Entries for February 2007

February 28, 2007

The Failure of Intelligent Design Creationism

On Monday I attended the talk given by intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocate Michael Behe (author of Darwin's Black Box) at Strosacker. The program consisted of a talk for about an hour by Behe followed by a 20-minute response by Professor Hillel Chiel of the Biology Department at Case.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am quite familiar with the IDC program, having read Behe's book and other IDC literature, written about the topic extensively, and debated Behe and other IDC advocates in 2002 in Kansas and again in Michigan. So I was curious to see what new developments had occurred since my last encounter with him.

Michael Behe gives good talks and the full auditorium had an enjoyable evening. He has an engaging manner, good sense of humor, and presents his ideas in a clear way. But I already knew that having heard his talks before. What disappointed me was that there was absolutely nothing new in his talk, which was entirely a rehash of the same things he was saying five years ago. The examples he gave in support of intelligent design were the same as in his book that was published in 1996. The only new things since that book were his rebuttals of some criticisms of his book, but even those were things that he said in his 2002 talks. I recognized all the quotes and examples.

Behe made the familiar line of argument of IDC: 1. We immediately know when we see designed systems. (The Mount Rushmore example, a standby of IDC advocates, was once again evoked. See here and here for my earlier postings about this.) 2. There seems to be clear appearance of design in many biological systems. 3. Some of these systems are "irreducibly complex" in that if you take away any single component, the system fails to function. (He brought out the familiar mousetrap analogy and the flagellum and the blood-clotting examples). 4. Evolution by natural selection and its gradual approach to change cannot explain these phenomena and evolution advocates resort to implausible and hand-waving explanations. 5. Hence the existence of such systems implies a designer.

In his brief response, Chiel addressed all these arguments. Chiel said that the reason IDC is not science is that it does not provide any hypothesis to be tested and thus does not provide the basis for any research program. (The very fact that IDC has not produced anything new for over a decade is evidence of that.) On the other hand, evolution by natural selection is the basis of research in almost all of biology. He gave the example of his own research and also how bacteria, in order to develop drug-resistant strains, actually generate more random mutations so that there is a greater chance of producing a resistant strain that will survive due to natural selection. Scientists try to prevent these mutations from occurring as part of their struggle to prevent these strains from emerging. Thus Darwin's theory provides the basis of such scientific work.

Chiel also made a very important point about the whole irreducible complexity argument. Behe's "irreducibly complex" systems are those that have many interlocking parts so that taking any one component away destroys the functionality of the system. Since it is unlikely that all the parts could have evolved separately and then come together in one fell swoop to create the functioning system, Behe infers that they must have been designed in some way.

Chiel pointed out the flaw in this argument. How a system gets built cannot be inferred from what happens if you take away something from the system after it is built. It is quite possible for a complex system to be built gradually, piece by piece, such that when you take something away from the final object, it fails completely. To use an example of my own, it is like a house of cards. You build it up carefully one card at a time. But once built, take away almost any card and the whole system collapses. This is because in the process of constructing complex things, some parts initially play the role of scaffolding or some other auxiliary purpose. But with a change in functionality in the final system, a part that was initially an option can become essential.

For another example, take cars (this is also my example, not Chiels's). They have evolved gradually to be the complex machines we now have. Currently, GPS guidance systems in cars are an auxiliary device that are sometimes installed as a convenience but are not essential. If you have one in your car, you can remove it and the car is still functional. But in the future we could have a transport system where cars do not need drivers but run under their own remote controlled navigation and steering systems. Suddenly the GPS device is no longer an option but becomes crucial to the functioning of the car. Chiel said that complex biological systems are like that, co-opting things as needed to perform desirable but optional functions which can later become essential components.

Kenneth Miller's review of Behe's book provides a detailed example of how systems that satisfy Behe's description of being "irreducibly complex" actually evolved.

The three smallest bones in the human body, the malleus, incus, and stapes, carry sound vibrations across the middle ear, from the membrane-like tympanum (the eardrum) to the oval window. This five component system fits Behe's test of irreducible complexity perfectly - if any one of its parts are taken away or modified, hearing would be lost. This is the kind of system that evolution supposedly cannot produce. Unfortunately for "intelligent design," the fossil record elegantly and precisely documents exactly how this system formed. During the evolution of mammals, bones that originally formed the rear portion of the reptilian lower jaw were gradually pushed backwards and reduced in size until they migrated into the middle ear, forming the bony connections that carry vibrations into the inner ears of present-day mammals. A system of perfectly-formed, interlocking components, specified by multiple genes, was gradually refashioned and adapted for another purpose altogether - something that this book claims to be impossible. As the well-informed reader may know, creationist critics of this interpretation of fossils in the reptile to mammal transition once charged that this could not have taken place. What would happen, they joked, to the unfortunate reptile while he was waiting for two of his jaw bones to migrate into the middle ear? The poor creature could neither hear nor eat! As students of evolution may know, A. W. Crompton of Harvard University brought this laughter to a deafening halt when he unearthed a fossil with a double articulation of the jaw joint - an adaptation that would allow the animal to both eat and hear during the transition, enabling natural selection to favor each of the intermediate stages.

Chiel also debunked the notion that there is a "controversy" over Darwin's theory and that therefore the controversy should be taught. He said that there was no scientific controversy among scientists and that therefore neither IDC nor "the controversy" belonged in any science curriculum. However he said that IDC should be taught as part of a humanities or social sciences curriculum

He pointed out that scientists practiced methodological naturalism as a necessary element of their work but that did not entail philosophical naturalism (which is atheism). (See here for an earlier posting on this.) He pointed out that if in the future Darwinian evolution turns out to be an inadequate theory, there was still no requirement to adopt IDC because there would be other alternative naturalistic theories.

In his talk he also made the point that IDC is not only not science, it is also bad theology because linking one's religious belief to one scientific theory is dangerous. He posed the hypothetical question of what would have happened to someone whose religious belief was based on Newtonian physics (or to its flaws). When relativity and quantum mechanics came along, their faith would have been seriously undermined.

What was interesting is that Hillel Chiel, in addition to being a first-rate scientist, is a very observant Orthodox Jew, who is extremely knowledgeable about the Bible and its commentaries. I have known him for many years and he and I are in almost perfect agreement on almost everything about the nature of science. This illustrates my point that amongst scientists, their position on religious beliefs (or philosophical naturalism) is totally irrelevant. All that is required of a scientist is a commitment to methodological naturalism in their work. Some scientists like Chiel choose to reject philosophical naturalism and are devoutly religious, while others (like me) choose to accept it and become atheists. But those choices have no effect on the scientific work of either group. Chiel is far more religiously observant than most scientists I know, including (I suspect) Behe. And yet I think Chiel and I have far more in common that Behe and me, because we both share a commitment to methodological naturalism in science, which Behe does not.

The problem with IDC is that it is a sterile theory, producing no mechanisms or predictions or research programs. I suspect that most of the people who were in Strosacker Auditorium on Monday probably agree with Behe that god somehow acts in the world in some mysterious way that they do not know. Where Behe gets into trouble is in trying to assert that this belief has a scientific basis. That claim is simply not credible.

February 27, 2007

The forces pushing for war with Iran

Most rational people view the idea of the US going to war with Iran as downright insane. To create another horrific situation for the people in Iran similar to what the Iraqi people are currently undergoing would seem to be unthinkable to any humane person. But even for those lacking in such humanitarian impulses and who only think in terms of political calculations (especially when the suffering is borne by others), it still would not seem to make any sense. Here we have the US military bogged down and stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US government isolated internationally. Why would Bush take on Iran as well, knowing that it would, at the very least, alienate large segments of the Shia community in Iraq when it desperately depends on that group to prevent the anti-US insurgency initiated by largely by the minority Sunni groups to become a full-scale and widespread revolt which the US would be unlikely to withstand?

For these reasons, some suggest that the war of words against Iran is just that, talk, and that it is meant to find a scapegoat for the lack of progress in Iraq as well as keeping Iran on the defensive about its plans for developing its nuclear technology. That is the most optimistic explanation.

But we should not forget that the neoconservative forces that pushed for an invasion of Iraq have also been pushing for an actual attack on Iran. While a ground invasion of Iran is unlikely simply because the US does not have troops even for its missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, let along open a new front in Iran, these forces are advocating air strikes with the goal of destroying Iran's nuclear power plants or even hoping to cause the overthrow of the Iranian government.

Gary Leupp, professor of history at Tufts University, examines how the rhetoric for an attack on Iran is being ratcheted up. Leupp quotes Gen. Oded Tira, chief artillery officer of the Israeli Defense Forces, as saying: "An American strike on Iran is essential for our existence," so "we must help [Bush] pave the way by lobbying the Democratic Party (which is conducting itself foolishly) and US newspaper editors. We need to do this in order to turn the Iranian issue into a bipartisan one and unrelated to the Iraq failure." Tira urges the [Israel] Lobby to turn to "potential presidential candidates. . . so that they support immediate action by Bush against Iran."

Neoconservatives like Michael Ledeen make the extraordinary charge that Iran has been at war with the US since 1979 when the US Embassy people were taken hostage and that thus an attack on Iran would merely be part of an ongoing war, nothing to be alarmed about. Of course, they avoid addressing the embarrassing question that if Iran and the US have been at war since 1979, then almost the entire administration of former President Reagan, including the father of the current president, is guilty of treason because they covertly supplied arms to Iran in the 1980s to fund their support for the Contras in Nicaragua.

The irony is that these are not the only groups trying to provoke a US attack on Iran. Adam Elkus argues that a 20-year plan published by al Qaeda theoretician Ayman al Zawahiri also gleefully seeks such an escalation by the US in the Middle East. The reason is that apparently Zawahiri is a great admirer of Paul Kennedy's book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in which Kennedy says "Power can be maintained only by a prudent balance between the creation of wealth and military expenditure, and great powers in decline almost always hasten their demise by shifting expenditure from the former to the latter." So the goal of al Qaeda is to lure the US into an even wider and deeper involvement in the Middle East, with the aim of bleeding it and weakening it.

By committing the US to shift to more and more military spending, Zawahiri sees the eventual destruction of the US from the inside and by itself, just the way the Soviet Union was undermined by its military adventures in Afghanistan and by trying to maintain military parity with the US during the Cold War.

Next: How the improving relationship with Iran was sabotaged.

POST SCRIPT: Cleveland Orchestra

On Sunday, thanks to getting tickets from a friend, I went to see the Cleveland Orchestra perform. The program consisted of Tchaikovsky's overture to Romeo and Juliet and his first piano concerto, along with another selection from a composer I had not heard of.

The concert was magnificent and made me appreciate the fact that Cleveland has such a wonderful orchestra that performs in this beautiful Severance Hall right across the street from my office.

For those not familiar with this piano concerto, you can listen to the first movement here, performed by soloist Lang Lang, accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle.

Or, you can watch Monty Python doing just the famous opening bit in its usual silly manner:

February 26, 2007

Another Gulf of Tonkin coming up?

If there is to be an attack on Iran, the Bush administration will have a harder time selling it to the US public, mainly because of the growing realization that the public was willfully misled about the reasons for going to war against Iraq. Some observers argue that convincing the skeptical public to go along will require the equivalent of a 'Gulf of Tonkin' incident. This was the infamous event, manufactured by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, when he falsely alleged an attack by North Vietnamese forces on US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin to push through a resolution in Congress that gave him almost unlimited powers to wage war in South East Asia. It was later revealed that the 'retaliation' launched by the US was actually a plan that had been created some time earlier and needed a trigger which this 'incident' conveniently provided. The media then, like the media now, did not critically evaluate these claims but joined the rush to escalate the war, resulting in a quagmire that caused immense suffering for the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people and led to the eventual US defeat in 1975.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo asks his readers what characteristics such a 'Gulf of Tonkin' event for Iran must have in order to meet the requirements. This is what he and his readers came up with:

1. Despite being fake, the incident must seem reasonably credible.

2. It must appear serious enough that discounting its importance or questioning its veracity appears the height of unseriousness.

3. It must place the majority of us in the odd and unexpected position of granting to President Bush the unfettered discretion to launch a war against Iran at the time and place of his choosing, despite our desire that he start it right now.

4. The incident can't be quickly falsifiable. It will have to take a long time and a lot of effort to be revealed as bogus. Weapons of mass destruction were perfect: we had to get into Iraq to show them to be false, and by that time, of course, it was too late to stop the war. The sort of same thing will be needed to commit some sort of act of war on Iran.

This seems like a reasonable set of criteria.

One of the key developments to watch for is the shift to a legalistic approach to questions. For example, the Bush administration has started to allege that the Iranians are 'interfering' in Iraq. The reasonable response to that is "So what?" After all, the US is occupying that country illegally and is hardly in a position to throw stones at others. The US has a long and well-known history of interfering in other countries (Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Dominican Republic, Panama, Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, Congo, Iran, El Salvador, to name a few). Some of these 'interventions' were actual invasions. But the media accepts the bait put out by the government and the discussion then shifts to whether the allegations that Iran is interfering are true. So when at some point there is evidence that people from Iran are somehow involved in something, which is very likely given that Iraq and Iran share a long border and history and traditions, this will be trumpeted as being enough of a cause to justify an attack.

Some candidate events for Iranian provocation have already been suggested. It is clear that the Bush administration is looking to pick a fight with Iran: "The administration announced two weeks ago, as part of its new strategy on Iraq, that it would move more forcefully against Iranian and Syrian agents in Iraq. The White House also then moved Navy warships and fighter jets into the Persian Gulf in a display of determination to maintain its influence in the region." The more forces you put into a region, the more likely it is that there will be some sort of minor clash that can be magnified into a major incident.

