Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The summer break from posting...

...will now resume.

Grumpy observation of the day

I've been listening to some, not all, of the Kagan hearings. Today Kagan said (among many other things, of course) that a judge's or Justice's personal moral values should have no connection to her judging, and that constitutional adjudication is "law all the way down" (while acknowledging that many difficult legal questions arise on which reasonable judges can disagree about what the law requires, etc.). The notion that a judge's personal moral values have, and should have, absolutely no connection to his or her judging in any constitutional cases seems divorced from reality, and when an extremely intelligent person is put into the position of having to say something like this, perhaps the time has come to get rid of public confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees.

At least Kagan did say forthrightly that the original intent of the framers is only one factor that should be considered, and not always the most important or appropriate one, in deciding cases; she pointed out that many of the Supreme Court's free speech cases have interpreted the First Amendment in more expansive ways than the framers would have. That was a point well made -- and, incidentally, it served to highlight the absurdity of some assertions made by Senators about the framers. Sen. Cardin, for instance, said that the framers would have agreed with Brown v. Bd. of Education. This statement is either fairly pointless -- requiring one to ask what Madison, had he been alive in 1954, would have thought of the Brown decision -- or completely ahistorical. As anyone who has ever taken a junior high school civics class or a basic U.S. history course probably recalls, the Constitution tolerated not only segregation but also slavery (though it did provide for the eventual abolition of the slave trade), and it took the Civil War, and the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution, to change that. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison viewed the original Constitution, because of its failure to confront slavery, as "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." It's not necessary to endorse this precise language to see that the pre-Civil War Constitution was a deeply flawed document, something that should be kept in mind whenever people start blathering about the supposedly sacrosanct intent of the Framers.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer break

I'll be taking a break from posting for a couple of months (starting now).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The yuan saga continues

The Chinese central bank's somewhat vague statement that it will move toward a "more flexible" exchange rate has drawn a range of reactions, from welcoming to highly guarded. This will be an important issue at the G-20 and beyond.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Time warp, Pakistan version

Today, northwest Pakistan is one of the more dangerous places on earth. It was not always so.

In 1965 an American couple then residing in East Pakistan with their two young children took a combined business-pleasure excursion to West Pakistan (leaving the children at home). The trip was reported in a letter to a relative in the U.S. For personal reasons I have redacted first names.
March 24, 1965
...Did I write you about our trip to West Pakistan -- [we] were gone from Feb. 28 - March 8 and left the children here [i.e., in Dacca] with a young American school teacher. All went very well. [The writer's husband] was a delegate to the Pakistan Economic Conference in Peshawar so we had a free trip. Drove to the Khyber Pass and had a two-day holiday in the beautiful Swat valley. Also caught the first day of the famous Horse Show in Lahore. Next trip: April 11-18 -- with the children.
Let's hope a time will again come when travelers are able to write "drove to the Khyber Pass and had a two-day holiday in the beautiful Swat valley."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Voltaire and coffee

A recent comment thread on Crooked Timber about the new Texas curriculum guidelines led me (once again inwardly bemoaning certain deficiencies in my education) to glance at the long-ish Wikipedia entry on Voltaire. At the end of the section headed "Legacy," there is this: "Voltaire was also known to have been an advocate for coffee, as he was purported to have drunk the beverage at least 30 times per day. It has been suggested that high amounts of caffeine acted as a mental stimulant to his creativity" (citing a 2005 Washington Monthly review of a book on the history of coffee).

Thirty times a day? Yikes. I drink one cup of coffee in the morning -- and not even every morning, sometimes forgoing it in favor of tea. But then, I'm no Voltaire (chorus: Boy, you can say that again!).

'The African Renaissance' in stone

I haven't referred a lot to Africa here, especially not recently, but I found this post by Timothy Burke, with accompanying photo, interesting. (More substantive remarks on it later, time permitting.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Democracy, deception, and war

In my inbox today was an e-mail from the journal International Security containing links to a podcast and to a recent article by John Schuessler. The podcast is a conversation about the article between Schuessler and the journal's editor, Sean Lynn-Jones. (Links below.)

