words among

Monday, April 10, 2006

So I talked to Thomas Friedman today. He was at Williams giving a talk to a packed Chapin Hall entitled "the World is Flat: some Second Thoughts." Rumor has it that his younger daughter just got into Williams and his talk was a little token of appreciation for President Schapiro. I was told that all the seats were full and I could watch everything via telecast in Brooks Rogers recital hall, so I snuck in the side door of Chapin with a friend. Sometimes working in the music department has hidden benefits, like knowing your way around these big lectures. Anyway, here's what happened when I went up to the mic after Friedman's surprisingly fun talk.

Me: hi. (loses train of thought for a few seconds)
TF: hi.
Me: (gets it back) I was thinking about what you said, about how we're funding both sides in the war on terror. Well, couldn't you say the exact same thing about the war on drugs? Here we are spending billions to destroy plants, and at the same time we're making those plants worth billions by banning them.
TF: Yeah. No, I agree. I don't really have anything to add... I don't know much about the war on drugs, but from everything I've heard, you're exactly right.
Me: thanks.
Old people in audience: (tepid applause)

Man, I felt like a million bucks. The big shot columnist who packed in half the town not only agreed with me, he actually deferred to my analysis. He also ended his speech with "Green is the future, Green is the new red, white and blue," probably unaware that some of us were about to head out to a Green Party meeting. Sure, his analysis still completely ignores the downside of neoliberal globalization, but I can't help respecting Thomas Friedman a little more after being respected by him.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Unfortunately, technology empowers the bad people as well as the good. Take terrorists, for example. Modern explosives, computers, and communications magnify the damage than an individual or a small group can do. On the other hand, technology also makes the rest of us better equipped to face such threats.

-Glenn Reynolds, An Army of Davids


Instapundit's point in this chapter, about individuals stepping up to make attacks harder to plan and pull off, was pretty valid. But he began it with this clumsy passage, which I just have to take issue with right now.

Setting terrorists into a group unto themselves may seem an odd place to start criticizing. He has a definition of terrorist, after all. Why not take all the people who fit that definition as an example? The reason is because that leads to lumping them together, as if their tactics and motives are in some way monolithic, and separate from ours. Now, there is something special about the tactic of killing civilians, but it's nothing that the US army is innocent of. Claiming that our troops care about civilian life but the Iraqi fighters don't is immensely disrespectful. And these fighters have little more than their pride -- it's very very important to them. Those who care about silencing their guns should consider how this can be done in ways that respect that pride and understand that its not going to admit moral inferiority.

In the past it made sense to dehumanize enemy troops, because the power structure made it doubtful that they could individually decide to give in. If there's no way to make peace with them, then regarding their humanity is merely a distraction that could cost lives. But the fighters in Iraq do have the ability to call off their offensive individually, so they should be regarded as what they are. Humans. Just like us. They're very concerned by the US's history of prioritizing oil over human rights, and they're insulted by taunts from Bush and Cheney. They're tormented by the deaths of their cousins, brothers, and friends, and they want the whole world to know that they are brave enough to stand up despite their pain. We should acknowledge that courage rather than malign them as haters of life that 'must all die'. We should demonstrate a grasp of reality that could inspire some confidence in the potential of Iraqi cooperation with the US. Because our focus should be on convincing, not slaying. There's not some fixed number of Iraqis who will oppose our force - the number is totally contingent on our behavior and the beliefs of those troubled, desperate young men. And they pay attention to what Bush says very closely. He has total capability to show them some respect. Running reconstructions in a way that employed more Iraqis would also be a strong signal as well as sound economic policy. Give people lots to do, to keep busy, so that they can slip away from the fighting and it won't be conspicuous. These troops are individuals, not privates, so they can do that. Which is what Bush needs to learn.

Believing that there are important distinctions between 'us' and 'them' is a mistake. There's no them, there's only us. We are all the same thing except for the outermost layer, which collects sunlight. And allowing that skin/hair/eyes layer to supercede our better judgement and give us excuses for inhuman behavior is deceptive in the saddest way imaginable.