There are other developments. We had the most recent story that Iran was supplying Iraqi insurgents with specially shaped IEDs (called EFPs for "explosively formed projectiles"), although the evidence in support of this is thin, the briefers were anonymous, and other observers have said that this technology is simple and easily available to anyone who wants it. But some news reports give the impression that the allegations are true by downplaying by downplaying all the caveats. Nicole Belle summarizes other allegations that have been made against Iran recently.

In an ironic twist, there have also been recent explosions inside Iran and anonymous Iranian officials are claiming that their evidence suggests that these were made by the US. These allegations gain support from a report in the British newspaper The Telegraph that the US is funding terrorist ethnic separatist groups in Iran.

Bush has also recently authorized the killing of Iranians inside Iraq, a move suggesting that he may be trying to provoke the Iranians into doing something that might give the US an excuse to attack. The recent arrests of Iranian officials in Iraq and the kidnapping of a senior Iranian diplomat (which the Iranians allege the US was behind) are other examples of potentially triggering events. Another provocative allegation was that Iranians were behind the the capture and killing of five US soldiers in a daring attack in Karbala on January 20, 2007.

So are all these things signs that the US is determined to attack Iran fairly soon and is just waiting for the right time and a triggering event? Veteran journalist John Pilger believes that the groundwork is definitely being laid for an attack on Iran but analyst Steven Zunes suggests that there might be other reasons for the US sabre-rattling than preparation for an attack on Iran: "Most speculation has centered around the possibility that the Bush administration is trying to divert attention from the failures of its policies in Iraq by blaming a foreign government. More disturbing still would be U.S. efforts to lay the groundwork for a U.S. attack on Iran. It may also be an attempt to provide cover for President Bush’s rejection of the growing bipartisan consensus – as exemplified by the Baker-Hamilton Commission Report – of the importance of engaging Iran on issues related to Iraq and regional security."

Another possible reason for the Bush administration's allegations of Iranian involvement within Iraq is that they have decided to attack Iran but think it unlikely that they will get another blank check from Congress for Iran like they did with the Iraq war authorization. They may try to argue that this attack on Iran is just a continuation of the war in Iraq and thus does not require fresh authorization.

Whatever is behind the rising war of words against Iran, it is good to pause and remember that if and when the US bombs Iran, it will be destroying another country in which reside people just like you and me. I came across this little photo montage of everyday scenes inside Tehran, titled What Iran looks like before the bombing, set to the music of the Cat Stevens/Yusuf Ismail song Peace Train.

It is good to be reminded what a place and its people looks like before it is destroyed. Baghdad too was once like this.

POST SCRIPT: Talk on intelligent design

Michael Behe, an intelligent design creationist advocate and author of Darwin's Black Box, is speaking tonight in Strosacker Auditorium at 7:00pm.

For those who might want to know something about the things he is likely to talk about and why I think it is not convincing, I selected these three posts from the past: post 1, post 2, and post 3.

But instead of reading all my words, here is a link to an excellent figure by Wellington Grey that succinctly shows the main difference between science and faith. (Thanks to Daniel for the information.)

February 23, 2007

The war of words against Iran

There has been an escalating war of words by the US against Iran. The latest was the allegation that the top Iranian leadership is directly involved in supplying the Iraqi insurgency with refined IEDs called EFPs (for 'explosively formed projectiles') that can penetrate even the armored US vehicles. What is interesting is that the 'evidence' for this allegation was provided at a briefing where the US officials insisted on anonymity, recalling the infamous days before the invasion of Iraq when major media outlets, especially the New York Times, uncritically reported unsourced allegations by administration officials and Iraqi exiles saying that Saddam Hussein possessed all manner of dangerous nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. After the Colin Powell UN speech fiasco, it seems as if no one wants to be fingered if this too turns out to be bogus. The actual PowerPoint presentation that was shown by the anonymous Pentagon briefers in Baghdad can be seen here.

Michael Gordon, who with Judith Miller was responsible for much of the New York Times's shameful coverage prior to the Iraq war, in now doing the same thing with Iran. Gordon, described by Alexander Cockburn, as "a man of fabled arrogance and self esteem" recently wrote an article repeating the same kinds of things he wrote about in Iraq. As Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher notes in an article titled 'NYT' Reporter Who Got Iraqi WMDs Wrong Now Highlights Iran Claims:

Saturday's [February 10, 2007] New York Times features an article, posted at the top of its Web site late Friday, that suggests very strongly that Iran is supplying the "deadliest weapon aimed at American troops" in Iraq. The author notes, "Any assertion of an Iranian contribution to attacks on Americans in Iraq is both politically and diplomatically volatile." 

What is the source of this volatile information? Nothing less than "civilian and military officials from a broad range of government agencies." 

Sound pretty convincing? Well, almost all the sources in the story are unnamed. It also may be worth noting that the author is Michael R. Gordon, the same Times reporter who, on his own, or with Judith Miller, wrote some of the key, and badly misleading or downright inaccurate, articles about Iraqi WMDs in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.

The E&P article went on to give more egregious examples of Gordon's pre-Iraq war coverage, demonstrating that he was little more than a shill for Bush administration propaganda. (This cartoon by Tom the Dancing Bug exactly captures the mindset of people like Gordon. You have to click on the link at the side and watch a short advertisement.)

But while we cannot take the factual content of such reporting seriously, they do serve a purpose in telling us what the Bush administration wants us to believe, and clearly what is being done here is to convince the US public that Iran is responsible for the setbacks that the US is experiencing in Iraq, and that some sort of action must be taken against it.

Why this particular propaganda push?

At the darkest level, it could be that we, the public, are being softened up for an attack on Iran. Iran has already been labeled as part of the 'axis of evil' and accused of harboring nuclear weapons ambitions and supporting Iraqi insurgent groups, but all that does not seem to be sufficient. The public still seems wary of further US military escalation.

I have always found it strange that very few people note the irony of the US, which actually invaded Iraq and currently has about 150,000 troops there, warning other countries not to 'interfere' in the internal affairs of Iraq. After all, interfering in the internal affairs of other countries has been standard US foreign policy for a long time.

Consider what the US did in Afghanistan. Zbigniew Bzerzinski, who was President Carter's National Security Advisor at the time that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, said in an interview in 1998 that prior to that invasion there was a deliberate US policy decision before 1979 to intervene and destabilize Afghanistan so as to lure the Soviet Union into invading that country, so that they would get stuck in their equivalent of Vietnam. They did this by having the CIA (then led by current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) begin aiding the Islamic forces called the Mujahadeen in July 1979, six months before the Soviets invaded.

As a result of that invasion, Afghanistan has been in turmoil ever since. The US supplied arms and ammunition (including sophisticated Stinger surface-to-air missiles) to the Mujahadeen fighting the Soviet army, and the Soviet Union eventually was forced to withdraw in 1989, leaving behind a government they had put in place. But that government was unstable and collapsed in 1992, leading to a period of instability. The Taliban, originally a loose confederation of local units, became a unified body in 1994, gained popularity surprisingly quickly, and took over the government in 1996. The founder of the Taliban Mullah Mohammad Omar was once a Mujahadeen fighter. It is now feared that those same Stingers and other weaponry are being used by the same Taliban against US forces.

The cynicism of people like Jimmy Carter and Bzerzinski (now critics of the US intervention in Iraq), who destroyed the lives of the people in that impoverished country in pursuit of their geopolitical goals, can be seen in this excerpt from the interview.

Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn't believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don't regret anything today?

Bzerzinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

Bzerzinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

In Bzerzinski's point of view, who cares about the Afghan people? They are mere pawns to serve our purposes. It is worth it to us to deliver them into the hands of religious fanatics. Note that this interview was in 1998 and Bzerzinski was able to pooh-pooh the threat posed by militant religious fanatics, dismissing them as "some stirred-up Muslims." I wonder how he would respond now.

This exchange precisely illustrates the problems that are created when you go with strategy instead of principles. To undermine the Soviet Union, the people of Afghanistan were thrown under the Mujahadeen/Taliban bus. That Taliban government then allowed al Qaeda to operate in that country, which in turn gave support to Islamist movements around the world that are now creating graveyards for US forces.

Given this history, it seems disingenuous for the US to protest about Iranian meddling in Iraq, even if it were true. But the US governments can always depend on two things: the amnesia of its population when it comes to unpleasant historical facts and its media to not ask the hard questions about history and consistency and principles.

Next: Other explanations for the rising rhetoric against Iran.

POST SCRIPT: Historians take a stand for free speech and human rights, and an end to the Iraq war

The New York Review of Books has published a statement signed by over 150 historians that states:

Whereas during the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror, the current Administration has violated the above-mentioned standards and principles through the following practices:

  • excluding well-recognized foreign scholars;
  • condemning as "revisionism" the search for truth about pre-war intelligence;
  • reclassifying previously unclassified government documents;
  • suspending in certain cases the centuries-old writ of habeas corpus and substituting indefinite administrative detention without specified criminal charges or access to a court of law;
  • using interrogation techniques at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other locations incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society;

Whereas a free society and the unfettered intellectual inquiry essential to the practice of historical research, writing, and teaching are imperiled by the practices described above; and

Whereas the foregoing practices are inextricably linked to the war in which the United States is presently engaged in Iraq; now, therefore, be it

Resolved, that the American Historical Association urges its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:

  • to take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and
  • to do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.

The resolution will be put to an electronic vote of the entire membership of the American Historical Association (AHA) during the period March 1-9, 2007.

February 22, 2007

Disentangling the key players in Iraq

To make better sense of what is going on currently in Iraq, we need to identify the major players. Everyone is by now is familiar with the Shia-Sunni religious divide in Islam, one of those hair-splitting and absurd enmities between sects that plague religions. The extreme devotion of each of these groups to their particular form of religion, and their willingness to see members of the 'other' side as an enemy, is typical of the insanity of the tribal mentality. We now see a process by which militant members of each group are seeking to drive wedges between them even deeper to the extent of eliminating mixed-residence regions. Already it is reported that 10 of the 23 mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad have become exclusively Shia. So the Sunni faction of the insurgency is fighting the US while at the same time attacking the rival Shia, or defending the Sunnis from the Shia, depending on your point of view.

But a complicating factor that is emerging is that there is an important split within the Shia group that makes this into a three-way conflict.

One of the major Shia political groupings is the SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) which has its own armed militia called the Badr Brigade. The SCIRI group, led by cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has long been affiliated with Iran and, according to A. K. Gupta writing in Z Magazine (February 2007), is conspiring to form a Shia 'super-region' in southern Iraq adjoining Iran, where the major oil reserves are concentrated. When Saddam Hussein was in power, SCIRI leaders spent their years in exile in Iran and were recognized as the Iraqi government-in-exile by Iranian clerics. Also, the Badr brigade was formed and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The other major Shia group is the more publicized (at least in the US) one led by the cleric Muqtada al Sadr and which also has its own armed militia called the Mehdi Army. This group has historically not been close to Iran and in fact has opposed increased Iranian influence in Iraq. Furthermore, Sadr has great credibility in Iraq as a nationalist. As Patrick Cockburn writes, Muqtada's father and two brothers were fierce opponents of Saddam Hussein and were murdered by him because they were perceived as threats, and while many other Iraqi leaders left for exile, Muqtada al Sadr stayed behind. Like his father, he was angry at the US because the economic sanctions on Iraq by the US had brought ruin to the people of his country. All these factors give him an immense nationalistic credibility.

So given that the US considers Iran part of the 'axis of evil' and is currently making warlike noises against it, if the US had to choose between allying itself with the Iranian-backed SCIRI and the nationalist Sadr group, you would think that it would support Sadr. But you would be wrong. Every indication is that an important part of the surge strategy is to crush Sadr politically to the extent of even killing him, and destroying his Mehdi army militarily. Why? Because as a fierce nationalist who opposes all foreign occupation, including that of the US, he represents a more immediate threat to US. His group in the Iraqi parliament has managed to get almost half of that body to sign a petition calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. Since, as I have argued before, the US is clearly intent on occupying Iraq permanently, Sadr and all he represents has to be destroyed, since it seems hard to co-opt him to be fully subservient to US interests.

So what has emerged is a de facto alliance between the US and the Badr brigade against the Mehdi army. The Badr brigade has deeply infiltrated the Iraqi military and police forces under the patronage of the Interior Minister and are operating 'death squads' that operate with impunity, carrying out attacks on Sunnis and the followers of Sadr, with the US giving them political and even military cover.

So as part of the current offensive, we can expect to see a full-fledged assault on Sadr's stronghold in what is known as 'Sadr City' in Baghdad, an enclave of about 2 million people. What happens then depends on the response of the Mehdi army. On two previous occasions in 2003 and 2004 when the US army went into Sadr City, the Mehdi army directly confronted it and received heavy losses. Since then, the militias seem to have learned the lesson that it is better to fight the US indirectly. The next time the US confronts the Mehdi army in Sadr city (which is likely to happen very soon or some reports indicate is already underway) what is likely to happen is that the Mehdi army will melt away and not offer much direct resistance. Sadr himself, expecting to be targeted for killing has reportedly gone into hiding.This would result in a lull in the level of violence but it is unlikely to be permanent as long as the basic instability exists in the political structure of that country.

Another strategy being adopted is for the militia members to sign up to join the Iraqi security forces that the US is creating and training and arming. That way, they can gain access to weapons and supplies and intelligence as well. But this results in the Iraqi military not serving the government (shaky though it is) but advancing the interests of whatever sectarian groups make up its caadres.

As a result, the security forces are not seen by the population at large as protecting the people but as extensions of the death squads that are terrorizing the population. It has also led to criminals and thugs getting access to the Iraqi security forces and acting with increasing impunity such as this case where they force their way into people's hopes, brutalize them, and take their valuables.

