Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Should Burris be seated?

Should Roland Burris, appointed by Illinois Gov. Blagojevich to fill Pres.-elect Obama's Senate seat, be permitted to take his seat by the Senate? From a constitutional standpoint, the answer would appear to be yes. Fordham law professor Abner Greene, speaking on the NewsHour this evening, pointed out that the Senate's power under Art.I Sec.5 to be "the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members" is fairly weak support for refusing to seat Burris; but it's the only constitutional support available, given that Burris's appointment conforms to the requirements of the 17th Amendment.

Whether this line of reasoning will prove decisive with the members of the Senate Democratic caucus is doubtful. But even from a political and fairness angle, there's a case to be made for seating him. After all, it's not Burris's fault that Blagojevich is going to be indicted, and there's no evidence that Burris was involved in any alleged wrongdoing. And having a full complement of senators from Illinois could only help matters in the early days of the Obama legislative agenda.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Samuel P. Huntington, 1927-2008

This blog's general policy is not to note deaths, of notable people or otherwise, though I have made a couple of exceptions: see here and here.

In the case of Huntington, his fame/notoriety and the impact of his work warrant a link to the 'official' obituary: here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Violent end

The year is ending violently, from the Gaza Strip to bombings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. There appear to be two geographical swaths of the world where much if not most violence is concentrated: the arc stretching from the Middle East to Pakistan, and an area in central/east Africa centered on southern Sudan, Somalia, and eastern Dem. Rep. of Congo.

It's worth recalling that, according to those who track the amount of armed violence in the world as a whole, the planet has been becoming steadily less violent over the past couple of decades. That's not much comfort, of course, for those in the regions just mentioned. It's also no reason to overlook the connections between the more peaceful and more violent parts of the world. The question of the validity of the "zones of peace/zones of conflict" view was raised here earlier, in the comments on this post, and it's one to which I may return.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A 'Sandalwood' film with a U.S. setting

Having recently written a post about Slumdog Millionaire, I was interested to run across this Wash. Post piece about a low-budget movie being made by a young Indian-born, U.S.-raised director and set in Washington, D.C. and environs. The movie's language is Kannada not Hindi, which makes it a 'Sandalwood' not Bollywood product, as the article explains:

"Technically, Jagadeesh's movie, 'e-Preeti,' is not a product of Bollywood, which refers to the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai, but of 'Sandalwood,' the nickname for films produced in the Southern Indian city of Bangalore in a regional language called Kannada. Because Hindi is India's national language, Bollywood films tend to play across the country and are better known overseas. But India's more than half-a-dozen regional film industries are also bustling enterprises that attract tens of millions of fans within their regions.

Because movie-going is a such a major habit in India -- young city dwellers might catch as many as three new releases a week -- there is also a steady market for even relatively low-budget productions."
No wonder the Indian film industries are booming.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Salvadoran troops to leave Iraq

The 200 soldiers from El Salvador in Iraq will leave by the end of the year, the country's president has announced. The Iraqi parliament cleared the way for British and other non-U.S. troops to stay after December 31, when the UN authorization expires. The Salvadorans, however, are probably wise to take this opportunity to withdraw.

Time stands still -- but the rhetoric of capitalism is in constant motion

I picked up a chocolate bar after lunch today. This is part of what it says on the back of the package:
"Evening Dream [TM]. The luxuriously deep and velvety 60% cacao dark chocolate in Ghirardelli Evening Dream is infused with a hint of Madagascan vanilla delivering the perfect chocolate intensity. Experience a moment of timeless pleasure as the intense chocolate lingers and time stands still."
Time stands still? This is a chocolate bar, not a moment of aesthetic transport, metaphysical insight, or carnal ecstasy.

I have three questions for Ghirardelli: Who writes this gibberish for you? Are they well paid? If so, how does one apply?

Monday, December 22, 2008

'Slumdog Millionaire': The hero is the city

I saw Slumdog Millionaire yesterday. Everything about this movie -- acting, direction, cinematography, music -- is extraordinarily good.

