October 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
In keeping with this week’s O&Z theme of highlighting poor commentary and analysis, the thread running throughout today’s gallimaufry is going to be more of the same. I’m not sure why I’ve been pulling an Andy Rooney routine lately, but there seems to be an unusually large amount of nonsensical drivel floating out there, so let’s plunge right into the dung heap.
Starting us off with first prize for the week, the month, and possibly the year is Daniel Pipes’ error-riddled and borderline hallucinatory head-scratcherat the National Review on Turkey and Syria. He opens it with this:
Why is the Turkish government acting so aggressively against the Assad regime in Syria?
Perhaps Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes that lobbing artillery shells into Syria will help bring a satellite government to power in Damascus. Maybe he expects that sending a Turkish war plane into Syrian air space or forcing down a Syrian civilian plane en route from Russia will win him favor in the West and bring in NATO to intervene. Conceivably, it’s all a grand diversion from an imminent economic crisis due to borrowing too much.
Hmmm, let’s see…why is Turkey acting so aggressively? Don’t have the answer yet? Perhaps it’s because Turkey isn’t acting aggressively at all, but is responding to Syrian shells landing on Turkish territory and killing Turkish civilians. One would never know from reading Pipes that Syria shot down a Turkish plane, is hosting Kurdish terrorists who are launching attacks on Turkey, and ends up shelling Turkish border towns on an almost daily basis these past few weeks. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a more Orwellian assault on basic facts than what is contained in this first paragraph. If you decide that you want to keep on reading – although I caution that if you do you are putting yourself at risk of an aneurysm – you will learn some other wonderful things about Turkey that you might not have been aware of, such as the fact that Erdoğan’s goal is to bring sharia to Turkey or that Turkey has abandoned the U.S. security umbrella (which must make it pretty awkward that we are still basing nuclear missiles on Turkish territory). You’ll also get to see some truly great logical consistency at work, such as when you compare, “Erdogan’s actions fit into a context going back a half-century” with the opening sentence of the very next paragraph, which is, “A new era began in November 2002 when Erdogan’s AKP, a clever Islamist party that avoids terrorism and global-caliphate rants, replaced the center-right and -left parties that long had dominated Ankara.” I could go on all day, but Brent Sasley beat me to it, so just read his takedown of Pipes instead.
Then you have David Brooks, who I always read and often find thoughtful but who wrote an entire column this week based on a ridiculous premise. Brooks listed a set of criteria for selecting a president who will make Washington less dysfunctional after opening with the following.
Voters have been astonishingly clear. In 2000, they elected George W. Bush after he promised to change the tone in Washington. In 2008, they elected Barack Obama after he promised to move the country beyond stale partisan debates. In this year’s first presidential debate, surveys show that viewers loved Mitt Romney’s talk of professionalism and bipartisanship.
In other words, primary campaigns are won by the candidate who can most convincingly champion the party’s agenda, but general election campaigns are won by the candidate who can most plausibly fix the political system.
With all due respect to Mr. Brooks, this is ridiculous. He plucked out something that he happens to care about, and without any evidence or data at all asserted that this is what decides elections. It’s no different than claiming that voters elected President Obama in 2008 because he is left-handed and then writing 800 words on why left-handed people make better leaders, or that President Bush won in 2000 because general election campaigns are won by the candidate who has more experience clearing brush. Bush and Obama both promised lots of things, so where is the evidence that it is a promise to change the tone in Washington that is decisive? As anyone familiar with basic political science knows, the economy is actually the best determinant of who will win the election, and the previous election fit into that pattern perfectly. So while voters might like to hear candidates who talk about bipartisanship, making a definitive statement that “general election campaigns are won by the candidate who can most plausibly fix the political system” based on nothing but conjecture is unlikely to convince anyone who cares about things like evidence, causation, or facts.
Finally, there is the story of Felix Baumgartner. For anyone who spent this week marooned on a desert island or happens to be Amish, Baumgartner took a ballon 24 miles up into space and then jumped down back to Earth, breaking the sound barrier in the process. It was an incredible feat which millions of people, myself included, watched live on Youtube, and it was a stunt that is actually going to lead to some important scientific and technological breakthroughs. There were many declarations last Sunday that Baumgartner’s skydive is going to inspire a new generation of astronauts and revitalize the desire for space exploration, and if that happens it will be a wonderful outcome. If you enter “Felix Baumgartner” into Google News you get 8.46 million hits, so his jump got plenty of warranted attention. It may come as a surprise to you though that Baumgartner’s jump was only the second most consequential development this month in the realm of space exploration, because the event that dwarfed Baumgartner by a magnitude of thousands didn’t get nearly enough attention. It turns out that NASA’s Voyager 1 probe, which was launched in 1977, just became the first man-made object to leave the solar system (!!!). Do you have any idea how astonishing that is? We have exited the freaking solar system and are now in uncharted territory, and somehow nobody seems to know or care. Comparing Baumgartner to Voyager 1 is like comparing the discovery of gravity to me finding a $5 bill in my coat pocket from last winter, and yet it is Baumgartner’s jump that is inspiring people rather than the fact that we have just exited our own star system. If you put “NASA Voyager” into Google News, you get 3,640 results. I weep for our future.
