Ageist of the Week

March 9, 2007

Ilyka Damen demonstrates how some people can’t help but display class-A irrationality, regardless of age. In a thread on Feministe, she said,

[Link] I am always being told that I should cut you a break because you are young, Alon, but this isn’t a youth problem. This is a reading comprehension problem. I am not “doing” anything to helpless, innocent words, and what I am talking about cannot in fact be applied to “any word or phrase.”

The youth part comes into it in that you’re currently at that stage where anything that can’t be shown to you by mathematical formula is suspect. Perhaps you will grow out of that in time. Until then, regarding your objection that I do not “talk about it empirically,” that is because I am more inclined to “talk about it personally,” possibly because I am not a think tank.

Circulate this to anyone you know who hangs around the same blogs she comments on: Ilyka Damen is an idiot who, by her own admission, is so shoddy that thinktanks are more intellectually serious than she is.

Walter Reed

March 6, 2007

Via the Sideshow: Walter Reed is not a VA hospital, but an army hospital, which belongs to a different system. This is important because a lot of people, including Gordo, are drawing the wrong lesson from the scandal and attacking the best health care system available to non-millionaires in the United States.

First, the VA is mind-bogglingly cheap. In 2005, the VA system cost $28.2 billion to operate; in 2004, it had 7.4 million enrolled veterans, for a per capita cost of $3,800. That’s still higher than the average of almost every country in the world, but is finally lower than this of Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland, unlike the general US average.

In contrast, Medicare and Medicaid cost $900 billion in 2005 and had 80 million enrollees, for $11,000 per capita. It’s expectable for them to cost somewhat more than the national average, because old people, who’re on Medicare, use more health services than younger people. But Medicare and Medicaid’s total cost divided by the USA’s entire population is already higher than the per capita cost of almost every public health care system in the developed world and almost as high as this of the VA system.

The VA is not only cheap but also good. On many indicators, the VA system is rated the best health care system in the US, largely thanks to a rebuilding effort in the 1990s produced by the system’s shocking state of neglect. The VA system reproduces many of the elements of good public health care: a focus on prevention, since enrollment is for life; a centralized database keeping track of who has gotten which tests and is suffering from what condition, since all VA hospitals are managed by the same system; efficient administration and a small paperwork burden, because of the centralized database.

That’s why, as Paul Krugman documents, opponents of public health care do their best to deride the VA system and instead promote bloated, inefficient programs extending Medicare, such as Medicare Part D. Walter Reed plays right to their hands, since it allows them to shift their argument from an ideological opposition to public health care, which is unpopular, to an attack on the government’s incompetence, which everyone likes to hear regardless of whether it applies.

The Teachers’ Union is the Source of All Evil in the World

February 27, 2007

Shelley finds a flowchart that documents how hard it is to fire a tenured teacher in New York, the idea being that if only the evil teachers’ union stopped demanding that teachers not be arbitrarily fired, the state of American education would be a lot better. Of course, as Mark Kleiman notes, in the South it’s already the case, and public schools stink even more than they do here…

Focusing on individual bad teachers misses the point. The point is that there’s a severe shortage of good teachers, which has gotten to the point that California has to accept teachers who flunk a tenth-grade-level reading test. Now, California’s schools are severely underfunded – per student funding in California is below national average even though housing prices are the highest of all states – but similar problems with teachers happen even with decent funding.

People who think the teachers’ unions are the source of all that’s evil in the world just focus on the wrong problem. There already exists a process for getting rid of bad teachers; it’s called not giving them tenure in the first place. And even if they’re fired, the state has to find an alternative teacher, typically a rookie who won’t necessarily be any better.

Look, you don’t need mega-pay to have good teachers. On average, schools in the US spent $8,300 per student in school year 2003-4, of which three fifths went to teacher pay and benefits. Stuyvesant’s per student spending is about the same (it was $8,200 in 2003 by a definition that leaves a small amount of spending out), so its teachers can’t be paid that much more, even though New York is hardly a cheap place to live in.

The American school crisis is mostly a low-income school crisis. Upper middle class suburbs like Westchester and Nassau Counties have non-selective public schools that do perfectly well. Part of it is because of an insane cash infusion, but that’s only true for some suburbs.

So it makes sense to ask how come low-income schools have teachers who stink. Is it because good teachers would rather get paid $40,000 a year to teach at a magnet school that produces Nobel Prize winners than get paid $40,000 to teach in a ghetto? Or is it because low-income schools naturally lack one of the most important control mechanisms, parental involvement (there’s a reason scripted learning works in low-income schools)? Or, is it really a funding question, with a few exceptions for glamorous places like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

Iran Has Secret Plans to Take Over the World

February 23, 2007

Michele Bachmann said that Iran has a plan in the works to split Iraq with another entity, in which it will take over the northern half of Iraq and turn it into a terrorist breeding ground. She refused to source that statement; my guess is that she knows that if she tells people God whispered it in her ear, people will realize how batshit insane she is.

Of course, there’s a broader principle here. Even a lunatic like Bachmann doesn’t make things up unless they’re part of radical right-wing dogma. She’s hardly the only creationist in Minnesota. There is a real Iran, and there’s the Iran various ideologues want there to be. For the extreme left, it’s thriving and governed by a popular regime. For the extreme right, it’s an omnipotent terrorist state preoccupied with nothing but killing Americans and spreading Jihadism.

For people like Bachmann, it’s self-evident that Iran is and has always been this sinister enemy. In the real world, Iran was part of the USA’s war on terror until Bush wrote it off as a member of the Axis of Evil; but in American right-wing fantasies, it’s always supported every Jihadist organization, even Sunni ones like Al Qaida. In the real world, Iran is plagued by a looming oil peak and rock-bottom regime support; in American right-wing fantasies, it’s capable of taking control of the northern and western half of Iraq – i.e. the Sunni and Kurdish parts, where it’s even more hated than the US.