The article, which I have only looked at quickly, examines the ways in which FDR (allegedly) tried to "manufacture" public consent for entry into WW2 by deceiving the public about some of his actions and intentions. Schuessler concludes that this is one case in which deception of this sort was in the national interest. (Note: For a better summary of the article's argument, see the link at the end of this post, which will take you to the abstract; you can also download the pdf of the article for free.)

From a theoretical standpoint, what is going on here, as I understand it from the podacst and a glance at the article, and put in an oversimplified fashion, is this: Dan Reiter and Allan Stam have argued that democracies tend to win the wars they fight, in large part because leaders, constrained by the necessity of obtaining public consent, generally choose to enter wars where victory is likely to be easy. Schuessler says: Hang on a minute. What about those cases where the leader thinks that, for security reasons, a war is necessary, but the war does not promise to be quick and easy? In those cases the leader may resort to deception rather than take his or her chances with trying to persuade the public directly of the war's necessity. America's entry into WW2 and the way FDR approached it, Schuessler argues, was such a case. (Obviously, the reference here is to the period before Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. declaration of war against Japan was a foregone conclusion, and Germany's declaration of war on the U.S. brought it directly into the European war, thus fulfilling FDR's original aim, at least according to this argument.)

Now, this argument may be right, but how often are such cases likely to arise? Schuessler himself suggests in the podcast that WW2 was exceptional. If it was an exceptional case, then it may reveal some interesting things about when and how a leader resorts to deception, but it can't pose a severe challenge to the Reiter/Stam thesis. The most it can it do is present an addendum to the thesis, i.e.: yes, leaders of democracies generally choose "easy" wars, but in rare cases 'realist' reasons will incline them to "non-easy" wars and then deception may come into play. Of course one has to add a couple of other complications: (1) wars that most people think are going to be "easy" but turn out not to be (e.g., Iraq 2003); (2) wars that leaders believe mistakenly are necessary for security reasons (I would be very inclined to put the Vietnam War in this category).

So, deception -- accepting for the sake of argument the claim that FDR did engage in it -- may have been in the national interest in the run-up to U.S. entry into WW2, but more often, or so I would argue, deception will not turn out to be in the national interest (Vietnam, Iraq). When in doubt, then, the rule of thumb for a leader in a democracy should probably still be: Go directly to the people, explain your case straightforwardly, and hope they agree with you that the costs -- even if they promise to be high -- are worth bearing. (Whatever you think about the "Afghan surge," for example, it is clear that this is basically the approach Obama took when explaining why he ordered it. Admittedly the example is not on all fours since it involved an ongoing -- i.e., inherited -- war, and an undeclared one.)

Links: podcast; article.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The oil & energy speech

Without wanting to have turned it into a seminar, I think it would have been appropriate for the President to mention the historical roots of U.S. oil addiction -- namely, the cult of the private car, c. 1950 to the present, and the decisions it brought in train in terms of how the country's infrastructure and cities were developed. Otherwise, it was a decent speech, but it will take more than speeches to start tackling this problem as it should be tackled. Real political courage would have entailed proposing an increase in gas taxes, for example -- but in an election year and with a recession still not shaken, that was never in the cards.

Afghanistan: a sober assessment

Actually "sober" is an understatement for the picture that emerged from the NewsHour discussion tonight with Bacevich, Nagl, and Chandrasekaran.

