An Unsettling Dinner

So last night our friends returned a favor and made dinner for us. She is American, and he is Iranian; he served in the armed forces under the Shah, and fled after he fell by walking out of the country (quite a story).

She & I have been discussing the war, and my journey to supporting it; I lent her my copy of Pollack, but I was obviously very interested in hearing what he had to say.

To be honest, it both scared and enlightened me.

He is a highly educated man, an engineer from an upper-middle class family. Every time he goes back to Iran, he is sweated by the religious police, but always let go (his parents are alive there, and he has very strong family ties). He works for the airline industry, and we’ve joked about the security examinations he’s been through – “with a proctoscope” he says.

But when we started talking about the war, his affect changed dramatically. I suggested that this might help bring about the fall of his detested mullahs, and he responded that only the decision of the Iranian people would make that happen.

But most telling was our discussion of civilian casualties. I commented that the largest numbers I have seen (which I felt were unreliable) were in the 5,000 range, and that reliable sources tended to cluster in the 1,000 – 1,500 range.

He replied that there had been “at least” 75,000 civilian casualties.

I laughed, thinking he was joking, but quickly stopped when I realized that he wasn’t. I asked him where he got his information, and he replied that he’d had some phone calls with friends who lived near the border, and they had talked with some refugees.

I suggested that this might not be the most fact-based approach, and he waved his hands.

“What are your facts? From the media that tells you what the government wants you to hear? They are an arm of the government, a part of the government. They are told what to tell you and you believe it.”

I stopped him and suggested that, thanks to the Internet, I’m reading everything from the London Times and Le Monde to Arab News, and that none of them came close to supporting what he was saying.

He gave a dry laugh and suggested that for a price – a price the oil companies were willing to pay – the media would say anything.

I gently suggested that his upbringing might have had something to do with this; that in Iran, now and during the era of the Shah, the media were pretty much a joke. But that here, in the West, while I saw structural issues in the media’s coverage of government, that I could not conceive of the media missing out on a chance to embarrass the government in this way.

He gave a knowing smile and we agreed to change the subject.

What does it say about the millions of Arabs in the Middle East, and the gap between us, if this Westernized, educated, security-cleared man believes that we’re essentially living in “The Matrix”? And what does that mean to our plans and hopes for the region?

I need to think more about this…

[JK Note: The comments section gets that process off to a great start, with some excellent sharing of context and experiences from Sub-Saharan Africa to Yugoslavia.]

53 thoughts on “An Unsettling Dinner”

  1. From what I’ve been reading, a lot of Americans of non-Middle-Eastern dissent think the same way. It makes people feel better to believe the worst, especially when it comes to the doings of those you believe have power over your life, such as the government. It’s easier for some people to deal with their own inability to change circumstances themselves by believing that there are sinister plans behind every event. The fact that random chance is the most powerful force in the universe, not a group of Old White Men smoking in a darkened room somewhere (or a cabal of Zionists, or a gathering of reptiles from outer space) is more frightening to some people. The idea that people in positions of power, like politicians and generals, actually have restrictions on their power and might not be able to control their own circumstances all that much, strikes some people as incomprehensible, because why would anyone want to get into a position of power only to be powerless?

  2. It is sad. However, you can run into people with similar dementia in the US, and it does not follow that US society is in trouble. So, I remain optimistic about the region because I think people everywhere have the same positive potential that we see expressed in free, pluralistic societies. They just need a little help (from US).

  3. I agree with Ben. Go to any major college campus and you will find a probable majority of “westernized, intelligent and well educated” citizens holding the same or similar views.

  4. The goal here is to change minds. If the Arabs believed that the US is a the solution to their problems, they would have changed their governments already.

    When someone doesn’t trust you and persists in behavior that is directed at hurting you. (Think of a small child kicking a parent.) The way to to act is to restrain the person as gently as feasible and do what you need to in the way that you should.

    Sooner or later the the child will trust you. The alternatives are to let the child throw stuff at you, to lock the child up, or to shoot the kid.

  5. Ask a Palestinian what he thinks about ‘Arafat’s political acumen, his corruption, and his failure to secure a Palestinian homeland, and you’re almost certain to hear invective about ‘Arafat’s stupidity, morality, lack of courage, and, perhaps, his general toadiness towards the U.S. and Israel.

    Ask the same person why Palestinians don’t abandon ‘Arafat for a more effective leader, and you’re almost certain to hear protests that ‘Arafat is owed their allegiance because he, and only he, has sustained their revolution, and, ultimately, because he is simply ” the leader”.

    Move south several hundred miles into any number of sub-Saharan African countries and you can repeat the exercise by asking about the character who happens to be running the country: Yes, he’s studid, corrupt, venal and ineffecive, but he is our leader and we own him our loyalty.

    This widespread, ultimately tribal, notion that leaders are different from the people they lead, that they are owed loyalty due only to their position and regardless of any other disqualifying attributes, is, of course, the same notion that allowed Europeans to get away with the sham of divine monarchy for so long: Leaders are annointed, everyone else is destined to be a mere subject.

    The crucial thing that subjects lose is the ability to act wih free will in a political environment. Society becomes structured to thwart any effort by a subject to influence, or even think about, the political environment in which he exists.