Apply for Asylum in the US, Be Thrown to Jail Together with Your Kids

February 23, 2007

The US is the land of freedom and opportunity, as long as you’re not an asylum seeker. Lawmakers who’re more concerned with making sure absolutely no third-worlder gets in unless he really has to than with respecting basic human rights passed legislation to imprison asylum seekers and their families pending trial. Just on the off chance you’re not the type who clicks links,

In fact, nearly half of [Hutto Prison’s] 400 or so residents are children, including infants and toddlers.

The inmates are immigrants or children of immigrants who are in deportation proceedings. Many of them are in the process of applying for political asylum, refugees from violence-plagued and impoverished countries like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Somalia and Palestine. (Since there are different procedures for Mexican immigrants, the facility houses no Mexicans.)

In the past, most of them would have been free to work and attend school as their cases moved through immigration courts. “Prior to Hutto, they were releasing people into the community,” says Nicole Porter, director of the Prison and Jail Accountability Project for the ACLU of Texas. “These are non-criminals and nonviolent individuals who have not committed any crime against the U.S. There are viable alternatives to requiring them to live in a prison setting and wear uniforms.”

But as a result of increasingly stringent immigration enforcement policies, today more than 22,000 undocumented immigrants are being detained, up from 6,785 in 1995, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Normally, men and women are detained separately and minors, if they are detained at all, live in residential facilities with social services and schools. But under the auspices of “keeping families together,” children and parents are incarcerated together at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, as it is now called, and at a smaller facility in Berks County, Penn. Attorneys for detainees say the children are only allowed one hour of schooling, in English, and one hour of recreation per day.

“It’s just a concentration camp by another name,” says John Wheat Gibson, a Dallas attorney representing two Palestinian families in the facility.

In addition, there have been reports of inadequate healthcare and nutrition.

If you’re brave enough to venture to the comment thread, which features such gems as “The violence is here because of illegal aliens” (and still the 1990s saw both a massive influx of illegal immigrants into the US and a drastic drop in crime), go help Jenny respond to the xenophobes.

There’s certainly a big chunk of the population everywhere that sees foreigners as less than human. Forget unfounded statements like “Liberals are only about the right of icky people to do icky things”; the real outrage about liberals is that they support the right of people of the wrong nationality to have basic human dignity. Ironically, a US population that by and large believes in offering illegal immigrants legal status – in Texas it’s 59-35 – has no trouble with treating immigrants like subhumans.

Although this attitude isn’t restricted to the US, in the US it’s worse than in most other areas of at least the developed world. People in Germany and France and Norway watch American movies, travel to neighboring countries often, and have friends from more than one country. In the US outside a few big coastal cities like New York or Los Angeles, a person can live his whole life not knowing that there exists a world outside US borders. It’s The Gods Must Have Gone Crazy on a larger scale.

It’s of course not ignorance alone that has produced this. Israelis, who know very well that there exists a world outside their country, abuse foreigners all the time, for example by needlessly strip-searching at the airport. But Israel is somewhat of a special case; evidently, Germany, which is overall a lot less into immigrants’ rights than the US is, doesn’t commit those atrocities, or at least hasn’t in 60 years.


February 22, 2007

I’m not going to skewer the radical right’s attempt to relativize Wikipedia in full; better bloggers than me have already done so. But looking at Conservapedia’s mathematics entries is a good reminder that polemical hacks don’t usually produce any useful knowledge.

The combined knowledge of Wikipedia’s NPOV editors has produced a page about the prime number theorem that explains in length how the theorem relates to the Riemann zeta function and how the Riemann hypothesis implies a better estimate, and derives some explicit bounds. The first section, comprising only a small part of the article, says,

Let π(x) be the prime counting function that gives the number of primes less than or equal to x, for any real number x. For example, π(10) = 4 because there are four prime numbers (2, 3, 5 and 7) less than or equal to 10. The prime number theorem then states that the limit of the quotient of the two functions π(x) and x / ln(x) as x approaches infinity is 1. Using Landau notation this result can be written as

\pi(x)\sim\frac{x}{\ln x}.

This does not mean that the limit of the difference of the two functions as x approaches infinity is zero.

Based on the tables by Anton Felkel and Jurij Vega, the theorem was conjectured by Adrien-Marie Legendre in 1796 and proved independently by Hadamard and de la Vallée Poussin in 1896. Both proofs used methods from complex analysis, specifically the properties of the Riemann zeta function and where the function was non-zero.

Meanwhile, the editors of Conservapedia, constrained by the requirements of a radical ideology that displays every radical pathology in the book (for a really egregious example of symbolism, check out the Conservapedia policy on British vs. American spelling), have produced the following article:

The Prime Number Theorem is one of the most famous theorem in mathematics. It states that the number of primes not exceeding n is asymptotic to $latex \frac{n}{\log n}, where log(n) is the logarithm of (n) to the base e.

The number of primes not exceeding n is commonly written as π(n), and an asymptotic relationship between a(n) and b(n) is commonly designated as a(n)~b(n). (This does not mean that a(n)-b(n) is small as n increases. It means the ratio of a(n) to b(n) approaches one as n increases.)

The Prime Number Theorem thus states that π(n)~n / log(n) .

In other words, the limit (as n approaches infinity) of the ratio of pi(n) to n/log(n) is one. Put a third way, n/log(n) is a good approximation for π(n).

Section Break

Gauus [sic] conjectured the equivalent statement that π(x) was asymptotic to Li(x) defined as:

\mbox{Li}(x) = \int_2^x \frac{dt}{\ln t}.

In fact, for large x this turns out to be a better approximation than π(x).

Now, you might say I’m just picking and choosing, and other articles could be better. In fact, I’m picking and choosing here in Conservapedia’s favor; the prime number theorem is one of the few mathematical entries that even exist on Conservapedia. I could compare the articles on the Langlands program, or local rings, or global fields, or the Riemann hypothesis; on those subjects there is no Conservapedia article. Conservapedia doesn’t even have an article on mathematics.