Like any good work of art, it can be viewed/read on several levels. From one angle, it's a combination of picaresque tale and love story. But more is going on. Just as London is the central character in a novel like Dickens' Little Dorrit or in some of Iris Murdoch's novels, so in this film the central character, and the real hero, is Bombay/Mumbai. As depicted here, the city produces stark inequalities and injustices but also pulses with an astonishingly vital, Dickensian human energy. The same energy drives the movie itself. See it.

p.s. Others have no doubt referred to the movie as Dickensian: Frank Rich, for example. With all respect, I think Rich might want to go back and actually read some Dickens. His novels are not mainly feel-good fables, and neither, at its most interesting, is this movie.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The chosen

This post at Best of Both Worlds refers to the awarding, earlier this month, of the Presidential Citizens Medal, which is the second-highest award the U.S. president can bestow on a civilian (after the better-known Medal of Freedom).

As I scrolled down the list of recipients (linked to by the post), three names jumped out at me: Andrew Marshall, who has been at the Pentagon for years as head of his own mini-think tank (I forget the office's formal designation) and whose name probably will mean something to anyone who follows U.S. foreign and defense policy; Robert George of Princeton Univ., a (very) conservative political philosopher; and the historian James Billington, longtime head of the Library of Congress, whose tenure there has been, from what I can discern, somewhat less than stellar.

Oh yes, the actor Gary Sinise was also on the list, honored for his charitable/humanitarian work involving Iraqi children and for his active support of military personnel in Iraq and elsewhere. Now this particular medal may be very well-deserved. (But as for his TV show, CSI NY, that's a whole other story.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Arundhati Roy is mostly right, but not completely

Arundhati Roy's recent Guardian essay on the Mumbai attacks, "The Monster in the Mirror," has been widely circulated. I first saw it when a friend kindly forwarded it to me, and I have just read it again, somewhat more closely than the first time.

To repeat what I said in a comment I left at this blog, I think Roy, while right on many points, is too quick to criticize the Indian government for "inviting" the U.S. to interfere in Indian affairs. What is the invitation, and what is the interference? If she means the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, that is (1)water under the bridge, and (2)in my view, one of the relatively few sensible things the Bush administration has done in foreign policy. If she means sending an FBI team to help in the Mumbai investigation, which I assume has been or will be done, that hardly constitutes undue interference in Indian internal affairs. If she means that improved U.S.-Indian relations have fueled increased terrorism in India, that is possible, but hardly certain. The fact is we don't know what Roy means on this point exactly, because her column doesn't say. Her remark that "superpowers don't have allies, they have agents" does, however, give one a clue. The implication is that superpowers are incapable of treating other countries as equals. To which the answer is that this is perhaps too one-dimensional a view. There is such a thing as cooperation for mutual gain, rare though it may be.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How to say something without saying it

Fouad Ajami's WSJ piece today contrasts Bush's "diplomacy of freedom" with Obama's "caution and reticence" when it comes to the Middle East. Ajami can't say that he thinks Bush's "diplomacy of freedom" has been a success, because that would be ludicrous. So he proceeds by indirection, praising Woodrow Wilson, noting that Bush, like Wilson, did not have much knowledge of the Arab world, suggesting that Obama is naive about Iran, and generally casting aspersions in such a way as to give himself "plausible deniability." This column is a case study in insinuation.

Monday, December 15, 2008

On the misuse of "pragmatism" and "pragmatic"

Tonight on the PBS NewsHour, a lawyer for utility companies said he was "optimistic" that Obama's energy policy appointees would turn out to be "pragmatic." Translation: not press industry too hard on environmental standards.

