Sunday, June 29, 2008

Globalization of healthcare-for-the-rich

"There is a revolution afoot in international healthcare." So begins a piece in the May-June issue of Harvard Magazine, which notes that changes in U.S. visa policy since 9/11, making trips to the U.S. for certain purposes more difficult, have prompted wealthy non-Americans to seek "world-class" healthcare outside the U.S. Hospitals for the wealthy (or relatively wealthy) have been springing up around the world, and various U.S. universities have sought to capitalize on this.

Something called Harvard Medical International (HMI), which was set up in 1994 to make money for Harvard Medical School (HMS) and which has projects in 20 countries and an operating budget (for '07) of $21 million, is being transferred by the university to Partners Healthcare, "the parent organization for two of the largest Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals." The rationale for the transfer is that HMI is a consulting company that should never have been a formal part of the university in the first place. But the new organization will be allowed to use the Harvard name, when entering into new contracts, for the next five years, and the university will continue to be involved in some aspects of HMI-connected projects. HMS will continue to operate, for example, its Dubai Center (for postgraduate and continuing medical education), which is linked to the projected 4-million-square-foot Dubai Healthcare City.

A pertinent issue, broached but not really tackled by the article, is whether this whole trend benefits anyone other than the wealthy. If so, very indirectly, would be my admittedly ignorant guess. On the other hand, an interesting coda to the article, which may relate to this issue, questions "the model that says medical advances develop in the United States and ripple out to the rest of the world." It relates the story of an HMS student, Eric Twerdahl, who spent a summer researching "the impact of HMI projects in Dubai and India on healthcare in their respective regions." It goes on:
Twerdahl met a vascular surgeon in Bangalore who has revised operating room practice -- for example, sterilizing and reusing equipment, instead of using disposable items -- to cut the cost per procedure. He met a cardiac surgeon in Mumbai who has pioneered open-heart surgery without general anaesthesia, using instead an epidural administered above the level of the heart. These innovations sharply increase access to care, but were unlikely to develop in the United States, where the healthcare system is much less responsive to cost. In this sense, says Twerdahl, "the days of U.S. medicine thinking that it's at the top of the pile are numbered."
But at the same time, of course, that organizations like HMI are engaged in projects that may encourage such innovations, it is safe to assume that a number of health systems in various parts of the world are not at all in good shape: see, for instance, this report on the situation in what used to be Soviet central Asia.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Peshawar under threat

In an earlier post about the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, I noted Ahmed Rashid's comment about the deteriorating security situation in and around Peshawar. Now Pakistani forces have moved into the city to repel a possible attack by various militant groups.

Friday, June 27, 2008

HC on Longfellow's 'The Jewish Cemetery at Newport'

Thought we were all done with poetry? Not just yet!

Today, guest commentator HC offers reflections on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem 'The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,' published in the 1858 collection 'Birds of Passage.' The poem was inspired by Longfellow's visit in 1852 to the oldest Jewish cemetery in the U.S., in Newport, Rhode Island.

The text of the poem is reproduced immediately below, followed by HC's commentary. (For explanatory notes on particular references in the poem, go to [sorry, but it didn't work as a hyperlink].)

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
At rest in all this moving up and down!

The trees are white with dust, that o'er their sleep
Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind's breath,
While underneath such leafy tents they keep
The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.

And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
That pave with level flags their burial-place,
Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down
And broken by Moses at the mountain's base.

The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times.

"Blessed be God! for he created Death!"
The mourners said, "and Death is rest and peace";
Then added, in the certainty of faith,
"And giveth Life that never more shall cease."

Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,
No Psalms of David now the silence break,
No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue
In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.

How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
What persecution, merciless and blind,
Drove o'er the sea--that desert desolate--
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?

They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;
Taught in the school of patience to endure
The life of anguish and the death of fire.

All their lives long, with the unleavened bread
And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,
The wasting famine of the heart they fed,
And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.

Anathema maranatha! was the cry
That rang from town to town, from street to street;
At every gate the accursed Mordecai
Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.

Pride and humiliation hand in hand
Walked with them through the world where'er they went;
Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,
And yet unshaken as the continent.

For in the background figures vague and vast
Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime,
And all the great traditions of the Past
They saw reflected in the coming time.

And thus forever with reverted look
The mystic volume of the world they read,
Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,
Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.

What is so good about this embarrassing poem? Why would Helen Vendler circulate it (as she did last year, without comment) to everyone with a Harvard University email address as part of an apparently abortive campaign (I never got another poem from her) to disseminate Great Poetry?