You might also say that Conservapedia is a young project, so I shouldn’t be comparing it to a 6-year-old encyclopedia. Alright; the news on Conservapedia go back a month, so just compare the math there to the math posts I’ve put up in the month of February. On 2/1, I put up a basic concepts post that could make it to an encyclopedia. That took me maybe an hour net to write; how come the Conservapedia editors can’t come up with something better than a few stubs in a month?

Mark CC’s takedown is a good read; Conservapedia complains that Wikipedia doesn’t use “elementary proofs.” But Mark makes a slight mistake about elementary proofs:

There is currently an entry on “Elementary Proof” on Wikipedia, but to be fair, it was created just two weeks ago, most likely in response to this claim by conservapedia.

But that’s trivial. The important thing here is that the concept of “elementary proof” is actually a relatively trivial one. It’s sometimes used in number theory, when they’re trying to pare down the number of assumptions required to prove a theorem. An elementary proof is a proof which makes use of the minimum assumptions that describe the basic properties of real numbers. And even in the case of number theory, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone seriously argue that an elementary proof is more rigorous than another proof of the same theorem. Elementary proofs might be easier to understand – but that’s not a universal statement: many proofs that make use of things like complex numbers are easier to understand than the elementary equivalent. And I have yet to hear of anything provable about real numbers using number theory with complex numbers which can be proven false using number theory without the complex – proofs about real numbers that use complex are valid, rigorous, and correct.

The concept of elementary proof is fairly relative. In number theory, it means no complex analysis, and Mark’s assessment is entirely valid. But in other subjects, it can mean something slightly different. When I took advanced group theory three semesters ago, my professor, an arithmetic geometer/number theorist, told me that to him, “elementary” in a group theoretic context meant no cohomology. There are certainly deeper techniques than just complex analysis; suffice is to say that if someone discovers a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem that utilizes complex analysis but only at the level of the prime number theorem, his proof will likely be considered more elementary than Wiles’, which uses modular forms, Iwasawa theory, and other state of the art gadgets.

Real Oppression

February 20, 2007

Sheelzebub’s post about Christian bigots is a good reminder of how detached from reality a majority that feels dispossessed can be. I’m not making any apologies here: people who rant about how the US (or Europe) oppresses whites, Christians, men, “decent people,” and so on are idiots. Plain and simple.

In Saudi Arabia, Christians are not allowed to build churches. The state tolerates their religious practices as long as they’re confined to their homes, but does not allow them to practice Christianity in public. The same applies to any religion but Islam; Indian migrant workers have no hope of finding a Hindu temple to worship in. That’s oppression.

In the US, Christian children are allowed to pray in school iff they aren’t led or dragooned by teachers and pray during recess. Occasionally, when the Christian majority will abuse its powers and find an opportunity to pray that excludes religious minorities, the ACLU will file suit; if the religious minorities in question are lucky, they won’t be harassed or persecuted by angry Christian mobs. That’s oppression, too, but Christians aren’t the ones who are being oppressed.

Portraying one’s group as oppressed regardless of the facts has a long history, going all the way back to countless ancient populist struggles. Hitler didn’t rise to power by promising to abuse non-Aryans, but by promising to protect Aryans from outside humiliation and inventing a communist repression of Germany that didn’t exist. Just because you don’t get everything done your way doesn’t make you oppressed; it makes you less than an absolute dictator.

If you want to convince me you’re actually oppressed, you have to do better than rant about the evil ACLU/patriarchy/hegemony/Jewish conspiracy. If all you can give me is a heartwrenching anecdote, then all I can give you is an “Oh, that sucks” sympathy. Look, women and minorities are at best severely underrepresented in legislatures and routinely discriminated against in employment, and at worst confined to their homes and ghettos respectively. Gays are legally discriminated against and legally harassed. The religious groups that claim to be oppressed are often the ones that are perpetrating those persecutions.

The G that I don’t talk about

February 20, 2007

Jim Downey begins a discussion on UTI about guns and self-defense, and UTI being what it is, most people come down on the libertarian side of things. I left a very acerbic contrarian comment about today’s first world’s not being the wild west, but there are other issues I’d like to address that don’t quite fall under the morality rubric.

1. Guns increase crime. The US is the only developed country that gives its citizenry licenses to carry handguns; in comparison, Switzerland requires people to keep the weapons they use for military service unloaded and locked to prevent accidents, and Canada only lets civilians purchase rifles. Not coincidentally, the US also has the highest homicide rate in the developed world.

Now, the standard retort is that the US has high crime rates overall. But in fact, the US only has high reporting rates. The USA’s overall violent crime rate as determined by National Crime Victimization Survey is half this of Britain as determined by the British Crime Survey. Undeterred, pro-gun advocates shift their argument to saying Britain’s crime rate is so high only because of gun control; but in fact, since 1997, when Britain instituted its strict gun control measures, survey crime has gone down.

2. The standard compromise in the US, state-based laws, doesn’t work. The guns used in New York gang violence come from the South. In a highly mobile, highly integrated economy, any local law banning the sale of an item or commodity can easily be circumvented by moving to another jurisdiction. It’s even spilled over to Canada, whose murder rate is higher than it should be.

3. It’s easy to be romantic about defending oneself from a tyrannical government. It’s harder to have the army it takes to defeat the government. In post-communist Russia, everyone who wanted a gun could get one; predictably, the mafia outgunned everyone else. Ditto China during its civil war, and even interwar Germany (if the SA hadn’t outgunned the Reichswehr 20 to 1, Hindenburg would’ve outlawed the Nazis instead of invited them to form the government). You’re not Malcolm Reynolds.

4. According to the FBI, 75% of solved murders in the US are committed by an acquaintance of the victim. And the plurality circumstance of homicide is argument, covering 40% of murders. You’re likelier to be murdered by someone living together with you than by a stranger stricken by the urge to kill someone on the 2 train. When you’re carrying a concealed gun, you’re not defending yourself; you’re just carrying a murder weapon you won’t need, ever.

A Platform We Can All Agree On

February 17, 2007

Having looked at the platforms of all the major Presidential candidates, I’ve come up with a synthesized platform that everyone can agree on and that everyone already campaigns on.