So in a nutshell, the US strategy seems to be to ally itself with one faction of the Shias (the SCIRI and its Badr Brigades) to try and crush both the Sunni insurgency and the Shia opposition led by Muqtada al Sadr and his militia, the Mehdi army. Meanwhile, the US is taking an increasingly confrontational tone with Iran, which is the very sponsor of the US allies in Iraq, and it is not clear to what extent the US's other allies in the region (Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan all of whom are Sunni) will tolerate the assault on their Sunni kinsfolk in Iraq. Bush seems to be trying to appease them by playing up the threat posed by the Shia Iranians

It seems as if the US is succumbing to the danger that befalls all occupying armies when they stay too long and that is getting more and more entangled in local politics, forging short-term alliances of convenience and getting mixed up in shifting regional conflicts.

This is the mess that the US finds itself in, all of which will likely lead to long-term complications.

POST SCRIPT: Another Johnny Cash classic

This song Sunday morning coming down has some wonderful lyrics.

February 21, 2007

The Spring of Our Discontent

As spring approaches in the northern hemisphere, we had better brace ourselves for some bad news in the various wars that the US is currently involved in.

In Afghanistan, as is well known by now, the Taliban has its strongholds in the northwest frontier territories of Pakistan that borders southern Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has pretty much relinquished any attempt to control this area and has left it under the control of the local warlords, many of whom have long-standing ties, ethnic and even familial, with the Taliban. This is rugged, mountainous territory and it is believed that the Taliban has been regrouping and strengthening its cadres in that region and that as the snow thaws, it is expected that cross-border infiltration will increase leading to a spike in violence. It is clear that the Afghan government in Kabul and the US and NATO forces in that country are waiting to see what is going to happen.

Furthermore, it is now reported that after being disorganized and fragmented and rudderless for awhile, al Qaeda leaders are rebuilding their operations in that same region, re-establishing a chain of command with their loose federation of foot-soldiers around the world.

Meanwhile, we have the escalation of US troops in Iraq (especially in Baghdad) along with the appointment of a new commander of the forces in that country General David Petraeus. Petraeus is a student of counter-insurgency, being the main person responsible for writing the manual that is being used to train US troops. He has also been very adroit at self-promotion, using as his main vehicle reporter Michael Gordon of the New York Times, the very reporter who jointly authored with now-discredited Judith Miller all the fantastic allegations about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that led to public acceptance of Bush's illegal attack on that country. Gordon is now doing exactly the same thing with the escalating rhetoric against Iran (more about that later).

The shape of the new Iraq operation is becoming clear. Petraeus seems to be a believer in a 'clear and hold' strategy, which he carried out in his earlier stint in Iraq where he was in charge of the Mosul region. In this strategy, you divide up a region into small units, then send in troops door-to-door to ferret out fighters and weapons caches. Once a region is cleared, then you move to the next region while stationing enough troops in the cleared region to prevent re-entry by the insurgent forces. While Petraeus managed to get favorable publicity for his approach to that city, the plan itself failed and "the town reverted to insurgent control within hours of his division's departure."

But this approach is going to be repeated in Baghdad, with the city being divided into 11 zones:

The soldiers will aim to create mini "green zones" - cut-down versions of the area in the capital where US and British officials, and the Iraqi government, take refuge - guarded by checkpoints, sandbags and barbed wire. Residents would be issued with ID badges, and their every entry and exit logged.

To do this the US and Iraqi government forces will have to win back these areas from the militias. In particular they will have to take on the Shia fighters, many of them government backed, who have been accused of operating death squads.

The response of insurgents and guerillas to this type of US strategy is fairly obvious to anyone who has followed this type of warfare. They will likely not directly challenge the much better armed and organized US troops and will move away from that region and either launch attacks elsewhere or lie low until the occupying troops eventually leave. This is always the problem faced by an occupying foreign force. The local fighters know that you have to leave at some point and the question then becomes who has the most patience.

The key to the success of this strategy lies in two things. One is to have enough troops to both clear new areas while holding on to the old ones. The second is that since a key goal of insurgencies is to create instability, to keep the troops in place long enough to allow a normal life to develop in those areas, thus causing the insurgents' momentum to dissipate and become discouraged.

How many troops are enough for this? Classic counter-insurgency theory has a rule of thumb that says that in an occupation you need one soldier for every 50 civilians in the region. This works out to 500,000 troops for the Iraq population of over 26 million. This is the basis on which former US Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki stated in 2003 that the US would need about "several hundred thousand" troops to occupy Iraq, for which prediction he was eased out of office since that was not the answer wanted by the Bush administration. Baghdad alone has a population of about 5 million, which would require 100,000 troops, and yet currently there are about only 15,000 combat troops there. And the numbers are worse than it looks since the 50-to-1 estimate of troops is based on a fairly peaceful occupation, not a raging insurgency/civil war like what we are seeing. Clearly even the current 'surge' is not enough.

Recall also that even though there are about 150,000 US troops in Iraq, only about a third of them are actual combat troops, the rest being support personnel (engineers, mechanics, cooks, medics, clerks, and the like). This 'tooth-to-tail' ratio of combat troops to support personnel is a surprisingly hard figure to pin down, which is why estimates of how many troops are necessary seem to vary wildly. But under all calculations, the numbers currently in place are insufficient and already there are hints of a further escalation in the works to meet this deficiency. This is also why re-creation of the Iraqi military is such a high priority for the US, since there will never be enough US troops for a successful counter-insurgency.

As more US troops go on patrol and engage with the insurgents as part of this clear and hold strategy, they are likely to suffer additional casualties from snipers and IEDs. But even allowing for this, it is quite likely (for reasons to be given in the next posting) that the current policy will produce a short-term reduction in the overall levels of violence, as the forces opposed to the occupation scatter to parts outside of Baghdad and regroup. This will likely occur soon and extend into the spring and the lull will be interpreted by the Bush administration as a vindication of its 'surge' strategy. The question is whether this lull can last and what political strategy the Bush administration is pursuing in parallel. And this is where things start to get messy.

Next: Disentangling the key players in Iraq

POST SCRIPT: I Walk the line

Johnny Cash had a great voice. Here he is singing his big hit I walk the line.

This is a difficult song because each verse shifts to a higher key, until the final verse is back in the original key. Between verses you can sometimes hear him humming the starting note so that he comes in correctly.

February 20, 2007

Peter O'Toole

Seeing as I have been spending my time watching old films, for the first time in some years I have not seen any of the films that have been nominated for this year's Academy Awards. But that does not mean that I don't have a preference in at least one category, and that is for best actor. At the risk of offending purists who believe that the awards should be based strictly on the performance in the film for which the person has been nominated, I hope, for purely sentimental reasons, that Peter O'Toole wins the best actor award this coming Sunday for Venus, just because he is one of the greatest actors ever.

I have been a big fan of Peter O'Toole ever since I saw him in the stunning Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which was his big break as a star. I watched the film again recently when it was re-released as a DVD in the 'director's cut' version. The power of the film can be measured by the fact that it runs almost four hours long and for some reason I started watching it at about nine at night, thinking I would stop halfway and continue the next day, since I usually am in bed before 11:00pm. But once I had started, I just could not tear myself away and had to see it through to the end, hardly noticing the time. It is undoubtedly director David Lean's masterpiece, and O'Toole's performance was amazing. I wish it could be shown on the big screen again (perhaps at the Cleveland Cinematheque?) because Lean's panoramic sweeps in the magnificent desert scenes really deserve to be seen in their full splendor.

After that, there were other fine performances from O'Toole in dramas such as Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969). And if you want to see an absolutely brilliant satire of the hypocrisy and decadence of the British upper classes, The Ruling Class (1972) cannot be beaten.

O'Toole also showed a deft touch in light comedies like How to Steal a Million (1966), and that very silly and funny film What's New, Pussycat (1965).

After a period of decline, partly due to his heavy drinking, he returned to give an acclaimed performance in The Stunt Man (1980) (which is one of the few good films of his that I have not seen yet but will soon) and a wonderful performance in My Favorite Year (1982) where he played an aging, drunken, erratic, womanizing, fading star of swashbuckling films (supposed to be based on the life of actor Errol Flynn) who is invited to appear on a live TV variety show in the 1954. The show's producers assign a young writer to watch him like a hawk to make sure that he arrives on the set sober and on time and his desperate attempts to rein in the star's penchant to get into trouble forms the basis of the film. O'Toole clearly relished playing a caricature of himself and this made for a very endearing film.

When his old drinking friend Richard Harris died, O'Toole was considered to take over his role of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. He was eventually passed over for Michael Gambon and although Gambon is a fine actor, I think O'Toole would have been better suited. O'Toole brings with him an air of frailty and yet wiry strength, sternness and yet with a mischievous gleam in his eyes, and a voice that can be soft and yet commanding. When I read the Potter books, the mental image I had of Dumbledore matched O'Toole almost exactly. Gambon seems just a little too vigorous and robust for my tastes.

Although O'Toole has been nominated for an Academy Award for best actor seven times before (Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, and My Favorite Year) he has never won.

It is time for him to get his due.

POST SCRIPT: And now, awards for the Bush Administration

Meanwhile, on the subject of awards, there is no question that the current Bush Administration can sweep the historical awards for politics. I think that there can be no doubt that members of the current administration are the clear winners in the following categories:

Worst President Ever: George W. Bush
Worst Vice-President Ever: Dick Cheney
Worst Secretary of Defense Ever: Donald Rumsfeld
Worst Secretary of State Ever: Condoleeza Rice
Worst National Security Advisor Ever: Condoleeza Rice

Rice winning in two separate categories is a record unlikely to be ever broken.

Perhaps these awards should be called the Bushies in their honor.

How low Bush has sunk in the public esteem can be seen in the most recent results of the Pew poll (scroll down) that asks people (without prompts or a list of options) to suggest one word that they feel describes Bush. It seems like a free-association test.

The general dissatisfaction with the president also is reflected in the single-word descriptions that people use to describe their impression of the president. While the public has consistently offered a mix of positive and negative terms to describe Bush, the tone of the words used turned more negative in early 2006 and remains the case today. In the current survey, nearly half (47%) describe Bush in negative terms, such as "arrogant," "idiot," and "ignorant." Just 27% use words that are clearly positive, such as "honest," "good," "integrity," and "leader."

As was the case a year ago, the word mentioned more frequently than any other is "incompetent." By comparison, from 2000 through 2005 "honest" was the word most frequently volunteered description of the president.

The detailed results of the poll over the period 2004-2006 can be seen here. One thing that I noticed was that the description 'Christian,' which usually had a fairly good showing in the past, has disappeared completely in the latest list. I am not sure what that means.

February 19, 2007

The odd response to global warming warnings

The recent release of the latest IPCC report on global warming gives a comprehensive review of the current state of knowledge and represent an overwhelming scientific consensus on the nature of the problem confronting us.

The report's conclusions paint a gloomy picture:

The report states in unequivocal terms that the climate is warming globally and that since the middle of the 20th century, human industrial activity – the burning of fossil fuels and, to a lesser extent, land-use changes – is warming's main driver. Since the last report in 2001, confidence in that statement has risen from "likely" (greater than a 66 percent chance) to "very likely" (greater than 90 percent).

• Temperatures are "likely" to rise 2 degrees to 4.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, if CO2 concentrations reach twice their preindustrial level. Within that range, the most likely result is 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). That additional warmth will distribute itself unevenly, with the highest increases in the Arctic and progressively smaller increases farther south.

• Sea levels could rise by century's end from 28 to 58 centimeters (11 to 23 inches) above 1999 levels globally. That's a narrower range than the IPCC offered in 2001, when it projected a range of 9 to 88 centimeters. Even if CO2 concentrations could be stabilized at twice preindustrial levels by 2100, thermal expansion of the oceans alone could raise sea levels an additional 1 to 3 feet by 2300. But recent research also suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is losing mass faster than expected, leaving open the possibility that sea-level increases will be higher if the melting trend continues to accelerate. If Greenland's ice cap continues to lose mass over the next 1,000 years, the entire ice cap would vanish, raising sea levels by some 23 feet.

What is interesting is the response of the global warming deniers. The Guardian newspaper reports that the so-called 'think tank' the American Enterprise Institute is actually trying to bribe scientists to dispute the report. Funded with $1.6 million from Exxon-Mobil, the AEI is offering scientists $10,000 each "for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)." They are also willing to pay for travel and other perks. (Stephen Colbert comments on the bribes.)

Ben Stewart of Greenpeace is quoted as saying: "The AEI is more than just a thinktank, it functions as the Bush administration's intellectual Cosa Nostra. They are White House surrogates in the last throes of their campaign of climate change denial. They lost on the science; they lost on the moral case for action. All they've got left is a suitcase full of cash."

That sounds like an accurate description to me.

The Guardian report also says that an Exxon-funded organization in Canada will launch a review that will challenge the IPCC report. One of the people involved is Nigel Bellamy. Some of you may recall an earlier posting of mine that discussed how his sloppy work was exposed by George Monbiot.

There is one thing about the global warming debate that puzzled me and that is the vehemence of the opposition by some ordinary people to the idea. I can understand why the big emissions-producing industries and their allies in the Bush administration are fighting the idea that global warming is occurring. They do not want to take any action that might cut into their profits.

But why are some ordinary people so emphatically opposed to this finding of the scientific community? It is not like evolution or stem-cell research where science is treading on religious toes. As far as I can tell, there are no Biblical issues here, no eleventh commandment to the flock to, yeah verily, go out and emit CO2 in abundance until the glaciers melteth into the seas.

I am not talking about people who are simply skeptical about the scientific case being made that global warming is a real threat and that it is largely caused by human activity. That kind of skepticism is understandable but does not usually create the level of passion that is characteristic of the global warming deniers.