    How, then, is a subject to explain the obvious failures of the “leaders”? It can’t be the fault of the subjects, because they have no political power or influence, And, it can’t be the fault of the leaders, because that would break the chains of obligation that bind society together,

    So, what’s left is the vast, unseen, behind-the-scenes conspiracy of the all-powerful who actually pull the world’s strings. If my leaders is corrupt, these are the people who have corrupted him. If my leader makes bad decisions, it is because this conspiracy has bribed or threatened him. If my leader lies to me, it is because this conspiracy will reward him for the lie.

    This is an idea that is almost impossible to refute, because the refutation requires proving the nonexistence of a conspiracy that…well, doesn’t exist. Couple that with the fact that corruption is a fact of life in Africa and the Middle East (try to get a new landline telephone most places), and you quickly hit a stone wall.

    The only way to counter this leader-subject thing is to start at the bottom and build grass root democratic structures that begin to give ordinary people the ability to make political decisions that influence their lives. Once people believe that they can influence what happens in their village, or in their neighborhood, they’ll begin to see themselves as citizens, not subejcts.

    But, if you start at the top and conjure up a grand new parliament to be filled by elected representatives, all you’ll have done, from the perspective of the subjects, is create another building filled with toadies of the great conspiracy.

  6. At first i’m sorry for my poor English, But it’s required to remember that Iranians are different from other Middle estern nations, becuase thire government have been ellected with democratic ways and iranians can freely choose their government. And i think it’s really clear that they want this kind of government, otherwise they choose another method of government.

  7. I have a friend that is an expatriate Hungarian that deplores socialists and recognizes the counterpart in large organizations everywhere. He considers himself quite conservative (despised Clinton etc.) yet when the war started he started on the conspiracy theories similar to your friend. My friend reads extensively on the Web but even believes CNN is a wanton tool of the government. He has sent me links to very well written Russian and other sites that he likes (They are much better written than anything I see in the American Press but oh so wrong).

    He is buying in to outright lies, misconceptions and long involved well written propaganda that appears to be ever so much more intelligent and in some cases superficially fair minded (at least presenting more of the ‘other’ side)

    I was confident that as the war went on that I would be able to show enough contradictions and correct predictions that some of his view would become untenable.

    To my surprise and complete frustration all my ‘evidence’ is considered government lies that mirror the Soviet lies of his past. He can not believe that the US government is not in nearly complete control here.

    He thinks, for example, that the pictures of people cheering in the streets of Iraq were staged by stooges and camera angles. I am sure that any weapons found will be considered planted.

    I have found the same attitudes/beliefs in other Cold War refuges (all PhD(s)!!)

    My friend is an extremely good, intelligent man but I am desperately looking for ways to reach him. I too am now very worried about others, perhaps majority, that think as he does.

    Time and experience will/may enlighten my friend but what about others not here and/or as intelligent/inquiring?

  8. Wow enloop, what a loop. Where were you when they needed a general, as you sure can generalize.
    But There is a litthe truth in your arg. But the very societies you condemn are just emerging politically. You recognize that now they do heap mountains of insults over their leaders. Some years ago this would not have been possible (under colonization, one-party dictatorial rule, etc…).
    I am willing to bet that the Arafat-syndrome is due to the fact that people symobolizes something for their constitutents(after all the US and Israel hate him). It is rather typical for the populace to rally around their positional leader in the face of foreign aggression. Kinda like how Bush’s approval ratings shot through the roof on September 14th 2001.
    Armed Liberal problem is just plain stupid denial: “But that here, in the West, while I saw structural issues in the media’s coverage of government, that I could not conceive of the media missing out on a chance to embarrass the government in this way”. Wake up, my friend, they got shagged, they are IN (look up Adelman’s tip to Bush for a clue). Or is it “America Love It Or Leave It”-head-in-the-sand-I-do-not-want-to-know mode again? I for one am happy that the FF were not of your stock, AL, lest I’d be blessing the Queen.

  9. Gary

    Ever consider the posiibility that he may be right and that you are living in Denial-land?
    Remember Operation Norwood? Clinton? Hoover? Tuskeegee and Cincinnati Experiments?
    The media and gov are institutions not isolated from society and as such reflects the greatness and faults of their constituents. the media is simply a tool of people with agendas (to inform as well as not to).
    Do your part: read, analyze (emphasis here), make up your own mind. But blind trust? Hell no. That was Soviet, and you would not want to be where the believing Russian is now, would you!!!

  10. Sorry to make such a long comment but this rally interests me.

    I have experienced very similar situations on several occasions myself. Between 1991 and 1996, I spent a great deal of time in the former Yugoslavia (mostly in Croatia but also in Bosnia-Herzegovina). The circles I moved in tended to be very well educated professionals (doctors, lawyers, architects, media people, fairly senior levels of government and military).

    Although I was often struck by how ‘western’ the people were, particularly in Zagreb, on several occasions I was left breathless by a sudden demonstration that I was ‘not in Kansas anymore’. For example in the middle of a lengthy dinner conversation about the hoped for shape of post-war Balkan economics I was once told by an otherwise urbane and well travelled Croatian colonel that “of course the Jewish bankers in London and New York have a vested interest in keeping this war going as long as possible”. My utter astonishment was compounded when several people at the table whom I quite respected just nodded and the conversation continued. Naturally I was not going to let that one slide past uncommented, given that I have a financial background in both London and New York. When I challenged the colonel to explain, it became clear that even though there was no real basis for his remarks, it was accepted as axiomatic “because everyone knows that”. No matter what I said or pointed out to them, that was ultimately what they fell back on, getting increasingly annoyed each time I tried to pin down the source of this received wisdom.