A few days ago, Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber pointed out (citing a piece in The Nation) that the use of "pragmatism" to mean "non-ideological" or something equivalent is misguided. Farrell observed that Deweyan pragmatism is not apolitical or non-ideological:
"You simply can’t get the politics out of pragmatist accounts. Furthermore, Dewey’s arguments may carry some quite radical implications. Dewey and other pragmatists lay a very heavy emphasis on the benefits of unforced inquiry as a guide to practice. Yet unforced inquiry is only possible in a society where there aren’t economic or social barriers to free engagement in discussion and deliberation. Thus – to really achieve the benefits of free debate and untrammeled inquiry – you need (where it is feasible) to dismantle barriers that prevent full and unfettered participation in the processes of discussion through which inquiry takes place."
Or, to put roughly the same point differently, you need a marketplace of ideas to which access is relatively equal and in which some voices don't drown out others by virtue of concentrated wealth or other privileges. This is a very old problem (or debate), of course, but one that never seems to go away.

Globalization's impact on (domestic) redistribution

"Globalisation seemingly erodes governments' ability to redistribute wealth." A column at H/t: Dani Rodrik.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Britain, Pakistan sign 'anti-terror agreement'

The BBC reports:

"During a news conference in Islamabad with [Pakistani president Asif Ali] Zardari, [Gordon] Brown proposed the start of a new partnership with Pakistan to fight terrorism.The 'pact against terror' funding [of $8.9 million] will go towards anti-car bomb equipment and material to educate people out of becoming extremists, he said.

'The time has come for action and not words, and I want to help Pakistan and other countries root out terrorism. In return for this action we will continue to expand our counter-terrorist assistance programme with Pakistan, and it will be more than ever, the most comprehensive anti-terrorist programme Britain has signed with any country' [Brown said].

Speaking during a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Saturday, Mr Brown ... described Pakistan's border region with the country, where he met troops fighting the Taleban, as one end of a 'chain of terror' that could stretch to Britain if more was not done to tackle the threat of al-Qaeda. The prime minister's visit to Afghanistan came a day after four Royal Marines were killed in two separate bomb attacks. Mr Brown spoke of his 'disgust and horror' at the willingness of the Taleban to use a 13-year-old child to deliver a bomb in a wheelbarrow to a Marine patrol, killing three men and the boy."

Arguably what is needed is not a pact to help "root out terrorism" but a pact to divide those groups that are irrevocably committed to the use of terrorism from those groups that are not (see previous post). This is harder to fit into a soundbite, however.

p.s. (added 12/15): For the same news story in French (at Le Nouvel Observateur), see this link.

The road to Kabul runs through Islamabad

In "From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan" (Foreign Affairs, Nov./Dec. '08), Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid argue that only a regional diplomatic initiative that changes Pakistan's calculations can lead to a long-term solution in Afghanistan. They propose, among other things, the establishment of a UN-authorized contact group to facilitate dialogue, especially between India and Pakistan, on the issues of Afghanistan and Kashmir.
"A central purpose of the contact group would be to assure Pakistan that the international community is committed to its territorial integrity -- and to help resolve the Afghan and Kashmir border issues so as to better define Pakistan's territory.... [This] might encourage Pakistan to promote, rather than hinder, an internationally and nationally acceptable political settlement in Afghanistan. Backing up the contact group's influence and clout must be the threat that any breaking of agreements or support for terrorism originating in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] would be taken to the UN Security Council. Pakistan, the largest troop contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, sees itself as a legitimate international power, rather than a spoiler; confronted with the potential loss of that status, it would compromise."
Although I don't recall that Rubin and Rashid explicitly say this (although they may, since the article meanders around a bit and I read it a while ago), one aspect of a diplomatic strategy might be to offer Pakistan a nuclear deal similar to the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, on condition that Pakistan take a more vigorously constructive and helpful stance toward the U.S./NATO position in Afghanistan. Now that the A.Q. Khan network has stopped functioning, even if Khan himself remains something of a revered figure in certain Pakistani quarters, there is no principled reason to deny Pakistan the same sort of nuclear arrangement that India has with the U.S. (Concerns about the long-term stability of the civilian government, however, admittedly might be a complicating factor.)

