Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Radio Free America

I was listening to the inaugural broadcast of Air America, the new liberal radio network. It was pretty unpromising until Al Franken tried to get Michael Moore to apologize to Al Gore live on the air for supporting Ralph Nader. Moore wiggled his way out of a full apology but I still enjoyed immensely listening to him take it from the left, but wouldn't I just? I can understand why public figures don't want to make public apologies but I think it's safe to say that Nader has reminded the American left of Voltaire's maxim, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."


Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Tribulation Force

Kerim Friedman has an interesting post about English teachers in Asia as economic immigrants that I was going to write about (and may still). Through this blogpost, I followed a chain of hyperlinks to the following words.

[A]ll events are now presumed to happen deliberately; cause and effect has been anthropomorphized. In other words, not only is their cause and effect, but also good and bad, with the accompanying praise and blame....[Y]ou also have organizations and interlinking systems that can be penetrated and analyzed, assisted or preempted. You have the whole-hog invention of conspiracies that foment good or evil....I heard this worldview bandied about endlessly in Belfast as a child and was immediately struck by it on reading the conspiracy theories that constitute the bread and butter of Karl Marx. It is this same point of view that Professor Chomsky has at heart. He is a lover and a hater, a pious despiser of the iniquitous, a righteous champion of the noble and the downtrodden....2500 years ago, the more enlightened of the Greek Athenians...realized that events happened for reasons that were often beyond the human capacity for understanding; that events often, if not always, took place due to an internal logic not amenable to such nomenclature as noble or evil. They understood that shit happens. This is a concept too advanced for Mr. Chomsky.


Left Behind

Both Johann Hari and Andrew Sullivan have posted the laments of leftists about the sorry post-September 11th state of the left.

Johann Hari posts his transcript of Nick Cohen at a debate with the Alliance for Workers' Liberty.

If the US doesn’t intervene in the Balkans it’s evil; if the US intervenes in the Balkans, it’s evil....Far too many people on the Left are inclined to make excuses for Islamic fundamentalism. They accept its misogyny so long as it doesn’t target Western women. They accept its fascism so long as it is anti-American fascism....Acknowledgeing the horrors of Islamic fundamentalism would sully their consciences, which they want to keep clean for the battle against America.
Hey, Nick, you forget the left's unqualified acceptance of Islamic fundamentalist violence against poor, brown-skinned non-Muslims in India, the Philippines, Thailand, Sudan and Nigeria!

Andrew Sullivan links to an old column by Ron Rosenbaum for the New York Observer. I would like to have excerpted a different paragraph than Andy, but he's right; this is the money quote. After all, what's a little more corner-cutting in this already lazy clip show of a post? Besides, it's well worth reading the entire column.
Heidegger’s peculiar neutrality-slash-denial about Nazism and the Holocaust after the facts had come out, and the contemporary Left’s curious neutrality-slash-denial after the facts had come out about Marxist genocides—in Russia, in China, in Cambodia, after 20 million, 50 million, who knows how many millions had been slaughtered. Not all of the Left; many were honorable opponents. But for many others, it just hasn’t registered, it just hasn’t been incorporated into their "analysis" of history and human nature; it just hasn’t been factored in. America is still the one and only evil empire. The silence of the Left, or the exclusive focus of the Left on America’s alleged crimes over the past half-century, the disdainful sneering at America’s deplorable "Cold War mentality"—none of this has to be reassessed in light of the evidence of genocides that surpassed Hitler’s, all in the name of a Marxist ideology. An ideology that doesn’t need to be reassessed. As if it was maybe just an accident that Marxist-Leninist regimes turned totalitarian and genocidal. No connection there. The judgment that McCarthyism was the chief crime of the Cold War era doesn’t need a bit of a rethink, even when put up against the mass murder of dissidents by Marxist states.
(Emphasis Rosenbaum's)