    In my time there I encountered many other equally weird conspiracy theories uttered by educated people and not once did I ever get a rational explanation for how they came to believe these things. One recurring theme was that the media in the west is all lies and clearly their experiences of having grown up under communism have so coloured their views that even those who have lived in the west cannot really comprehend the profound differences. The notion of being essentially pawns of unseen, malevolent and directed forces is so deeply part of the meta-context that nothing can be analysed on its own merits. Your experience with the Iranian gentleman is eerily similar to what I found in the Balkans and I suspect the underlying psychology is probably pretty similar.

    I strongly suspect there is not direct way to bridge such gapsand only time and the corrosive drip drip drip of exposure to more open societies can change world views which are distorted at the meta-contextual level like this.

  11. Libre:

    I wasn’t intending to condemn anyone. My comments reflect several years of living in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. That relationship with leaders, and that belief in unseen powers pulling strings behind the scene, was made clear to me many, many times, often in response to direct questions on my part. By and large, gender, class, income and education didn’t change the responses

  12. From the standpoint of democracy as participatory I think your problem is a provincial attitude. This is your frame of reference. My experience is that people are often more astute than that. They do not want to give up traditional connections between people that result when market economies replace subsistance farming, herding, or any number of alternative ways to put bread on the table and leave enough time to sit with your neighbor and enjoy telling stories.

    This ultimately is the problem that globalization brings to people. Competition takes the place of cooperation and values between people break down.

    People resent this ‘gift’. Is it not their right to reject it if they want?

  13. Marie:

    I’ve tended to consider anti-globalization sentiment as just so much repackaged Western racism, the bastard child of “the white man’s burden” and all that rubbish. . But, even if it isn’t, there is no way that Neolithic-style herding and subsistence farming can be considered to be an appropriate way of life for any human being, anywhere, in the 21st century. To assert the contrary is to deny any notion of human progress, and to idealize the harshness and misery of subsistence farming or herding as a benignly and happily cooperative way of life. They are neither benign nor cooperative.

  14. (I too must apologize for a long post but I have been very much at loose ends over this for the some months now and I am looking for any suggestions.)

    Libre, I am not speaking of blind trust in the American government but rather the illogical complete mistrust of everything the US or any government does. My friend was even worried that our emails back and forth might get him into trouble, this despite all the much more ‘subversive’ media content all around him that had not effect.

    I probably am at least as much a conspiracy theorist as you and I am well aware of how much the US press distorts news (mainly for their own, not government biases), alternately I am also aware how poor the press is at times at protecting us from US abuses.

    Does anyone remember the Canadian’s jailing of supposed Islamic extremists for the Oklahoma bombings or the possible Philippine connection? When asked if they were going to release these men after McVeigh’s capture a Canadian official remarked “What for? They’re guilty.” How about the rifle that James Ray supposedly used to kill Martin Luther King that tested negative for a ballistic match at least twice a few years ago (the judge ordering the retesting was ultimately taken off the review of the case—I have never heard the results of the supposed third retest). The Tuskeegee study was no worse than the ‘radiation’ studies done on unwitting US soldiers.

    The point here is that this evidence does come out in our society and the press in general is more free and unregulated here than anywhere else in the world. Thank God we don’t get the government we pay for. We don’t have to wait for the fall of our government for most truths to come out.

    The ratio of right to wrong seems much higher here than most anywhere else in the world right now. I none the less wish to see continuing improvement of this ratio and in no way am I comfortable with the status quo nor am I at all sure how long our Republic/Democracy will survive.

    What I am sure of is that we don’t do a better job of communicating what we do stand for we will fail as a nation for lies and misconceptions will win out in the apparent vacuum that has been revealed by these posts.

    I have not even hinted at some of the theories I am hearing from some of my friends for they make Perry De Havilland’s example look tame.

    I am aware of how poorly the Russian Jews have been treated in Israel, their early terrorisms of the British and many other questionable actions but I can find no justification for the extreme anti-Jewish sentiment through most of the world. It seems to me that this simular to just before WWII. It seems even to be more acceptable or at least more open and possibly pervasive than in the 1930(s).

    But what I decry most is this legacy of extreme paranoia that while often justified in localized circumstances leads to complete inability to have any sense of balance and leads one to easy manipulation by the very same type of forces that were the focus of the paranoia in the first place.

    If I could afford to take my friends to Iraq I could fight some of their misconceptions by letting them talk directly to the people for themselves but such solutions are not economical on a mass basis. A society that can not or will not efficiently communicate with themselves and the outside world will fail.

  15. Libe –

    First, while I’m puzzled by my friend’s positions I make a point not to insult him, and you’ll have a lot more success in engaging me and others in dialog (as opposed to self-righteous mutual chest beating) if you’d cut back on the level of insult.

    Yeah, of course I’ve considered the possibility that he’s right.

    That’s why I look at as many diverse sources of data as possible, and try to get primary sources whenever I can.

    When they are largely in agreement – when CNN, the BBC, the Guardian, Arab News, and Le Monde all pretty much agreee and the commercially-available satellite photos all show mututally consistent data, I have ot turn to people who suggest an alternate reality and ask them for some fact to hang their position on.

    When I see one, I’ll consider it.

    A.L.

  16. Marie, it’s not that people reject the gift of modern civilization. In fact, the vast majority accept and welcome it. Just look at the directions in which immigration flows.