In addition to the contact group proposal, Rubin and Rashid urge driving a wedge -- or furthering the already-begun estrangement -- between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. A pledge by the Taliban to dissociate themselves and any territory they control from any global jihadist activity, in return for cessation of military operations against them, "could constitute a framework for negotiation." And any regional "grand bargain," whatever its precise terms, must, they emphasize, also take into account the interests, and mobilize the cooperation, of China, Russia, and Iran.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Homage to Che Guevara

A.O. Scott does not like Steven Soderbergh's movie about Che:
"...treat[s] complicated and consequential political events — the Cuban revolution, for starters, and nearly everything that followed, by implication — in purely tactical terms. The precision with which Mr. Soderbergh charts the progress of Castro’s army across the Cuban countryside — and the even greater meticulousness in his depiction of the unraveling Bolivian campaign — has something in common with the exertions of Civil War re-enactors or online gamers."
It's four hours long (actually a bit more). I think I'll wait for the dissertation comparing it to Lawrence of Arabia.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mumbai attackers were tech savvy

An article in Le Point (h/t: Le Front Asymétrique) discusses the use of technology by the Mumbai attackers and others engaged in similar activity. Apparently communications via Blackberry are difficult to tap into, which explains the attackers' preference for Blackberries, at least according to this article. Another tidbit: the e-mails claiming responsibility for the attacks were routed through Russian proxy servers so as to make them difficult to trace (assuming my translation here is right). Whether the Indian authorities would even have had the time to trace these e-mails, assuming they were sent in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, is perhaps doubtful.

Mugabe's fantasy world

South Africa has declared that its border with Zimbabwe is a disaster area, while Robert Mugabe for his part has announced that the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe is over. Perhaps tomorrow Mr. Mugabe will announce that the earth is flat -- and I don't mean in the figurative Thomas Friedman sense.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration

Today (Dec. 10) marks the sixtieth anniversary of the passage by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, championed most prominently by Eleanor Roosevelt. This has prompted a few random reflections but nothing coherent enough for a post. Perhaps later.

New push for nuclear weapons abolition


One small moment in time

When I was in college, I took a lecture course on modern drama. The professor was Robert Chapman. For reasons that had nothing to do with Chapman, the course was not an especially happy experience; and I never got to know Chapman, not being an English major or a student actor and feeling, predictably if perhaps stupidly, that I had no reason to go to his office hours.

One morning about halfway through the course, Chapman strode to the podium and announced, without preface or throat-clearing: "George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House is the greatest play written in English since Shakespeare." Wow, I thought. Nice opening line. Dramatic. Then a student who had actually been keeping up with the reading raised his or her hand and informed the professor that, according to the syllabus, the day's lecture was not supposed to be on Heartbreak House but on some other play. Chapman abruptly turned around, went back to his office, returned with a different set of notes, and proceeded to give the correct lecture. His lecture on Heartbreak House had been spoiled for that semester.

I knew virtually nothing about Robert Chapman when I sat in his course, and indeed it was only very recently, when I was prompted for some reason to find his obituary online, that I learned something about him. Among other things I learned that, although a tenured professor in Harvard's English department, he had no graduate degrees: he had a bachelor's degree from Princeton and that was it. Apparently he liked to boast that he and the famous critic and scholar Harry Levin were the only members of the department who lacked graduate credentials.

I remember little else about that week in 1976, or maybe that month; but I'll always remember the morning when Robert Chapman began his lecture on Shaw with that dramatic flourish, and then had to stop, turn around, and go back to his office. I think I might have felt a little bit angry at the student who informed him of his mistake. I still do.