On global warming you find what seems to be ordinary people going out of their way to ridicule the emerging scientific consensus. This is surprising because most ordinary people do not go to great lengths to ridicule those areas in which there is scientific consensus. You do not find passionate opposition to, say, scientific community suggestions on reducing transfats or warning about the dangers of smoking.

It is almost as if the members of the public who are skeptics think that the scientific community is trying to pull a fast one on them. But why would they think this? There is no advantage to scientists in global warming. Scientists get no benefit from warning about the danger. At most they can be accused of being over-cautious.

So why this unusual level of hostility to the idea that global warming might be real? Is this coming from people who are angry with scientists about other things that do offend their religious sensibilities and are now out to attack anything that scientists say that might affect their lives? Or are these people part of an "astroturf" (i.e. fake grass roots) movement funded by the oil industry and polluting companies? Or are these people who, for ideological reasons, will side with Bush and big corporations come what may, whatever the issue? Or is there some other reason that I am missing?

These are not rhetorical questions. I am genuinely puzzled as to why this is so. Any suggestions?

POST SCRIPT: Talk by Israeli academic and peace activist

Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University and an Israeli peace activist, will be talking today at Case. The talk is free and open to the public.

When: 4:30pm, Monday, February 19, 2007
Where: Clark 309

I have written before about Professor Halper's last visit to Case in May 2005 and how his talk was a revelation to me about what was happening in the occupied territories.

The flyer for his visit this time says:

Dr. Jeff Halper, the Coordinating Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions was a 2006 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is an Israeli-American peace activist, professor of anthropology, distinguished author and internationally acclaimed speaker. The 3rd edition of his popular book, "Obstacles to Peace: A Reframing of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict" was released in 2005. Halper has forged a new mode of Israeli peace activity based on nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to the Israeli Occupation. Through its resistance to the demolition of Palestinian homes and other manifestations of the Occupation, including the rebuilding of demolished homes as acts of political solidarity, ICAHD has developed a relationship of trust and close cooperation with Palestinian organizations. Believing that civil society and governmental forces must be mobilized if a just peace is to emerge in Israel/Palestine, Jeff also directs ICAHD’s extensive program of international advocacy. His popular book Obstacles to Peace is to be followed by a forthcoming work: An Israeli in Palestine: Reframing the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Pluto Press).

February 16, 2007

The CliffsNotes Bible

In my house we have something called The Children's Bible which we got for the children when they were young. I flipped through it when preparing the earlier series of posts on the historicity of the Bible and compared it with a real Bible and noticed some interesting features.

As might be expected from a book aimed at children, it skips over the gruesome details of murder, genocide, sex, incest, and so on. It also understandably omits things that are not graphic but are still truly disturbing, such as the story of Abraham's willingness to kill his own child Isaac at god's command. One can see how the thought that your own parent might decide to kill you on god's command might give a child nightmares. Hardly a suitable bedtime story.

The Children's Bible is essentially a CliffsNotes of the Bible, giving just the main outlines of the Biblical stories. What I found interesting is that what it talks about corresponds pretty much to what most adults vaguely know about the Bible. In other words, adults never seem to have outgrown the understanding of the Bible they acquire as children.

This limitation of knowledge of the Bible has advantages and it becomes clearer why the religious establishments do not seem to make great efforts to have their members read the Bible closely and analyze it in the light of scientific and historical evidence. The main benefit of letting people be content with a superficial and big-picture sweep through the Biblical narrative and history is that by omitting all the telling details, it enables the faithful to believe practically anything, by allowing them to fill in details as they see fit. This makes Christianity an enormously flexible religious doctrine, capable of adapting itself to almost any person's preferences.

If, as is the case with many people, your idea of god is of a loving, forgiving, laid-back, deity who is merciful, you can fill in the details to meet the need. If your taste runs to a stern but just god, that too can be accommodated. If you prefer a ruthless and vindictive god, who wreaks vengeance on anyone who dislikes the things that you dislike, that can be believed too. If your idea of god is someone who wants his believers to be rich and successful, then presto, the CliffsNotes Bible allows for that too.

As a result of this looseness, the mainstream religions can operate as a big tent, enabling people who have widely divergent and even contradictory ideas about the nature of god to consider themselves to be part of the same religion. See this Russell's Teapot cartoon (you need to scroll down) as an example of what I mean.

It is helpful to think of this superficial version of the Bible as the initial sketches of a novel that just outlines some of the key characters and their relationships. If all you have are the bare outlines of a story, you can fill in details about character and motivation to suit your tastes. But the more details of the story that are known, the harder it becomes to impose your own preferences on it.

And that is precisely the problem that arises if people really look at the Bible closely. It becomes increasingly hard to continue to believe in the loving, forgiving god or even a just god. What emerges is a fairly unambiguous portrait of a god who is stern, strict, vengeful, murderous, genocidal, and, oddly enough, obsessed with the most petty details.

The interest that god has with petty details is interesting because of its dramatic contrast with the early image of god portrayed as the grand creator of the universe in six days. So after starting out as a big picture kind of guy, we quickly arrive at a god who condemns people to death for working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), sets rules by which a man can sell his daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7), who forbids people from wearing clothes made of a mixture of two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19), and who, amusingly, warns people not to climb steps since people might sneak a peak up your clothes (Exodus 20:26).

Most modern people simply ignore these passages but it is a hard to understand the basis for doing so. Why should these things be taken less seriously than, say, the ten commandments? These seemingly trivial prohibitions cannot be dismissed as metaphors, the way you can dismiss the creation story, or the story of Adam and Eve or their 'fall' and banishment from Eden, or the resurrection. So why are they there?

These baffling things become easy to understand if we accept that the Bible was the creation of a clique of priests who were the products of their times and were trying to make their own pet obsessions into the rules by which everyone was governed. They were the Christianists of their time.

If a committee of Christianists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were given the task of assembling some texts that they believed reflected god's will, they would probably have come up with a book that was similar in spirit to what is in the Bible, long on harsh rules, and short on kindness and forgiveness.

POST SCRIPT: Celebrity coverage

I have always been a little bemused at the fascination people have with the lives (even to the minutest details) and deaths of celebrities. The Daily Show looks at the way the death of Anna Nicole Smith was covered.

February 15, 2007

The Iraq dilemma

I have written before of the similarities between Vietnam and Iraq for American military involvement. Some (including Bush) have used the similarity to draw what I believe are false conclusions, to argue that the reason that the US was defeated in Vietnam was because the politicians and the public lost their nerve and caved. This is the argument given now for the current escalation with the increase in troops.

Of course, no historical analogy is perfect and there are differences as well. But this analysis last month by Martin Jacques in the British newspaper The Guardian struck me as being very perceptive and worth quoting extensively.

But the Iraq moment is far more dangerous for the US than the Vietnam moment. Although one of the key justifications for the Vietnam war was to prevent the spread of communism, the US defeat was to produce nothing of the kind: apart from the fact that Cambodia and Laos became embroiled, the effects were essentially confined to Vietnam. There were no wider political repercussions in east Asia: ironically, it was China that was to invade North Vietnam in 1979 (and deservedly got a bloody nose).

The regional consequences of the Iraq imbroglio are, in comparison, immediate, profound and far-reaching. The civil war threatens to unhinge more or less the entire Middle East. The neoconservative strategy - to remake the region single-handedly (with the support of Israel, of course) - has been undermined by its own hubris. The American dilemma is patent in some of the key recommendations of the ISG report: to involve Iran and Syria in any Iraqi settlement (including the return of the Golan Heights to Syria) and to seek a new agreement between Israel and Palestine. In short, it proposes a reversal of the key strands of Bush's foreign policy.
. . .
Far from the US being in the ascendant, deeper trends have moved in the opposite direction. The US might enjoy overwhelming military advantage, but its relative economic power, which in the long run is almost invariably decisive, is in decline. The interregnum after the cold war, far from being the prelude to a new American age, was bearing the signs of what is now very visible: the emergence of a multipolar world. By misreading global trends, the Bush administration's embrace of unilateralism not only provoked the Iraq disaster but also hastened American decline.

An increasingly multipolar world requires an entirely different kind of US foreign policy: far from being unilateralist, it necessitates a complex form of power-sharing on both a global and regional basis. This is not only the opposite to neoconservative unilateralism, it is also entirely different from the simplicities of superpower cooperation and rivalry in the bipolar world of the cold war. The new approach is implicit in the ISG report, which recognises that any resolution of the Iraq crisis depends on the involvement of Iran and Syria. Elements of this approach are already apparent on the Korean peninsula and in Latin America. The ramifications of the Iraq moment will surely influence US foreign policy for decades to come.

The US is now digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole in Iraq, and making matters even worse (if that were possible) by confronting Iran. What worries me is that when a situation gets desperate, desperate people do foolish things. One does not get the sense that this administration is the kind that, when faced with overwhelming evidence that its military policy is not working, will switch to a diplomatic effort. Instead one gets the sense that they will up the stakes, seeking to burst out of the prison of their own creation by an overwhelming show of force.

And the current "surge" plan and the rhetoric about Iran all give me the uneasy feeling that we are about to witness some unpleasant events in the very near future, as suggested by this Tom Toles cartoon.


POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and Lucifer

Mr. Deity tries to mend fences with a seriously ticked-off Lucifer.

February 14, 2007

The Western and the Courtroom

In my pursuit of seeing all the old classic films, I recently watched Stagecoach, the 1939 film directed by John Ford that catapulted John Wayne from B-movie actor to a major star. This film signaled the beginning of the glory days of the western film, a period that lasted until the 50s, though the 'spaghetti westerns' of Sergio Leone gave them a brief resurgence in the 1960s.

I have long had a soft spot for westerns, and even now two of my favorite films of all time are High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953). Both these films were made at the height of the McCarthy-era witch hunts in which many people were hounded by the government and lost their jobs or were sent to prison or forced into exile (or sometimes all three) purely because of their beliefs and associations. These two films, and especially High Noon, with their themes of individuals standing up to powerful and evil forces in the face of public apathy and cowardice, can be seen as allegories for the situation at that time.

My affection for westerns may seem strange since I grew up in Sri Lanka and TV did not come to that country until the late 1970s. (The country skipped entirely the black-and-white TV era and went straight to color.) But as a young boy, I lived in England for three years at the end of the 1950s and that was a time in which it seemed like the TV schedules there featured one western after another. I would come home from school and watch all of them – Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Hopalong Cassidy, Wagon Train, The Cisco Kid, Rawhide, The Lone Ranger, Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel, Roy Rogers, and Rin Tin Tin. Such was my faithful devotion to these shows that to this day I know the words to those theme songs (the ones that had lyrics) and can still sing them though, alas, there are not many requests for this particular talent of mine.

Stagecoach had many features that have since become western clichés - the prostitute with a heart of gold, the drunken and dissolute doctor who can still retrieve his skills in an emergency, the pompous and officious dignitary with an unsavory secret, the sharply dressed and smooth talking gambler with a shady past, the climactic showdown between the good and bad guys, the outlaw who was unjustly accused, the impassive and menacing Indians who swoop down from the hills in an attack, and the sound of bugles signaling the arrival of the US cavalry to the rescue.

Given my addiction to this genre and my deep familiarity with it, I could see all these plot turns coming a mile off. But the film was still absorbing, mainly because the focus of Ford's film is less on action, apart from a long single attack sequence, and more on the characters and the changing relationships among them as the nine of them are confined to a stagecoach as it traverses the isolated and beautiful and dangerous country.

It says something about the quality of John Ford's work that despite the fact that the themes he introduced have sincee been so over-worked, I still found the film well worth watching.

Another old film that I had long wanted to see was Anatomy of a Murder (1959) starring James Stewart and directed by Otto Preminger. It deals with another favorite genre of mine, the courtroom drama. As longtime readers of this blog would have guessed, the law has always fascinated me and if for some reason my first love (physics) had been impossible for me as a career, I would probably have gone into law.

The film is surprisingly long for that time (2 hours, 40 mins), such lengths being reserved for certifiable Charlton Heston epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. But the film is engrossing and one does not feel the time passing. For me the best part was that about two thirds of the film took place in the courtroom as the opposing lawyers sparred with each other and the witnesses.

James Stewart, who is one of the most likeable of actors and always a pleasure to watch on the screen, plays a small-time lawyer who is retained to defend an army lieutenant who has shot and killed the person who is alleged to have raped his wife. The screenplay managed to avoid setting up a simple good-bad tension. While one always wants to see James Stewart win, this film complicated things by making his client (the army officer) an arrogant and sneering and thoroughly dislikable person, the client's wife as a beautiful but highly flirtatious woman, and the rapist also as a complex person. The prosecutors are also not caricatured as evil people out to get a conviction at all costs. As a result, one's sympathies continuously shift, from wanting Stewart to win, then wanting to smack his client for his insufferable smugness, liking his wife and wanting to believe her story but then not quite sure if she was actually raped or was falsely claiming it, and so on. It was this shifting of loyalties due to the complexity of the characters that made the film so gripping.

There were a few surprises in the film. Duke Ellington composed the score for the soundtrack and had a cameo appearance in a bar, and there is an extremely cute little dog.

An interesting bit of trivia about the film. The judge in the trial was portrayed as an old-school, avuncular type, politely appealing for decorum from the lawyers and gently chiding them when they overstepped their bounds. He was so courtly in his manner that he had a private conference with the lawyers to see if they could find an alternative to the word 'panties' during the rape testimony, thinking that it would be too indelicate.

There was something vaguely familiar about the actor playing the judge that I could not quite pin down so afterwards I went to the IMDb website to see who it was. It turns out that the judge was played by Joseph Welch who was the lawyer retained by the Army during the Joseph McCarthy Senate hearings on Communists in the Army and who in 1954 delivered the famous rebuke to McCarthy that I had seen and heard before in film and audio clips.