    Of course, people are free to reject modernity, there’s nothing wrong with that. (Although, sadly, it means more work, a shorter lifespan, and, in most places in the world, fewer human rights, especially women’s rights.) It’s the people that decide to forcibly make other people reject it, when those other people don’t want to, that’s most troubling.

    It’s the people that get violent because they’re losing, because others don’t agree with them. It’s like the French farmers who bomb McDonald’s because too many French people choose to eat there. If there weren’t plenty of people who wanted to eat at McDonald’s, they wouldn’t exist there.

  17. If this has been posted on a liberal blog, I’m sure someone would have noted by now that large numbers of Amricans answer “yes” to the questions 1) “Do you believe Saddam Hussein was involved and had fore-knowledge of the September 11 attacks?” and 2) “Were there Iraqis among the Semptember 11 hijackers?”. On a lighter note, a poll once found Americans on average believe we spend 15 percent of the budget on foreign aid. (actual number is a little less than 1 percent)

    The percentage of the budget we spend on foreign aid is obviously a much less important issue than civilian casualties, but the factor error of 15X is the same.

    Now do large numbers of Americans *really* believe Saddam Hussein had fore-knowledge of September 11? I think in their heart of hearts they don’t, but they believe he is *capable* of such a thing and they are not willing to give him an out *in any way*. Similarly, your Iranian friend in his heart of hearts may not *really* believe that CNN is all a mass of Government lies, but he believes the Americans (we) are morally *capable* of inflicting 75,000 civilian casualties without remorse, and he is not willing to give us an out *in any way*.

    I’ve got more to say, but for now I’ll say that the fundamental emotion that’s causing all these lies to be believed is envy and shame, envy of American (Western) riches, freedom, cultural and technological achievements, and above all, American military dominance, and shame that their societies are lagging so far behind. So you attack these types of lies in two ways 1) by aggressively televising and promoting the truth. If the truth is on your side, then the more sunshine, the more cameras, the more debates, the more interviews the better. 2) by trying to reduce the envy that is the fundamental cause of these lies being produced and believed.

    When you’re the richest man in town, some people, perhaps a lot of people, are going to hate you no matter what you do. But how you act makes a big difference as well. The poor and powerless have a responsibility not to succumb to feelings of envy, shame and hatred, but the rich and powerful also have a responsibility be generous, polite and humble. They could be doing better, but so could we.

  18. RE: “envy and shame, envy of American (Western) riches, freedom, cultural and technological achievements, and above all, American military dominance, and shame that their societies are lagging so far behind.”

    Roublen, I used to think as you do but the people I am meeting in the last few years (cold war scientists—I am a physicist) mostly love America and fought hard to get here. Yet they feel we are loosing our own values (the very values they came here for) and are blind dupes to our ever more Soviet style government at it’s most doctorial, hence the extreme paranoia.

  19. I think you can safely tell your friend that the 75,000 civilian casualty figure is implausibly high. I will advance several reasons, others may occur to you.

    First, the highest estimate of Iraqi military casualties, who were actively targeted, does even reach 20,000. In order to inflict 75,000 civilian casualties, US forces would have had to strike nearly 4 civilians for every combatant.

    Second, apart from the first Marine division and the last stages of the 3rd ID’s campaign, most US forces were deployed outside Mesopotamia, west of the Eurphrates. The Marines themselves thrusted up a narrow corridor to the Tigris. They were notoriously shy of towns, as lamanted endlessly by the media and claimed by the Ba’ath themselves. These Marines were the only ground units capable of inflicting casualties on the scale your Iranian friend describes. There were embeds with the Marines. Had they inflicted casualties on this scale, it would be impossible to conceal.

    Third, the air bombardment was concentrated on IRG units in the southern defense arc of Baghdad, which was located outside the population centers. Apart from the fact that this would militate against civilian casualties, you have to ask yourself why the US military would waste expensive munitions on civilians when every weapon was desperately needed to thin out the IRG. Killing civilians on this scale could only be accomplished by a careful selection of targets: a policy, in other words. It would be impossible to conceal this targeting policy from the public: too many pilots and crew chiefs to silence. There was little bombing in Baghdad itself. Even the famous market attack, if you look at the photographic evidence, looks more like a 120 mm mortar or AA artillery strike than a 1,000 lb cruise missile warhead.

    Fourth, the claimed scale itself. Seventy five thousand casualties is death on the scale of Hiroshima. All mass death sites take place in particular places and they leave indelible marks. Skeletal remains, mass graves, ordnance marks, etc are hard to clean up. Consider the Battle of the Somme, in which there were 57,000 casualties on the first day. That remnants of that battle are still viewable. Unexploded shells, and they were expended in their millions, are still turning up, 80 years after the fact. Where did the 75,000 die? Given the size of Iraqi towns, where could they have died? In the countryside?

    I do not doubt the sincerity of your Iranian friend, but he is probably wrong.

  20. Wretchard’s cool analysis is both persuasive and naive. The point of the story was that the sophisticated Iranian preferred to believe street rumours from a village over the cumulative knowledge of the international media, the Internet, etc. Does Wretchard think he would read his post and now say: “Oh, now I see.”?

    Anyone tracking MEMRI or the Arab news will see how the Middle East is treated to the most fantastic fables. For example, the official Syrian press reported the Baghdad museum was looted by the Israelis as retribution for their captivity in Babylon. Unfortunately, too many “sophisticated, anti-Baathist” Arabs are likely to reply that that is nonsense–the Israelis did it to strip us of our history!

