On The Road To in Damascus – A Liberal

The NY Times Magazine today has an article today that more than piqued my interest.

When I first met Ammar Abdulhamid in Washington in the fall, the 38-year-old Syrian novelist, poet and liberal dissident had Damascus on his mind. He had received word from his wife back in Syria that the political situation at home was becoming more precarious for rights activists like himself. As a fellow at the Brookings Institution, he’d been meeting with leading figures in the Bush administration and writing articles in the Arab and Western presses that were sharply critical of the Syrian government; he simply didn’t know what to expect on his return. Now, sitting here in a Damascus coffeehouse in late January a week after his return, he is telling me that he had found reason for optimism about the country’s future in the least likely of places.

“When I arrived at the airport,” Abdulhamid says, “I was told I had to go to political security. It took me some time to find out exactly which security apparatus wanted to speak to me, but then I met with them for two days in a row. I was very up front about my activities and even talked about things they didn’t know yet, like an article I had co-written with an Israeli. One of my interrogators told me that what I was doing would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and he’s right. I got the sense from even some of the security police that they see there has to be a new way of doing things in Syria.”

Things aren’t the same in the last Ba’athist dictatorship. Why?

Recently, intellectuals from Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia petitioned the United Nations for a tribunal to prosecute both terrorists and the religious figures who incite violence. In Egypt, two new publications, Nahdet Misr and Al Masry Al Youm, fault the region’s leaders and clerics alike for keeping Arabs from joining the modern world. The Iraqi election posed a stark challenge to regional autocrats. While Abdulhamid harbors mixed feelings about the United States’ decision to invade Iraq, he says he believes that the American presence in the region is vital to the prospects for reform. “We are an important part of the world,” he says, “and our inability to produce change on our own terms invites people in. The world is not going to wait for us.”

No, it won’t.

That creaking sound you hear is the beginning of a landslide. It will be out of our control to be sure, but the landscape is going to be reshaped.

Juan Cole is in a panic about it, over at the Washington Post:

“This is a government that will have very good relations with Iran. The Kurdish victory reinforces this conclusion. Talabani is very close to Tehran,” said Juan Cole, a University of Michigan expert on Iraq. “In terms of regional geopolitics, this is not the outcome that the United States was hoping for.”

I don’t share the unbridled faith that it will be reshaped to our advantage; but I do think that in the intermediate run it will be shaped to the advantage of men like Ammar Abdulhamid and the ITM brothers (all three of them). And in the long run, that will suit us just fine.

[Update: The NY Times is also challenging Professor Cole’s claim:

The verdict handed down by Iraqi voters in the Jan. 30 election appeared to be a divided one, with the Shiite political alliance, backed by the clerical leadership in Najaf, opposed in nearly equal measure by an array of mostly secular minority parties.

According to Iraqi leaders here, the fractured mandate almost certainly heralds a long round of negotiating, in which the Shiite alliance will have to strike deals with parties run by the Kurds and others, most of which are secular and broadly opposed to an enhanced role for Islam or an overbearing Shiite government.

I liked Dean’s Speech Today (almost all of it)

Go check out the text of Howard Dean’s speech as the new DNC chair today. There’s a lot there that I like.

Republicans wandered around in the political wilderness for 40 years before they took back Congress. But the reason we lost control is that we forgot why we were entrusted with control to begin with.

The American people can’t afford to wait for 40 years for us to put Washington back to work for them.

It can’t take us that long.

And a few things that I question. But all in all, a big ‘YEARRRGH’ for him.

I was originally for him because I believed that his 50-state policy would absolutely force the Party out of the Upper West Side and Brentwood and into the neighborhoods where the folks who ought to be Democrats live.

That may just be more transformative for the Party than for the folks…


Today marks the anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden by the British Air Force.

Like a lot of people in the Anglosphere – more than will likely admit it – I first learned of it by reading ‘Slaughterhouse 5′ in high school.

The short version is that British strategic bombers used a combination of high explosives – to create kindling – and phosphorus – to ignite it- to create firestorm that killed half a million German civilians.