Longfellow seems intent on treating the Jews the way James Fenimore Cooper treated the Mohicans, romanticizing their disappearance so eagerly and prematurely that his motives might be questioned. At least Cooper celebrates the noble qualities and skills of the Mohicans; Longfellow has almost nothing good to say about the Jews other than that they had unshaken faith in eternal life, which, as the Maine Historical Society website points out in its commentary on the poem (Longfellow was born in Maine), is probably more reflective of Longfellow’s comfy Protestantism than of Jewish theology. It is this faith that allows the Jews to endure persecution and preserve their pride (“Pride and humiliation walked hand in hand”), and the wellspring of this faith is the greatness of the Jews’ past, which “they saw reflected in the coming time.” Again, more Protestant than Jewish: true, the Jews look forward to the coming of the Messiah, but Longfellow gives this a second-coming gloss that is distinctly Christian. (The prophet Elijah does return in Judaism, at every Passover, and Longfellow may have this in mind when he refers to the Seder, with its unleavened bread and bitter herbs, but the Messiah himself, whom Elijah heralds, just comes once.)

The real kicker is near the end, with Longfellow’s equation of the “backward” (right to left) reading of Hebrew with this “reverted look” to the past. The idea that one’s method of reading conditions one’s world view is nice, but Longfellow goes on to equate this backward look (apparently forgetting its corollary look to the future) with death (“Till life became a Legend of the Dead”) and so in effect blames the Jews for their own demise: they were obsessed with death, ergo they died off. (This recalls the prior invocation of Moses’s disgust with his own people via the analogy of flat gravestones to thrown-down tablets.) The saving grace – the phrase is appropriate given that Longfellow has turned the Jews into Christians (and by the way, I see on Google that Vendler gave a lecture on Victorian Jews for Jesus, so maybe I’m on her wavelength here) – the saving grace, I was saying, is that this die-off seems part of a natural cycle and so perhaps not entirely self-inflicted: “The groaning earth in travail and in pain / Brings forth its races, but does not restore, / And the dead nations never rise again.”

Here you might object that this reading of the poem as a piece of disguised anti-Semitism is unfair, and maybe it is. After all, the poem is a denunciation of Christian anti-Semitism: they mock and jeer, spurn and hate, beat and trample, exile and burn the Jews. It is clear-eyed about that, and therefore cynical about history, which obviously does not punish those who deserve it. Interesting that the word God only appears once, within an imagined quotation: “Blessed by God! For he created Death!” Not a great endorsement. Is this a Godless poem? I hope so.

In any case, I have not answered my question: what is so good about it? I’m not sure it’s a great poem but there are certainly a number of great lines.

“How strange it seems!” A natural way to start a lyric, initiating a flow of thought that continues nicely through the poem.

“At rest in all this moving up and down.” The image is concrete, rendering the conceit of the poem (Jew vs. world) utterly physical, and the language is stunningly simple, every word a monosyllable except one. It blows the previous line, with its hackneyed repetition-via-epithet (silent, never-silent), out of the water.

“The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.” Nice phrase, esp. with the verb keep.

“Alvares and Rivera interchange / with Abraham and Jacob of old times.” This is the declaration of a device of simple coupling that runs throughout the poem, starting with “up and down” and continuing: old and brown, rest and peace, merciless and blind, Ishmaels and Hagars, Ghetto and Judenstrass, mirk and mire, mocked and jeered, pride and humiliation, and that’s not even half of them. A poem of couplets. Even more than that, I like the glossolalia of Alvares-Rivera, which is picked up later by “Anathema maranatha!” In these near-palindromes the Jews get their revenge, infecting Longfellow’s own language with their Hebraic reversion.

“In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.” It’s the last word I like, with its spitting sound and its gone-native quality: an obsolete word (the only one in the poem) to invoke an obsolete language. Here Longfellow declares that he loves Hebrew. If it has infected his language, he has welcomed it. (Actually I like this whole quatrain. Nice rhyme of synagogue and Decalogue.)

“Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book.” Again, the simplicity is stunning. What a great, irreligious way to refer to the Bible (for what other book could he possibly be talking about?).

“And the dead nations never rise again.” Here Longfellow maintains his strict syllable count (ten per line) but finally upends his iambs to come down hard on DEAD. Which is the whole point: the Jews are dead.

I have a feeling the poem inspired at least two others about unredemptive death: Robert Lowell’s “A Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” and possibly Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” (compare uses of the verb drove in the two poems). Not a bad afterlife.

-- HC

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Iranian Machiavel

David Ignatius's June 8 Wash Post column "At the tip of Iran's Spear" is about the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and chief foreign policy strategist for the regime, Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Ignatius describes how Soleimani rode more than one horse in Iraq recently, temporarily switching allegiances from the Mahdi Army to Nouri al-Maliki in arranging the cease-fire after Iraqi forces entered Basra to take on the Mahdi Army in March. He showed similar flexibility in calling off shelling of the Green Zone by his Shiite militia allies after demonstrating how vulnerable the U.S. complex there remained. Soleimani emerges from this description as a clever tactician and strategist, one not to be underestimated, but also as someone with whom tough diplomacy might be possible, once the Bush administration has left office.