Mediterranean sojourn? Not right now, thanks

Riots and a general strike in Greece; 13 percent unemployment in Spain; and I'm not sure I even want to know what's happening in Italy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bangladeshi filmmaker builds replica of Taj Mahal, and Sonargaon braces for tourist onslaught

A Bangladeshi film director has constructed a $58 million replica of the Taj Mahal in Sonargaon, a town about an hour's drive from the capital, Dhaka. In 1994, my brother and I were in Bangladesh and we visited Sonargaon. It was, as I recall, a rather sleepy little town; checking my (unfortunately) cryptic notes on the trip to refresh my memory, I see that Sonargaon had several tourist attractions, including some ruins and a Folk Art Museum. The idea of a Taj Mahal plunked down there is a mite bizarre, but the notion apparently is to let Bangladeshis see a Taj since many don't have the money or opportunity to travel to Agra to see the Taj. I suppose it also says something about the relative success of Bangladesh in recent years that a filmmaker can spend $58 million on this project, importing Italian marble and Belgian diamonds.

Monday, December 8, 2008

(Early) New Year's Resolutions (1): Subscribe to an old-fashioned, hard-copy newspaper

I used to get the daily Washington Post, but I haven't subscribed to it for a long time, because: 1) I get my news in other ways; and 2) I kept thinking I was about to leave the area. Reason (1) still holds, but (2) hasn't occurred (i.e., I'm still here), so come 2009 I may very well start subscribing again.

Why? Because the newspaper industry is in trouble -- witness the bankruptcy filing today of Tribune Co. -- and I don't want newspapers to go out of existence. Call me sentimental, I don't care. If every consumer decision were made on the basis of pure rational calculation, society would be worse for it. So strike a blow against homo economicus, wherever you live, and if you don't get a real, hard-copy, old-fashioned newspaper delivered to your door every day, consider starting. It's too late to save a lot of newspapers, but some of them should survive -- and survive in real, tangible form, as things you can pick up and read without having to turn on the computer and look at the screen.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Humanitarian intervention, social science, and "the new aid imperialism"

In a review of Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, William Easterly criticizes what he calls "the new aid imperialism," i.e., "the willingness to combine foreign military intervention with traditional aid work" in developing countries ("Foreign Aid Goes Military!" The New York Review of Books, 12/4/08).

Easterly notes, among other things, that the "share of U.S. foreign aid distributed by the Pentagon increased from 6 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2005." What Easterly does not note, however, is that the overall amount of U.S. foreign aid increased from 2002 to 2005, so the Pentagon was distributing 22 percent of an expanded pie, not a shrinking one, which thus still left more in absolute terms for civilian agencies, such as the Millennium Challenge Corp. and AID, to distribute. Nonetheless, it's true that the line between military activity and foreign aid, as far as the U.S. is concerned, has been blurring in recent years.

Is this a good or a bad thing? Easterly thinks it's bad, and he does have a case to make. In using a review of Collier's book to make it, however, he runs into some difficulties. I'll mention a couple of them.

1) The basic argument of Collier's book, according to Easterly, is that the poorest countries in the world "are trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, civil war, military coups, looting of natural resources, and failed states. They need outside rescue by the rich nations." Easterly questions this argument on several grounds, accusing Collier's book of failing adequately to distinguish correlation from causation and of engaging in selection bias. Among other things, Easterly notes that poor countries have experienced "growth both directions."
"Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Togo, and Zimbabwe had good growth between 1960 and 1980, before falling prey to economic decline -- brought on by political disasters and other factors -- from 1980 to the present. Conversely, Bangladesh, India, Uganda and Vietnam [my emphasis] had mediocre to negative growth between 1960 and 1980, before registering impressive growth from 1980 to the present. If there is so much movement into and out of success and failure, it is hard to argue looking forward that the Bottom Billion are trapped in failure."
Vietnam? Why do you suppose Vietnam might have had "mediocre to negative growth between 1960 and 1980"? Might it have had something to do with the facts that virtually the entire able-bodied adult male population, at least of N. Vietnam, was mobilized for military service, and that the U.S., from 1965 to the early 1970s, dropped more bombs on N. Vietnam than were dropped during the entirety of World War II? These count as extraordinary circumstances that give the case of Vietnam no probative weight at all, in my opinion, on the point Easterly is adducing it to support.