1. The economy must grow, and the faster the better.

2. The United States should win the War on Terror.

3. There should be fewer abortions and fewer teen pregnancies.

4. The health care and education systems ought to be improved.

5. Crime is bad.

6. The poverty rate should be lower.

Vote Jillack McRomani in 2008!

The US has Already Lost

February 17, 2007

I shouldn’t have to say it, but there’s still a large number of people in the US who fail to understand that the US has already lost in Iraq. Now that I’m back commenting on The Politburo Diktat, I’m realizing that shutting myself in a bubble of people who realize that the US is in for defeat isn’t productive.

So now that Yorkshire is calling the Democrats terrorists on Common Sense Political Thought, let me make a few things clear.

1. The US won the war almost four years ago; what this is about is winning the peace. And at that, it has had a consistently bad track record.

2. When Scott Ritter and Molly Ivins predicted what would happen almost to a t while Thomas Friedman has been reduced to perpetually claiming that victory is six months away and even the Bush administration is looking for another country to bomb, maybe it’s time to listen to the Ritters more and to the Friedmans less.

3. Bush said “You did not vote for failure.” He was right; the people who voted Democratic didn’t vote for failure, but for the recognition of failure.

4. You can spin the House resolution as giving aid to the terrorists. Equally well, you can spin it as telling the terrorists, “For four years, you enjoyed fighting an incompetent enemy that didn’t know when to quit. Now there’s a new sheriff in town, one that knows exactly where to hit you.”

5. Going by the 2006 Lancet study, 4/7 of violent deaths in post-invasion Iraq for which the perpetrator is known are caused by the coalition. Going by the figure of 600,000 excess deaths, this means 340,000 coalition-caused deaths in the first 40 months of occupation, or 8,500 Iraqis killed every month the US stays. Restricting to data from the last 13 months of the survey, we get 11,500 killed by the coalition every month. Even when ignoring deaths for which the perpetrator is unknown, we get an occupation-wide average of 4,500 and a last-year average of 6,500 per month. If you need to kill the entire civilian population off, you’re not winning the peace.

Melissa is Out, Too

February 13, 2007

Okay, I understand that Amanda is a lightning rod for conservatives. But why did Melissa have to follow suit and resign?

I regret to say that I have also resigned from the Edwards campaign. In spite of what was widely reported, I was not hired as a blogger, but a part-time technical advisor, which is the role I am vacating.

I would like to make very clear that the campaign did not push me out, nor was my resignation the back-end of some arrangement made last week. This was a decision I made, with the campaign’s reluctant support, because my remaining the focus of sustained ideological attacks was inevitably making me a liability to the campaign, and making me increasingly uncomfortable with my and my family’s level of exposure.

I understand that there will be progressive bloggers who feel I am making the wrong decision, and I offer my sincerest apologies to them. One of the hardest parts of this decision was feeling as though I’m letting down my peers, who have been so supportive.

There will be some who clamor to claim victory for my resignation, but I caution them that in doing so, they are tacitly accepting responsibility for those who have deluged my blog and my inbox with vitriol and veiled threats. It is not right-wing bloggers, nor people like Bill Donohue or Bill O’Reilly, who prompted nor deserve credit for my resignation, no matter how much they want it, but individuals who used public criticisms of me as an excuse to unleash frightening ugliness, the likes of which anyone with a modicum of respect for responsible discourse would denounce without hesitation.

This is a win for no one.

This is the entire thing, but go read Melissa’s post and make a sympathetic comment anyway. She is pristinely clean and perfectly articulate, and frankly I think her announcement is a lot more inspiring than Amanda’s. Change a few words and it becomes a straight talker’s stump speech.

Amanda is Out

February 12, 2007

Amanda quit Edwards’ campaign, and everyone’s suspecting that she didn’t quit entirely on her own accord. Writign about Donohue, she says,

In fact, he’s made no bones about the fact that his intent is to “silence” me, as if he—a perfect stranger—should have a right to curtail my freedom of speech. Why? Because I’m a woman? Because I’m pro-choice? Because I’m not religious? All of the above, it seems.

Regardless, it was creating a situation where I felt that every time I coughed, I was risking the Edwards campaign. No matter what you think about the campaign, I signed on to be a supporter and a tireless employee for them, and if I can’t do the job I was hired to do because Bill Donohue doesn’t have anything better to do with his time than harass me, then I won’t do it. I resigned my position today and they accepted.

What follows is a fairly concise attack on Donohue that is a snark-filled version of what Edwards should have said instead of meandering about offensiveness. In three hours, it’s generated a longer comment thread than Amanda’s original post on coming to work for Edwards did in a day. I wrote,

I’d like to say this is what I expected of Edwards. This is indeed what I originally expected, but I seriously thought that you were going to stick around after Edwards’ statement that you were offensive but nonetheless should stay on his staff. I thought that was his way of compromising in a way that was bound to piss off everyone…

I don’t know if Amanda’s resignation was her own initiative or not. I care about it insofar as I’m a curious individual, but even if it was, I’m not going to support Edwards. His position on Iran is unacceptable, and his response to Donohue was a weak rebuke.

Giuliani Insists on Losing the Election

February 11, 2007

I’m not entirely sure why Rudy Giuliani is working so hard to praise Bush and his failed foreign policy in even stronger terms than McCain does. I realize that the Republican base gives Bush higher approval rates than 32%, but still, Giuliani could run as a moderate and let McCain and Browback split the hardcore pro-Bush vote.

Giuliani, 62, a consultant and financier since leaving office, emphasized his qualifications, saying he had been challenged with “having had a job where I didn’t have any choice but to decide, and to make decisions and to move things forward.”

America’s Mayor is of course right. He was challenged at a job where he didn’t have any choice but to decide. He had no choice but to decide what to do with New York’s emergency response headquarters, which experts said shouldn’t be located on the World Trade Center site. He put the HQ in the WTC complex anyway, so it couldn’t be used on 9/11.

He had no choice but to decide how much to invest in getting NYPD and FDNY’s radios to communicate with each other. He decided to do nothing about the problem, so on 9/11, NYPD and FDNY couldn’t coordinate their responses.