D. Kaiser on habeas

For those interested in the recent Supreme Court habeas corpus decision, David Kaiser at History Unfolding has a quite good post summarizing the decision; he thinks Kennedy's majority opinion may come to be seen as a landmark. He also has a postscript about Scalia's dissent.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Very brief postscript

Before leaving World War One for a while (probably with a sigh of relief), I should mention quickly one other readily available source on the issues we've been discussing:
Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989; paperback edition, 2000), esp. pp.120-128.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More on Newbolt and the sports-war 'equation'

The interesting comments on my post "The poetry of empire" (June 17) prompt these further remarks.

The large issue of the relation between poetry and colonialism, raised in the comments, is, unfortunately, beyond my competence to tackle here. On the narrower issue of the relation between Newbolt and Kipling, also raised in the comments, I think I was wrong to make a specific link between Newbolt's 'Vitai Lampada' and Kipling's 'White Man's Burden,' since the two poems' particular themes and their audiences (Kipling was addressing Americans in the wake of U.S. annexation of the Philippines, Newbolt was addressing his compatriots) are different. However, Kipling and Newbolt did share the same basic attitudes, a point that has been made before: see, for example, James G. Nelson's review of Vanessa F. Jackson's The Poetry of Henry Newbolt, in the journal English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 v.37 n.4 (1994), pp.538-41.

Newbolt is mentioned in A.N. Wilson's The Victorians (2003), where is weirdly misdescribed as a "man of the left" (p.292). Newbolt also appears in the opening chapter of Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). Referring to the "commitment to the sporting spirit" as emblematic of the "innocence" with
which the British entered the war, Fussell quotes 'Vitai Lampada' and notes that it had established "the classic equation between war and sport" (p.25).

Fussell proceeds to tell the story of Captain W.P. Nevill of the 8th East Surreys regiment, who fell on the first day of the Somme. During his last home leave before the battle, Nevill "bought four footballs [i.e., soccer balls], one for each platoon" and "offered a prize to the platoon which, at the jump-off, first kicked its football up to the German front line" (p.27). A private in another regiment who was there that day, quoted in Martin Middlebrook's First Day on the Somme and re-quoted by Fussell, reported seeing "'an infantryman climb onto the parapet into No Man's Land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so he kicked off a football. A good kick. The ball rose and traveled well towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance.'"

Fussell, after noting that Nevill "was killed instantly" and that two of the soccer balls "are preserved today in English museums," continues: "That Captain Nevill's sporting feat was felt to derive from the literary inspiration of Newbolt's poem...seems apparent from the poem by one 'Touchstone' written to celebrate it. This appears on the border of an undated field concert program preserved in the Imperial War Museum:

A Company of the East Surrey Regiment is reported to have dribbled four footballs--the gift of their Captain, who fell in the fight--for a mile and a quarter into the enemy trenches.

On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them
Is but an empty name.
True to the land that bore them--
The SURREYS play the game.

"And so on [Fussell writes] for two more stanzas. If anyone at the time thought Captain Nevill's act preposterous, no one said so" (p.28).

For those whose history of World War One may be a bit rusty, it should be noted that the British suffered 60,000 killed and wounded (about 20,000 killed, 40,000 wounded) on the first day of the Somme. They were mowed down by German machine-gunners who had been left largely unscathed by a lengthy but ineffective pre-attack artillery bombardment. It is safe to assume that the First World War is the last time it would have seemed un-preposterous to kick a ball toward the enemy while attacking. This is one way of saying that the First World War changed the way both soldiers and civilians thought about war. The manifestos of the Italian Futurists, the first of which was published in Paris in 1909, advanced the view that war is "the only cure for the world" [guerra -- sola igiene del mondo] (J. Joll, Europe since 1870, p.127; cf. R. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, p.6). It is hard to imagine any minimally sane person saying something like this after World War One. Although Fussell has been criticized for drawing too sharp a division between World War One and what came before it (see Daniel Pick, War Machine: The Rationalization of Slaughter in the Modern Age, ch. 13), there is plenty of evidence to support the position that the First World War marked a watershed in attitudes about war. One of the casualties of the First World War was the particular view of war and "the sporting spirit" articulated in Newbolt's 'Vitai Lampada'. I will end by quoting the first sentence of James Nelson's review of Vanessa Jackson's book, cited above: "Henry Newbolt was one of several poets -- William Watson and Stephen Phillips also come to mind -- who awoke to sudden and unexpected fame in the Nineties [the 1890s], a fame which did not last, Newbolt's poetry, one might say, having been written as if it were consciously designed not to survive World War I."

Monday, June 23, 2008

Kristol on the MoveOn ad

Bill Kristol's NYT column today criticizes a ad featuring a mother who says that John McCain cannot have her infant son Alex for service in Iraq. I have not seen the ad. As described by Kristol, who quotes what I assume is the ad's key passage, it does sound a bit over the top (for lack of a better phrase), insamuch as McCain has not called for a 100-year war in Iraq (he spoke of the possibility of a 100-year troop presence, not a 100-year war). On the other hand, the passage from the ad Kristol quotes does not really support his charges that the ad "embraces a vision of a selfish and infantilized America, suggesting that military service and sacrifice are unnecessary and deplorable relics of the past," and that the ad shows thinly veiled disdain for those who are serving.