The direct military role of Dresden (and Cologne and Hamburg, which were equally treated) was limited, and the question of why Air Marshal Harris and Churchill chose to do this remains a significant issue for historians.

And for us, as we consider the issues around the ‘scope’ of warfare in the modern age.A long time ago, I wrote a paper about the interplay between social forms, the level and cost of technology that was generated by and could support those social norms, and forms of warfare. I pointed out that most societies seemed to cluster in scale at the level that optimally supported their then-preferred means of warfighting.

And that we tended to oscillate between a tribal mode of war, in which wars were typically either symbolic or total, and a ‘Westphalian’ form in which the wars engaged only the military and political leadership and explicitly tried (with varying degrees of success) to leave the peasants alone.

I think that we idealize the Westphalian style of war; we imagine it to be boundable in law and custom, and somehow able to keep the rage and fear that are inextricable from war out of the picture.

But I do think we are slowly moving – for a variety of reasons and with a variety of impulses – toward a system which at least makes some effort to manage what war is. We haven’t come very far.

That’s why General Mattis’ comments made me wince so deeply. I’ve met Gen. Mattis, shaken his hand and sat with him and discussed what he hoped to do when the 1st MEF returned to Iraq. And it was clear to me that he ‘got it'; that he was going to stop the bad guys and defend the good guys – who included the brutalized Iraqi people.

I had no doubt that he was a warrior, and all warriors have some germ of Genghis Khan in them, some desire to see their enemies trampled underfoot, their cities brought down amid tears.

But he knew, I felt then, how to place that impulse in context, and I continue to believe, based on the performance of his Marines, that he knew how to place that context into action, even when faced with a brutal enemy.

I think he slipped when he spoke, and while I disagree with Patterico and don’t believe an official reprimand was remotely called for, I do believe that a general officer ought to know better.

And the reason for that is worth remembering today, on the anniversary of Dresden.

We need to look at it and not see some lesson about the moral culpability of the West and how we’re as bad as the Nazis, or any other brutal regime – as opposed to some idealized nation which has never existed. Instead we should see the lesson of what total war looks like, and what we need to struggle hard to avoid.

We need to be reminded of what we’re capable of and what we need to sacrifice to avoid being driven to do. We should be ashamed of Dresden. We have dirty hands because of it, and an obligation to use those dirty hands to do better.

Standing At The Mosque Door

I’ve looked and looked and can’t find a class on building car bombs or soliciting suicide bombers in the class list over at Hamburg Technical University.

So should I just toss out my notion that there is some root of modern Islamist terrorism to be found in the soil of the antiwestern academy?

Not so sure.

Here’s the issue. Sageman suggests that the future warriors simply drifted into a local mosque, and – alienated and lonely – they fell under the spell of the imam.

When they became homesick, they did what anyone would and tried to congregate with people like themselves, whom they would find at mosques. So they drifted towards the mosque, not because they were religious, but because they were seeking friends. They moved in together in apartments, in order to share the rent and also to eat together – they were mostly halal, those who observed the Muslim dietary laws, similar in some respects to the kosher laws of Judaism. Some argue that such laws help to bind a group together since observing them is something very difficult and more easily done in a group. A micro-culture develops that strengthens and absorbs the participants as a unit. This is a halal theory of terrorism, if you like.

So here’s the problem. If you read the – rants – of the extremist imams, how in the world do you bridge across to thinking that they make any sense at all? How do you go from hanging out with your fellows to accepting what is essentially a fascist theocracy?I think of it as the “standing at the mosque door” question.

When you stand at the mosque door and hear things like this:

“At any rate, if we return to our discussion of the heart of the matter. First of all, we must realize that Allah obligated us to disseminate this religion all over the globe. And first, it should be spread through outreach and calling people to Allah’s word, through pleasing words, gently, and through good deeds. Through letting people hear Allah’s words and showing them Islam. However, if we run up against someone who opposes this path and attempts to obstruct the spread of the upright religion and the light, and to obstruct their reaching others – in this case it is a duty to fight such a person. And Allah said: ‘Fight them until there is no more strife and Allah’s religion reigns supreme.’