He had no choice but to do something about crime. He chose to implement flashy programs like Compstat and the broken windows policy, which helped treat every black person as a criminal but had no discernable effect on crime, which began to drop four years before he took office.

Like every good politician, he was able to capitalize on other people’s achievements while doing nothing useful on his own. He took credit for a crime drop that began nationwide in 1990. He to 9/11 was like Bush to Katrina: he didn’t cause the incident, but his mismanagement worsened it; but unlike Bush, he skillfully manipulated his image in order to look like the hero.

Obama is a Fantasy Novel

February 11, 2007

After overcoming my initial reaction to Obama’s stump speech, which was “zzz…”, I tried analyzing the language. Obama is, for lack of a better term, articulate; his choice of words is this of an effective, eloquent speaker who could rescue the English language after eight years of butchering by Bush. But there was something about that choice that sounded a bit weird, until I realized how reminiscent Obama is of a fantasy novel.

From the first sentence, “Let me begin by saying thanks to all you who’ve traveled, from far and wide, to brave the cold today,” till the end, Obama’s speech is laced with metaphors that suggest he learned a lot of his rhetoric from Lord of the Rings. This extends to the actual content, too: as in a speech given by a king or a knight before a fight, Obama emphasizes leadership, the will to change, and good values.

The one main disanalogy between Obama and a fantasy novel is that Obama is supposed to be conciliatory, while fantasy novels depict battles between conflicted good and absolute evil. Ezra goes as far as basing his entire response to the speech on bipartisanship versus partisanship.

But even then, fantasy novels promote their own kind of cooperation, that between different forms of good. The alliance between old enemies who don’t trust one another is a common theme in fantasy: elves and dwarves in Lord of the Rings, knights and wizards in Dragonlance, etc. Obama is too domestic to conjure the obvious Sauron – Bin Laden – but he still manages to turn poverty into an alternative one.

As with anything Aragorn would say, Obama’s speech was a mixture of bland, boring promises and complex oratory. He manages to combine the worst of “I will make the trains run on time” politics and “Who cares about whether the trains run on time” politics.

What’s stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics – the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.

Actually, what’s stopped the US is exactly the absence of sound policies and sensible plans, in the form of the political marginalization of those who promote them. Medicare and Medicaid together cost per capita more than any universal health care system but Norway’s and Luxembourg’s; any politician who’s serious on health care should be able to achieve universal coverage without increasing government spending, and with cutting private spending by at least two thirds. Likewise, foreign policy is a complex maze to navigate that requires a heavyweight who knows what he’s doing rather than someone who can do nothing but inspire.

In addition, religion is central to Obama’s narrative, as in fantasy novels. While no deity is mentioned directly in Lord of the Rings, the entire journey is framed as a religious crusade. The Belgariad is about wars between different gods.

Obviously, religious narratives don’t have to be epic fantasies. If Obama had more depth, I’d call him a Dostoevsky novel instead. But that would require him to talk in intelligent and complicated terms about morality, instead of meaninglessly throw words like “valor,” which is to the fantasy genre what “engorged” is to erotica.

While fantasy makes for good rhetoric, it makes for bad government. Even hard science fiction doesn’t make for especially good government, because of authors’ tendency to pull social trends out of thin air. But it’s still decent compared to fantasy, which has an annoying tendency not to work in magicless worlds.

Aragorn and Gandalf’s rhetoric is great, when a) your goal is to defeat orcs, b) you magically know that at precisely the right moment, someone will rescue you from sure loss, c) you face no opposition more credible than Denethor, and d) you have no trouble making thousands of grunts die in your stead. Outside Tolkien’s imagination, none of the four applies.

Still, despite the empty rhetoric, I think Obama is the best person in the race. Despite the unnerving religious fundamentalism, the grand promises he’ll likely not even try to keep, the shocking lack of political experience – he’s still the only candidate in the race who I don’t know to favor a war on Iran, and that’s what ultimately counts.

For completeness, here’re the genres I think the other candidates or former candidates represent. Most of them are on the crappier side of things, just like epic fantasy, but those I like the most tend to belong to more interesting genres.

Bush is a pulp Western, like “The Tin Star,” the short story that became High Noon. Edwards is of course a courtroom drama that desperately pretends to be a Charles Dickens novel. The Clintons are carefully marketed mainstream bestsellers. Giuliani is a fast-paced, action-packed police thriller. Brownback is Christian literature, like Left Behind. Hagel is any literary masterpiece whose central theme is the undesirability of change. Warner is technocracy-oriented hard science fiction, such as much of what Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein wrote. Feingold is a dystopian novel.

Are My Pro-Israeli Commenters the Only Ones Who Draw Rhetoric from Mein Kampf?

February 10, 2007

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that lies are more valuable than the truth because it takes less time to tell a lie than to refute it. It’s certainly true in the case of justifications for the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It takes 30 seconds to digest a sentence from the pro-occupation group closest to your location; even when I wrote a refutation elsewhere, it takes me a few minutes to find it and quote the appropriate result from it.

So, please, if you feel like you have something to say about the I/P conflict, note that it’s very likely you’re saying bullshit I’ve refuted elsewhere. I’ll deal with pro-Palestinian crap when I get clueless pro-Palestinian commenters; now let me just point a few things out that pro-Israelis consistently get wrong. You can read most of it here, but if you don’t want to click the link, here it goes:

1. Most Palestinians support the two-state solution arrived at via negotiations.

[Link] Findings show that the majority of the respondents (62%) supports and 34% oppose peace negotiations between a Hamas-led government and Israel. A majority of 58% supports and 40% oppose a permanent settlement that would resolve all issues of the conflict in which Palestinians would recognize Israel as the state for the Jewish people and Israelis would recognize Palestine as the state for the Palestinian people.