The famous exchange happened when McCarthy gratuitously exposed, on national TV, a young lawyer in Welch's firm named Fred Fisher as having been a member in the Lawyer's Guild, an organization that was alleged to be a Communist front, something that was not relevant to the proceedings. McCarthy's public revelation of Fisher's past was an act of spite against Welch.

At which point, Welch, in his distinctive voice, delivered these famous lines in a tone of sorrow and quiet anger which were seen and heard by millions, and were what triggered the memory in me as I watched the film. (Go here to hear the exchange.)

Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. When I decided to work for this Committee, I asked Jim St. Clair, who sits on my right, to be my first assistant. I said to Jim, "Pick somebody in the firm to work under you that you would like." He chose Fred Fisher, and they came down on an afternoon plane. That night, when we had taken a little stab at trying to see what the case is about, Fred Fisher and Jim St. Clair and I went to dinner together. I then said to these two young men, "Boys, I don't know anything about you, except I've always liked you, but if there's anything funny in the life of either one of you that would hurt anybody in this case, you speak up quick."

And Fred Fisher said, "Mr. Welch, when I was in the law school, and for a period of months after, I belonged to the Lawyers' Guild," as you have suggested, Senator. He went on to say, "I am Secretary of the Young Republican's League in Newton with the son of [the] Massachusetts governor, and I have the respect and admiration of my community, and I'm sure I have the respect and admiration of the twenty-five lawyers or so in Hale & Dorr." And I said, "Fred, I just don't think I'm going to ask you to work on the case. If I do, one of these days that will come out, and go over national television, and it will just hurt like the dickens." And so, Senator, I asked him to go back to Boston.

Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I'm a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.
. . .
Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. . .You've done enough.

And then he spoke the words that were the coup de grace: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

This shocking public rebuke to a US Senator, delivered by Welch in his sad and gentle voice, was a pivotal event that exposed McCarthy to the whole nation as an overbearing, reckless, and lying bully and started his rapid decline. The Senate censured him in December of that year and he began to be avoided by his colleagues and the press. His alcoholism increased and he died in 1957 of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 48.

The judge portrayed in the film seemed to be exactly like the person who gave this speech in real life. Whether he was selected for this role because he so fitted the part or because of gratitude for helping end the force behind the blacklist that drove so much talent out of Hollywood, I do not know.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity Super Bowl Extra

Mr. Deity reappears to hold a press conference just before the Super Bowl.

February 13, 2007

Taking the baton from Molly Ivins

Journalist Molly Ivins died of cancer last week at the age of 62. I was a regular reader of her monthly columns in The Progressive magazine. There have been many marvelous remembrances of her all over the media. Paul Krugman had a good article on Molly's ability to see right through bogus arguments, and nowhere was this skill more visible than in her columns about the Iraq war. As Krugman says:

Molly never lost sight of two eternal truths: rulers lie, and the times when people are most afraid to challenge authority are also the times when it's most important to do just that. And the fact that she remembered these truths explains something I haven't seen pointed out in any of the tributes: her extraordinary prescience on the central political issue of our time.

I've been going through Molly's columns from 2002 and 2003, the period when most of the wise men of the press cheered as Our Leader took us to war on false pretenses, then dismissed as "Bush haters" anyone who complained about the absence of W.M.D. or warned that the victory celebrations were premature. Here are a few selections:

Nov. 19, 2002: "The greatest risk for us in invading Iraq is probably not war itself, so much as: What happens after we win? … There is a batty degree of triumphalism loose in this country right now."

Jan. 16, 2003: "I assume we can defeat Hussein without great cost to our side (God forgive me if that is hubris). The problem is what happens after we win. The country is 20 percent Kurd, 20 percent Sunni and 60 percent Shiite. Can you say, 'Horrible three-way civil war?' "

July 14, 2003: "I opposed the war in Iraq because I thought it would lead to the peace from hell, but I'd rather not see my prediction come true and I don't think we have much time left to avert it. That the occupation is not going well is apparent to everyone but Donald Rumsfeld. … We don't need people with credentials as right-wing ideologues and corporate privatizers — we need people who know how to fix water and power plants."

Oct. 7, 2003: "Good thing we won the war, because the peace sure looks like a quagmire.

"I've got an even-money bet out that says more Americans will be killed in the peace than in the war, and more Iraqis will be killed by Americans in the peace than in the war. Not the first time I've had a bet out that I hoped I'd lose."

So Molly Ivins — who didn't mingle with the great and famous, didn't have sources high in the administration, and never claimed special expertise on national security or the Middle East — got almost everything right. Meanwhile, how did those who did have all those credentials do?

With very few exceptions, they got everything wrong.
. . .
Was Molly smarter than all the experts? No, she was just braver. The administration's exploitation of 9/11 created an environment in which it took a lot of courage to see and say the obvious.

This is a very important point. Now that Iraq is a mess, all the government officials, journalists, and pundits who egged the country on to war have been proven disastrously wrong on almost everything. There is no reason to take anything they say seriously anymore. But in order to maintain their positions as 'respectable authorities' and continue to pontificate, they are now rewriting the history leading up to the war.

Some, like the infamous Michael Ledeen and Time magazine's Joe Klein, adopt the tactic of shamelessly claiming now that they were always against the war. But in this age of the internet, those lies have been exposed. (See here for Klein and here for Ledeen.)

Others have taken the tack that everyone at that time believed all the lies that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice were peddling then (about how Iraq and Saddam Hussein were on the verge of unleashing nuclear weapons, that Iraq had links with al-Qaeda, that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks, etc.). This enables them to look on themselves as being the serious people who were trying to avoid a catastrophe, while those of us who opposed the war were know-nothings, pusillanimous peaceniks, or appeasing Chamberlains, who were not serious people then and thus should not be taken seriously now.

But there were plenty of people like Molly who correctly judged the situation, both with regards to the 'threat' posed by Iraq and the possibilities of disaster afterwards. When I go back and read the notes of the talk that I gave at the anti-war teach-in at Case Western Reserve University on February 11, 2003 just before the invasion, I find that even I, as a complete outsider with no special inside information, was totally skeptical about the case being made for war. All my information was based on public sources. My talk was given just three days after Colin Powell's infamous speech to the UN that caused the entire media establishment to swoon in admiration. Read Norman Solomon's round up of the fawning coverage Powell's dishonest speech received. And yet, again from purely public sources in the international media, I was able to show why many of his allegations were suspect.

And there were millions of equally skeptical people around the world. So this idea that 'we' all were misled by the wrong intelligence is a canard that Molly Ivins' column exposes. What is amazing is that just a few years later, the same kinds of arguments are being used to ratchet up for attacks against Iran. Various anonymous sources are being put forward to make another fraudulent case for war. (I will write more about this later.)

But what really put Molly Ivins into the very top rank of columnists, apart from her courage and insight, was her way with words. She had the ability to routinely turn a phrase that left you smiling with admiration because she could make it look so easy and you knew that you would never come up with something like that in a million years. Like this one:

I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn't actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.

"Gummed by a newt." Priceless. And vintage Ivins.

When people whom we have looked up to die, there is always a sense of loss. We think they cannot be replaced and feel that the world will never be the same. We want things to continue as they always were. It is good to remember what John Lennon is supposed to have said to someone who wanted the Beatles to get back together to continue the music they loved to hear. "It's your turn now."

If there is any lesson to be learned from Molly it is that we cannot expect others to do all the work for us forever. As she said in her last column on January 11, 2007: "We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders."

We have to learn from people like her and pick up the baton they offered to us. Although we are going to miss Molly Ivins and should offer grateful thanks to her for everything she has done, there is one thing we should never forget.

It's our turn now.

POST SCRIPT: The Trial of Tony Blair

Channel 4 TV in England has produced a brilliant political satire. It is set in 2010 and Tony Blair, just stepping down from his position as Prime Minister, finds himself at risk of being tried for war crimes at the Hague.

The satire captures his vanity, self-importance, insecurity, neediness, obliviousness to his changed circumstances, his fawning obsequiousness to the US, as well as his hidden sense of guilt at the death and destruction he has wrought. The actor playing Blair does a remarkable job of capturing his smug self-righteousness.

You can see the film here.

February 12, 2007

Talking to those with whom you disagree

I watched the documentary What is said about. . .Arabs and Terrorism on Tuesday and Wednesday. Director Bassam Haddad, a professor of political science at St. Joseph's University, had a good mix of interviews from America, Europe and the Middle East. It was especially interesting to hear the views of a spectrum of regular people, intellectuals, journalists, and activists from the Middle East, since we rarely get to hear those voices here. Listening to them, you are made aware of the common humanity that binds us all and transcends ethnic and religious divides. You realized that there was strong agreement across the board on some basic ideas of what kinds of actions were justified and what were deplorable.

But Haddad also highlighted the fact that the nature of the discourse on the topic of terrorism is very different in the west from that in the rest of the world. It even starts with the lack of east-west consensus on what the word means. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for labeling an act as 'terrorism' and the perpetrators as 'terrorists'? Does it depend on who the perpetrators are? The nature of the victims? The nature of the act? The motive behind the act? In the absence of such agreement, the word 'terrorism' has become used to denote not some well-defined quality, but as a pejorative label to discredit the actions of those whom we dislike.

One important distinction that was highlighted was that in the west, terrorism is seen exclusively as the actions of individuals or sub-national groups, while elsewhere terrorism by nations is also included in the mix.

We know that many policymakers refuse to talk to people on the 'other' side, claiming that it would give them a legitimacy they do not deserve. Haddad used an interesting technique for creating a dialogue between sides that would not normally talk to each other. What he did was to use film as an intermediary to create a dialogue. He would interview someone, say a spokesperson from Hizballah or Hamas, then fly to the US and show that film interview to someone from (say) the American Enterprise Institute (a pro-war 'think tank') and then film their response. Then he would fly back and show the response to the original speaker and get the response to the response, and so on. As viewers of the final film, we could watch a person watch the interview of the 'other' person, then Haddad would stop the film, and then the person would respond.

Watching the two sides engage each other via film, even if they often spoke through each other and did not seem to, or want to, understand what the other person was saying, was the best thing about the documentary.

Watching it, I realized how impoverished the political dialogue is in the media here. I think everyone would understand much better what the issues were if the spokespersons for Hamas and Hizballeh were on the talk shows here, and had their writings published on the op-ed pages to present their positions, so that viewers and readers could judge for themselves what the merits or defects of their arguments were. Instead we are treated patronizingly, and get their positions second-hand, having other people tell us what Hamas and Hizballah represent. It is as if we had to be shielded from them.

al-Jazeera and other Middle Eastern news outlets routinely have high American officials such as the Secretary of State on their shows to give the American point of view directly to the population in that region. Why cannot the same thing be done here with those groups that represent important constituencies in the Middle East? And yet, even al-Jazeera English TV cannot get access to the basic cable services here. Clearly the news media here practice a form of self-censorship that hinders deeper understanding. Although it would be perfectly defensible for a news media outlet to have representatives of Hamas and Hizballah on their shows, this happens far too rarely for the views of those groups to be well understood by the American public.

The people in the documentary were willing to talk to the opposition via an intermediary even though they might not want to be in the same room and talk directly. This strikes me as a meaningless distinction. This unwillingness to talk directly to people with whom you disagree, especially concerning grave issues of war and peace, is something I find hard to understand.

I recall a time when I was an undergraduate in Sri Lanka when the students were agitated over an unresolved issue with the university administration. We were planning on striking over an issue and I was a proponent of this action. (Student strikes are not an unusual phenomenon in Sri Lankan universities.) Before the final vote on whether to strike, I suggested at an open meeting of the student body that we invite the University President to appear before the student body to make his case. Some student leaders opposed this suggestion, arguing that the President was a clever person, had a charming personality, and was a smooth talker (all of which was true), who might win over the students and convince them not to go on strike.

I responded that that was a ridiculous position to take. If we could be so easily swayed, that meant that our case was weak to begin with and we should not go on strike anyway. So a vote was taken as to whether to invite the President. The student body was overwhelmingly of the opinion that they could judge the President's arguments for themselves and did not need us as intermediaries, and the vote was yes. The President accepted our invitation, came and spoke, and we had a cordial debate on the pros and cons of the issue. Eventually the students voted to go on strike anyway. Soon after, the President and the University Senate accepted the student position and the issue was resolved peacefully and quickly, with both sides negotiating a compromise. I felt that this result was obtained partly due to the fact that the two opposing sides had listened to each other and understood the issues much better than before, and were thus able to better understand the other's position and arrive at a workable solution

I simply don't understand the basis for the position that you should keep certain people out of the discussion. While some people may disagree with the positions taken by Hamas and Hizballah, there is no question that they are major players in the Middle East and command the support of millions of people. They are also members of their respective governments. It is silly not to talk with them and listen to them. When you eliminate negotiations, when 'the other' is excluded from the discussion, violence becomes inevitable.

POST SCRIPT: Happy Birthday, Charlie!

Today is the 198th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. To celebrate it, you can see the film A Flock of Dodos by filmmaker Randy Olson which looks at the debate in Kansas over evolution versus "intelligent-design." The link takes you to amusing trailer for the film.

When: Monday, February 12, 2007, 6:00 p.m.
Where: Goodyear Auditorium, Clapp Hall 108, Case Western Reserve University.

The film is free and open to the public. For more details, see here.

There is now a website containing Darwin's entire collection of works. (Thanks to Ross Duffin for telling me about this site). Here is a BBC news clip about this project.

February 09, 2007

The history of jury nullification

The history of juries nullifying laws is very interesting. In yesterday's post I discussed the celebrated case of John Peter Zenger. But there's lot's more. As Doug Linder writes:

Jury nullification appeared at other times in our history when the government has tried to enforce morally repugnant or unpopular laws. In the early 1800s, nullification was practiced in cases brought under the Alien and Sedition Act. In the mid 1800s, northern juries practiced nullification in prosecutions brought against individuals accused of harboring slaves in violation of the Fugitive Slave Laws. And in the Prohibition Era of the 1930s, many juries practiced nullification in prosecutions brought against individuals accused of violating alcohol control laws.