    Although Germany was effectively de-Nazified, it was well into the sixties before the Germans confronted en masse the reality of their history. The US is in for a big disappointment if it dreams truth or even common sense will reign in this part of the world soon. What Armed Liberal should be pondering is how far the US should go to protect its and Western security needs before it betrays its own values or shoots itself in the foot, and also how much he should really care what the Arab street thinks. Drawing lines in the sand may be more important than winning hearts and minds.

  21. Have you ever dealt with a certifiably delusional person? Probably not. You’d have to be on the staff of an institution. But there are others, not institutionalized, who are delusional in one or another aspect of their lives.
    Trying to talk to them about their unfailingly counterproductive choices is like shooting BBs at a basketball. There is no penetration, and not even any traction. They always have a reason that your facts don’t count. And they will think of wilder and wilder theories to discredit the facts.
    It’s tough enough dealing with one person like that.
    Think about dealing with people like that in multi-million lots.
    Acting as if they will react reasonably to our actions or words is riding for a fall.
    We need to be prepared to control them into rational behavior. Simple facts and persuasion won’t do it.
    Speculation as to what need their delusions satisfy may be enjoyable, but hardly likely to be useful.
    It may be that we have to wait for a new generation to replace the hopelessly deluded.

  22. Then there’s the deal with numbers. During the 2000 census, I helped count living people in the U.S. as well as determine where they were living at a particular point of time.

    That required a LOT of people, using sophisticated listing, training, etc. And this was more or less with the help of the people we were counting. Great care had to be made not to count the same folks twice, etc.

    Counting casualties would require even more elaborate coordination. “Talking with some witnesses” does not cut it.

    One thing I’ve always noticed about “conspiracy” people is they do NOT rely on evidence supporting their claim. After all, it’s a distrust of any organized group that’s behind the conspiracy.

    The conspiracy mindset, even if it were true, dooms one utterly. You no longer rely on facts or even logical trains of thought. Plus, in order to have the “victim’s moral advantage” you can’t believe that there’s anything anyone can do to have the truth come out. Thus, the argument that “the numbers you’ve been told are lies” cannot ever be countered.

  23. Well put, Richard Aubrey. Yes, I have had the experience of dealing with the certifiably delusional when I meet otherwise apparently rational types who tell me how great the world will be when the UN runs it.

  24. As for the idea that being educated and affluent should shield you from silly ideas, I have heard that President Bush doesn’t believe in evolvution, he is a creationist. How’s that for still reading fairy tales?

  25. Quick observation:

    Most people (Americans perhaps a little less so) know VERY little about military affairs, equipment, etc. Their view of military capabilities are moulded by movies/Hollywood, (distant) memories of WWII and Vietnam, and what “makes sense” from those two starting points.

    If you’re not an American, it gets more warped.

    If your friend is Iranian and spent time in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, then what he knows is of blind bombing raids and blind missile attacks (the War of the Cities).

    Throw in the images of B-52s and B-2s and B-1s dropping bombs, and the American technological superiority (for which there is not necessarily an innate understanding of the real meaning), and the idea of killing 4 civilians for every soldiers becomes quite easy.

    Think about it: Massive bombing raids, w/ aircraft whose payloads are an order of magnitude greater than any SCUD. W/ virtually no opposition. And (if he lived through the War of the Citiets), knowledge of what the limited Iraqi long-range stuff could do, properly scaled up (and probably doubled and redoubled, given our fearsome prowess).

    Then, there’s the image of the MOAB that went around (which some folks think were dropped).

    Finally, I suppose, there may be an element of personal bias. How would YOU go about fighting a war (remembering that you’re not necessarily someone who’s thought about this very much, in any systematic kind of way)? Probably like WWII and Vietnam, w/ massive bombing raids, etc.

  26. As far as fairy tales go, I’d rather a president who believed in creationism than in the international jewish conspiracy… or should we amend the constitution to permit only atheists to serve? I will, of course, change my position the second that President Bush moves to recognize creationism as the ‘official’ truth.

    My experiences are somewhat similar to A.L.’s. I’ve spoken to a number of well-educated westernized muslims – U.S. citizens – who still maintain that jews drink the blood of muslim infants, and take it as a given that the international zionist conspiracy is running the federal government. Trying to change their minds is like trying to argue evolution to a fundamentalist christian, and as satisfying as ramming my head into a brick wall.

  27. For Chuck(le) and Celeste,
    Fair enough, Chuck, here are a couple of places I saw the references. I haven’t spoken with the president face to face to ask him about it though.
    http://slate.msn.com/id/1006378/
    http://www.youdebate.com/DEBATES/PRES_BUSH.HTM
    and Celeste, no we don’t need to have atheists in the white house. The point was to show that educated, affluent people aren’t always rational, whether they are Americas or Iranians, or any other nationality. I think Celeste’s comments just drove the point home all the more. Smile!

  28. A.L., Celeste, I have to add a third nod of agreement to your experiences. Time after time, both with first-generation Arabs and Iranians, I have run smack into that brick wall of profound belief in conspiracy theories, etc. The strength of that conviction denies any possibility of rational thought or open-minded conversation – it is held to be as true as gravity and oxygen that The Super Secret Fascist Spy Government is running Everything (including your clothes dryer, which is bugged), but you’ll have as much success debating its veracity in the face of zero proof as you would trying to hold a reasoned discourse about an ineffective course of action with someone whose motivation is love or religion – “God told me to,” or “But I love him.” It’s infuriating and sad.