2) Easterly writes:
"...[B]oth statistical exercises and case study analysis give ambiguous direction on military intervention [for humanitarian or ostensibly humanitarian ends]. I think the moral of the story is that, as tragic as poverty and violence are, social science does not have much to offer as a guide to using military force to stop them. This is not so surprising: why should social scientists have any strategic expertise on whether a contingent of foreign or international troops will pacify a country easily (Sierra Leone) or with great difficulty, or not at all (Somalia)? It is regrettable if social science is used to give spurious cover to military intervention."
Easterly is right to strike a note of caution, I think, but he may go a bit too far in dismissing social-scientific expertise: surely there are scholarly experts on Sierra Leone and Somalia who might have provided insights about the relative likelihood or unlikelihood of successful intervention in the two countries.

In making his case, Easterly himself draws on social science, namely the research of political scientist Alan Kuperman, who has written about "the moral hazard" of humanitarian intervention. In Easterly's words, Kuperman "argues that the hope of international intervention may embolden rebels to undertake military action that will inevitably catch many civilians in the crossfire between the rebels and the government before the interveners arrive. This is exactly what happened with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), whose members admitted in interviews with Kuperman that their violence against Serbs starting in 1997 was motivated by hopes of foreign intervention." (Although Easterly does not give a footnote citation to an article by Kuperman, I assume he is drawing on Kuperman's "The Moral Hazard of Humanitarian Intervention: Lessons from the Balkans," International Studies Quarterly 52:1, March 2008, pp.49-80. Full disclosure: I have not read the article, only the abstract.)

Political judgments about whether, when and how to intervene in humanitarian crises such as genocide or ethnic cleansing must be recognized as political and not masquerade as purely scientific, neutral decisions: on this point Easterly is unquestionably correct. But in his concern to reveal the weaknesses of what he takes to be unduly optimistic and pro-intervention standpoints, Easterly may be in danger of condemning, by implication if not explicitly, all social-scientific efforts to understand the consequences of intervention and the possible conditions of its success or failure. Careful case studies backed up, where appropriate, by statistical analysis that does not claim too much for itself may still have a role to play in helping politicians reach defensible, intelligent, and practical judgments on these matters.

But you can read the Easterly piece for yourself (see link above) and reach your own conclusions.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

'Revolutionary Road' to the screen

Apparently Richard Yates's caustic portrait of post-war suburbia, Revolutionary Road (1961), is to be a movie, with Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet. It's quite a good novel and if the movie drives people to the book, I'm for it. I also want to see Slum Dog Millionaire.

As for the casting of Rev. Road: I get Winslet confused sometimes with Keira Knightley, though they really don't look that similar. I almost said that I saw Winslet in Atonement, then I remembered that was Knightley. Which of them is the better actress? What about diCaprio? Just another pretty face, or can he act? He was actually not too bad in that Howard Hughes movie (can't remember the title offhand) and not too bad in Scorsese's Gangs of New York, a movie that appeared at times to have been shot with a camera lens coated in mud. DiCaprio was also in that rather pointless movie about the check-kiting con artist who is pursued by the Tom Hanks FBI agent. I saw some of it once on TV but, again, can't remember the title.

Yes, movie titles appear to be fleeing the memory banks en masse. More important things to keep stored there.

P.s. Yes, I know about IMDb, just too lazy to use it.
Pp.s. L.D. was also in that movie about blood diamonds, which I didn't see. Opinions about it out there?
Yet another p.s. If you google 'revolutionary road' you can find at least a couple of reviews of the entire movie (not just the trailer). Some critics evidently have been allowed to see it.

Stalin's homeland for the Jews

Those interested in somewhat out-of-the-way corners of 20th-century history will want to read this from the blog Strange Maps.

Friday, December 5, 2008


Coming this weekend:
Some thoughts on humanitarian intervention & "the new aid imperialism"

Warp speed, Mr. Sulu

Ah ha, fooled you all -- bet you thought I'd never seen even one episode of Star Trek.