I'll follow Johann and Andy's lead by becoming British and gay, er, I mean by also linking to another leftist's self-examination, Ken Mondschein's "The Hypocrisy of the Left".
I was walking down Grand Street in Chinatown earlier today when I started feeling a bit peckish. One of the great things about Chinatown is that you can get dinner really cheap. For instance, there are these old ladies with these steam carts who'll sell you a whole styrofoam container full of noodles and sauce. Those noodles looked and smelled terrific, but then I saw they had little tiny shrimp in them, so I said, "no thanks" and got a sticky bean bun. You see, like a good little anti-establishment free-thinker, I've been a vegetarian since I was 14, owing to the fact that I think that factory farming is awful for the environment and the meat industry is just unsanitary and about a zillion other politically correct reasons.

It was only later that the irony hit me. This woman comes from China, a country with one of the lowest per-capita incomes on the planet, where millions died of starvation during the "Great Leap Forward," to sell me noodles on the street for a buck a pop, and I don't want them because I don't eat shrimp? There are kids in Haiti with bloated bellies from lack of protein who would kill for the opportunity to eat noodles with shrimp—I know, I've seen them. And here I am, who, though I make relatively little money, can eat meat every day if I want to, and I say "no, thanks?" Where the fuck do I get off?
Ken's account of protests at the 2002 World Economic Forum in New York is well worth checking out too.


Ai, Mami!

Sebastian Holsclaw reprints one of his early posts on Obsidian Wings.

Religious arguments aren't effective when talking to non-religious people. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having your morality informed by your religion. However there are perfectly good reasons, based mainly on respect for innocent human life, that are practically universal to all societies and relgions. Saying that God is against abortion, isn't an argument that is helpful or necessary. Atheists can respect human life. Muslims can repsect human life. Hindus respect even non-human life. People who haven't thought much about God can respect human life. Focusing on a Christian argument is completely unneeded. Furthermore it shuts out people who are concerned about dehumanizing unborn children, but who are skeptical about Christianity.
I once read an article ages ago (long enough ago that I don't remember where, nor can I find it on the web) that quoted a Jewish woman observing an anti-abortion protest saying something along the lines of, I'm against abortion but I just can't see myself joining those protestors because the Christians might try to convert me. When the writer of the article conveyed the woman's concern to a Christian leader of the protest, he replied, We just might.

This attitude demonstrates what I would call the unseriousness of the anti-abortion movement. The impression given is that the summum bonum of the anti-abortion movement is Christian behavior by legal fiat rather than saving the lives of unborn children. Christian opponents of abortion would find greater success were they to restrain their proselytic impulse and reach out to non-Christians who oppose abortion for religious reasons (Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains) or out of a nonsectarian adherence to the principle of ahimsa (why not animal rights activists, though not Peter Singer). What better refutation to portrayals of white male oppression than a multi-colored, multi-religious anti-abortion coalition? It could even have one of those precious lefty acronyms I hate, like the American Interfaith Multicultural Alliance Against the Murder of Infants, or AI*MAAMI for short. (Okay, now I've strayed into nonseriousness.)

For the record, I oppose abortion, but not enough to want to criminalize it. Despite my personal disapproval, I feel that it's important that women still have access to abortion under proper medical conditions. (It sounds like waffling, I know, but both right and left would do well to recognize that criminalization doesn't necessarily follow from personal disapproval.)

Out of admiration, I prefer to call people like Sebastian and Matt Daniels center-rightists rather than conservatives.
[F]or all the obvious political virtues of the Daniels approach, it has one major flaw: conservative activists hate it. Many of them—including Daniels's comrades from his Massachusetts Family Institute days—have called him to express their ire. One told Daniels that his coalition resembled the bar scene in Star Wars. (Daniels replied, "When the right-wingers get together, that's the bar scene in Star Wars. Those are the alien forms.")
People like this deserve better than being lumped with the Pat Robertsons of the world.


Alastair Cooke has died at the age of 95

Apparently, he retired earlier this month only because of the advice of his doctors.