  29. Chuck, I dropped you an e mail but I will make the comment here that after you chided me, I did a bit more searching than just the one reference I had read, and it would appear that the president only said creationism should be taught, not that he didn’t believe in evolution. I stand corrected. Also looks like I’m in much over my undereducated head to even comment in places like this, I’ll be leaving now, thanks again,
    Dave

  30. [sigh]…

    …no, Chuck, I banned you from my site (and looks like I’ll be discussing doing it here as well) because you a) confuse invective with argument, and b) mistake a declaration of fact by you for absolute proof. Your post above is a brass-plated example of what I’m talking about.

    Since a) is unpleasant, and b) makes arguments kind of moot, why don’t you go write the Truth as You Know It down someplace else and try to share it with the rest of us? The rest of us are trying to have a discussion.

    A.L.

  31. Well, Chuck, at least you were willing to dialogue with me a bit. Better than some of the one time “eat shit and die” type of comments I get from lesser writers. I sent the e mail to the e mail address you posted in the comments here. Sorry if you didn’t get it but it basicly appologized as I did above for everyone to see, because I didn’t do my homework. Now I am dissapointed to see you change a word I said, from “not being rational” to not being the “brightest” For someone as careful as you are, I was surprised you would try to put words in my mouth like that. For the record, I don’t dislike anyone here, I don’t dislike the president. Since when does everyone have to agree 100% or be considered defective? I will take your word on Clinton being a drag queen though. ,;-)

  32. Hi all. When it comes right down to it, this is my site. So, here are the rules. There are very few.

    RULE #1: Do not directly endanger others with your posts. EX: I’ve deleted posts about Salam Pax that discussed details – amazingly, in response to a post asking folks to put a zipper on the details because it may endanger him. Jeeeez…

    RULE #2: No spam. I delete comments spams, and ban the IP. Fortunately, I can only recall one instance of that so far.

    RULE #3: If your post does not even have a chance of being relevant to the topics under discussion, I’ll consider removing it. I’ve done that exactly once.

    RULE #4: I expect a certain degree of civility and language here. If you post stuff liable to get my site filtered by certain firewalls, I’ll act in self-defense.

    That’s pretty broad latitude. Basically, you all own your own words (but can be quoted on them here and elsewhere). Whether your choice of words makes you look like a genius or a moron is entirely up to you; whether one’s reputation attracts thoughtful responses or gets one ignored is the choice of other readers. My preference is to stand back, and let that self-created advertisement and consequences operate in the court of opinion.

    Chuck, you’ve made some interesting and enlightening posts to this thread. The recent bit of off the rails invective directed at Armed Liberal wasn’t one of them. Personally – I had NO idea where that came from, and it didn’t make much sense.

    Can we all please get back to the issues at hand? The subject is important.

  33. So it seems Joe and I may see things slightly differently here.

    I see discussions like this as a way of learning something. Part of how I see things is that truth often emerges in dialog; people bring up facts and ideas that may contradict mine, and some of them are better – more powerful, more useful.

    The problem is that this is a somewhat delicate balance to strike. On one hand, you have to support opposition and debate – even heated, passionate debate. On the other, we all something have a habit of arguing to win as opposing to arguing to illuminate.

    I have a simple line that I use to distinguish the two; it has to do with respect for the other people involved. It involves staying away from ad hominem arguments, namecalling, and invective.It involves working to make your arguments accessible, and refraining from cheap rhetorical tricks. It’s about simple decency toward the other participants – however outlandish their ideas or arguments may be.

    On my own blog, I’ve deleted posts and banned two people because after substantial private email discussion, they couldn’t get this seemingly simple idea. As you may have noticed, one of them is posting here.

    I delete comments like this not because they challenge my positions, but because they don’t. They’re the equivalent of slinging “yo’ mama’s”. And the problem isn’t my thin skin (hint: it isn’t) but the fact that the less-engaged commenters scan a discussion thread like this, and just leave instead of staying and contributing.

    Joe and I will have a further discussion on this, but from my point of view I’m just going to ignore people who scrawl electronic graffiti here.

    And Chuck[le], I’m happy to take your issues on privately; I’m in kind of a bad mood today, missed my time at the dojo, and it’ll give me something to do with the unused aggression. Drop me a note, just don’t confuse that dialog with meaningful discussion.

    A.L.

  34. Not sure we’re as far apart as we seem here.

    I’m of the opinion that irrelevant ad hominem argument, lack of respect et. al. do teach… they teach that the person engaging in this conduct is not to be taken very seriously, surely a valuable lesson to all.

    Of course, everyone slips on occasion, and sometimes tempers flare. Folks who own up earn public credibility points, those who don’t lose them.

    “…from my point of view I’m just going to ignore people who scrawl electronic graffiti here.”

    Well, sure. Anyone can do that, for any reason at all. Just because I don’t delete a comment, doesn’t mean that anyone else has to give it attention – via email or otherwise. As is true anywhere, respect and attention are earned.

    I’ve been very happy with the quality of discussion in our Comments sections of late, and wish to see that continue. I’m also reluctant to play nanny in any way, believing that our readers are up to the challenge of dealing with these things. I’m prepared to review that stance if reality mugs it, but my bet is that it won’t be necessary.

  35. “Something that transpired last Fall. You had to be there.”

    So why raise it here, if so? More bluntly… the rest of us don’t care. Let’s just stick to the issue at hand.

