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Archive for November, 2009

Minaret Ban

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

I think the ban on the hijab in public schools and other public places in France and elsewhere is deeply misguided at best, thinly veiled racism at (much more likely) worst, but at least in that case, I understood the plausible rationale behind the policy. I’ve read several discussions of Switzerland’s Minaret ban, and have come up completely empty on the reconstruction of a plausible non-bigoted justification. (The closest I’ve seen is a bizarre, metaphorical 12-year old quote from The Turkish Prime Minister.)

File under “Reasons why unpopular minorities and those concerned with their status remain unenthusiastic about plebiscitary democracy, #43,214.”

Missing the Trees for the Forest…

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

Atrios misses out on the key benefit of the electric driverless taxi cab; without taxicab drivers, it would be literally impossible for Tom Friedman to write books. That’s an outcome we can all get behind.

Greatest Coaching Genius In History Loses Job

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

I’m sure Notre Dame — who remain relevant as a major football power! Really! — will rue the day they let this great coach get away. (Seriously, what gets me is not the hire, which was reasonable, but the ridiculous extension midway through his first year.)

Rumors that Joba Chamberlain — already having become bored with establishing a new Dow 36,000 Gold Standard in pitching and looking to master another field — is the frontrunner to replace Weis are unconfirmed at press time. If that falls through, I hear another Genius former Bill Belichick assistant may soon be available…

…Mr. Bogg says it with less.

Grumble Grumble Grumble

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

It’s probably not worth bellyaching about this, but when Geoffrey Dunn at HuffPo takes/receives credit for “discovering” that Sarah Palin misquoted John Wooden in an epigraph of Going Rogue, it would be awfully generous of him to give credit to the blog where this embarrassing detail first surfaced, particularly since he finds the actual quotation in a source linked in the original post here.

Just saying….

Derek Jeter: Sportsman of the Year

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

The moment that this blog has been dreading since its creation has come to pass.

In all semi-seriousness, the hero worship athletes elicit is a subject worth studying. As I noted in the Tiger Woods post below, there’s a deep and widespread desire to see supremely accomplished athletes as generally admirable human beings, even though if anything there’s probably something of a negative correlation between the two things. For one thing, while it’s not necessary to be deeply selfish, or egomaniacal, or a narcissistic perfectionist, or a child of parents in the grip of grandiose manias, or some combination thereof, to get to the top of any sport or other competitive enterprise, it often helps quite a bit, as anyone who has had much contact with such people can attest. (In this regard I recommend Gary Smith’s portrait of the young Tiger Woods, “The Chosen,” from the December 23, 1996 Sports Illustrated issue which named Woods Sportsman of the Year. Another excellent essay on the subject in general is David Foster Wallace’s portrait of Michael Joyce, an obscure professional tennis player).

Of course the highest levels of achievement always require those who achieve them to have certain admirable qualities, such as a willingness to work extremely hard in the pursuit of initially distant goals. But it’s too easy to extrapolate from that fact all sorts of false conclusions, such as that the people who reach the top of a field have done so primarily because they have worked harder than other people. In a loose sense this is true (for example every major league baseball player or PGA golfer has undoubtedly worked very hard to get where he is), but there is no good reason to believe that Derek Jeter is a superstar while Joe Smith has just been granted his unconditional release from Pittsburgh’s AAA affiliate because Jeter works appreciably harder than Smith, or “wants it more,” or whatever other cliche sportswriters like to deploy when celebrating Jeter’s greatness.

This is a point that has more general ideological significance. It’s an article of faith in this country that rich people are rich primarily because they work harder than other people. This is the kind of belief that can and is maintained in the face of all evidence to the contrary, because people want to believe it — just as they want to believe that being the best golfer or shortstop in the world is primarily a matter of working harder at golf or baseball than everybody else.

Another parallel is that a lot of people believe that a high batting average and a high marginal tax bracket are both good proxies for moral election. This is one of those ideas that is sufficiently idiotic that it usually won’t be said in so many words — hardly anyone, after all, will actually say “I think the fact that Derek Jeter is a great baseball player indicates he’s a morally admirable person,” but anyone who has ever been stuck in a conversation with an Ayn Rand fan knows this line of thinking can be found well beyond the world of sports.