“We don’t agree with those who disavow this completely and say that the religion [of Islam] doesn’t use the sword. No. Islam uses the sword when there is no other alternative. Therefore wisdom, as the religious authorities say, consists in utilizing each thing in its proper place. If there is need for the sword, then it is wise to use the sword, and if the occasion requires kind words and outreach, then it is wise to utilize them.”

And to me, there are at least two parts to it.

First, how is it that, in a century that conquered fascism, we ignored this kind of passionate fascist belief for so long? I read things like this once in a while before 9/11, and was amused. “Wow, those guys are nuts,” I used to think.

But we tolerate them. We tolerate them in our cities, as opposed to compounds in rural Idaho, where their white counterparts tend to pool. Why? Because we believe that no one who isn’t white can really be racist.

Why? Because the academic annti-Western left today sees the world through a very simple lens.

I stress very strongly, not the left at large or overall. It’s a very small tradition of anticolonial, pseudo-nationalist radicalism that eclectically and often incoherently grabs what it needs from Marxism, poststructuralism, postcolonial theory, and even conservative thought now and again (though often in unacknowledged ways).

It is also a tradition that is completely unable to face its own contradictions. Churchill’s much-cited remarks on 9/11 are an indication, for example, of the underlying moral incoherence of his writing (and writing like his). The principles that are used to value some lives (Iraqi babies dying under sanctions) and not others (people in the World Trade Center) have no underlying ethical or moral foundation: they’re purely historicist and instrumental. The original sin of modernity is seen as the expansion of the West; it is perceived as a kind of singularity that utterly destroyed or erased historical experience to that point. The only moral vector, the only capacity to act immorally or to commit evil, descends from that original sin. If you’re associated by social structure with that expansion, you are bad. If you are a victim of it, you are good.

Norm Geras touched on the same point:

In affecting the general alignment of most of the socialist left in the conflicts that have preceded and followed the events of September 11, 2001, all this effort that I have tried briefly to characterize might just as well not have taken place. For even if more advanced models of theoretical explanation are now available to the left, it nonetheless seems to suffice in any given international conflict to know that on one side is the United States, and that the United States is a capitalist power that always has designs on the natural and human resources of the rest of the world. If you know this, everything else falls instantly into place; all other levels of analysis, all other considerations, are superfluous. They can either be ignored altogether, or they can be conceded in passing, but as merely secondary and hence ignorable in practice. The political alignments are always defined by the primary determinant-imperialism. But how does this differ from imperialism’s being the only thing, with every other social, political, or ideological reality merely epiphenomenal, taking its place and meaning within the whole from the one true cause?

So on one hand, we turn a blind eye to beliefs that – if they were voiced in a Protestant church in the late 20th century – would be on the front page of the newspaper. But we don’t talk about them, because to do so would disrupt the tacit understanding that any statement – any rage, any claim – is valid if it is addressed against the hegemonic West, or more particularly, the United States.

And on the other, we immerse people in a community that believes that those claims – that everything wrong in the world is the result of Western history. So now, you’re lonely and far from home, in a society where you feel slighted – where you were once the best-educated, richest young man on the block. And now you’re another poor, unhappy student.

And why?

Well, because of the West, of course.

And if you come to believe that – and I have friends from New York who do – how much easier is it, standing at the door of the mosque – to go ahead and step inside.

Juan Cole Stands In His Hole And Asks For A Shovel

Here’s Cole on Jonah Goldberg:

Goldberg helped send nearly 1500 brave Americans to their deaths and helped maim over 10,000, not to mention all the innocent Iraqi civilians he helped get killed. He helped dragoon 140,000 US troops in Iraq. And he does not have the courage of his convictions. His excuse is that he couldn’t afford to take the pay cut!

What is Goldberg going to say to the tens of thousands of reservists he helped send to Iraq, who are losing their mortgages and small businesses and have been kidnapped for 18 months at a time (not what they thought they were signing up for) by Rumsfeld? “Well guys, thanks for carrying out the policy I wanted to see, and for putting your own little girls into penury. I’d have loved to help out, but my little girl is more important than yours and besides, I like a good meal and I hear you only get MREs.”