  36. Well that’s just the issue. For some people “evidence” just isn’t in their lexicon… see today’s follow up post of mine and its links.

    Now, in that situation A.L. could have demanded evidence and an apology. I’d say it’s equally valid in this situation to probe and try to find out where these statements are coming from. And when he does, the answer is basically somewhere between “I made them up” and “divine revelation.” Not said directly, but in so many words that was the response.

    A.L.’s question then goes beyond the dinner, and my follow-up has taken that tack too. There’s more than casual evidence from reading the Arab media and the experiences of people in this thread (like your brother-in-law) that this mindset is prevalent in the Arab and Persian worlds. In the Arab world, it may even be a majority mindset (Fouad Ajami’s “Dream Palace of the Arabs”). At the very least, it’s a significant minority.

    If so, how will the U.S. be able to achieve its longer-term goals in the region? Because if it no rational dialogue is possible, all that’s left is force – on a scale and of a nature that would be closer to the Mongols than it would to the current approach.

    How to pierce this mindset, in order to avoid what would have to follow widespread failure to do so?

  37. to: chuck(le)
    re: arguments / discussions

    with all due respect, i’m not certain you’re arguing the point of A.L.’s post : his disquiet appears to be more over his educated friend’s immutable beliefs in “facts” that are provably false and his refusal to even entertain the counter-evidence and dismiss it all as lies and propaganda.

    note A.L.’s closing paragraph:


    What does it say about the millions of Arabs in the Middle East, and the gap between us, if this Westernized, educated, security-cleared man believes that we’re essentially living in “The Matrix”? And what does that mean to our plans and hopes for the region?

    the issue and the discussion are not about whether or not 75,000 iraqis were really killed — i don’t think anyone here believes the anecdotal evidence A.L.’s friend cited — but the potential problems that may crop up when dealing with what one could describe as an entire society of paranoid schizophrenics?

    just an observation.

    one of the great things to come out of the media’s embedding within the armed forces is the clear character of our armed forces — the most effective, efficient, precise, and humane military force the world has known. the ability to wage a war and topple a regime — with a small, modernized force, causing fewer than 5,000 civilian casualties — bespeaks an ability that, hopefully, will give our enemies pause and cause us to not need to deploy those forces in the future.

  38. Casualties are those injured AND those killed, not just those killed. Look it up. They are two different numbers. For example, the US has around 500 casualties compared to 125 deaths.
    The number of civilian deaths hovers around 2,000. However, the injured must be in the tens of thousands by now. Given all of the high powered, precision munitions we’ve used, which can damage buildings hundreds of yards away simply from the concussion, I would be surprised if the number of casualties was not over 20,000.

  39. Typo: Here is the correct link to Salam Pax’s blog and an excerpt:

    Today before noon I went out with my cousin to take a look at the city. Two things. 1) the attacks are precise. 2) they are attacking targets which are just too close to civilian areas in Baghdad. Looked at the Salam palace and the houses around it. Quite scary near it and you can see widows with broken glass till very far off. At another neighborhood I saw a very unexpected “target” it is an officers’ club of some sorts smack in the middle of [………] district. I guess it was not severely hit because it was still standing but the houses around it, and this is next door and across the street, were damaged. One of them is rubble the rest are clearing away glass and rubble. A garbage car stands near the most damaged houses and help with the cleaning up.

  40. It has been my experience that Eastern Europeans and Russians tend to be more prone toward belief in crazy conspiracy theories. Ditto for Turks and Arabs. Yes, I’ve heard it from Ph.D. science and engineering types from those places as well. It is incredible.

    This tendency toward the belief in conspiracies is an obstacle in the democratization of those societies. It makes them low trust societies. They think governments are controlled by hidden conspiracies and hence do not take policy debates as seriously and do not feel as connected to their governments.

    The belief in conspiracies retards the development of a civil society because people do not think they can have any impact on what their governments do. After all, if conspiracies run everything then what is the point of writing to elected representatives, working for campaigns, studying policy issues, or working for public interest groups?

  41. Ah, the Conspiracists’ Credo: “Everything is controlled by a small evil group to which, unfortunately, no one we know belongs.”

    I’ve noted this trend in Eastern Europeans too. The fact that in the case of the French they were right may hinder efforts to change this tendency, however. :-)

  42. Here’s a model that may help us get a handle on the “Dream Palace” phenomenon: memetic epidemics.

    Some societies are indeed more prone to this behaviour than others, and conspiracy theories have a more “contagious” environment there. There’s also a societal correction factor, which we might define as the “immune response capability” or “Fisk Factor.” When contagiousness is high and immune responses are low, conspiracy memes can and do go epidemic quickly.

    Malcolm Gladwell may give us a way of getting a handle on the phenomenon, as most members of a society are really passive players in this little drama. As he notes in his book “The Tipping Point” and in some of his articles, the people who really matter are a sequence of:

    * Mavens – experts with credibility, who can communicate with laypeople);

    * Connectors – who take the Mavens’ memes and quickly spread them widely within and among social groups; and/or

    * Salesmen – master convincers.

    You also have the choice of attacking contagious environments directly (drain standing puddles to remove mosquitoes), and/or building response and immunity capabilities (vaccinations and/or a system of readily available counter-medication).

    If we work from that common framework, a number of potential strategies and approaches open up aimed at one or more of these nodes. Try it, use your imagination, and post your ideas!