2. Palestinians support the Gaza ceasefire nearly unanimously, and are increasingly viewing negotiations rather than terrorism as the key to achieving independence. The same link above says,

Findings show that the overwhelming majority of respondents (85%) supports the ceasefire agreement currently observed in the Gaza Strip while only 14% oppose it. Similarly, 85% support and 14% oppose extending the agreement to cover the West Bank as well. The widespread support for the ceasefire might reflect a decrease in the positive evaluation of the role of violence in achieving national rights. Findings show that the public is split into two equal halves on this matter with 49% believing that armed confrontations have so far helped achieve national rights in ways that negotiations could not. This percentage stood at 54% six months ago and at 68% one year ago.

3. Even those who support terrorism often view it as a way of securing independence, rather than a way of destroying Israel.

[Link] Respondents were asked whether the final goal of the Intifada should be the improvement of Palestinian negotiating conditions, ending the occupation and forming a Palestinian state based on UN resolution 242, or the total liberation of Palestine (area under British mandate before 1948).

Forty-six percent of respondents believed that the final goal of the Intifada should be ending the occupation and forming a Palestinian state based on UN resolution 242, 47% believed that it should be the total liberation of Palestine, 4% believed that it should be improving the Palestinian negotiation conditions, and 3% did not provide an answer/ did not know.

4. Of the Palestinians who don’t support a two-state solution, a majority wants a binational state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians.

[Link] Fifty-seven percent of Palestinians supported the two-state solution, 24% supported a bi-national state, 9% supported a Palestinian state, 3% supported an Islamic state, 5% did not think there was a solution, and 3% did not know or did not provide an answer.

5. Most Palestinians who support a peace agreement want Israel to give refugees the right of return, although most are also willing to postpone negotiations on that and accept an interim agreement first, provided that negotiations for a final agreement proceed. However,

[Link] PSR surveys, conducted in 2003 among 4,500 refugee families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, and Lebanon, found that only 10 percent of all refugees wanted to return to Israel and only 1 percent wanted Israeli citizenship. As figure 5 shows, the rest of the refugees preferred to exercise the right of return in the Palestinian state (31 percent) or in “swapped” areas, that is, areas now in Israel that would be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty in a permanent settlement (23 percent), for a total of 54 percent of refugees preferring to live in a Palestinian state. Only 17 percent of all refugees preferred to remain in a host country, almost all of them in Jordan, and 2 percent preferred to go to a third country such as Canada, a European country, the United States, or Australia. The surveys found that 13 percent of the refugees in all three locations polled refused any of these choices. Most of those wanted to go back to their homes but refused to do so as long as it meant having to live in Israel.

6. Iran is five to ten years away from developing a nuclear weapon.

[Link] Iran is at least five to 10 years away from developing nuclear weapons, and any military attack on the country would only speed up its program, the head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog organization said today.

7. The Iranian population opposes the regime, approving of Ahmadinejad by about the same rate the American population approves of Bush.

[Link] Ahmadinejad’s approval rating, as calculated by the official state television station, had dipped to 35 percent in October.


For a Western traveler in Iran these days, it is hard to avoid a feeling of cognitive dissonance. From a distance, the Islamic republic appears to be at its zenith. But from the street level, Iran’s grand revolutionary experiment is beset with fragility. The state is in a sense defined by its contradictions, both constitutional and economic. It cannot be truly stable until it resolves them, and yet if it tries to do so, it may not survive.

7. Muslims have produced a few democratic states, like Turkey, Indonesia, and intermittently Lebanon. That’s not a lot, but considering that the first Catholic democracy that didn’t succumb to fascism under its own weight was Czechoslovakia, formed in 1918 (France was anti-Catholic and fought on the Protestant side in the Thirty Years’ War), saying that Islam is inherently anti-democratic is like saying Catholicism is. After all, inherent religious features don’t change in 100 years.

Islamism is simply a political response to the failures of previous movements, chiefly Ba’athism. At the time, Islamism seemed like a fresh change when Ba’athism, monarchy, communism, and liberalism were all crumbling. Tellingly, in the one country where Islamism is plainly practiced, Iran, the people are ready to move on toward liberal democracy.

Edwards Keeps Amanda and Melissa, but I’m Still Against Him

February 8, 2007

Edwards made a clarification about the entire Amanda/Shakes brouhaha, which is supposed to be a reasonable compromise but is likelier to just piss everyone off.

The tone and the sentiment of some of Amanda Marcotte’s and Melissa McEwan’s posts personally offended me. It’s not how I talk to people, and it’s not how I expect the people who work for me to talk to people. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that kind of intolerant language will not be permitted from anyone on my campaign, whether it’s intended as satire, humor, or anything else. But I also believe in giving everyone a fair shake. I’ve talked to Amanda and Melissa; they have both assured me that it was never their intention to malign anyone’s faith, and I take them at their word. We’re beginning a great debate about the future of our country, and we can’t let it be hijacked. It will take discipline, focus, and courage to build the America we believe in.

Knowing what I do about Pandagon, someone’s lying. That’s perfectly alright with me, though; what bugs me is Edwards’ wanton arrogance. People whose entire campaigns are based on firebrand populism shouldn’t complain that “It’s not how I talk to people.” It’s not polite to use the word “Fuck” in political conversation, but it’s not polite to engage in rhetorical class warfare, either.

There’s nothing special about Edwards’ way of talking to people. On the contrary, if I had to create a set of objective standards for acceptable political rhetoric, anything more emotional than the average Al Gore speech would be strictly verboten. People who care about getting a good government rather than a government that pretends to be good would see through the dryness and look at the actual content.

“But that doesn’t inspire people,” I hear you complain. Well, no. Echidne can be just as inspiring as Amanda. And besides, inspiration tends to mask actual content. Hitler was a really inspiring person. If you vote based on how a candidate’s words emotionally resonate with you rather than based on whether that candidate will make a good leader, you deserve people like George W. Bush.

Still, fun as it is to rant about people who prop up empty suits, that’s not my point here. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t be the first to throw stones. Empty suits like Edwards (and, for that matter, Obama, who I think is the best among those who’re in it to win) shouldn’t be the first to castigate styles they disapprove of. Edwards inspires people by pretending the 1960s and 70s were a liberal paradise and the 2000s are the robber baron era; Amanda inspires people by calling religious fundamentalists asshats. Deal with it.