Not having seen the ad, I can't evaluate the nuances and subtexts. If the ad does convey, even arguably, the message Kristol says it does, then MoveOn should think about pulling it. But I would want to see the ad first and judge for myself rather than taking Kristol's word for it. His credibility in my book is low, to put it mildly.

Moreover, political ads are not vehicles of truth or purveyors of calm, considered judgments. They are designed to sway the emotions and they traffic in evocative images: the red phone ringing at three in the morning, the face of Willie Horton, the sunflower giving way to the mushroom cloud (from the '64 election) or, as is apparently the case here, a mother holding an infant son. Are many people going to equate this with "infantilization," selfishness, and narcissism, as Kristol does? I don't know. But political campaigns, for better or worse, have a way of straying from the high road; and McCain and his supporters have certainly done, and will continue to do, their share of stretching the truth and bending the views of their opponents.

p.s. MoveOn has a letter to the editor in reply.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Question for Roberts and Scalia

Does the right hand know what the other right hand is doing?

This question presented itself as I half-skimmed, half-glanced my way through the 134 pages of Supreme Court opinions in the latest detainee/habeas corpus case, Boumediene v. Bush. In particular, the question arose when I got to the dissents. There are two: one written by Chief Justice Roberts, which Justices Scalia, Alito, and Thomas joined; and one written by Scalia, which Roberts, Alito, and Thomas joined. There's just one little problem: the dissents start out by saying opposite things. Roberts says the majority opinion will have only a "modest practical impact" (or words to that effect) on the detainees' situation, so the case is less about the detainees, he asserts, than about a struggle over which branch of government gets to set policy in this area.

Although Scalia agrees that there is a struggle among the branches and indeed accuses the majority of holding an "inflated notion of judicial supremacy," Scalia, by contrast with Roberts, begins his dissent by declaring that the majority opinion will have "disastrous consequences." It will lead, he predicts, to more detainees being released than otherwise would occur, and some of these may return to the battlefield (as has happened in some previous cases where the military itself decided to release detainees).

"Modest practical impact" or "disastrous consequences"? Which is it, guys? You can't have it both ways.

p.s. No doubt someone else has already made this point, but I have read little commentary on the opinions, so any copy-cat-ism here is inadvertent.

Friday, June 20, 2008

JFK and the jelly doughnut

Did JFK really say he was a jelly doughnut in his famous Ich-bin-ein-Berliner speech? A recent post at the NYT blog Paper Cuts finally sorts it all out... well, sort of. The link is here.

p.s. The Newbolt follow-up is coming this weekend. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Downsides of elite education

As elite universities become more and more like enormous corporations, as the competition to get into them becomes more and more frenzied, and as one of their unspoken purposes -- namely, the production of alumni who will have the money and loyalty to give substantial sums to their alma maters -- becomes more and more central in the calculations of the people who run these institutions, what is being lost?

Quite a lot, William Deresiewicz argues in this piece in the current issue of The American Scholar. He doesn't cite William James, but one of his claims is that elite universities are admitting and nurturing fewer and fewer of what James called "undisciplinables," those who have the desire and capacity for genuine intellectual independence.

Leftists have long believed, with considerable justification, that one of the major purposes (if not the major purpose) of elite education is to reproduce social and economic hierarchies. (Actually, many conservatives also believe this, but they celebrate rather than deplore it.) Would you expect to find this argument in The American Scholar, which is published, I believe, by Phi Beta Kappa? Probably not, yet Deresiewicz makes it: he writes that "the
best place to cultivate [the life of the mind] is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system."

After an admittedly quick reading of Deresiewicz' piece, I agreed with some parts more than others, but it is a good complement to "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," the Atlantic essay I mentioned earlier (see "Liberal arts, con and pro," below). And finally, a nod to the blog Easily Distracted, which is where I ran across the Deresiewicz article.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The poetry of empire

In 1897, barrister and writer Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) published a poem called Vitai Lampada, which said, in essence, that fighting for the British empire against African "natives" demanded the same qualities of teamwork, loyalty, and sacrifice required of a schoolboy cricketer. In the poem, a soldier, far from home and facing almost certain death in a hopeless situation, imagines himself back on the school cricket close, feels his team captain's encouraging hand on his shoulder, and manfully proceeds to do his duty for monarch, country, and empire.

'Vitai Lampada' (rough translation: [they pass] the torch of life) arguably belongs to the same genre as Kipling's better-known "The White Man's Burden" (1899); today one can still find references, almost always deprecatory or satirical, to the refrain of Newbolt's poem: "Play up, play up, and play the game." If one ignores its imperialistic, militaristic, jingoistic message (a big "if"), 'Vitai Lampada' is undeniably stirring, though its strictly literary merits are slight to nonexistent. It was very popular in some circles in Britain in the years leading to the First World War and less popular, for understandable reasons, thereafter.