October 5, 2012 § 4 Comments
Time to dive into my when-I-feel-like-it Friday tradition and do some quick hits on interesting or random things I read this past week. Today’s gallimaufry is a little more all over the map than usual, but if you stick with it I promise you will come across something you might not have otherwise been exposed to.
First up is the New York Times, which ran an extremely odd feature in its Room For Debate segment yesterday on whether Islam presents an obstacle to democracy. Why do I call this odd? To begin with, six different people were asked to weigh in with opinions, and all six of them came to the same conclusion, which is that Islam and democracy are compatible with each other. Now, this is a position that I happen to agree with for a variety of reasons, but it seems strange to hold a “debate” in the world’s most influential newspaper in which all of the participants agree with each other and espouse the same view. Seriously, New York Times? You couldn’t find one credible voice to argue the opposing side? The entire world of scholarship and punditry is open to you and still you decide it would be interesting to your readers to solicit six short essays all making the same basic point?
What is perhaps stranger about this NYT feature though is that it is posing a basic political science question, but instead of asking even one political scientist about his or her views, it polls a former Islamist, a policy analyst, a professor of creative writing, an historian, and two professors of religion. I understand that part of this equation has to with Islam, on which some or perhaps even all of the experts the New York Times got in touch with have something credible to say, but the other half of the equation deals with factors that make democracy more or less likely to occur, and not one of the six people opining in yesterday’s NYT are logical choices to answer that question with any degree of expertise. There has been lots of research done on the question of whether democracy and Islam go together, such as this or this or this, and maybe getting in touch with someone who actually studies this question for a living would have been a good idea. After all, if the New York Times wants to ask me my views on whether there is other intelligent life somewhere in the universe because it is a topic that I love to read and talk about, I am happy to give an answer but it doesn’t mean that NYT readers should lend my views on the subject any particular credence as I am not an astrophysicist.
Continuing the theme of factors that affect political development, my friend Armin Rosen directed me to this piece of mad genius brilliance arguing that the galaxy created by George Lucas in the Star Wars films is largely populated by illiterates, and that this accounts for how the Empire was able to destroy the Republic and amass so much power. I want everybody to read this for themselves since it just ridiculously awesome and so I won’t go into all that much detail in the hopes of forcing you to click on the link and read the original, but the gist of the argument is that nearly all of the information in all six Star Wars movies is conveyed via hologram recordings, we never see anyone pick up a book or newspaper, there is no evidence of journalism or reporting of any type, and history largely seems to be of the legendary type passed down orally. The consequences of this are that it is easy for tyranny to flourish. As Ryan Britt, who is the guy who wrote this and whom I now want to meet, puts it:
Padme points out that liberty dies “with thunderous applause,” but really their liberty is dying because most of them can’t read and are powerless and disenfranchised. In fact most of the surviving characters at the end of the prequels are the bad guys, and they can probably read. The Jedi seem to be the most educated people in the prequels, but that changes when they all get killed. This would be like a real life Empire going and burning down all the colleges and schools and killing all the teachers. The academy, the keepers of literacy would be gone. And once that happens, it’s easy for a tyrannical empire to take over, to control the information. Maybe Padme should have said “this is how literacy dies…”
I say we start some sort of fund right now so that Ryan Britt can spend his days writing more of this type of stuff. I’m not joking.
Finally, while we are on the subject of once dominant republics that are now crumbling and whose citizens are powerless to remove the corrupt authoritarians running the show, I give you this great Charles Pierce reflection on the epic failure known as the 2012 Boston Red Sox. Pierce makes a fantastic point, which is that not only was this year’s team the worst in almost half a century in terms of wins and losses, but it was a true throwback Red Sox team that kind of makes you nostalgic. As Pierce says,
This was the way it was in my childhood. These were the kind of days that brought me back to my youth, the way all the baseball propagandists say the game is supposed to do. These were my Red Sox — overpaid and underachieving backbiters who ended up as comic relief. This was the Fenway Park of my youth — a rancid snake pit of venomous egos, and not a theme park. This was how I became a Red Sox fan before Becoming A Red Sox Fan became a piece of performance art. This was the way the season always used to end — with a discreet, but complete, collapse that hardly anyone noticed, because they were paying attention to other, real Major League Baseball teams that had not devoted six months to eating their own livers. The Red Sox went into Yankee Stadium and lost to a team that will not think about the Red Sox again until next April, or perhaps even later than that, if next year’s start is anything like this year’s start was.