Why I’m So Tepid About The 2008 Candidates

February 8, 2007

It won’t surprise regular readers of my bloviations that my political interests are mostly about foreign policy and civil liberties. Economic policy in the US is along too narrow a gamut and affects too few people for me to care that much. That’s the real source of my admiration for Feingold (and contempt for Kucinich).

So a huge chunk of my concern in 2008 is that nobody’s talking about my issues, which are the issues important to the largest number of people in the world. The office of the President of the United States combines this of the USA’s chief executive with this of the world’s; right now, everybody focuses on the former.

Now, that’s understandable insofar as 95% of the world doesn’t get to choose the global chief executive, but the consequences of that aren’t especially positive. I don’t think Obama and Edwards are committed to bombing random countries; the reason they make aggressive statements about Iran is that they don’t know or care much about foreign policy.

I like to say that turning “I will make the trains run on time” into a slogan is lousy politics. But in fact the only thing that’s worse than someone who campaigns on making trains run on time is someone who can’t make the trains run on time. Anyone in high office in the US can do good domestic policy – the Speaker of the House, in particular – but only the President can execute foreign policy, and only the executive can crack down on civil liberties.

So far I’m for Obama by an infinitesimal margin, because his statements on Iran are slightly less horrifying than those of Clinton and Edwards. But I harbor no illusions that if elected (and he won’t be), he’ll pursue a wise foreign policy. Even the Republicans don’t have any serious foreign policy candidate; McCain may try looking like a serious foreign policy person, but he’s really just a serious pandering person.

That’s why I’m so tepid about the 2008 candidates. I’m very high maintenance when it comes to inspiration, and have an annoying habit of not taking anyone at his word when he tries convincing the public to make him the most powerful person in the world. Right now there are seven candidates I consider viable, of whom one is a theocrat and six are slimeballs.

Candidates Should Check Which Bloggers They Hire

February 7, 2007

John McCain’s campaign hired Patrick Hynes, a blogger and a Free Republic poster who ranted about Chelsea Clinton’s looks. No reports yet circulate saying that McCain has fired Hynes, whose blog includes the following gems:

1. Writing about Harvard’s new curriculum overhaul, which emphasizes learning more about other cultures, Bull Dog Pundit wrote, “In case none of you are smart enough to figure it out (having not gone to Harvard), it’s really a bunch of anti-American, multicultural PC crap. (I would use a different word than “crap”, but I didn’t go to Harvard)… folks, this isn’t ‘education’. It’s ‘indoctrination’.”

2. Hynes himself wrote a book called In Defense of the Religious Right, which promulgates the myth that the USA’s Founders were all religious nuts who wanted the US to be a Christian state. The book refers to atheists as “elites” and pretends the entire Supreme Court is anti-religious.

3. Bull Dog Pundit defended US Air‘s decision to not let Imams who prayed out loud board a plane because, as we all know, Muslims are all terrorists. He also defended Joe Biden’s racist remarks.

4. Hynes complains that libertarians are threatening to buck the religious right: “The libertarian Right appears bent on bringing down the one political movement that has tolerated its know-it-all-ism and has in fact dragged it into the halls of political power along with it, rather like a ball and chain: the Christian Right.” Apparently, the religious right’s hatred of civil rights and civil liberties has nothing to do with that.

5. B.T. defended corporate-funded anti-science activism in the form of global warming denialism.

McCain’s campaign blogger is a Dominionist who coblogs with an ignorant racist who hates education, and an ignorant, faith-based science hater.

Cheap Shots

February 5, 2007

Dan Riehl is an idiot. A more intelligent conservative could criticize Edwards on a variety of grounds: his class warfare rhetoric, his proposed tax hikes, his Iran flip-flop, his timidity in opposing gay marriage. However, Riehl isn’t such an intelligent conservative. Bad as Edwards might be, hiring a woman who’s less attractive than he is to be his top blogger isn’t a transgression.

It gets worse. Suppose that Edwards had hired Jessica Valenti instead. Riehl wouldn’t be able to link to unflattering photos of Jessica and laugh; in the most unflattering photos of her, she looks like a highly attractive woman who’s making faces at her camera.

But, you know, we’ve been there. If Edwards had hired Jessica or Lindsay or Jill, Riehl would be making sexual cheap shots instead. When Ann Althouse had the chance to, she did.

So, my advice to Democrats who don’t want to get attacked by right-wing nuts: don’t hire unattractive or average-looking women. Don’t hire attractive women. Don’t hire only men, because misogynist assholes will still call you a sexist. Don’t run without hiring anyone, because you’ll be a lightweight. And don’t choose not to run, because you’ll be a coward. Your best shot is to stop existing.

News or Links, Take Your Pick

February 4, 2007

Guestblogging on Ezra Klein, Ankush notes that Edwards is even more of a waffler than he comes off in Ezra’s interview. He notes that Edwards blames the war on intelligence failure, and rebuts,

Today, I’d like to see a presidential candidate grapple with the questions that should be raised about why so many politicians — including, if you supported the war on the basis of WMDs, you — were so wrong when it was far from inevitable. What do you plan to do about promoting and reconciling dissent within the intelligence agencies? How should a President seek out conflicting viewpoints and process the contradictions? What should be the default presumptions when, as is often the case, you have very little intelligence to work off of? Are you concerned that Washington is dominated by a fairly homogeneous, vaguely hawkish group of foreign policy types, many of whom aren’t particularly good at what they do? In essence, why were you wrong in interpreting the evidence about Iraq and what do you plan to do in order not to be wrong the next time?

Edwards’s claims that the intelligence was irretrievably tainted and that everyone was wrong about the wisdom of war — claims which, to be fair, are frequently made by many, many other politicians and pundits — are so demonstrably false as to be borderline offensive. I appreciate his sincerity about his regret over the tragic costs of this war, but, so far as evaluating one’s participation in bringing this disaster about, expressing such regret is quite literally the least you can do.