With this as background, you will perhaps appreciate my surprise at finding 'Vitai Lampada' reproduced in a kind of handbook called The Mammoth Book of Boys' Own Stuff, which I recently saw prominently displayed in a bookstore. This book is full of chapters on how to do various (if I may be permitted a sexist phrase) boy things (e.g., build a model rocket, camp in the wild, etc., etc.), but it also has a section with a few poems, of which 'Vitai Lampada', identified simply as a "patriotic" poem, is one. Reproducing an ode to Empire in a sort of bloated scout manual aimed at 12 and 13-year-olds, and published in 2008, is somewhat bizarre.

For those who may be curious, here is the poem.
There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night,
Ten to make and the match to win
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play, and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! Play up! And play the game!"
The sand of the desert is sodden red -
Red with the wreck of the square that broke.
The gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed its banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks -
"Play up! Play up! And play the game!"
This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind -
"Play up! Play up! And play the game!"

P.s. See also the post More on Newbolt and the sports/war equation.

Sarkozy on defense policy

France will rejoin NATO's integrated command, which it left in 1966, Pres. Sarkozy said in a speech following release of a white paper on defense strategy. The paper calls for some 50,000 defense jobs to be cut and 50 facilities to be closed, while increases in spending are proposed for intelligence items such as drones and satellites. The white paper says that from 2009 to 2020 French defense spending will be 377 billion euros or 584 billion dollars, i.e., roughly the size of the U.S. military budget for one year.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Thrill ride at Torrey Pines

I've always thought that golf is boring, compared to, say, tennis. That wasn't true of the just-concluded U.S. Open. The parts I saw over the last couple of days had a measure of excitement and were even thrilling at several moments. And luckily you didn't have to understand the differences between a cut, a fade, and a draw in order to appreciate what was going on.

One perhaps pedantic cavil, which arises from the pairing yesterday of Tiger Woods with British golfer Lee Westwood: I wish American sports announcers (and other announcers) would learn to refer to the UK as Britain, not England.

Quote of the day, surreal division

"We will not give up our country for a mere 'X' on the ballot."
-- Robert Mugabe, vowing that the opposition will not take power if it wins the upcoming run-off elections in Zimbabwe.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Nuclear matters

The A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling ring got its hands on blueprints for a compact, missile-ready nuclear device, according to news reports. The blueprints were found in computers owned by a Swiss businessman and have now been destroyed under the supervision of the IAEA. However, there is a possibility they were circulated before being destroyed; see Joby Warrick's front-page article in Wash. Post today.

Earlier (May 12), Warrick had a long piece about the rising number of countries seeking permission from the IAEA to launch nuclear power industries, including in some cases enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. The U.S. is upset that, for instance, Canada wants to develop such a capability. Not that it is concerned about a nuclear-armed Canada but rather about the potential spread of nuclear material. Earth to the Bush admin: which country's soldiers are serving in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan? If Canada wants this fuel-cycle capability, perhaps you should just consider dropping objections.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A different border

While I've been posting a bit about the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a more traditional, if not less tangled, problem is emerging in a border dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea. A May 25 New York Times piece by Jeffrey Gettleman (thanks to HC for alerting me to it a while back) notes that the problem is partly rooted in an unclear history:

"Scholars say that the border area was never properly demarcated, and that the best guidance as to who owns what goes back to a vague communiqué between France and Italy more than 100 years ago. They were the colonial powers at the time, with France occupying what is now Djibouti and Italy controlling what is now Eritrea.

"According to John Donaldson, a research associate at the International Boundaries Research Unit, a British institute that studies border disputes, France and Italy agreed in 1901 that no third country could rule the Doumeira area [the disputed zone, which includes a hill and a small island in the Red Sea], and that specific border issues would be dealt with later.

"'It’s very complicated,' he said. 'But the question was basically left up in the air.'

"Djiboutian officials said the Eritreans made a play for this area in the mid-1990s, producing old documents and saying that the territory was theirs. But Djiboutian officials said that their trump card is an 1897 treaty between Ethiopia and France that clearly states that the Doumeira area was French.

"According to the Djiboutian government, the Eritreans asked in January if they could cross the border to get some sand to build a road. Instead, they occupied a hilltop and started digging trenches.

"'In one word, they cheated,' said Col. Ali Soubaneh Chirdon, who commands the Djiboutian soldiers lined up on the border.'"

The U.S. and France have military bases in Djibouti and are backing it in the dispute. There are various possible explanations for the Eritreans' willingness to take on an apparently more powerful foe. In addition to the NYT article, which gives more background and description of the current situation than I have quoted here, see D. Nexon at Duck of Minerva on this.