Hitler and Mussolini in Florence, 1938

From Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa (Vintage pbk., 1995), p.42:
Hitler exhausted his Italian host by spending four hours in the Uffizi. Mussolini, trailing behind, was heard to murmur in exasperation, "Tutti questi quadri... [All these pictures...]." Their guide, the anti-Nazi director of the German Art Institute, Dr. Friedrich Kriegsbaum, tried to keep the Führer moving along, fearing that Mussolini might give Hitler something he particularly admired, such as Cranach's famous Adam or Eve.
...and if you don't think this is funny, we don't have the same sense of humor.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The detritus of war

Leila Fadel, reporting from Fallujah, had a piece in the June 4 Wash. Post ("U.S. Military's Castoffs Find a Market Among Iraqis," p.A8) about the stuff left behind by U.S. forces. A few excerpts:
"The remnants of the U.S. occupation of Iraq are being sold to the highest bidders in yard sales across the country. The outskirts of cities like Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi -- once bastions of the Sunni insurgency -- are now destinations for bargain hunters interested in items such as generators and trailers. As the U.S. military draws down to 50,000 troops by the end of the summer, the junk left behind is quickly becoming part of the Iraqi landscape.... Entire villages pitch in to buy large generators and water purifiers, which are then shared. Many Iraqis still lack reliable running water and electricity.... [N]ew [U.S.] rules allow commanders to donate equipment worth $30 million at each base they hand over....

Rukaya Abdul Aziz, 32, recently held her youngest child inside her new home. Her past two houses were destroyed in U.S. attacks, she said.... The only shelter she and her husband...could find to replace their homes was a trailer once used as a latrine. They scrubbed it clean, took off the back and used concrete to build an extra room. 'We wanted something that wasn't American, but this was the biggest we could afford,' she said. 'We had no choice.'"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Judt on Israel

A friend kindly draws my attention to Tony Judt's NYT op-ed column today, which is worth reading. I would quibble with only a couple of his points, one of which is the statement that "Israel belies the comfortable American cliché that 'democracies don't make war.' "

First, 'democracy promotion' has taken a back seat in the Obama admin's foreign policy compared to that of G.W. Bush (type "democracy promotion" into the search box, top left-hand corner, if you want to see my earlier post on this), so it's not clear that "democracies don't make war" is still considered a truism in official circles, if indeed it ever was. (I haven't read the Obama admin's recently released National Security Strategy, which they're required to churn out periodically, so I don't know what the new NSS says about this, if anything.)

Second, insofar as Judt might perhaps be trying to make a reference to what IR types know as "the democratic peace," he's garbled it. The 'democratic peace' theory (DPT for short) holds that 'mature' or established democracies do not make war with each other. It does not say that democracies are peaceful; it only says they are peaceful in their relations with each other. Thus only a war between two countries that are both considered (or coded) as democratic contradicts DPT. Indeed a whole body of contested research maintains that democracies not only make war, but tend to do so more successfully than non-democracies. This controversy in the literature couldn't exist if there were not a full historical record of democracies' involvement in wars.

OK, so much for the pedantic side-excursion. Judt's main points -- including that Israel should be willing to negotiate with Hamas before Hamas meets all of Israel's current preconditions -- seem right to me.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Another step forward (?) for commodified, homogenized education

According to a front-page story in today's Wash Post by Michael Birnbaum (link here), the Montgomery County, Maryland public school system is selling the rights to an elementary school curriculum-in-development to Pearson, a huge, for-profit publisher of textbooks and other educational materials. The superintendent says the school system is broke and needs the money. That may be, but public school systems should not be striking these kinds of deals with for-profit companies, certainly not with enormous conglomerates like Pearson. Such a deal carries the potential for conflicts of interest and, more importantly, it doesn't seem right. In return for a two-and-a-quarter million dollar advance and a smallish percentage of royalties, school officials "will open their classrooms to prospective customers [of Pearson] and speak on behalf of the program at Pearson's request."

And who's going to buy the product? The article's second paragraph says the curriculum will be sold "around the world," but is that likely? Most countries want to control their own curricula, I would think. Why should a school district in country X buy a pre-packaged curriculum designed in the United States? More likely is that the Montgomery County curriculum will be sold to other U.S. school systems. But which ones? Surely states like New York and Massachusetts, for example, which have their own elaborate educational bureaucracies, standards, and system-wide tests, could not possibly have any interest in this, or so I would guess. But Pearson obviously thinks it can sell it, otherwise it wouldn't be shelling out the 2 million bucks. A clue may be that, as the article reports, the curriculum, although geared to give more time to social studies and art by "integrating them" with reading, writing, and math, also "will be aligned with new common core standards for math and reading that are quickly being adopted across the country, including Maryland and the District."