When I read this, I was instantly transported back in time to being a kid in the 80s and early 90s watching mediocre teams populated by malcontents and managed by morons where the players all hated each other playing in a rundown dump. I remember going to Fenway Park as a little kid with my dad, and falling in love with the ballpark but being confused why the seats were so uncomfortable and the concourse so dark and why it was the only place in this country I had ever seen a giant trough in the bathroom in place of urinals. The old Fenway is gone forever, but the old Red Sox are back with a vengeance, and now that the unbelievable euphoria of 2004 has passed into the mists of history, I hate to admit that I kind of enjoy being able to bitch and moan about my dysfunctional team again.
August 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
You know the gallimaufry drill by now. I read a bunch of interesting or infuriating things this week that either required too little commentary for a separate blog post or have absolutely nothing to do with Israel, Turkey, the Middle East, or foreign policy, so let’s get started.
First is the essay on Jim Lobe’s blog by Marsha Cohen loathsomely titled “Protocols of the Elders of Las Vegas” which should have been more accurately and self-referentially named “Protocols of the Elders of Morons” given Cohen’s line of reasoning. Cohen’s argument – and I use that term loosely – is that there is a conspiracy afoot in which billionaire Republican Sheldon Adelson wants to “devote a small portion of his vast wealth to a neoconservative agenda determined to thwart negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinians; prevent the reelection of an incumbent U.S. president; engineer the destruction of political liberalism; and reshape the political environments of the U.S. and Israel by funding the election of politicians who serve his own corporate and ideological interests.” Cohen outlines Adelson’s myriad of immoral and illegal activities such as establishing a conservative think tank and a right wing newspaper in Israel, donating money to AIPAC, contributing money to political campaigns, devoting his time to political and philanthropic causes rather than concentrating solely on his business interests…wait, what’s that you say? None of this is immoral or illegal in any way? But Marsha Cohen claims that Adelson is orchestrating a vast illicit conspiracy! What Cohen is either too dim to see or too partisan to acknowledge is that under the First Amendment and the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, Adelson has every right to do all of these things, and in fact the only one that Citizens United specifically enabled him to do is donate tens of millions of dollars to Super PACs. Adelson has lots of money and is entitled to use it as he sees fit, and the real problem that Cohen has is not that Adelson is doing these things, but that he is doing them for Republicans. The implication is that right wing ideas, and particularly neoconservative ideas – which believe it or not have a long tradition in American political thought and discourse – are illegitimate and thus can only be advanced through nefarious means. I don’t agree with Adelson’s views on much of anything, and I think that Citizens United was a poorly decided case that has negatively reverberated in the exact way that the majority dismissed out of hand, but none of that is the point. The point is that Marsha Cohen thinks it appropriate to play on the most anti-Semitic of conspiracy theories about Jewish puppet masters using their money to control the world (and if you think I am being overly dramatic, go back and read again the verbatim quote where she describes what Adelson is doing) and has no problem retching venomous illiberal bile regarding free speech because she doesn’t like Adelson’s views. Someone please explain to me why a person willing to stoop to such an abhorrent low should be allowed in polite company.
Moving from unsubstantiated attacks to those with a little more substance, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and erstwhile presidential candidate General Wesley Clark has a new gig hosting a reality show on NBC called Stars Earn Stripes in which B-list celebrities perform simulated special forces military challenges, and it has a bunch of people upset on the left because it glorifies violence and a bunch of people upset on the right because it cheapens the military. Spencer Ackerman wrote an absolutely devastating putdown of Clark’s post-Army career, accusing Clark of being an unprincipled corporate shill, a failure as a general, and an idiot to boot. Clark’s son, Wesley Clark Jr., then emailed Andrew Sullivan with a defense of his dad that vociferously defended him from all of Ackerman’s charges and explained his decision to become a temporary reality show host as a way to get some much needed rest and spend time with his grandchildren. The entire exchange is really quite extraordinary, and you should read Ackerman’s critique and Clark Jr.’s retort.