Berlusconi breaks a rule

According to a small Wash. Post item today ("A Selfish Endorsement," p.A5), Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi endorsed John McCain for president in Rome yesterday, while standing next to President Bush. Berlusconi, 71, said: "I suppose I could express my own personal preference for one of the candidates, the Republican candidate. And this is for a very selfish reason, and that is that I would no longer be the oldest person at the upcoming G-8 because McCain is a month older than me."

In response to this serious breach of the norm that leaders do not inject themselves publicly into another country's domestic politics, Bush merely "chuckled," according to the article.

C. Rice for the defense

The Secretary of State has published a defense of the Bush administration's foreign policy ("Rethinking the National Interest," Foreign Affairs, July/August) -- a difficult brief, since it has been, generally speaking, a disaster. There are a few bright spots, such as the substantial increases in U.S. official development assistance to Africa and Latin America since 2001 (which Rice notes), but these can't alter the overall verdict, in my view.

On Iraq, Rice admits to mistakes but says that removing Saddam was still "the right decision" (p.21). At the end of the piece, she waxes lyrical about a "uniquely American realism" that sees no long-term conflict between interests and values but only, at most, short-run tensions. The U.S. is an "incredibly impatient" country that does not "linger over [its] own history" (you can say that again!), but is also "deeply patient" because it understands "how long and trying the course of democracy is" (p.26).

Speaking of patience, I wonder how many of Foreign Affairs' numerous subscribers will make it to the end of this article.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Border incident (Cont.)

The U.S. today released grainy footage from an unmanned drone, purporting to show militants firing before the air strike that resulted in the deaths of 11 Pakistani soldiers. Nat'l Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, speaking in Rome, said that an investigation into what happened was underway and that it was still not entirely clear exactly what had transpired.


As for the Supreme Ct decision on habeas corpus and detainees, it appears to be most welcome; I've not had a chance to read the opinions, so you'll have to look elsewhere for analysis, which shouldn't be too hard to find.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The price-placebo effect

Earlier this year, when Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor of New York after it was revealed that he had had a series of $1000-an-hour meetings with a prostitute in D.C., the Wash. Post's Shankar Vedantam took the occasion to report on research involving the price-placebo effect ("Eliot Spitzer and the Price-Placebo Effect" (Dept. of Human Behavior), WP, 3/17/08).

A bunch of behavioral economists in California gave two groups of experimental subjects two bottles of wine, one priced at $10, the other at $90. The wine in all the bottles was the same, but the subjects did not know that. Brain imaging showed that people drinking the wine they thought was more expensive had a "larger activation in their medial orbitofrontal cortex," a part of the brain that "makes judgments about pleasure." Those drinking the $90 wine actually experienced more pleasure than those drinking the $10 wine, even though they were drinking the identical substance. An earlier related study found that people given an energy drink supposed to boost mental performance solved more word puzzles when they bought the drink at full price as opposed to at a discount. The explanation apparently has partly to do with increased psychological investment when one's monetary outlay is higher.

But what about the pleasure some people derive from finding bargains? Has any study measured whether medial orbitofrontal cortex activity increases when X gets an unusually good deal on an item that she/he then proceeds to consume or to use? In other words, is there also a "reverse price placebo" effect in some cases, whereby X would experience more pleasure reading a book bought on sale, say, than Y would in reading the same book for which Y had paid full price?

I think I'd better stop here and have some coffee, otherwise the medial orbitofrontal cortex, along with everything else, may be in danger of shutting down.

More turmoil on the border

Further to an earlier post (see "Afghan-Pak Border: the mess goes on," below): the BBC this morning is reporting that a U.S. air strike in the Pakistani border post of Mohmand, apparently aimed at Taliban militants, killed 11 Pakistani soldiers, prompting a strong condemnation by the Pakistan army. Details surrounding the event are unclear at this writing. You can read the story here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Does the Mole speak Spanish?

Would someone (can someone) explain to me the appeal of reality TV shows? "The Mole" (ABC) involves a group of mostly youngish Americans, of varying though generally considerable degrees of obnoxiousness, who have been plopped down in Chile and are being made to go through a series of seemingly pointless, mildly sadistic exercises at the end of which presumably someone will be exposed as saboteur of the whole project (hence the title) and/or someone else will walk away with a lot of money. One of the contestants in the part of the show I happened to see a couple of hours ago was using his ability to speak Spanish to advantage, an ability resented by the other competitors, though the line between envy and resentment was blurry.

