those companies have arguably facilitated war crimes, and their officials could be prosecuted...

Moreno-Ocampo's remarks imply that the ICC may be willing to use the threat of prosecution as a goad to cooperation from multinational corporations. That strategy would transform the ICC from adjudicator of past crimes to active multinational policymaker--and a policymaker not accountable to the U.N. Security Council or its member states...

If such rules come to be laid down de facto by a pattern of pronouncements or prosecutions at the ICC, there will be significant effects on the world economic system, and they will be the product of nothing more accountable than the intentions of supranational prosecutors and judges.

Things could go further than that. Multinational firms might find themselves paying protection money to the ICC-- and thence, perhaps, to the UN. If the ICC rules that some future American action is illegal, it might authorize international boycotts on firms that did business with the US military, or that were headquartered in the US. Many Americans-- the Democratic Party, for example-- would likely side with the UN in such a scenario. Our power depends as much on the invisible, mysterious webs of international finance as on the US military. If the ICC or the UN can claim the moral high ground from the US, it can pull those webs in its own way, and use them to bind us.

I think this Guelf-Ghibelline struggle will be good for humanity, by the way, even though my side (I'm a Ghibelline / a Bush supporter) is likely to lose.

[UPDATE: Let me add that the International Criminal Court could do some good-- by authorizing operations like the recent invasion of Iraq. The irony right now is that while the International Criminal Court is being authorized to punish crimes against humanity, Kofi Annan has called the one action that has effectively punished crimes against humanity recently, the US-led coalition's removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, "illegal."

However, I think the left has quietly learned a lesson from the war in Iraq, and in future I doubt that the UN or the international left will oppose operations like those in Iraq. People don't like to admit that they're wrong, of course, but the anti-war movement has detached the left from the principles like human rights, freedom, democracy, opposition to mass murder, and so on, that ought to give them their raison d'etre. For all their rhetorical efforts to dodge the charge, history cannot possibly avoid the judgment that they were allies of Saddam Hussein. The left chose the wrong battle, and comprehensively lost it. Saddam fell; Blair survived challenges to his leadership; much of Europe lined up with America; John Howard won re-election; Bush won re-election; the Republicans gained more power than at any time since the 1920s. Many of the left's most conscientious and eloquent members-- Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, Tony Blair, Vaclav Havel-- were driven to desertion by the perversity of the anti-war movement. Now the Nelson Mandelas of Iraq-- courageous and articulate democrats like Iraq the Model-- are on the other side of the fence, and the only ones on the side the anti-war movement took are regime loyalists, terrorists, and journalists (with their myopia for blood).

If the ICC is to do any good for the world, Iraq will have to serve as its model. Will the ICC serve to stop murderous dictators, or will it tie the US's hands in the world by menacing US businessmen and military personnel with arrest? Likely, both. And I may take the ICC's side in the future, for all my nervousness about it, particularly if America ceases to be a force for good in the world. If John Kerry had been elected, I would now be welcoming external forces that reduce American power.]


This is the kind of comment I love:

Re: your website article "Work, Service and Worship:" it is the most revolutionary thing I have ever seen, both in economics and in charity, especially Christian charity. May I have your permission to quote from it?...

As a former economics teacher, a minister and charitable entrepreneur who has helped a few thousand exit poverty, with tough-love insistence on employment and with high success rates, I have thought about helping the poor a lot, and learned a lot about it. You just can't imagine the effect your article had on me.

I wrote "Work, Service and Worship" last summer, and tried to publish it in First Things magazine, without success. It's framed as a response to John Edwards' speech at the Democratic convention, which at this point is a weakness of the essay, but it contains (what I hope are) lasting insights about the relationship between self-interest and charity, and about the theology of labor. At least one person is convinced! With a recommendation like that, maybe other readers will check it out? Since most pages of the essay have less than 20 hits so far, I know that not many people have read it. (Of course, I gave Gerry permission to quote it.)

Potentially, I would even like to expand the essay into a longer work.

Monday, January 10, 2005


Every now and then you notice that an everyday experience contains a philosophical insight. One struck me the other day: vending machines.

Isn't it frustrating when a vending machine won't accept your dollar? You unfold the corners. You smooth them out carefully. You try another dollar. Sometimes you can have three or four dollars in your wallet and you still can't get access to that candy bar!

A vending machine is an everyday example of artificial intelligence, a phenomenon otherwise easily associated with the mysterious and quasi-magical realms of cutting-edge science or futuristic fiction. Is artificial intelligence possible? Sure: look at the vending machine! It performs an operation-- broadly, selling products; narrowly, perceiving a dollar bill-- which is typically the work of a human intelligence.

But it doesn't do it quite as well as a person would. You wouldn't have to unfold the corner and smooth out the wrinkles and avoid the tiniest tears in order to give a dollar bill to a person.