More recent examples of nullification might include acquittals of "mercy killers," including Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and minor drug offenders.

Of course, not all nullifications advance justice and the rights of individuals. As Linder points out there are "negative applications including some notorious cases in which all-white southern juries in the 1950s and 1960s refused to convict white supremacists for killing blacks or civil rights workers despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt." I am not sure if this constitutes nullification since, as I understand it, true nullification involves refusal to convict because of a belief that the law is unjust, not because one simply wants, for whatever reason, to see the accused go free. But nonetheless, recognizing the rights of juries to nullify laws does carry with it the risk that juries will acquit for less noble reasons.

Perhaps the most celebrated case of jury nullification was back in 1670 in England when William Penn, the Quaker, was accused of preaching to an assembly in a public street, the building where they usually met having been closed by the authorities. William Mead was accused of conspiring with Penn to create a 'tumult' and thus both were accused of being in violation of the law prohibiting such actions. The proceedings at the Old Bailey, which were recorded in almost verbatim form by an observer, gives a fascinating account of the trial.

Penn's defense was that he was merely seeking to assemble with other believers to worship god, not seeking to create a riot, and he was unshakeable in asserting this. The fact that there were several hundred people in the street creating such noise that he could barely be heard was not questioned, so technically he had violated the law prohibiting creating 'tumults' in a public place. In terms of the law and the facts, the prosecution pretty much had a slam-dunk case.

It was clear from the start that the judge (who was the Mayor) and the court recorder (who is what we now call the prosecutor) were extremely hostile to the defendants, subjecting them to various indignities. It seems that the courtroom was crowded and the proceedings were boisterous, with both Penn and Mead conducting their own defense with so much vigor and cleverness that Penn was accused by the recorder of being a "saucy", "impertinent", and "troublesome fellow."

At one point Penn was ordered to be taken away because of his arguments irritated the prosecution, and while being led away made this stirring speech about the need to protect fundamental liberties: "[I]s this justice or true judgment? Must I therefore be taken away because I plead for the fundamental laws of England? However, this I leave upon your consciences, who are of the jury (and my sole judges,) that if these ancient fundamental laws, which relate to liberty and property, (and are not limited to particular persuasions in. matters of religion) must not be indispensably maintained and observed, who can say he hath right to the coat upon his back? Certainly our liberties are openly to be invaded, our wives to be ravished, our children slaved, our families ruined, and our estates led away in triumph, by every sturdy beggar and malicious informer, as their trophies, but our (pretended) forfeits for conscience sake."

After Penn had challenged the case made by the prosecution, the judge removed the prisoners and charged the jury to look at only the facts of the case. But Penn shouted out a final appeal to the jury as he was being led away: "I appeal to the jury who are my Judges, and this great assembly, whether the proceedings of the court are not most arbitrary, and void of all law, in offering to give the jury their charge in the absence of the prisoners; I say it is directly opposite to, and destructive of the undoubted right of every English prisoner, as Coke, in the 2 Instit. 29. on the chap. of Magna Charta."

Penn's appeals to the jury must have worked because despite pressure from the judge to achieve unanimity, the jury returned after about ninety minutes with what we would now call a hung verdict, in which eight found the defendants guilty but four wanted to acquit. After scolding the four dissenting jury members, the judge sent them back to their room with instructions to come up with a unanimous decision. After considerable time they did, and the verdict on Penn spoken by the foreman was "Guilty of speaking in Grace-church street." This was a mere statement of fact and not a guilty verdict of an actual offence. The judge wanted them to convict the prisoners of causing a riot and he was furious at the jury's seeming evasion but the foreman refused to say anything more than what he had said earlier.

The judge and recorder then scolded the jury and said that they could not accept their statement as a verdict and that the jury would not be released from duty until they came back with the verdict that they wanted. The jury was then sent them back to the deliberation room again but returned after half an hour with the same verdict: "We the jurors, hereafter named, do find William Penn to be Guilty of speaking or preaching to an assembly, met together in Gracechurch-street."

The judge and recorder were enraged and the recorder issued this threat: "Gentlemen, you shall not be dismissed till we have a verdict that the court will accept; and you shall be locked up, without meat, drink, fire, and tobacco; you shall not think thus to abuse the court; we will have a verdict, by the help of God, or you shall starve for it."

The jurors were then locked up and not even allowed to have chamber pots or to go out to the bathroom so that they ended in their room for the night hungry and thirsty and cold and surrounded by their own excrement.

The next morning the jury was called in and the foreman gave the unanimous verdict: "William Penn is Guilty of speaking in Gracechurch-Street." The judge prompted: "To an unlawful assembly?" but the foreman refused to add anything to what he had said earlier. This caused an uproar in the court.

The judge and recorder again threatened the jury with starvation if they failed to bring in the "proper" verdict. The recorder was so disgusted with the jury that he wished that England could adopt the highly efficient Spanish Inquisition, then currently in vogue in the rest of Europe, saying: "Till now I never understood the reason of the policy and prudence of the Spaniards, in suffering the inquisition among them: And certainly it will never be well with us, till something like unto the Spanish inquisition be in England." But the jury foreman would not be swayed and only said: "We have given in our Verdict, and all agreed to it; and if we give in another, it will be a force upon us to save our lives."

The judge ordered them locked up in prison again for another day under the same onerous conditions. The next day when the jury was brought in, they had a new verdict: Not guilty for both Penn and Mead.

Needless to say the judge and recorder were furious and fined both the defendants and the jury for contempt, telling the jury that they had "followed your own judgments and opinions, rather than the good and wholesome advice which was given you" and ordered them jailed for non-payment of the fines.

But the jury was released soon after on the basis of habeas corpus applications and their incarceration was ruled illegal by a higher court.

I recount this story to remind us that it was due to the fortitude of people like Penn and Mead and the members of that jury that we enjoy the freedoms that are written in the Bill of Rights. They were able to stand up to coercion. The jury felt that the law prohibiting assembly and association was unjust and despite the disgusting treatment they received and the awful conditions they were subjected to, they were unwilling to compromise. By nullifying the law, they gave us a fundamental right.

US Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone would have approved: "If a juror feels that the statute involved in any criminal offence is unfair, or that it infringes upon the defendant's natural god-given unalienable or constitutional rights, then it is his duty to affirm that the offending statute is really no law at all and that the violation of it is no crime at all, for no one is bound to obey an unjust law."

It is good to be reminded of the history of how hard won are those things that we now consider fundamental freedoms, especially these days when people seem to be so willing, even eager, to give them up for a false sense of security. The recent enactments of the Patriot Act and Military Commissions Act, renditions, and the use of torture have stripped people of many of their rights. We tend to feel helpless in the face of an increasingly authoritarian government and a complaisant legislature. But we, the people, have the ultimate power as members of juries. If we consistently refuse to convict people on the basis of unjust laws, then the laws have no force.

But for this to have even a chance of happening, people have to be aware of the full rights of juries. I wonder, though, how many juries today, even if they knew of this right, would have the courage and fortitude of the William Penn jury and refuse to convict on the basis of unjust laws, whatever the facts of the case.

February 08, 2007

Jury nullification

In a democratic system, laws are created by the people as a means of maintaining order. Unlike in a police state, where compliance to laws is arrived at by using the force of the state security apparatus, democratic societies can only maintain their open nature because of voluntary compliance based on the belief that the laws are just and should be followed. This voluntary compliance is obtained because we believe that we ourselves are the architects of the laws that govern us.

But how do these laws come about?

We are all familiar with how the process works, at least on the Schoolhouse Rock level. We, the citizens, vote legislators into office. These legislators propose bills. Once passed by the legislature and signed by the elected executive, these bills become laws. So we tend to think that we, the people, have created the laws that govern us through the medium of representatives elected to act on our behalf.

But as has become increasingly clear, there is no guarantee that the elected representatives are, in fact, acting in our best interests. The influence of money and lobbyists has resulted in a system where the elected officials are far more likely to be swayed by those interests than they are by the wishes of their constituents. It should not be news to anyone that much of the language of current laws and, even more importantly, the regulations that spell out the implementation details of the laws, are being written by lobbyists who are not accountable to the voters but instead take their instructions from pressure groups.

So what can we do to regain our prerogatives as the people who ultimately get to decide on laws? We tend to think that the only option is to vote the miscreants out of office and vote in new people who are more in tune with voters. But this is not easy to do.

It turns out that there is one feature of the whole process by which laws are validated that has been carefully hidden from all of us and which we can invoke in some limited situations. The fact is that the signing of a passed bill by the chief executive is not the last step that determines the validity of a law. The last step is determined by juries who get to decide on whether or not to convict someone based on the law. In other words, juries, representing the common people, have the final say in determining if a law is just or not and whether it should be used to convict people or not.

This will come as a surprise to many. We have become accustomed to television and film courtroom dramas (and even experienced it ourselves if we have been members of juries) where juries are instructed by the judge on how the relevant law is to be interpreted and are told to judge the case only on the facts of the case. The validity of the law is not to be part of the discussion.

But it turns out that the right of juries to judge both the facts and the law is one of the oldest rights we have, and has been upheld time and time again. In fact, many of the fundamental rights that are cherished in the Bill of Rights came about because juries consistently refused to convict people under laws that they felt were unjust, ultimately forcing governments to repeal those laws. This phenomenon is called jury nullification a groups such as the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) and the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago are trying to inform people, and especially juries, of this aspect of their rights in the face of this official silence.

In the US, the earliest example of a jury exercising its right to nullify a law was in the case of John Peter Zenger in pre-revolutionary times.

[T]he power of jury nullification predates our Constitution. In November of 1734, a printer named John Peter Zenger was arrested for seditious libel against his Majesty's government. At that time, a law of the Colony of New York forbid any publication without prior government approval. Freedom of the press was not enjoyed by the early colonialists! Zenger, however, defied this censorship and published articles strongly critical of New York colonial rule.

When brought to trial in August of 1735, Zenger admitted publishing the offending articles, but argued that the truth of the facts stated justified their publication. The judge instructed the jury that truth is not justification for libel. Rather, truth makes the libel more vicious, for public unrest is more likely to follow true, rather than false claims of bad governance. And since the defendant had admitted to the "fact" of publication, only a question of "law" remained.

Then, as now, the judge said the "issue of law" was for the court to determine, and he instructed the jury to find the defendant guilty. It took only ten minutes for the jury to disregard the judge's instructions on the law and find Zenger NOT GUILTY. (emphasis in original)

Note that there was no doubt that Zenger had violated a duly enacted law because he admitted as much. But the jury still acquitted him, in direct defiance of the facts of the case. This right of juries to nullify an unjust law by refusing to convict people under it has continued to be upheld in the US even after independence under the constitution that was later adopted. The above article continues:

At the time the Constitution was written, the definition of the term "jury" referred to a group of citizens empowered to judge both the law and the evidence in the case before it. Then, in the February term of 1794, the Supreme Court conducted a jury trial in the case of the State of Georgia vs. Brailsford (3 Dall 1). The instructions to the jury in the first jury trial before the Supreme Court of the United States illustrate the true power of the jury. Chief Justice John Jay said: "It is presumed, that juries are the best judges of facts; it is, on the other hand, presumed that courts are the best judges of law. But still both objects are within your power of decision." (emphasis added) " have a right to take it upon yourselves to judge of both, and to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy".

So you see, in an American courtroom there are in a sense twelve judges in attendance, not just one. And they are there with the power to review the "law" as well as the "facts"! Actually, the "judge" is there to conduct the proceedings in an orderly fashion and maintain the safety of all parties involved.

As recently as 1972, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that the jury has an "unreviewable and irreversible power... to acquit in disregard of the instructions on the law given by the trial judge.... (US vs Dougherty, 473 F 2d 1113, 1139 (1972))

Sam Smith writes in the Progressive Review that while the right of juries to nullify a law they perceived as unjust has been upheld when challenged, courts have been increasingly reluctant to let juries know of this right and some have even struck jurors from the panel who asserted this right or even said they knew about it.

Those who have endorsed the right of a jury to judge both the law and the facts include Chief Justice John Jay, Samuel Chase, Dean Roscoe Pound, Learned Hand and Oliver Wendell Holmes. According to the Yale Law Journal in 1964, during the first third of the 19th century judges did inform juries of the right, forcing lawyers to argue "the law -- its interpretation and validity -- to the jury." By the latter part of the century, however, judges and state law were increasingly moving against nullification. In 1895 the US Supreme Court upheld the principle but ruled that juries were not to be informed of it by defense attorneys, nor were judges required to tell them about it. Stephen Barkan, writing in Social Problems (October 1983), noted that the attacks on nullification stemmed in part from juries acquitting strike organizers and other labor activists. And in 1892 the American Bar Review warned that jurors had "developed agrarian tendencies of an alarming character."

In other words, since juries tend to consist of 'ordinary' people, they are more likely to view as unjust laws that have been passed by the money-dominated legislatures to expand the privileges of the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Hence the need by the powerful in society to suppress knowledge of this right of juries. But as Sam Smith says: "The nullification principle involves the power to say no to the excesses of government, and thus serves as a final defense against tyranny."

It should be understood that this right of juries does not mean that they can do anything they like. This right is a limited one, to save individuals from being deprived of life or liberty because of unjust laws. It cannot be used to arbitrarily convict someone or to declare a law unconstitutional.

This matter shows how important juries are to the very fabric of society. We should resist all attempts to reduce its influence or to abridge its rights. When we serve on a jury, we are engaging in the ultimate democratic act, sitting in judgment on the very laws that we are called upon to execute.