A game theorist might have some fun with these sorts of shows, if she or he had the patience to sit through them. Not being a game theorist, I just find "The Mole" rather boring, even if, at the particular moment in question, it was marginally less awful than everything else being broadcast.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Afghan-Pak border: the mess goes on

Ahmed Rashid and Xenia Dormandy, talking with Ray Suarez on the PBS NewsHour tonight, painted a bleak picture, especially in Rashid's case, of recent developments in the northwest of Pakistan and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where the Pakistan army has been trying to co-opt certain militant groups. Those militants who seem more amenable to renouncing violence, at least within Pakistan, are promised in return (presumably) a cessation of operations against them by the military. The result, however, is a "creeping Talibanization" (Rashid's phrase) as these groups extend their political influence, and a rise in the number of Pakistani Taliban and Taliban sympathizers who are crossing the Afghan-Pakistan border and contributing to an increase in violent actions against NATO troops in Afghanistan. Rashid also criticized the Pakistani army for not sharing information and foreign policy decison-making power with the relatively new civilian government, which is itself in some disarray since Nawaz Sharif's party withdrew from the governing coalition.

Dormandy argued that the strategy of reaching deals with militants has to be given time to see if it works, but Rashid was skeptical, saying that in a recent visit he found the security situation in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar to be worse than that in Kabul. Rashid also spoke of a new summer offensive by the Taliban in Afghanistan. In short: the mess goes on.

Going to the dogs

Most novelists spend their lives working in relative obscurity, but occasionally a lucky and talented one breaks through to best-sellerdom or even stardom. Sometimes the stardom is deserved, as for instance in the case of V.S. Naipaul, who despite being derided as a bitter reactionary produced one book, Guerrillas, that probably should be considered one of the best novels of the past 60 years.

The hand of best-sellerdom, if not lasting fame, may be about to touch first-time novelist David Wroblewski, whose The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is reviewed in fulsome terms in the June 8 Washington Post Book World. The reviewer, Ron Charles, describes it as captivating, tender, suspenseful, grand, and unforgettable. Set in rural Wisconsin in the 70s, the story centers on a mute teenaged boy and his dogs, and has plot elements from Hamlet thrown in for good measure (though the reviewer hastens to assure that "You don't need to catch the Hamlet references, and if you do, that won't sap the novel's suspense").

Here's the thing, though: Am I going to shell out 26 bucks for a novel, no matter how captivating, whose central characters include dogs? Somehow I doubt it, but if the need for escape from the heat and from the generalized gloom pundits sense to be encroaching becomes acute, I may change my mind.

In the meantime, I'm braced for an onslaught of outraged reactions from dog lovers and fans of Jack London.

Liberal arts, con and pro

A skeletal or rudimentary liberal arts education is apparently being required for entry into, or advancement within, a widening range of occupations. Should a nurse have read Hamlet or Hemingway? Should a future highway patrolman have to go to a college to be marched, very possibly against his will, through the Iliad or The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock? Or forget Hamlet and the Iliad: Should an 'expository writing plus research' course be mandatory for those aspiring to jobs where they won't have to write research papers? Who or what do these sorts of requirements serve, other than the bottom lines of certain colleges? These are among the questions raised in a provocative piece in The Atlantic called In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, by an adjunct English instructor writing as Professor X. The piece is a mordant and scathing description of the frustrations that occur when often ill-equipped students meet a teacher committed to maintaining academic standards. A hat tip to the friend who e-mailed this article to me.

the other hand, when students actually want to study the liberal arts and are not just being forced to accumulate a certain number of credit hours, the story is different: see, for example, this New York Times piece on the boom in philosophy among undergrads at some schools such as Rutgers. (The one flaw in this article is that the reporter draws too sharp a distinction between studying classic texts and contemporary problems.)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Photojournalism and democracy

The current Perspectives on Politics (June 2008, pp.372-73) has a review of Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007).

The reviewer, Michael J. Shapiro, praises various aspects of the book and notes that its argument is that "photojournalism participates effectively in the constitution of liberal democracy." Shapiro says that the authors discuss something they call "visual democracy," but unfortunately he does not explain very clearly exactly how the authors contend that photojournalism and democracy are connected.

Instead, Shapiro finds fault with the authors' alleged lack of theoretical sophistication, complaining that they refer to the "obviousness" of photographic images -- something that, according to Shapiro, a careful reading of Roland Barthes and Jacques Rancière should have led them to avoid. He grumbles that there are virtually no "theoretically guided analyses of photographic images" and moans that the authors' "impoverished notion of ideology" will disappoint "those who reside in a post-Lacan, post-Althusser, post-Zizek intellectual world."

With all due respect to Professor Shapiro, I would have preferred to hear more about exactly what the authors are arguing and a little bit less about their insufficient appropriation of the alleged insights of post-structuralist theory.

It so happens that the editor of Perspectives on Politics, James Johnson -- who, I should note, does not edit the book review section of the journal -- has a blog called (Notes on) Politics, Theory and Photography. The link is here.