A few days ago, Hamas and Fatah set a record by holding their fire for a whole day. But as the second day of quitting smoking chocolate coffee indiscriminate violence is always harder than the first, it didn’t work out very well, and Palestinian civilians are living in fear again.

Gazans have long been accustomed to violence. But until recently, the fighting was between local militants and Israeli forces, and the lines of battle were clear.

The last few weeks of fighting between Hamas and Fatah gunmen have taken on a different feel. Gunfire can erupt at any time, poorly trained fighters shoot at random, and the target isn’t always known.

Rudy Giuliani is still not “in it to win,” but is saying there’s a “good chance he’ll run.”

He has emphasized his steady hand dealing with the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. However, his moderate stances on gun control, abortion, gay rights and other social issues could be liabilities for him in a GOP presidential primary that includes hard-core conservatives as a central voting group.

For instance, in November, South Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on same-sex unions.

“The fact is I appeal to conservative Christians the way I appeal to everyone else,” Giuliani said at a news conference. “I don’t think you have separate appeals to people.”

Giuliani is right. A very big constituency in the South includes people who think it was a mistake to give black people civil rights; Giuliani has a lot to sell them. Another big constituency hates it when non-conformists have free speech; Giuliani can placate them, too. Before Southern conservatives had God, guns, and gays, they had blacks. has a compilation of information about the HPV vaccine, which Texas Governor Rick Perry has just made mandatory for all girls aged 11-12.

Tony Blair is not only a lame duck Prime Minister, but also under immense pressure to quit now rather than in the summer. It’s not the brown-nosing of Bush or the religious fanaticism that turned the people off, but a corruption scandal involving cash for honors.

The ICM survey for the Sunday Express found that 56 per cent of the public want him to go now rather than wait for his planned summer departure.

The poll found that 43 per cent of Labour supporters feel it is now time for him to step down.

The survey also reveals a loss of trust in the Blair regime with some 66 per cent believing that evidence relating to cash-for-honours allegations has been covered up by people in Downing Street.

Victoria Brittain notes that there is such a thing as Islamic feminism, and that it has achieved several successes in rolling back discriminatory laws in Muslim-majority countries.

Embattled Muslim women, suffering the burdens of the worst cultural attitudes to rape and adultery enshrined in medieval laws in Pakistan and Northern Nigeria; or the sexual violence and rolling back of their rights, unleashed by the war in Iraq; or the targeted killings of women activists in Afghanistan, are turning for help to Muslim women’s groups. From those in Morocco and Malaysia, in particular, the skills of self-help training, experience of long legal battles, linking scholars and activists, are in great demand.

At government policy levels some, Islamic women activists’ campaigns are having successes large and small in some surprising places: Morocco’s Moudawana (religious personal statute laws differing from civil law) have recently been revised after 30 years of struggle; in Turkey’s Ministry of Religion there is a cautious beginning by some scholars to work on the highly sensitive area of questioning the historical basis of the hadith (sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet) which seem misogynist; and in Indonesia’s rural areas teaching materials are being revised.

The Democratic Party is waffling about abortion, as its candidates deemphasize it more and more in order to appeal to Dominionist voters.

Day believes it is the beginning of getting some voters back into the fold. “If I had a nickel for every person who came up to me and said ‘I used to be a Democrat and I’d come back if they changed their stance on abortion,’ we’d be back to a 290 majority like we had in the 1970s.”

Day’s analogy is correct but incomplete. If the Democrats appeal to Dominionists, they’ll be back to a 290 majority in the House like in the 1970s; and like in the 1970s, they’ll have Southern conservatives hold key committee chairmanships that they’ll use to push the entire party to the right.

Skatje writes about homosexuality and the religious nuts who have a problem with it.

You let your bible tell you to shun gays, but you don’t pay attention when it tells you to shun women on their period? The bible says a lot of ridiculous things. You shouldn’t take the “unnatural affections” being a sin bits any more serious than the parts where it says to dash your enemy’s children against rocks or stone disobedient women to death. The reason I figure for including the part about homosexuality in the bible is the same reason they include various sorts of washing, staying away from dead bodies, etc. At the time these things were written, they didn’t know about bacteria and how disease works. They just knew that if you did such and such, you’re less likely to become ill. Anal sex can be unsanitary without the proper precautions. Back then, it was probably a good idea not to stick that there. I’m also undoubtedly sure that homosexuality is mentioned because the bible is notorious for disapproving of things that are different or unusual. Not very good justification though. Don’t let the bible tell you to hate stuff, ‘kay? Use your own head.

The best quote comes from commenter Azkyroth, who mocks a theistic commenter who confuses “canon” with “cannon,”

Also, “canon” is the official Christian doctrine; “cannon” are what they’ve been using to spread the canon since the cannon was invented.

Hat-tip to Robin: Timothy Garton Ash responds to Pascal Bruckner, who accused him of being an Islamist apologist after he criticized Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Pascal Bruckner is the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road, arguing loudly with some imaginary enemies. He calls these enemies “Timothy Garton Ash” and “Ian Buruma” but they have very little to do with the real writers of those names. I list below some of his misrepresentations and inaccuracies, with a few weblinks for the curious.

Pascal Bruckner speaks in the name of the Enlightenment, but he betrays its essential spirit. The Enlightenment believed in free expression, without taboos. Because I disagree – courteously, precisely and giving clear reasons – with the views of a woman of Somalian origin, Bruckner does not hesitate to imply that I am a racist (he calls me “an apostle of multiculturalism,” then describes multiculturalism as a “racism of the anti-racists”) and a sexist (“outmoded machismo”, “the spirit of the inquisitors who saw devil-possessed witches in every woman too flamboyant for their tastes”). This is exactly the kind of blanket disqualification that he himself criticised in an article in Le Figaro entitled “Le chantage a l’Islamophobie,” (reprinted from Figaro here) deploring the way any critic of Islam is (dis)qualified as an Islamophobe racist. Except that here he is the blackmailer. Voltaire would be ashamed of him.