As Thomas Jefferson said in a 1789 letter to Tom Paine, "I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution."

POST SCRIPT: Feingold again

At the risk of making this blog look like a Russ Feingold fan site, here is another clip of him speaking very clearly about what should be done in Iraq, and why even the Democratically-controlled Congress is so timid.

February 07, 2007

Betraying both principles and friends

(See here for the background to this post.)

During the McCarthy-era HUAC hearings, some people who were called up to testify but did not want to name names and thus inform on their friends and colleagues refused to answer questions using the Fifth Amendment, which says that people cannot be forced to give evidence that might incriminate themselves. While this was effective in avoiding punishment, some felt that this was a somewhat cowardly way out. The Hollywood Ten, including Dalton Trumbo, decided to use a more risky strategy and that was to invoke the freedom of assembly clause of the First Amendment that says that people have a right to peaceably associate with those whom they please and thus do not have to say who their friends and associates are or otherwise inform on them.

In those charged times, this right was over-ridden and they went to jail for various lengths of time. Albert Einstein was actively involved in fighting these anti-communist witch-hunts and approved of using the First Amendment to fight them. Writing in 1954 in the book Ideas and Opinions (Crown Publishers, New York, p. 34), he said:

Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i.e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin. . . . This refusal to testify must not be based on the well-known subterfuge of invoking the Fifth Amendment against possible self-incrimination, but on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition and that this kind of inquisition violates the spirit of the Constitution. If enough people are ready to take this grave step they will be successful. If not, then the intellectuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.

This kind of situation where one is compelled to turn in one's friends is not uncommon, either in real life or in fiction. Harry Potter fans will recognize it in book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Karkaroff reveals the names of other Death Eaters to the Council of Magic in the Ministry of Magic (a group remarkably like the HUAC) to avoid being given a life sentence in Azkaban under the dreaded Dementors.

But back in real life, Dalton Trumbo's letter reminded me of the famous and controversial 1962 Stanley Milgram experiment. Psychologist Milgram was interested in answering the question: "How is it possible that. . . ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life can act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience…Under what conditions would a person obey authority who commanded actions that went against conscience." His interest in this question was triggered by the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann who claimed in his defense that he was just following the orders of the Nazi government. Milgram was interested in the question of whether people would follow orders that went against their basic human instincts.

Most people have heard of this experiment in which test subjects, perfectly ordinary people, were willing to apply increasing amounts of voltage to an unseen person despite hearing the victim's increasingly distressed screams of suffering. The screams were fake but the subjects did not know that and their willingness to impose so much pain has been marveled at.

Although I too had heard of the Milgram experiment, its full force did not hit me until I saw a television program which contains footage of the experiment as it is being carried out. The video showed that the subjects were not callously or sadistically increasing the pain they were inflicting on the victim. In fact, most were really anguished and wanted to spare the victim further suffering. They kept asking if this was the right thing to do and sought reassurance that they were not causing harm.

What made them continue to inflict increasing levels of pain was that the person giving the instructions looked very official and respectable and authoritative, dressed in a white lab coat and speaking in a calm but firm manner. The clincher was that this official person told them that they were not responsible for the outcome of the experiment or the health of the victim, and that the official took full responsibility for both. This shifting of responsibility away from themselves enabled 60-65% of the subjects to overcome their qualms and push the shocks all the way to the highest level, despite the fact that they thought the victim had a heart condition, and to ignore the screams of the victim and his pleas to stop the experiments.

And this is precisely the danger. As long as people feel that they are not responsible for the outcomes of an action, as long as there is some official-looking person telling them that all this is quite proper and normal and they are absolved from the consequences, they seem willing to do things that their basic human instincts tell them is wrong.

As Milgram himself reported:

Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

This brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning of yesterday's post as to whether we would be willing to inform on our friends just because some government official asked us to. For myself, I hope that I would say no. The older I get, the more I value friends and the less I trust the motives and intentions, let along the competence, of the government and other official agencies to do the right thing.

The request to betray a friend is an ignoble one. But it is unlikely to come in the form of a bribe offered by some sleazy person in a dark alley. Instead it will come in the open, by very proper and official people, and the offer will be wrapped in the flag and decorated with bows that appeal to one's honor and duty and patriotism. Failure to inform on a friend may well result in one being called disloyal and even a traitor.

As I said, in actual extreme situations there is no knowing what we will do. It is possible that I could be coerced into doing things that I think are wrong. But the action will still be wrong. Most of us do not have the internal resources to resist the more subtle pressures brought to bear on us by the modern coercive state. We have to systematically create those resources. The Milgram experiment suggests to me that what makes us challenge authority is the availability of others to support us in our actions, to reinforce in us the belief that we should do the right thing whatever the authority figures might claim. And friends are our most valuable resource.

In the end, friends are all we have. When we betray them, we become nothing and have nothing.

POST SCRIPT: Have friends, live longer

A recent study suggests that having good friends leads to more tangible benefits. It found that "People with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent." Close relationships with relatives or children did not have the same effect on longevity.

"[T]he authors of the report speculated that friends may encourage older people to take better care of themselves—by cutting down on smoking and drinking, for example, or seeking medical treatment earlier for symptoms that may indicate serious problems.

Friends may also help seniors get through difficult times in their lives, by offering coping mechanisms and having a positive effect on mood and self-esteem."

February 06, 2007


Here is a hypothetical scenario to ponder. Suppose one day government agents, say from the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, come to you and say that they suspect that one of your close friends is a terrorist sympathizer and that they would like you to act on their behalf, secretly observing your friend and reporting all his or her activities to them. Would you do this?

There are some problems with this scenario. I do not think it is standard practice for government agents to enlist amateurs to help them in such ways because they are unlikely to be good covert operatives and are very likely to give the game away. But given the level of paranoia and fear-mongering that has been deliberately created and the disregard for civil liberties and fundamental rights that characterize government actions these days, variations on the above scenario are not as far-fetched as one would like to think.

I have also written before that extreme hypotheticals such as this one are not good ways of predicting how one would act if such a situation would actually arise because it is hard to predict how one would behave in situations which are far removed from those with which one is familiar. But while such extreme hypothetical situations are not very good predictors of behavior, they are useful devices to think about what principles one lives by.

I started thinking about this about three years ago when a letter that Dalton Trumbo had written to a friend in 1967 was published in Harper's magazine (March 2004, page 30). Trumbo, who died in 1976, was a very successful screenwriter who refused to testify and name people as Communists or collaborators before the McCarthyite-era House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. The recent film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) dealt with the events and atmosphere of that time.

As a result of his refusal to name names, he became one of the original Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were blacklisted by the Hollywood studies and could not get work anymore. He was also convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced in 1950 to 11 months in prison. After being released, he lived abroad but his work was still sought after and his screenplays appeared under pseudonyms and fronts until 1960 when influential actors like Kirk Douglas got him re-instated. One of his screenplays (under the pseudonym "Robert Rich") even won an Academy Award in 1957.

If faced with the above scenario of betraying one's friends, for some the choice will be simple. If the law requires us to cooperate with the authorities and inform on our friends, then that is the right, even honorable and patriotic, thing to do. Although they may disagree with the law, they may feel that they are compelled to follow it, that it is not our prerogative to challenge the law. While we may work to change it, good citizenship requires us to follow the law that is on the books.

In his letter, Trumbo says that it is not that simple. It is not about compulsion and he makes some important points about the nature of the choices that we have to sometimes make:

[A] prominent and liberal producer was quoted as saying: "Look, you people are simply stubborn and foolish. Regardless of what you think of informing it has become a part of the law. The committee and its requirements are part of our time; they are the country; they are the flag. That's the way it is, and those who refuse to recognize this no longer arouse sympathy; they only isolate themselves and prevent their voices from being heard."

The more I think of that the more I disagree with it, and the more puzzled I become about the workings of the mind that produced it.

I know and can read the First Amendment as well as anyone. I know it is the basic law of this country. I know that if it goes, all will go. The Warren Court has carefully and specifically outlined the exact method by which persons can refuse to inform. It is almost as if the court had decided to provide citizens with a textbook on how to avoid turning informer.

Thus the court has presented us with a dilemma that lies at the heart of all philosophies and religions, the dilemma best symbolized in the Faustian legend: yield up your principles and you shall be rich; cling to them and you shall be less prosperous than you presently are.

That's the problem: choice. Not compulsion. Committee or no committee, law or no law, capitalism or no capitalism, movies or no movies, it is the constant necessity to choose that dogs every action of our lives every minute of our existences.

Who is it then who compels us to inform? The committee does not come and ask us to change our minds and give them names and reinstate ourselves. Who is it that denies us work until we seek out the committee and abase ourselves before it?

Since it is neither the court nor the law nor the committee, the man who compels informing can only be the employer itself. It is he, and not the committee, who applies the only lash that really stings - economic reprisal: he is the enforcer who gives the committee its only strength and all its victories.

Disliking the nasty business of blacklisting but nonetheless practicing it every day of his life, he places upon the country and his flag the blame for moral atrocities that otherwise would be charged directly to himself. And thus, since informing has nothing to do with the law and the country and the flag, and since the necessities of his life, as he sees them, oblige him to enforce what the committee can never compel, and since without his enforcement that committee would have no power at all, - what he actually said is that he is the law and the country and the flag.

Then in a moving series of montages, Trumbo reflects on the wide ranging jobs he has had all over the country and the wide variety of people from all walks of life that he has met on those journeys.

And if I could take a census of all the Americans I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: "Would you like a man who told on his friend?" – there would not be one among them who would answer, "Yes."

Show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country. Such men are to be watched; I cannot imagine they are not watched.
. . .
I look back on two decades through which good friends stood together, moved forward a little, dreamed that the world could be better and tried to make it so, tasted the joy of small victories, wounded each other, made mistakes, suffered much injury, and stood silent in the chamber of liars.

For all this I am grateful: that much I have; that much cannot be taken from me. Barcelona fell, and you were not there, and I was not there, and perhaps if we had been the city would have stood and the world have been changed and better. But we were here, and here together we remain, and our city won't fall, and if it should, better that we lie buried among its ruins than be found absent a second time.

Every time I re-read Trumbo's letter I am moved by its eloquence. It is a powerful statement about what good friends, acting together, can achieve and our responsibility to our friends.

Next: More on friends

POST SCRIPT: Russ Feingold on the escalation in Iraq

Senator Russ Feingold once again speaks clearly to Keith Olbermann about what is at stake in Iraq. When listening to him one gets the impression that he is not carefully targeting his message to pander but is just saying what he really thinks, which is rare in a politician. Perhaps he is a very good actor, but I don't think that's it. He just happens to be a person with a sharp mind and the verbal fluency to express his ideas well.

I don't agree with everything Feingold says but it is definitely refreshing to listen to him.

February 05, 2007

Fear and panic in Boston

Since I never watch TV news, my contact with mainstream news is fairly limited. It starts in the morning with listening to Morning Edition on NPR, a little more NPR on the drive home, and reading the local paper The Plain Dealer in the evening. At various times during the day, I occasionally check up on some news sites on the web but these sites deal more with world news. So it possible for me to sometimes completely miss those stories that come and go within one news cycle or less, such as the 'terrorist scares' that seem to sporadically break out in the US.

blogimage_mnite.jpg Such was the case with the Boston scare last week. It was only after it was over that I realized that the city of Boston had been scared out of its wits for a day by a campaign of lighted objects (which look like a children's toy called Lite-Brites) used as advertisements for a TV program called Aqua Team Hunger Force that had been placed around the city. Apparently the authorities had treated these objects (shown here being removed by a policeman) as if they were IEDs, the infamous 'improvised explosive devices' that have been used extensively in Iraq.

I must say that even though I am not by any means an explosives expert, merely from reading the news I got the impression that real IEDs are small and discreet objects, usually hidden by trash or other camouflage, such that only the tip of a wire (the antenna presumably) were visible. It takes training and very close observation to detect their presence. They are not brightly lit flashing objects, drawing attention to their presence. If I had seen one of these Lite-Brites by the street it would have hardly caused me more than a mild interest as to what it was. But the Mayor of Boston and the police department went on full alert, sparking panic in the city, until they discovered their error.

In this climate of deliberately created fear and paranoia, government officials are fearful of seeming to be oblivious to the safety of their community, so their initial reaction to these cartoon-like objects may be understandable given this hyperventilating atmosphere. What is not excusable is what the main players did after the error was discovered.

Instead of sheepishly conceding their error and explaining that they had perhaps over-reacted out of excessive caution (for which few would have blamed them), the authorities are using the power of the government to exact punishment on the most minor and powerless characters in the whole episode

Why they chose to prosecute the two hapless people who distributed the items is hard to understand since there is enough blame to go around elsewhere. It appears that the companies behind the advertisement gimmick, even after they realized that the Boston city authorities had gone over the top, stalled for several hours on letting them know the truth, presumably because they realized that this was a free advertising bonanza.

What is inexcusable is for Boston to arrest the two performance artists (Peter Berdovsky, 27 and Sean Stevens, 28) who were hired by the advertising company for $300 each to hang the devices around the city to do the promotion, even though there is no reason to think that the two had any intention of creating panic.

This is a disgraceful abuse of government power. These two men were arraigned, pleaded not guilty, and were then released on bail. The advertising company that had hired them did not have the grace to post their bail either, and they had to get the money from family and friends. The two men seemed to take this in their stride and afterwards at a press conference proceeded to mock the journalists by talking about hairstyles in the 70s.

The two seemed like they were doing performance art at the expense of the media and the whole ridiculous hoopla.

Needless to say, this episode has provided a field day for comedy. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert did a quick parody. August J. Pollak recalled a cartoon poking fun at the extent to which we seem to be willing to give up our rights because of our fears, as did Tom Tomorrow (here and here).