Congo and MONUC

A UN Security Council team recently met with Congo's president Joseph Kabila, who said he hoped UN peacekeepers could leave by the next presidential election in 2011, according to the BBC. The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC by its French acronym) is the largest one in the world, and its record is mixed. On the one hand, violence in the eastern Congo between government and various militia forces, including some Hutu militias from neighboring Rwanda, probably would have been worse without the UN's presence. On the other hand, during its mission MONUC has not been able to prevent mass population displacements or what the New York Times in October 2007 called an "epidemic" of rape and sexual violence (see Jeffrey Gettleman, "Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War," NYT, 10/7/07, link). (One hopes this problem is less acute now than it was in 2006-07.) Maybe conditions will allow MONUC to leave by 2011, but if you're a betting person, don't lay odds on it.

When to weigh one's words

In a recent comment thread to the post "Being There" at Duck of Minerva (see link at sidebar), I suggested it was inappropriate to refer to U.S. actions in Iraq as a "colonial counterinsurgency."

In response, one commenter said that arguing over the use of "colonial"or "colonialism" in this context is a "semantic quibble," that Iraq has no more "real sovereignty" than the Palestinians do, and he added: "I'm always amazed at the innocence of people in the IR [international relations] business." I'm not sure how insulting I should find this remark.

Iraqis have suffered enormously since the 2003 invasion, with some 2 million refugees, another 2 million internally displaced people, and a very large number of civilians killed, either intentionally in the case of suicide bomb and similar attacks, or unintentionally (but nonetheless sometimes foreseeably) in military operations. Of course, the suffering has not been confined to Iraqis: more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed, roughly 20,000 wounded, and also a significant number of British soldiers killed.

In view of this,
maybe it does verge on the ridiculous, or even the obscene, to quarrel over words. And yet, how we label or describe things does matter. The label "colonial counterinsurgency" suggests that what the U.S. is doing in Iraq is comparable to, for example, what the French were doing in Algeria from 1954-62. I was questioning the appropriateness of the comparison, without in any way seeking to diminish past egregious American errors or, in the case of the invasion itself, violations of international law.

Words are not ends in themselves, and there are some things, as Wittgenstein (among others) pointed out, that cannot be talked or written about. But one person's "semantic quibble" is another's substantive historical distinction. Tragic situations often call not for the dismissal of words, but for their careful weighing.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

ICC prosecutor out on a limb?

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has accused the "whole state apparatus" of Sudan of complicity in crimes against humanity in Darfur, despite the fact that the ICC has jurisdiction only over individuals.

"Ali Kushayb, a leader of the Janjaweed militia, and Ahmad Harun, Sudan's current Humanitarian Affairs Minister [sic], are both charged [by the ICC] with 51 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including acts of murder, persecution, torture, rape and forcible displacement," according to this June 4 BBC story.

Does Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the ICC, really think that accusing the entire Sudanese government of complicity in crimes will increase the chances of its turning over the two men? Or has he concluded that it's hopeless, so he might as well go ahead and denounce the whole government?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Hoffmann on bureaucracy

I know it hasn't been a week.

But I can't resist reproducing this remark of Harvard's Stanley Hoffmann, complaining at a faculty meeting in April about increasing bureaucratization of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences:
“I happen to come from one of the most bureaucratic countries in the world, France,” said Hoffmann, addressing [Dean] Smith following his Faculty-wide presentation. “And when I hear about new levels, each one with its own enlarged personnel of support, with expanded powers over what is under that level, I’m starting to think of all the reasons I had to come to this country.”
The quotation is from an April 23 Harvard Crimson article, "Profs Guarded on Reform," which, incidentally, mistakenly identifies Hoffmann as being in the history department.

P.S. No, more bureaucracy is not always and everywhere a bad thing (though in the case of Harvard's faculty it probably is). I'm not making a political point here; it was just an excuse to quote Hoffmann.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Prince William and the "Suspect Vessels"

On the BBC website there's a little video report by Nicholas Twitchell about Prince William heading off to the Caribbean for a couple of months to do a stint with the Royal Navy. The Navy is apparently a bit miffed that he chose to go to Sandhurst, but he has to become familiar with all branches of the armed services; hence he's already spent time in the air force, and now he's off to help patrol the waters for drug smugglers, help with hurricane relief ops, and perhaps even board "suspect vessels," provided that such boarding does not pose a threat of bodily harm from armed resistance (which it usually doesn't, a naval officer assures Twitchell).

Digression: The best thing I've ever read about running contraband in the Caribbean is Robert Stone's novel A Flag for Sunrise, one of my favorite pieces of fiction.

Anyway, the funniest part of the report is Twitchell's reference to the fact that the Prince of Wales, William's father, spent five years in the navy, but by his own admission "never got the hang of navigation." Twitchell gives this phrase a slightly supercilious-sounding twist, as if to say "what a moron!" while the video shows Charles on a ship, kind of fumbling with what may or may not be a sextant.

Good stuff, if you keep an eye on the royals or more specifically Prince William, for whom informed observers have long seemed to feel a bit sorry (born into a role he really doesn't want to play, etc.) but who, to some of the rest of us, is just cool (or hot?). Whatever.