The whole thing, in short, seems to further the tide of commodification and homogenization that appears to be engulfing public education in this country.

Monday, June 7, 2010

'The Wounded Platoon'

I've been meaning to mention the Frontline program of this name, which I saw last month and which is worth watching, especially if you're interested in or concerned about the psychic effect of war (PTSD, etc.) or "hidden" physical effects (TBI, e.g.) and how the U.S. military does or doesn't address these.
On a related note, I saw in the library today Nancy Sherman's new book The Untold War
. Unfortunately I probably won't get a chance to read it, at least not any time soon.
P.S. See also here.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Loosen the blockade

Freud's Little Hans, in the famous case study of that name, said: "Doing's not wanting, and wanting's not doing," or something to that effect. Adopting (or adapting) this syntax, one might say: "Moral's not (necessarily) legal, and legal's not (necessarily) moral."

In more standard English: Some people may have had time to absorb the dueling salvos of pundits and experts, self-appointed or otherwise, about the legality of the Gaza blockade. I have had neither the time nor inclination to do so. I glanced at a Charles Krauthammer column, which I couldn't bring myself actually to read, which cited a piece by Leslie Gelb that apparently defends the legality of the blockade. That view, however, is strongly disputed here, on the grounds that Israel remains in "effective" occupation of Gaza, controlling among other things its airspace and territorial waters, despite the 2005 withdrawal of settlers.

Apart from the question of its legality, the blockade in its current form is politically and morally bad, restricting as it does certain essential humanitarian items including medical equipment. The Obama admin. is apparently bringing some pressure to bear on Israel to reconsider how the blockade is administered, and the Israeli government itself is reviewing the matter. A loosening would be only a temporary improvement in an awful situation, but that would be better than nothing. All this is certainly not to deny Israel's legitimate security concerns vis-a-vis Hamas, but there must be a better way of balancing the considerations than the situation that exists now.

In January 2009, in a comment attached to this post, I expressed the view that an action (or actions) could be immoral even if lawful under international law, and I'm basically just reiterating that.

Friday, June 4, 2010

J. Sides versus M. Lilla

Mark Lilla has a New York Review piece on the Tea Party that has been getting some attention. John Sides at The Monkey Cage thinks Lilla is wrong, among other things, to argue that there has been a secular (i.e. non-cyclical) decline over time in the U.S. population's trust in government. I think Sides makes some telling criticisms on a number of points, but on this particular point he hasn't completely convinced me. I left a comment at his post explaining why.
Update: Sides responds here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lunacy on stilts

All Things Considered ran a piece this evening about a new shopping mall in East Harlem whose tenants -- mostly big retailers -- have agreed to hire a proportion of their work forces from among local residents. One of the retailers (Best Buy, I believe, though don't quote me on that) was reported to be proud that it had hired one of every two local applicants.

Why were the others turned down? Well, some of them, when asked in the interview why they wanted to work for the company, had replied that they needed a job -- and this was disqualifying!!

Here we have a program designed to encourage and facilitate the hiring of poor, inner-city residents, and an applicant fails if s/he tells the prospective employer that he or she wants to work for it because he or she needs a job. What is the applicant supposed to say? "I like meeting new people"? "I've always wanted to work for Best Buy/Costco/whoever"? "My goal is to be the manager of a retail establishment and this job will be a first step toward that goal"? Your guess is as good as mine. The point is that honesty is penalized and b.s. is rewarded. To someone immersed in the through-the-looking-glass culture of corporate America, this may make sense. To a sane person with some distance from that culture, it is crazy -- totally, thoroughly nuts.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Quote of the day

Ari Shavit, writing in Haaretz:
"During the 2006 war in Lebanon I concluded that my 15-year-old daughter could have conducted it more wisely than the Olmert-Peretz government. We've progressed. Today it's clear to me that my 6-year-old son could do much better than our current government."
Full column here.