Leverage and Influence

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

This doesn’t seem right to me:

During the Cold War, the United States and Turkey formed a “strategic partnership” based on both countries’ fear of Soviet intervention in the Middle East. The Truman Doctrine offered a specific guarantee that both Turkey and Greece would be protected from Soviet aggression – a fear that was quite real in Turkey at the time. In exchange, the United States received access to military bases, support in the Korean War and a strategically advantageous position in the Middle East. Despite serious disagreements – particularly over Cyprus – the relationship worked to each sides’ mutual advantage until the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago.

Today, the United States wants Turkish support on a wide variety of important issues, including stabilizing Iraq, supporting the mission in Afghanistan, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, moving energy to Europe, serving as a Muslim ally, and providing stability in its neighborhood.

In exchange, the United States offers security guarantees, military assistance, and the benefits that accrue from an alliance with the world’ most powerful military. All of these things are very important to Turkey (and to many other countries). The problem is that the United States is not in a position to credibly threaten to withhold these benefits without undermining the international order in which it has invested so much. For example, both Washington and Ankara know that Turkey’s stance on Iran’s nuclear program will not jeopardize the American security blanket.

Of course, there are red lines that Turkey (or any other country) could cross that would change U.S. policy. But the point is that Turkey has a great deal of running room before those red lines are crossed. Turkey, both because it is a NATO ally and a strategically critical country, knows that it can pursue an independent foreign policy while still enjoying the benefits of American power.

The basic problem identified here is that it’s difficult to exclude particular countries from the benefits (such that they are) of hegemony, and consequently that it’s much more difficult for the United States to exert influence than it would seem on paper. My response, I guess, is as follows: This is not a new problem, it characterized the Cold War, and in many ways small and medium sized states had more leverage during the Cold War, rather than less.

The central issue is thus: the Cold War granted the US a certain degree of leverage over countries like Turkey because the United States could provide protection against the Soviet Union. However, it simply wasn’t the case that the United States could, as a matter of policy, routinely threaten to exclude Turkey from the umbrella of protection. The loss of US influence over Turkey would, during the Cold War, have been understood as a colossal strategic setback for the United States. Indeed, threats of the “loss” of countries far more trivial than Turkey were treated in US strategic circles as harbingers of the Apocalypse, and client states of the US routinely made (usually implausible) threats of realignment in order to cajole more support from Washington. Kenneth Waltz may have been correct in demonstrating that the shift of a few small and medium sized powers could not fundamentally affect the balance of power between the US and the USSR, but Hans Morgenthau was surely more accurate in his prediction that small states could wield inordinate influence over large powers by threatening defection. Consequently, during the Cold War the idea that the United States could “exclude” Turkey, or Japan, or West Germany from the benefits of its umbrella is simply crazy; indeed, the smaller states held a great degree of leverage. Moreover, I’m not convinced that even formal exclusion from the US sponsored system of alliances entitled actual exclusion from the US security umbrella; the Russians probably didn’t want to invade Sweden or Yugoslavia anyway, but an effort to do so might well have sparked a general European war even in the absence of a direct NATO security commitment.

As Ben argues, post-Cold War the United States still can’t plausibly exclude states like Turkey from the benefits of a US dominated international system. However, small and medium size states generally lack the same degree of leverage that they possessed when the Soviet Union existed. The US became indifferent to the fate of lots of Cold War hotspots as soon as the USSR collapsed; I suspect that if the USSR (and its enmity with the US) had survived, the US would have continued to pay very close attention to happenings in Somalia, Afghanistan, Zaire/Congo, etc. Threats of defection from the US sponsored global system only grant leverage if the US cares, and if such threats are credible; on balance, I’m not convinced that exerting influence is any more difficult today than it was in 1980.