See, Goldberg is a – wait for it – chickenhawk.I’ve talked about the political and intellectual bankruptcy of that charge before.

It is, primarily, a slur designed to end debate rather than an argument intended to advance it, and I’m way past surprised that Professor Cole would use it.

But hey, I guess I’m a chickenhawk too by his standards, so here’s my white flag of surrender to those who make it an issue.

Can we just let the military serving in Iraq vote on the war and abide by their choice?

I’d be happy to, although I fear that Dr. Cole might be less so.

But hey, he’s not serving either, so why should he have a voice in it?

Armed Liberal Agrees Unqualifiedly With Yglesias: Thousands treated For Shock

Not much to add to Matthew’s comments on a better plan for Social Security. His core fix:

* Get everyone into the system (including those working in the cash economy);

Not bad, but possibly not enough. I’d add his “painful” prescriptions as well:

* Uncap the payroll tax, while lowering the rate somewhat. I’d actually take that a little further, and credit back payroll taxes for low-income workers, who get somewhat clobbered by them. But we ought to be able to – once we’ve got everyone earning wages into the pool – largely manage the solvency of the program by tuning the current tax rate.And I’d add further increases in the income taxes higher-income elderly pay on SSI income; I’d probably look at gross income, rather than AGI, to eliminate the tax-exempt bond effect.

Now many people will run around in circles, because this violates their notion of Social Security as a pension plan.

As I’ve noted, it’s not and never has been; it’s a social welfare program targeted at a specific set of ‘deserving’ recipients.

Ideally, we’d do things (like create a layer of national retirement savings) to keep people from needing any welfare, and everyone would means test out of the program.

I’m not going to be holding my breath on that one.

Books For Industry

So Middle Guy has asked me for a “core list” of 20 books he just has to read on politics, political philosophy, and economics.

He’s a smart 18 year old high school senior who has worked at the State Capitol and a hospice, so he’s got some experience in the world.

I’ve got – surprise!! – some ideas in this regard, but it occurs to me that you folks might – just might – have some ideas in this area too.

So put them down here…

Good News On The Sports Page

None of this is probably news to those better-informed about sports than I am, but I saw some seriously good news in the sports section of the newspaper today and wanted to comment on it.

And I’m not talking about the betting line on tomorrow’s football game.

First, an admission. I haven’t been to a professional sporting event – other than the AMA Superbike races at Laguna Seca – in over five years. We don’t have television, so I don’t watch sporting events on the tube. When I try, I just get bored and restless, and pretty soon have picked up a book or headed outside to go do something.

I do read the paper cover-to cover every day, so get some education on events in the sports world – like I get recipes – and usually don’t pay a lot of attention. Today I did.
Max Schmeling, the German heavyweight died yesterday at 99, after a full and successful life.

He’s famous for beating – and then losing to – Joe Louis and for briefly being a favorite of Hitler who used his victory as evidence of Aryan superiority. There’s probably some interesting history about his relationship with the Nazi Party (he never was a member), but what’s most interesting to me is two things:

First, he fought several times for paychecks right after the war – and then invested his purses in the Coca-Cola frenchise in Germany,which made him a multimillionaire (and reminds me that I need to rent One, Two, Three…). It’s nice to see that kind of success; so many dream of making a stake and then building on itand so few do.

Second, and most important to me, Schmeling quietly assisted Louis during the least part of Louis’ life – when he was impoverished – and paid for his funeral when he died.

People who follow boxing and other martial arts say that it takes a combination of skill, physical ability, and heart to win. Through an unecessary gesture to a man who badly beat him in the ring, Schmeling showed that as his skills and physique may have deteriorated over time, his heart remained huge.

And today, a football player named Warrick Dunn was named the NFL “Man of the Year.”

Through his “Home For The Holidays” program, created during his rookie season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1997, the three-time, 1,000-yard runner has found a way to honor his mother’s memory.

So far, he has helped 52 single moms become first-time homeowners by making the down payments on fully furnished homes in Tampa, Atlanta and his hometown of Baton Rouge, La.