The vending machine mimics human knowledge of what a dollar bill is. But it doesn't get it quite right. Its definition of a dollar bill is a bit too narrow, too rigid. And this even though a dollar bill is very well-defined as concepts go: dollars are deliberately designed to be highly uniform and easily recognizable in order to better perform their function. With more natural, more plastic concepts, artificial intelligence would face a much more difficult task.

Suppose you were going to design a robot that would recognize an apple. (Apples are more difficult to recognize than dollar bills.)

Whereas dollar bills have a standard, perfect form from which they deviate in varying degrees, apples do not. We could provide the robot with a template of an "ideal apple" from which to measure acceptable deviation, but it would be arbitrary.

The robot would then have to cope with a range of deviation from the norm which would still fall within the concept of "apple." An apple partially eaten is still an apple; but at some point "a slice of apple," or an "apple core," would be more fitting. An apple half eaten should probably still be called an apple, but an apple sliced in two is most certainly not two apples. On the contrary, many apple slices cut from one apple could still be referred to jointly as "an apple." How would the robot deal with that?

Apples come in many sizes and colors and in a more limited variety of shapes, but here a contemporary robot would have a head start: equipped with modern genetic tools, it could extract a microscopic particle of the apple and match up the relevant gene sequences. This is a short cut-- gene sequences are not the way humans recognize apples-- but a functional one. Yet it would have some pitfalls. Take the example of a caramel apple. A robot that snatched the outer layer-- the caramel-- would be deceived into identifying the objects as a non-apple, when a human would quickly put it in the "apple" category. In any case, the robot is perhaps benefiting from a redefinition of terms: in our age of science, we are inclined to defer to rigorous biological taxonomy. We would be willing to acknowledge that some things resembling apples are not members of the apple family.

The most serious problem, though, is that a person would quite easily and naturally point to a pictorial representation of an apple as an "apple." This would baffle the robot. If I point to an apple in a 17th-century Dutch still-life and say, "That's a beautiful apple, it looks delicious," no human being would misunderstand me. The robot, if permitted to take samples, would conclude that the object in question was certainly no apple and bore hardly any resemblance to one.

Plato believed that the real world consisted of shadows, and he postulated a higher world of Forms or Ideas, which real objects merely participated in. While the theory is rather fantastic, it solves a basic problem of communication. A robot could replicate the gene sequence of an apple for the benefit of another robot, but it could not conceive the idea of an apple. For this reason, though a robot could certainly be programmed to, say, distinguish apples from oranges for industrial purposes, it would be forever baffled by humans' habit of speaking of painted apples as apples, and would probably never even be able to negotiate such mundane mysteries as why the uneaten slices of an apple remain one apple together while a partially eaten apple is an apple by itself.

Humans have the property of conceiving ideas. And ideas are essential to communication. Artificial intelligence can mimic certain processes usually characteristic of intelligences, but it cannot conceive ideas, and as a result it will always have the character of a vending machine: you'll have to unfold the corners, smooth out the wrinkles, de-complicate, standardize and sterilize, to be understood by a thing that does not have a mind and does not conceive of ideas.

The deeper question is: what are ideas? Materialists want to reduce them to particles and forces, but have no idea how this could be done. When they tire of blind faith, even fantastic old Plato may deserve a more sympathetic hearing.


I'm back. *sigh* It is nice to be working, productive, again, and it's nice not to be in financial free fall. But it was sad to leave Maui. Hana, Maui, in the northeastern corner of the island, feels like another country. All the streets have Hawaiian names-- the language with only seven-and-a-half consonants, including the glottal stop-- and many of the people are of Polynesian stock, or Japanese, or Filipino. And the landscape: mountainous rainforest, such as you associate with remote Third World countries or with dreams, but not with America. Haleakala, the dying volcano, starts deep beneath the sea and rises to 10,000 feet. The winds sweep up its slopes from the northeast, full of moisture, and the change in elevation wrings them out like a sponge: 80 to 360 inches of rain fall on its slopes every year. The result: abundant waterfalls, and intense greenery. Warmth, wind and waves. The word "paradise" its littered everywhere on Maui and it gets annoying, and most of Maui feels a bit like California, but the northeast, the country around Hana, feels like a miracle. I remember the sense almost of holiness walking through the undergrwoth, swimming beneath the waterfalls and walking down the streams, with the giant ivy-draped trees all around, like a temple of life.

A girl who sold smoothies on the road was from Virginia. "I'm supposed to go back in April, but... when you come to Maui..." (she said) "sometimes you cancel your return ticket." Yeah. Wish I could have.

The saddest moment of my trip was when I saw a map of Hawaii in the Pacific in Haleakala National Park and saw how small it was. I wish there were more of it.

The music in Hawaii is gentle and cheerful in a way that seems at once quite natural and yet, set against the blues/metal/rock genres that pervade American music with angst and technology and presentism, somehow unearthly.

Save the rainforest. Read blogs.