"In Poor Taste" Doesn’t Begin to Cover It…

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

Gun Club Gomer:

It is probably a total coincidence, but Parkland is 22 miles down I-5 from Evergreen State College, the radical leftist school that helped create Rachel Corrie and Andrew Mickel, the later of which ambushed a police officer in Nov 2002, and is now on death row. Another radical leftist shot and killed a police officer on Halloween after firebombing four police cars on Oct. 22, and was in turn shot earlier this month.

Yep, Gomer; it probably is a total coincidence.

Now, I’m as Critical of Rabid Angry Uncivil Wingnuts as the Next Guy . . .

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

at least until Michael White goes moderately Over The Top in his latest rambling, expansive Guardian piece on Friday. While LGM readers know that I am highly critical of the Wingnut approach to democracy and debate, and I don’t consider it healthy at all, I’m not about to start drawing comparisons to Ft. Sumter in 1861.

While White may largely be correct here:
It is the scale of the irrational, emotional and, dare I add, ignorant, reaction his presidency has unleashed on the American right, some of it understandable in a fast-changing and confusing world, much of it ugly and increasingly violent in tone.

But a latecomer here:
Friends keep saying: “It’s changed since you lived there, Mike.”

White lived in the US from 1984 to 1988, so, um, duh, of course it’s changed. That’s a generation. I’m willing to bet that Britain has changed since 1988 as well.

I interpret the present reaction of the right not all that differently from that unleashed by Bill Clinton. Since Reagan, the right views the White House specifically, and governance in general, as a birthright. They’re the only true Americans. Fortunately for the rest of us, most of them live in Real America. Therefore the current tone and tenor of debate from the right doesn’t surprise me in the least — if anything they’re more scared, because whereas Bill Clinton won with only 43% of the vote, Obama did significantly better. And, Obama’s a Muslim Fascist-Communist as we all know, born, where was it? Kenya? Indonesia? That must scare the right as well.
To reiterate, unlike White I do not perceive this wave of wingnut lunacy any differently than the Clinton administration. This isn’t new. (Of course, dare I say it, we know how that ended up). Furthermore, while the faults of the United States are legion, this is true of every democracy on the planet — and hey, we didn’t give the world, and the European Parliament, Nick Griffin, who somehow weaseled his way into representing the entire EUP at the Copenhagen climate change conference. His views on climate change are reassuringly similar to his views on race relations.
But perhaps I should have more time for White and his viewpoint: not only was he punched by Alastair Campbell, but he punched him back.

Dumond This Isn’t

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

Given Huckabee’s gruesome history on related matters, it’s tempting to say that he deserves any demagoguery he’s on the receiving end of because of this. But it would be wrong. As Matt says, on its face there’s nothing unreasonable about granting clemency to a someone given 60 years for burglaries committed when he was 17. Evidently, if you grant parole and clemency (or, for that matter, give out finite sentences) to significant numbers of people some percentage will commit more crimes, but individual cases can’t in themselves justify more draconian policies, and also don’t mean that Huckabee’s judgment at the time was wrong. Putting pressure on the the parole board to release a rapist because some wingers developed some quarter-witted Clinton conspiracy theories, on the other hand…

I also wonder if this might affect Kennedy’s vote on the juvenille sentencing cases the court is considering.

Brett Favre and the hype machine

[ 0 ] November 30, 2009 |

Speaking of the culture of celebrity and media saturation, an ironic aspect of the ridiculous levels of worshipful coverage that Brett Favre has gotten over the years is that it has made it eas(ier) to overlook that he’s in the midst of one of the most amazing seasons in NFL history. His 24 TD passes, three interceptions, 69% completion percentage, and 270 yards per game passing add up to by far the highest quarterback rating of his career, and one of the highest in history. He’s doing this at the age of 40, and today he tied Jim Marshall’s record for consecutive NFL starts by a non-kicker (282).

Another aspect of this story I like is that last August all the football insider types were certain that Favre’s flirtation with the Vikings would be, if consummated with a contract, harmful to team chemistry and other similarly mysterious alembics, and that indeed the whole soap opera of his second un-retirement was going to harm his “legacy.”