Monday, March 29, 2004

What if it's just...cheese?

Julian Sanchez wonders if the road to serfdom is one-way.

[T]he central thesis—that "mixed economy" style regulation leads inexorably to full-blown despotism, is by this point pretty clearly false.
Maybe I find this laudable only because I disagree with libertarianism (Who am I kidding? Of course I do.), but Julian's willingness to question his own beliefs illustrate why Kieran Healy@Crooked Timber once wrote, "[W]e’d all be better off if...Julian Sanchez got Virginia Postrel’s job at the Times."

I'd noticed the parallels between libertarianism and Marxism before (let's not forget that Ayn Rand designed her ideology to appeal specifically to Marxists), but never realized until now, like Marxism, has an eschatology and that both libertarians and Marxists expected a dictatorship of the proletariat (the Marxists with hope, the libertarians with dread). As the years pass and the apocalypse keeps on procrastinating, the true believers (be they Marxist, libertarian, Christian, Muslim or Jew) will continue to wait...and wait...and wait, all the while exhorting us to prepare for God's Judgment/the Revolution (delete as applicable), while the rest of us go on with our lives.


Old habits...

By my reckoning so far, "The Passion of the Christ" has inspired one anti-Semitic church sign, two lethal heart attacks and two criminal confessions, none of which surprised me.

But violence straight out of the Thirty Years' War did.

Passion Debate Spurs Domestic Fight

STATESBURO, GA (AP) -- A couple got in such a heated argument after seeing "The Passion of the Christ" that they were arrested for fighting.

The two left the theater debating whether God the Father in the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit was in human form or spiritual.


Thursday, March 25, 2004

You must learn to eat bitter before you can taste sweet

A Chinese schoolgirl saves her family from poverty when her diary becomes a bestseller in France.

"I'm terribly hungry," she writes. "There's been no bread or vegetables since Tuesday. When I eat my rice now, there's nothing to go with it. I even stole a piece out of a comrade's bowl without alerting her. When she came back to the dormitory, she called me all manner of names." She goes on, "I have to study well so that I won't ever again be tortured by hunger and lack of money."

She also worries about her mother, who complains of acute stomach pains. "My mother's face is as black as coal, and her lips are all cracked. She looks terrible. What's wrong with her? Usually when she comes back from her mother's, she's happy, full of chat and laughter. But today ——" She reflects mournfully, "Mother is the saddest and most unfortunate mother in the world."
The writer of this New York Times article, Alan Riding, suggests that Ma Yan's diary has "helped some remember the darker side of China's economic miracle" without connecting her family's suffering to economic development in any way whatsoever.
[S]he illustrated the fate of many poor peasant girls by reading a letter from a cousin forced to leave school and marry. "By the time you receive this letter," the cousin wrote, "I will already be in the palace of marriage, which is the tomb of my life."
Economic development relieves the poverty that condemns young Chinese women to unwanted marriages. It's not as if they enjoyed independent lives before economic liberalization. The example of the West and, even more saliently, developed Asia demonstrates that once women achieve a sufficient degree of economic independence they marry later and show less willingness to stay in troubled marriages. Young Chinese women today, especially those as diligent as Ma Yan, can look forward to more opportunity than their mothers or grandmothers because of development, not despite it.

Taken as a whole, Ma Yan's life sounds like nothing so much as a Horatio Alger story. "Studious girl endures poverty and hunger while, by the way, bearing the additional burden of being female in a sexist society and is eventually rewarded for her fortitude."

"Ma Yan's Diary" may describe the dark side of China's integration into the global economy, but Ma Yan's life illustrates its bright side.


The real choice

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Juan Non-Volokh explains the libertarian's wariness of state intervention.