  43. During the height of the cold war, my father, a Professor of Engineering, was once visited by a number of his Russian colleagues in Lawrence, KS. These were all extremely well educated, very smart scientists who were members of the Academy of Sciences. My parents had a modest midwestern house a mile from the university.

    The Russians decided that they were seeing a “Potemkin Village” – an illusion of comfort (opulence by their standards) put on to entertain them. They asked to see how people “really” lived.

    My father took them for a ride and told them to direct his driving. When this was over they were quite mystified, because this Potemkin Village was huge – they couldn’t find the war zones and horrible poverty that all of America was supposed to be filled with.

    This is the power of the big lie form of propaganda.

  44. Joe, Curiously, the French are much more into conspiracy beliefs.

    BTW, Didn’t Daniel Pipes once write a whole book on the conspiracy mindset, its causes, and the ramifications of that sort of mindset?

  45. re: Wretchard, Dave, Dean, ArmedLiberal…

    Coming late to THIS discussion allows me to observe and comment: 1)I’ve observed several very intelligent comments; 2)many of them documenting the lack of congruence between [Arab, for example] SOME opinion/viewpoint/belief AND [SOME] outwardly ascertainable ‘objective’ reality.

    My perceptual set leads me to side with those who choose the ‘objectively verifiable reality’, WITH THIS PROVISO, and one which my perusal of previous postings did NOT find:

    “What WILL you accept as proof?”

    Sometimes this question, asked EARLY in a discussion, will elicit a meaningful response, a response which leads BOTH (ALL) parties in the enquiry to a mutually-acceptable description of reality… while accepting that ALL descriptions are ‘maps’ which more-or-less accurately depict the actual ‘reality’ *whatever it is* !!

    Sometimes, however, this question reveals what is revealed here, in a great number of posts: What will you accept as proof? “Nothing!” or “If and only if MY FRIENDS come to me telling me its as YOU say…” or “Only if the Hand of God writes it across the sky… (read: “Nothing!”)”

    That we live in a western society where, since before we were born, our ‘leaders’ told us “Christ did NOT return at the time and in the manner He promised, because that worked out to the Year of the Great Expectation, now known as 1844, and He didn’t come as WE wanted THEREFORE He didn’t come… but He will… at some unspecified, hazy future point somewhere… SO until then, DO AS WE CLERICS SAY…”

    And in THIS manner, the untrustworthiness of the western, ‘Judeao-Christian’ ethic is remarkably similar to the cleric-centered ravings of Islamicists, who acknowledge their Sacred Scriptural prophecies about the Holy One Who was to come in the Year 1260 AH (1844 CE) BUT… when He did come, the clerics had him shot by 750 Christian-Armenian riflemen at pointblank range, July 9th, 1850. And, when THAT didn’t kill Him, they had to do it again, that same day, using 750 Muslim riflemen… and that DID kill Him…

    So see? they claim, He was not the Promised One, and His resting-place on Mount Carmel doesn’t mean anything, and His teachings about the oneness of all humanity doesn’t include US, because we are Muslims, and we believe our clergy…

    …And after 159 years of this scoffing and denial, those ‘Muslim’ nations are in a significantly dysfunctional, dysjunctive and non-congruent ‘reality’, of their own making…

    What will YOU accept as proof?

    That’s a real Eye Opener!

  46. Just FYI:

    After about 4 of Chuck’s posts I started skimming past them, because there were too many of them and they were all cluttered with fake “memo”-type headings and stilted verbal style.

    A word to the wise: just because you post a lot doesn’t mean you’re going to get read.

  47. Unfortunately, I think the Europeans are just as susceptible as the Arabs are to bizarre conspiracy theory ramblings. Spain and France have both seen the release of extremely popular books claiming all sorts of crazed ramblings like the Jews orchestrated 911, etc. I’ve met tons of Europeans who have gross misconceptions of the US. No matter how many times I tell people Americans do receive unemployment benefits, they refuse to believe me. So many Europeans believe Americans have absolutely no rights against companies. It’s astonishing. It’s true more reform is needed but the situation is nowhere near as dire as the portraits they paint. A perfect example would be the Brian Eno essay in Time Europe where he claims we have no unemployment benefits. Not to mention that he apparently believes Europeans have free health care (they pay for it with higher taxes) and that Europe does not possess a “resentful underclass”. Sure, Brian, whatever you say. He even attacks our media!

    They’ve bought the farm in terms of “capitalist” stereotypes. Much of the news everywhere is grossly distorted, but the ones I’ve met seem to believe their media is pure and uncorrupted. They cannot see the forest for the trees, etc. Yes, Europe, America is to blame for the double digit unemploment, not your completely illogical economic system aka socialism. The US (and the Jews) is THE MAN and we’re keeping everyone else down! I’ve been told (and read in many places) that the footage of the Saddam statue coming down was shocking to Europeans and Arabs.

    But let’s look at America as well. How many people believe Hillary Clinton offed Vince Foster? Or the Hitchens’ claim that Clinton was informing on the anti-war radicals at Oxford for the CIA? Hillary’s a lesbian? Bush is a complete puppet? Bush is a complete idiot? And a complete relgious wacko? No Blood for OIL! Despite it being cheaper and easier to just drop the sanctions and buy the damn oil. The JFK/RFK/MLK rumors? It goes on forever.

    This post from Musings of a Former Belgian frighteningly explains what’s happening. Once again, George Orwell was right: Oceania, East Asia and Eurasia. It’s frightening. Just scroll down to the Sunday, April 20, 2003 entry.

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