Al Franken's interview of Anthony Shadid produced much of the material on which this post is based - he is a Lebanese reporter, in Baghdad, working for [a conservative newspaper] [the Post]. His own reading of the current insurgency is that it very likely sprung from an incident shortly after Saddam's fall. In Falluja, a region Shadid describes as not sympathetic to Saddam's party, but very bound up with the conservative belief that demands vendettas for certain crimes, US soldiers fired on a crowd and killed 16 civilians. One of these pages in the history book:
Basically, people were gathered and uppity. The armed forces were there, to "keep peace". The commander, who knew nothing about psychology or history, told his kids to fire. Thus the "valiant" shot (and killed) the "unknown".

It's happened in India and the US; it's a mistake that can sometimes be lived down and sometimes causes shit to really blow up. This Falluja incident (which was tactlesslly followed up with another just like it) was the latter. With US kids trading marks with Sunni, it's pretty much exactly the dilemma that Offspring warned back in the Clinton daze:
It goes down the same as a thousand before/
but no one's getting smarter, no one's learning the score

It would be one thing if each offended Iraqi would cap a soldier and call it a career. Doesn't seem to be the case. Spitting more lead into the situation is therefore a dangerous wager of the type that keeps coming back to bite you whether you win or lose. Essentially, the more blood, the more bloodlust - and as I said its not a matter of depopulating their force, it's more a matter of repopulating their force.

So am I advocating a total and immediate withdrawal? No, although Shadid's consideration of this q made me very reassured that perhaps this is our winning move after all. But I believe that our first and most important move is to show respect to the people we're "working" with over there. Forget this rhetoric about us and them. Forget this misleading vocabulary of """""terror""""". We need to give the insurgents a good reason to believe that we're not going to phuck with their oil - and I think the proper way to send that message is to disband Halliburton.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Dear George,

In your column this week you displayed a very mature grasp of the distressing consequences of over-consumption. This is one of many persistent structural injustices that make those hearts bleed and bleed, and you are more than correct to identify this as a salient reason why liberals are less happy.

The question I have is how do conservatives better deal with these apparent problems? In some cases, they rationally doubt the serious nature of the problem, or the efficacy of the liberal solution. In some cases, they are convinced by the messages they hear in the media. And in other cases, they are outwardly convinced despite rational doubts. For some people, on some issues, this duplicity can rightly be described as self-delusion. In other cases, the individual is not convinced but is comfortable causing others to become naively convinced with his wordplay. Those who can do so without being nagged by their conscience can claim to be happy. Those who are nagged but don't want to reveal their sins may profess happiness and eventually convince themselves they are happy.

It's sometimes reasonable to doubt the potential of government reform, but doing so is often tantamount to doubting the spirit of the American people around you. People exert a great deal of power over each other by communicating their expectations of each other, verbally and nonverbally, intentionally and unintentionally, and these predictions have an element of self-fulfillment in lots of folks. Children see the adults in their environment behaving in certain ways, they expect their peers to rationally do the same, and they expect their peers to expect nothing less of themselves. An emphasis on tradition greater than justified by naive utilitarianism can strengthen these self-fulfilling phenomena, and indeed this may be the central aspect of conservatism (trying to conserve that which already exists, if my etymology is accurate).

You recognized that a pessimistic attitude about, among other things, the initiative put forth by the other people in the community of citizens, is likely to yield verifiable predictions. I wonder what you think would happen to the predictive power of pessimism if the entire community of pessimist conservatives suddenly switched to unabashed optimism. My concern is that acceptance of the status quo and reluctance to invest in reform is a stance that reflects a distressing disregard for the well-being of others, in our time and in the future. Perhaps liberals are not the naive ones after all; perhaps their ideas about opportunity and collective sacrifice are well-founded, and perhaps the persistent failure of certain ideals is as much a result of conservative cultural inertia as it is a consequence of true human nature. It's said that people will live up or down to your expectations. I understand that you agree on the down part, and I want to hear your thought on the up side.

Mr. Will, thank you for the minutes you spent reading this. Please trust that any note of reply will be eagerly read and well appreciated.

-Mike