Too often policy arguments proceed as follows: A) the market “fails” because it does not produce the theoretically optimal result, therefore B) government intervention is necessary. But B does not follow from A. The failure of market processes to produce an optimal result does not ensure that the political process will do a better job. From a libertarian perspective – or any perspective that is inherently suspicious of government intervention – the burden should be on those advocating government intervention to explain why the political process can be expected to produce a better result than the marketplace.
(Emphasis Juan's)

Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber responds by turning Juan's argument on its head.
Too often policy arguments proceed as follows: A) politics “fails” because it does not produce the theoretically optimal result, therefore B) market processes are necessary. But B does not follow from A. The failure of government to produce an optimal result does not ensure that market processes will do a better job. From a social democratic perspective – or any perspective that is inherently suspicious of privatization – the burden should be on those advocating market processes to explain why the marketplace can be expected to produce a better result than the political process.
Juan's "policy argument" is a straw man. Many if not most of those who advocate government intervention do so only when there is the sufficient possibility of catastrophic results; not, as Juan would have it, because the market fails to produce an optimal result. Juan posits a Manichaean choice betweeen the state and the market in which the state is guilty until proven innocent and vice versa. By doing so, he tries to argue, like many libertarians, from A) government intervention is bad to B) market processes are good. But B does not follow from A. Being "inherently suspicious of government intervention" doesn't preclude being inherently suspicious of market processes, generally a libertarian blind spot.

Wouldn't an honest appraisal of their respective strengths and weaknesses be the healthiest attitude?


Next stop Indonesia

John Aglionby of the Guardian provides background to my analysis of the Malaysian elections.

The only international monitors of Malaysia's general election last Sunday were pretty scathing when presenting the initial findings of their mission: there were enough regulation violations and credible manipulation allegations for the poll's validity to be seriously questioned.

But even if their and the opposition's worst-case scenario is true, it is likely that only another 20-30 seats would have changed hands, which would still have given Malaysia's moderate, secular prime minister Abdullah Badawi the two-thirds majority he was looking for.
For all my praise of Abdullah Badawi, I acknowledge that UMNO stacks the deck in its own favor. Nonetheless, Malaysia has enjoyed far better governance over the last several decades under UMNO and the Barisan Nasional than most developing countries.

Aglionby downplays the interpretation of the poll results as the Malay electorate's emphatic rejection of an Islamic state, preferring to point out that PAS' success in the 1999 election sent an anti-Mahathir message rather than a pro-PAS one. However, the point still stands that even most ethnic Malay Muslim voters do not want an Islamic state.


Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The elephant in the room

Bhikhu Parekh imagines a dialogue between Osama bin Laden and Mahatma Gandhi in the latest issue of Prospect Magazine.

Ever since the Satanic Verses debacle, the British press has usually walked on eggshells when dealing with Islam for fear of accusations of Islamophobia. Comparison with the American or Continental press brings this into sharp relief. So the following passage was something of a surprise:

You present a sanitised picture of Islamic history. All conquests and empires involve bloodshed, oppression and injustice, and yours was no different. Muslim rulers in India destroyed Hindu temples, looted Hindu property and converted vast masses by a combination of inducement and force. They also destroyed traditional African cultures and social structures and sought to obliterate memories of their pre-Islamic past. And although they treated Christians and Jews better, they never granted them equal citizenship.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, Islamic imperialism is the elephant in the salon of Western intelligentsia, in particular the left, which has yet to shake the legacy of Edward Said and postcolonialism. One would have thought that the strongest intellectual response to an Islamic terrorism that claims to retaliate against Western imperialism would be to point out the Islamic world's own imperial history. One would have thought that, since Islamic imperialism slaughtered, enslaved and persecuted poor brown-skinned peoples, this argument would bring the left on board. After all, it's nothing more than the postcolonialist critique as applied to the Islamic world. For the most part, the left has not bothered to challenge claims that Islamic imperialism is free of the sins of Western imperialism even though, by neglecting to doing so, it dismisses centuries of suffering by millions of poor brown-skinned people.