Right, now to the business at hand. If you go over to The Monkey Cage (see link at the sidebar), which is a blog written by several political science professors, you'll find two recent posts reflecting on that blog's one-year anniversary. The author assesses how well the blog has performed in fulfilling the purposes set out in its inaugural statement, gives statistics on the average number of daily visits to the site (a very impressive figure, by the way, especially for a serious academic blog), and so on.

Howl at Pluto's one-year anniversary will not arrive until May 23, 2009, but when it does, I won't have to write a post like those at The Monkey Cage. Why not? Because I didn't write an inaugural statement, hence there are no explicit benchmarks against which to measure this blog's performance. The pleasures of non-accountability!

It occurs to me, however, that some readers, especially those arriving here via circuitous paths and/or for the first time, might appreciate some remarks about this blog's intended aims. The easiest way to approach this is in a negative fashion, by indicating what the blog does not seek to do.

-- This blog is not primarily a vehicle for partisan politics. Although I made no effort to hide my views on, and preferences in, the '08 election, I was not preoccupied with constantly pummeling McCain and praising Obama. Indeed, I denied that McCain was senile, at a time when some Democratic partisans were claiming the opposite, and I criticized Obama's performance in the first debate.

-- This blog is not primarily a vehicle to publicize the results of social-scientific research. Although I have commented at least once on a scholarly article I found interesting (see the post "Does Tilly's thesis travel to the third world?") and intend to comment occasionally on scholarly articles in the future, it will probably not be a very frequent thing. A lot of the IR journal articles are not that interesting to me, and the ones which are interesting tend to pile up faster than I can read them, unfortunately. There's at least one recent article, on the history of "imposed democracy," that I mean to get to and haven't yet.

-- This blog does not attempt to provide comprehensive, thorough coverage of a particular 'hot topic,' e.g.,
asymmetric warfare, terrorism, counterinsurgency, development, humanitarian emergencies, arms control, defense policy, drug policy, human trafficking, piracy, relations between the U.S. and one particular region of the world, trends in public international law, peacekeeping, climate change, etc., etc. Such coverage is available elsewhere, and while I may occasionally draw on it, there's no point in trying to duplicate it. Within my field, I am a "generalist," and as Walter Russell Mead once wrote: "Generalists are superficially mistaken about a great many subjects; specialists are profoundly mistaken about a few." One could, I suppose, turn this around and say: Generalists are superficially insightful about many subjects; specialists are profoundly insightful about a few. The insights offered here, to the extent there are any, will have to compensate in breadth for what they lack in depth.

So, after all this negativity, what can I say positively about the purpose of this blog? I'm afraid it comes down to something fairly selfish. Although I hope to provide a measure of enlightenment, information, and even perhaps entertainment to readers, this blog exists, as do a lot of other blogs, mainly to indulge a propensity to yap (in slightly Whitmanesque fashion perhaps?) at the world. After all, I'm not making any money at this, so when it stops being fun I will probably stop.

Until then, meet me on the flight deck, Scotty. The Flight Deck -- now that would be a good name for a blog. Oh, well -- too late now.

Afterthought: Just to be clear, this is not an attempt on my part to horn in on Elected Swineherd's Friday Star Trek blogging, which I remembered only after writing the post. I don't know enough about Star Trek to do that in any case.

Bomb in Peshawar

A blast has occurred outside a Shia mosque in Peshawar, killing at least a dozen people. Another reminder of how things are at the moment in Pakistan's northwest.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Factoid of the day

In his book International Government (1916), Leonard Woolf referred to an organization called the International Association for the Suppression of Useless Noises. As an expert on Woolf has remarked, this is "a body whose revival is perhaps long overdue": Peter Wilson, "Leonard Woolf and International Government," in Long and Wilson, eds., Thinkers of the Twenty Years' Crisis, p.155 n.37.