From the Department of Comically Entertaining Miscellany, the New York Times had a great piece about a guy living on the North Shore in Massachusetts named John Archer who has constructed a 13,000 square foot mansion out of architectural salvage. Archer is clearly a unique kind of eccentric who has spent what has to be millions of dollars constantly buying and building and renovating, and the article about him is fascinating, but what you really want to look at is the accompanying slide show of pictures of Archer’s house. It is weird and stunning and beautiful and confusing all at the same time. Make sure to check out picture 13, in which there is a house in the background that looks like it was plucked from a medieval storybook and then you realize that it is actually the Danvers wing of Archer’s own house, and picture 16, which could pass for an Oxford dining hall.
Finally, I can’t let the opportunity pass without linking to something about the Mars Curiosity rover, which has to be the most impressive feat of science, creativity, and engineering in the history of mankind. Don’t believe me? Watch this 5 minute video simulation showing how Curiosity plunged through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour, slowed down to 200 mph with a supersonic parachute, hovered above the surface of Mars by basically turning itself into a jet-pack, and was then lowered to the ground on a sky crane. Then contemplate that there are people walking this Earth who not only imagined that such a thing could be possible but figured out how to do it, and then made it work despite the fact that it takes 14 minutes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth but 7 minutes for Curiosity to get from the atmosphere to landing, so that this was all done completely blind (!). It is literally the most incredible science fiction come to life, and I challenge anyone to watch this video and then tell me that not every single penny spent on the space program is completely and entirely justified.
June 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Since there isn’t any one particular subject that I feel compelled to write about today, I thought I’d pay tribute to my all-time favorite website and share some brief thoughts on a bunch of interesting items in the news.
Israeli politicians this week can’t seem to keep their feet out of their mouths. First Kadima MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich called for “all human rights activists” to be arrested, imprisoned, and then “transported to camps we are building.” The camps she is referring to are detention centers the government is building for migrants who are entering Israel illegally, but Shamalov-Berkovich apparently thinks they can be put to better use for people whose views she simply doesn’t like. Not to be outdone, Shas MK and Interior Minister Eli Yishai called South Tel Aviv – which has become an African immigrant stronghold – the garbage can of the country and claimed that many Israeli women have been raped by African migrants but are not coming forward and reporting it because they are afraid of the stigma of AIDS. He did not provide any evidence for this assertion, and was immediately rebutted by those who would know better. Somehow I get the feeling that Eli Yishai might be an Antoine Dodson fan.
The New York Times has a long report on President Obama’s efforts to launch an all-out cyber war against Iran’s nuclear program, detailing his decision to accelerate the cyber attacks in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. I look forward to the spin from the usual quarters explaining how this demonstrates that Obama hates Israel, has no desire to prevent a nuclear Iran, and is selling out Israel’s security in order to curry favor with Muslims.
Also in the NYT today is a story about the Russian Orthodox Church’s opposition to intervention in Syria and how this in some ways guides Russian policy. Vladimir Putin has turned to the church for political support, and the church’s mission of protecting Christian minorities in the Middle East is bumping up against any Russian will to get rid of Assad (to the extent that any really exists at all). This is a useful reminder of what an immensely powerful religious lobby actually looks like and how it affects a state’s foreign policy, as opposed to an intellectually lazy and factually questionable argument along the same lines.
Finally, this op-ed by New York-based Turkish reporter Aydoğan Vatandaş on how U.S.-Israeli relations and its impact on American Jews affects the U.S. presidential race was interesting for a bunch of reasons. First, the reasons that Vatandaş lists for why the Israeli government is disappointed with the Obama administration includes the U.S. relationship with Turkey and focuses on Turkey’s request for Predator drones. I don’t think that Israel expects the U.S. to ditch Turkey, and I also don’t think that Israel is overly concerned about the U.S. selling Predators to Ankara for strategic reasons, since if Turkey and Israel ever actually exchanged hostilities, drones would not play a role. Israel does not, however, want the U.S. to sell Predators to Turkey simply as a way of pressuring Turkey to reconcile, and Vatandaş is strangely optimistic that the sale will occur, which has almost no chance of getting through Congress at the moment. The other thing that jumped out at me was some of the questionable or overly simplistic analysis, capped off by the conclusion, which reads, “It may sound strange, but what I have observed in America is that most American Jews today define themselves as Jews but also tend to be very secular. And, in terms of politics, they tend to be very liberal.” This is a fairly obvious point to any American who follows politics, but to a Turkish audience it might not be, and it got me wondering about whether my own analysis of Turkey reads as simplistically (or perhaps wrongly) to a Turkish audience. Something to think about…