The initiative has been so successful that several other NFL players have contacted Dunn for guidance in setting up similar programs.

That would be Good News indeed; members of the media-anointed elite, hugely rewarded for their talents with wealth and celebrity who in a series of small acts change the lives of hundreds. It would a very good day indeed if that were to spread.

Farrell Redux

Wow, my post on Henry “I’m Going To Get The Darn Name Right This Time” Farrell’s post at Crooked Timber sure triggered a long and wandering thread.

A couple of things.

First, let’s not get back into race in this discussion, as that not what I’m trying to dig into. I’ll post something on it again soon, but for now, let’s stipulate that there’s enough shame and pride to go completely around both parties and all races regarding the history of race in the United States. Don’t comment on racein the thread below unless it’s germane to this issue, please.

Next, to the issue at hand. I do owe one serious apology for a lazy phrase – which was called out by commenter Thomas Nephew; I used “academic leftist” where I would have been better suited to have used “academic opponent of the West.” Now it happens that that Romantic philosophy has slipped into both the somewhat unhinged Left and Right, and in fact I’ll suggest that the more virulent strains are actually more anti-Western than they are left or right (which would suggest why a classical leftist like Norm Geras – or even myself – has so much trouble with them, and why the ideological gap between the sides – in that specific anti-Western arena – gets slippery as hell). My phrasing was lazy and inexact, and in my only defense, I’ll point out that the academics who fit into that part of the Venn diagram (academic, anti-Western) are today primarily of the left – although it takes no great feat of imagination on my part to imagine them switching sides.

Having said that, I’ll stand pretty solidly by my guns.The immediate issue is historian Robert Conquest’s assertion, which was quoted in a review, to which quote and review, Farrell reacted – to put it mildly – with sputtering outrage. Let’s go to the quote again:

“And we are told that a number of members of the Middle Eastern terror groups had originally been in the local communist movements – The members of [the Real IRA and the Shining Path], as with those in Italy or, for example, the Naxalites in India, were almost entirely recruited from student elements who had accepted the abstractions of fashionable academics. And the September 11 bombers were almost all comfortably off young men, some having been to Western universities and there adopted the extremely anti-Western mind-set.”

Correlation is not causation, and it’s not possible to simply assert that because Mohammed Atta (or any number of other Islamist and other radicals) became radicals at university or afterwards, while they were still members of the university community that the university made them radicals.

But it’s equally interesting to note that many (if not most) of the foremost figures in leftist and Islamist radicalism (including the Real IRA and the Red Brigades and the 9/11 cell) came to their radicalism at university, and to wonder if there is something about the university experience that facilitates the change from an activist to a terrorist.

Now I’ve argued for almost as long as I’ve been blogging that terrorism is not an exclusively Islamic tool (McVeigh), and that to defeat it, we must both find and forcibly control those who would use it and reduce the number of people attracted to it by creating and winning a battle of ideas – a philosophical war.

Given that the people actually attracted to and leading terrorist movements are not typically poor, and that they consciously choose this path, it’s certainly a worthwhile effort to discuss and explore why they made the choice that they did. I’m formulating a theory, based in my own limited reading, that the nihilistic, Romantic, anti-Western theme that runs through much modern thinking – and which is conspicuously more present in academe then in, say, the banking industry – may have something to do with it. And that these notions – when planted in the soil of the right personality – may help grow terrorists.

I’m not sure this is true, although the more I read and discuss it, the more convinced I am. I’m happy to see a debate about it spring up in the comments below (and here, I assume).

If what I say is true, does that mean I support re-education camps for progressive professors? Nope. Does it mean that we need to hold up this kind of thought to the light of discussion and see if it survives? Yeah, all day long. And interestingly, Mr. Farrell doesn’t. His response to Conquest’s quote – a single, edited quote presented out of any possible context by a hostile reviewer – was apoplectic, and designed not to demonstrate the error of Conquest’s idea, but to simply shut of discussion of it through the force of Farrell’s rage and contempt.

Bummer, because if that’s what academic thought has come to in this era, we may have bigger problems than the creation of a small population of violent terrorists.