The Chosen One

[ 0 ] November 29, 2009 |

The Tiger Woods incident provides an interesting glimpse into the world of celebrity image making, and the corporate and media interests that enable it. Woods got into a minor car accident early Friday morning after he was apparently attacked by his enraged wife. She seems to have smashed in the back window of his SUV with a couple of golf clubs as he tried to flee their home at 2:30 AM. Woods was found lying in the street drifting in and out of consciousness and suffering from facial lacerations, raising questions regarding whether the window was the only thing his wife connected with. Woods is refusing to talk to the police, which isn’t surprising, given that a truthful account of the proceedings would probably require his wife to be charged with committing domestic violence.

He did however release this statement on his website, which is a kind of negative masterpiece of botched public relations.

Absurdly, Woods is issuing a fulsome apology to the world in general, while at the same time claiming all that happened is that he got into a fender bender just beyond his driveway. Even more ineptly, he addresses the “many false, malicious and unfounded rumors that are circulating” about him. By doing so, he’s practically requiring the mainstream media to report on, and ask him about, a National Enquirer story claiming that he is having an affair — a story that to this point the more respectable media have refused to even mention, let alone question him about.

The most ridiculous feature of the statement is his whining plea for “privacy.” Tiger Woods has become a billionaire by marketing himself so assidiously that he’s now the most recognizable athlete, and indeed one of the most recognizable people, in the world. His vast wealth (less than 10% of which has been earned directly through his athletic achievements) is a product of making himself into a kind of human logo, that corporations pay him immense amounts to attach to their products. They find it profitable to do so because of the preposterous yet very widespread idea that athletic excellence somehow reflects well on a person’s character and general value as a human being. Tiger Woods alleged adultery has nothing to do with his ability to excel on the golf course, but has everything to do with his ability to market himself as some kind of exemplary person, whose putative preferences in regard to cars and accounting firms and watches should influence your view of these products, and the corporations that produce them.

On one level I do feel sorry for Woods, in that his father was a certifiable lunatic, whose ambitions in regard to his son went far beyond turning him into the greatest golfer in the world. Consider this quote from Earl Woods, from a 1996 Sports Illustrated profile, written when Woods was all of 21 years old, and had yet to win a major golf tournament, let alone transform the course of human history:

Tiger will win because of God’s mind. Can’t you see the pattern? Earl Woods asks. Can’t you see the signs? “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Earl says.

Sports history, Mr. Woods? Do you mean more than Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, more than Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe? “More than any of them because he’s more charismatic, more educated, more prepared for this than anyone.”

Anyone, Mr. Woods? Your son will have more impact than Nelson Mandela, more than Gandhi, more than Buddha?

“Yes, because he has a larger forum than any of them. Because he’s playing a sport that’s international. Because he’s qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracles. He’s the bridge between the East and the West. There is no limit because he has the guidance. I don’t know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.”

The craziest part of all this is that Eldrick “Tiger” Woods probably on some level believes it — and very little in his life experience within a media-saturated and celebrity-crazed culture has contradicted this belief.

Hooray for Baltimore!

[ 0 ] November 29, 2009 |

Baltimore displays some guts:

The Baltimore City Council went where no local government has gone before, it seems, in telling crisis pregnancy centers in the city this week that they have to put up signs saying they don’t provide abortion or birth control….

In the end, the Baltimore city council’s vote protects consumers from false and misleading advertising. That’s a position governments often take, and there’s a whole branch of law, commercial speech, to explain why false advertising gets less First Amendment protection. The council decided to treat the crisis pregnancy centers differently than other groups because they’re pretending to be something they’re not (and then lying about the risks of abortion once they’ve gotten clients in the door). Eliot Spitzer similarly went after the centers for false advertising when he was New York attorney general. He investigated 24 of them and issued subpoenas to 11, saying they were violating a 1995 consent decree in which they’d promised not to misrepresent the services they offered.

The ordinance has not yet been signed by Mayor Dixon, but it strikes me as a no-brainer; if you can’t go after these charlatans in Baltimore, then where can you go after them?

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