Even better would be the creation of an International Association for the Suppression of Muzak (muzak = the canned/homogenized sound that comes out of the ceilings of commercial establishments).

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tylenol's marketing practices

I've had a nasty cold that doesn't seem to want to go away, so despite not being a big fan of symptomatic relief meds, I went to the pharmacy just now to get some.

Among several Tylenol products on the shelf, I took a closer look at two: one said "Cold Multi-Symptom" and the other said "Cold Head Congestion" (or something close to that). The packages looked different; they had a different trade dress, to use what I believe is the correct legal jargon. Yet a glance at the active ingredients of the two packages revealed them to be exactly the same. This annoyed me sufficiently that I took the time to mention it to a pharmacist; I knew he couldn't do anything but I wanted someone to know about it. (I'm sure, incidentally, that my mood was not improved by the truly ghastly Christmas music, or so-called music, that was blasting through the strip mall. These places are already physically ugly; why do they have to make them aurally ugly as well?)

Anyway, back to the Tylenol. Is it illegal to market identical products under different names and with different packaging? Presumably not, since McNeil, the maker of Tylenol, no doubt has expensive lawyers whom it pays to tell it what it can and cannot do in these respects. But I'll say this: If it's not illegal, it damn well should be.

The frothing-at-the-mouth style of "debate"

The Mumbai attacks, including the attack on the Chabad Jewish center and the killing of the rabbi and his wife and others (excepting their two-year-old son who survived), roughly coincided with the passage of several resolutions by the UN General Assembly criticizing Israel (which I've not read). Of course, the passage of such resolutions, which sometimes accuse Israel of racist and/or apartheid policies, is nothing new for the General Assembly, which has been doing this for years. Since General Assembly resolutions have no binding effect in international law, their point is exhortatory or, as those less kindly disposed in this case might put it, propagandistic.

What connection, if any, was there between the UN resolutions and the attack on the Jewish center in Mumbai? In a comment at the blog American Power, I suggested that there was not much connection. In response, the blog's author/proprietor, Prof. Donald Douglas, rounded on me, charging me with having an agenda to "delegitimize any blogging that privileges Western values against the advocacy of nihilist destruction seen in defenders of evil, including the leading dictators who compose the membership [of] the UN General Assembly."

As the lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur. [1]

1. The thing speaks for itself.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tensions are rising on the Korean peninsula

Relations between the two Koreas have become increasingly tense lately, and the longstanding divisions among South Koreans over policy toward the North show no signs of disappearing. See this piece by Blaine Harden in the Wash. Post today. H/t: Open Source Geopolitics.

Quote of the day

"Fundamentally, non-offensive realism theories are united against the offensive realism position that states are inherently aggressive, and they merely differ on how best to cope with uncertainty and fear. Defensive realism stresses cooperation through costly signaling of benign intentions or reassurance. Institutionalism emphasizes institutions for facilitating and enforcing cooperation. Constructivism accentuates changing states' identities and forging a common/cooperative identity. Yet, these different approaches for coping with fear should not and indeed cannot be mutually excluding.... [I]t is simply difficult to see how cooperative institutions can emerge without some reassurance-driven cooperation beforehand, and it is even more difficult to imagine how a common and cooperative identity can emerge without some cooperative institutions beforehand. Thus, when properly understood, non-offensive realism approaches are more similar and interconnected than their proponents have been willing to admit."
-- Shiping Tang, "Fear in International Politics: Two Positions," International Studies Review 10:3 (Sept. 2008), p. 464 (emphasis in original).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Kalahari Bushmen in appeal to the Pope

A commenter at a Crooked Timber thread refers to this brief item (in French) about the Bushmen of the Kalahari and the Pope. The government of Botswana apparently has denied the Bushmen hunting licenses on their traditional lands and granted Gem Diamonds permission to open a diamond mine on a piece of the lands. The Bushmen have asked Pope Benedict, following the recent establishment of diplomatic relations between Botswana and the Vatican, for his support.