I think Pollak had the best take on the behavior of the Boston and Massachusetts authorities.

[Boston Mayor Tom] Menino is going on TV and insisting he's going to send a 27-year old artist to jail for not breaking any law, because his police department overreacted and wasted a million dollars feeding a media frenzy and terrorizing the population of his own city. That's a cowardly act of self-preservation, and were he not threatening the life of an innocent young man it would be laughable.

Let's get a few facts straight on the Aqua Teen Hunger Force sign fiasco:

1. Attorney General Martha Coakley needs to shut up and stop using the word "hoax." There was no hoax. Hoax implies Turner Networks and the ATHF people were trying to defraud or confuse people as to what they were doing. Hoax implies they were trying to make their signs look like bombs. They weren't. They made Lite-Brite signs of a cartoon character giving the finger.

2. It bears repeating again that Turner, and especially Berdovsky, did absolutely nothing illegal. The devices were not bombs. They did not look like bombs. They were all placed in public spaces and caused no obstruction to traffic or commerce. At most, Berdovsky is guilty of littering or illegal flyering.

3. The "devices" were placed in ten cities, and have been there for over two weeks. No other city managed to freak out and commit an entire platoon of police officers to scaring their own city claiming they might be bombs. No other mayor agreed to talk to Fox News with any statement beyond "no comment" when spending the day asking if this was a "terrorist dry run."

4. There is nothing, not a single thing, remotely suggesting that Turner or the guerilla marketing firm they hired intended to cause a public disturbance. Many have claimed the signs were "like saying 'fire' in a crowded theater." Wrong. This was like taping a picture of a fire to the wall of a theater and someone freaked out and called the fire department.

Fear and paranoia will cause people to behave bizarrely, and even foolishly. That's understandable. What is not excusable is to blame and punish others for your behavior.

We should all regularly remind ourselves that the goal of terrorists is not necessarily to kill people. It is to cause terror and make people suspicious and to turn on each other out of fear and anger. Their work becomes much easier when we terrorize ourselves. I bet that terrorist groups around the world are giving themselves high fives over the Boston event.

POST SCRIPT: Political preferences and computer choice

I have noticed that the proportion of people who use Macs in academia seem to be greater than their market share of 5% or so. Now a blogger has found that about 15-25% of visitors to 'liberal' sites like DailyKos use the OS X operating system while only about 2-3% of visitors to 'conservative' sites like Instapundit use them. He has some theories as to why this might be so. It is amusing, not to be taken seriously.

I checked my own site out of curiosity for this year and found that 8% use Macs, 69% Windows, 4% Linux, and 19% are unknown.

February 02, 2007

Some reflections on this blog

Last Friday, January 26th was the second anniversary of this blog which I, of course, completely forgot about since I am not big on commemorating birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, and the like. But such milestones are good occasions to pause and take stock and when I remembered this one later, I started reflecting on what this blog has and has not done during the past two years.

Some thoughts were triggered by the fact that within the last month, two very good bloggers decided to hang up their keyboards and ride away into the sunset. They were the anonymous Billmon at the blog Whiskey Bar (an excellent writer who combined sharp analysis with historical insight into contemporary political matters) and Michael Berube. Berube's last post reflects on what caused him to start blogging, and then to stop after exactly three years.

Like Berube, I have learned a lot about blogging while doing my own blog. The first thing I realized is that a blogger must have respect for the readers. Over the two years, this blog has received over two million hits and it is inevitable that whatever topic I might be writing about, there are always likely to be many readers who know more about the subject than I do, and also care about it more than I do.

The second thing I learned is that to be a blogger requires one to have skin that is not too thin (so that one always responds courteously to people and not take criticisms as insults, and also to be able to ignore actual insults and abuse and ad hominem comments) and not too thick (so that one does not dismiss or ignore other people's arguments and comments). The very fact that someone has bothered to take the trouble to read what you have written when they could have been doing something else has to evoke respect for that person. Quite a few of my posts were written to address points made by commenters.

Another important thing I learned is the necessity to provide evidence and sources for as much as possible without making the post an annoying jungle of hyperlinks. Readers have a right to know the basis for my assertions and be able to check them without doing too much tedious digging on their own.

What I have found interesting is that some professional journalists who are now either blogging or otherwise getting immediate feedback from their readers haven't quite absorbed these lessons. After sometimes making sweeping and inaccurate and unsourced statements, they respond with indignation when these missteps are pointed out by people who have checked up on them. It is as if they feel that the fact that they are the correspondent for a major news outlet gives them some kind of oracle powers that we mortals can only admire with awe.

Those days are gone. Nowadays, everyone can be a fact checker and let others know what they have found. As I have said before, the anonymity and speed that the internet provides does sometimes result in people making remarks in an intemperate way. The journalist (or blogger) has to simply recognize this as a fact of life and let it go. It is true that blogs can be, and have been, the source of much inaccurate information. But they can also serve a very important function of making lazy journalists aware that they need to be more careful about checking their information and the way they present it.

One of the principles I have used in my life is to not waste other people's time and I have tried to adhere to that for this blog as well. My hope is that readers who spend their valuable time reading it will find useful information, thought provoking ideas, and sometimes just fun stuff to amuse and laugh over.

One of the things about being a writer is that writing does reveal a lot about who you are and this took me some getting used to. I am by nature a private person but I quickly realized that even if I avoid directly talking about myself or my personal life and instead stick to public affairs and write in as objective a way as I can, I cannot help but reveal myself in my writings. I suspect that anyone who has read a varied sample of my postings will have a pretty good idea of who I am and what I value. Although I am not trying to hide who I am, I am also not used to having people whom I don't know, know me. When I meet someone for the first time and they say "Oh, I read your blog" I am pleased, of course, but also a little disconcerted. Public figures are accustomed to this imbalance in personal knowledge and take it in their stride but I do not consider myself a public figure.

How long will this blog last? I don't know. It is a labor of love. It does take time to write posts that I think are worth reading and are not sloppily written. In the course of doing so, I have learned a huge deal, often in responding to comments and answering questions. Writing the posts has helped me to sort out my ideas and served as first drafts of articles that have either appeared in print or been submitted for publication and will appear in press. More importantly, it has forced me to learn and present things in a systematic and organized way, instead of just leaving things as a shoe-box full of related ideas and information.

When will I know that it is time to stop? A clue that the time to quit blogging has arrived will be when I start to dread writing the posts and resent the time spent on it. So far that has not happened. I do most of my writing on the weekends and I still look forward to it.

Another clue that it may be time to stop will be when I start repeating myself, and I worry more about this. As the header indicates, I thought that this blog would deal with a wider range of topics than it has. For example, I have written much less than I thought I would about education and learning and science, subjects I care deeply about.

The shift was not caused by a narrowing of my interests but because issues of war and peace have seemed to me to be so urgent and occupy so much of my thoughts that I feel compelled to write about politics more than I perhaps should. I don't feel that I am repeating myself in terms of actual content but I do feel that I may be focusing too much on politics, especially Iraq and the Middle East. But a blog does also serve as an outlet for pent up feelings and so as long as I feel angry about the senseless death and destruction currently going on, and the dangerous policies advanced by the Bush administration, and its blatant disregard for the human rights, the constitution, and the law, politics will likely continue to dominate.

But in terms of actual content I have rough notes of lots of ideas on a whole variety of topics so there is no danger of running out of material. In fact new material keeps coming in faster than I can use them, and some interesting topics simply lose their timeliness and get shelved permanently, much to my regret.

So here's to another year of blogging. And thanks for reading.

POST SCRIPT: Voice mail rant

When I spot a grammatical or typographical error in a newspaper, I usually find it mildly amusing but do not get outraged. After all, newspapers are on a tight deadline and are bound to let the occasional mistake slip through. But some language purists get really upset. Listen to this rant that was left on a newspaper editor's voice mail.

February 01, 2007

Why I stopped watching football

Super Bowl number something or other is being played this coming Sunday. There was a time, even quite recently, when I would have looked forward to the event, and planned on seeing it with some friends. Nowadays I can barely muster up the interest to even turn on the TV towards the end to see the result.

My initially strong interest in football began immediately after I arrived in the US to do my doctorate in physics at the University of Pittsburgh. I was there during the period 1975-1980 when the famed Steelers "steel curtain" defense and spectacular offense led them to four Super Bowl titles in six years. Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, and Franco Harris dazzled fans week after week. At the same time the University of Pittsburgh football team won the national championship and its running back Tony Dorsett won the Heisman trophy. And if that weren't enough, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. So the town went crazy, and it was all sports all the time.

I was a teaching assistant during my first year in graduate school and my students were eager to teach this cricket and rugby lover the rules of these strange American games, and I got hooked on football, perhaps because I arrived in the fall. I never quite got that same high level of interest in baseball for reasons I have discussed earlier and never got interested at all in basketball, since Pittsburgh did not have a franchise for that sport.

I maintained my interest in football even after I came to the US a second time from Sri Lanka in 1983 and would follow the games and the standings, spending many weekends in front of the TV, cheering for the Steelers. When I moved to Cleveland in 1989, I developed a fondness for the Browns too. Like the Steelers, they projected a simple working class image, a sense that the game was the most important thing and that all the rest of the glitz, cheerleaders and the like, were unimportant.

My interest in baseball disappeared completely with my arrival in Cleveland because I could never support the home team (the Indians) as long as they retained their ridiculous and offensive Chief Wahoo logo.

But my decline in interest in football was more gradual and resulted from an increasing dislike of the changing nature of the game and its increasingly businesslike aspects. I dislike the fact that team owners hold cities hostage, using their fan support to enrich themselves by gouging public subsidies for their facilities using the threat of leaving. I dislike the fact that much of the sports pages read like business pages with contract details and disputes dominating. I dislike the fact that teams rarely stick together any more and that the composition changes so fast that it is hard to keep track of who is playing for whom. These things have long ceased to be games played and watched for fun. They are business ventures and we are customers.

I also really dislike the almost non-stop boasting, grandstanding, and self-promotion by the players, 'celebrating' each and every minor achievement, and trash talking their opponents. I have this urge to shout at them: "Just shut up and play the game". It seemed like poetic justice when the OSU wide receiver was injured right at the beginning of the Bowl Championship game when he received an ankle injury as a result of the team 'celebration' after he had returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Without a star player, OSU then crashed to defeat despite having been favorites to win. I wonder if this will put a damper on such excesses in the future. Probably not.

But the last straw for me was instant replay. As if football was not slow and intermittent enough with the game stopping every few seconds, instant replay has dragged things out even more so that now the game stops for minutes on end as the referee goes to the booth and we are treated to the same play from all kinds of angles with the commentators blathering on. Just last week I turned on the TV to see one of the conference championship games and just at that moment a coach threw the challenge flag and everybody started hanging around waiting for a revised calling. I switched off.

What's the point of all this review? Why is it so important? It is quite impressive that despite the almost fanatical importance people place on these games, I have very rarely heard suspicions that the referees were crooked or pulling for a team. If we believe the referees are unbiased, then we should just let them make the call and get on with it. Sure they will make mistakes sometimes since they are human. But if they are fair, the breaks will even out in the long run. The only benefit of instant replay that I can think of is that it has shown that the referees are correct remarkably often.

The only reason for reviewing the calls is perhaps after each game, when league officials can study the tapes and rate the officials for how often their calls were correct, and look for possible bias. This could be used to ensure that the quality of refereeing improves and to determine who the best officials are to officiate at crucial games.

Getting rid of instant replay will probably not bring me back to watching the game. That moment has passed. But who knows how many others are slowly getting disenchanted as the game drags more and more. Football should take a cue from rugby where the game is truly fast moving, and try and find ways to speed things up rather than slowing things down. But it will not do so because as long as we keep watching, longer games and more wasted time means more time for advertisements and increased revenue.

But I still have a mild interest in who wins that Super Bowl, although this is based on factors that have little to do with the game itself. This year I hope that the Colts win, simply because I like their coach Tony Dungy. I first became aware of him when he was a good defensive coordinator for the Steelers but he spent a long time as an assistant before finally being given a chance at the top job with the perennially hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After making them into serious contenders for the championship, Dungy was let go and could only watch as the team he groomed won the Super Bowl under the new coach the following year (or the year after, I am not sure). But he took that obvious disappointment with grace and has now taken another team to the championship game.

Dungy has always been an understated and gracious man, not given to showy behavior or yelling or boasting or showing extreme emotion. The suicide of his son last year must have been a cruel blow but he handled that too with dignity. You get the sense that he realizes that football is not life and death, not war and peace. In the end, it is nothing of real significance. It is just a game.

You have to admire a person who can maintain that attitude in the face of all the hype and I feel that it is time that he gets the reward that people in football seek, of being part of the championship team.

My enthusiasm for Dungy and the Colts to win was diminished this week when it was revealed that he was being honored by a group in Indiana that has been actively promoting anti-gay legislation in that state. It is not clear at this time if Dungy's decision to accept such an award was made with a lack of awareness of the group's agenda, or because celebrities routinely get roped into appearing at such fund raising events, or whether he is actively hostile to gays. But if it turns out that he opposes the rights of gays to be treated like just any other people, then it does diminish my respect for him as a person.

POST SCRIPT: Defining normalcy down

ramadi-insurgent.jpgThis photograph of a street scene in the Iraqi town of Ramadi grabbed my attention. It seems like a normal busy city street, with people going about their business except that they are not paying any heed to a masked person in their midst carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder (at least that is what I think the weapon is). Behind the person with the scooter looks like another masked person carrying an automatic weapon.

I was really struck by these signs of normalcy in the midst of obvious signs of war. How sad that people have been reduced to treating armed masked gunmen on the streets as if they were just any other pedestrian.