It should not be surprising that those brave enough to publicly remember are often Indian. The hypocrisy of condemning Western empires in one breath and praising the glories of Islamic ones in the next must grate particularly harshly on the ears of Indian non-Muslims, who suffered under both. I suspect that the accusations of intellectual neo-colonialist, "scavenger" and "native informer" that Edward Said levelled at V.S. Naipaul had less to do with Naipaul holding the developing world responsible for its own failures and more to do with Naipaul's application of Said's own postcolonialism to the Islamic civilization he so romanticized. In Said's own words, "on the basis of his being a Trinidadian, [Naipaul] has had ascribed to him the credentials of a man who can serve as witness for the third world." What Said does not say is that, on the basis of his being an Indian, that is, a victim of Islamic imperialism, Naipaul has the credentials of a man who can serve as a witness against the Islamic world. By the logic of postcolonialism, the credibility of a victim's condemnation is beyond question.
Since all this occurred a long time ago, there is no point in lamenting it and apportioning blame, but we do have a duty to acknowledge the full truth of the past and resolve never to repeat it.
Without Muslim acknowledgement of the full truth of the past and the resolution never to repeat it, there can be no true victory in the war on terror.


Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Emptying my cup or, If you meet the Buddha, kill him

Absorb what is useful...
Despite the title of my blog, I don't think much of Bruce Lee's philosophy. He would probably approve. I appreciate some aspects of his thinking: the uncompromising pragmatism, the attitude that nothing is beyond question, change as a precondition.
Discard what is not...
But he manages to create a dogma of anti-dogmatism. To use Michael Oakeshott's terminology, Lee always struggled with the contradiction between the inherently technical nature of his Western philosophical training and the immutably practical nature of the martial arts and Eastern philosophy. The irreconcilability of the two replaced a hidebound classical mess with an inchoate postmodern one.
Add what is uniquely your own.
People learn via trial and error. For a given problem, greater competition generally produces a greater number of solutions, both successful and unsuccessful. Though the failures add to the sum total of knowledge, they also expose people to danger, put them out of work and pollute the environment. The left makes absolute its aversion to the failures of competition, holding out for the possibility that the optimal solution can be found without trial and error. The left may as well hold out for the possibility that a child learn to ride a bike without paying for his new skill in scratches and bruises. The right, for its part, makes absolute its preference for competitive solutions, either ignoring the insurmountability of some problems by competition or scorning any obstruction of competition as bad in itself. To stretch the metaphor, depriving that child of a helmet will give him greater incentive to learn more quickly and ride more safely. Where market competition can best solve problems, it should be allowed to do so, and where the market fails, then an enforceable, observable solution from outside the market, be it the state or, for example, an industry group, should be pursued.

None of this is terribly original. So what will you get here that you'll not likely find elsewhere? Not only do I criticize the failings of both left and right, but I also apply the lessons learned in one part of the world to others. For instance, Europe suffers from higher unemployment than the US due to the rigidity of the European labor market. However, the flexibility of the US labor market increases the need for unemployment insurance and universal healthcare, which Europe already enjoys. Both Europe and the US could learn a thing or two about race relations from the cant-free policies of Singapore and Malaysia. At the same time, we must recognize that applying the lessons of one country to another by following its policies or prescriptions like a how-to guide is not only unlikely to work, it's dangerous. Just as a developing country should not adopt the laissez-faire economic policies of the fully industrialized United States, nor should the 290,000,000 strong, highly diverse, federal United States adopt wholesale the welfare state that is the pride of 9,000,000 strong, relatively homogenous, centralized Sweden. But this doesn't mean that developing countries wouldn't benefit from reduced regulation, any less than universal healthcare would be unwelcome in the United States.

My goal is to approach politics pragmatically and non-ideologically, drawing sharp distinctions between nationalization and necessary government intervention, between untramelled laissez-faire and globalization, between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli policy, and between Islamophobia and a justified demand for the reform of Islam, among many other issues.