On Translation

In response to the tempest-in-a-teacup over translation in the Juan Cole post below, I went looking for a favorite quote by Nabokov on translation in Google.

It led me to a post on a blog called ‘Numenware: A blog about neurotheology. Religion. Brain. Dogen. Language. Japan.’ and indirectly to a great post on translation.

To make this into a true translation—an expression that maps to the mental images and behavioral impact of what Dogen said—we have to go deeper. This is where some people get cold feet, saying this is going beyond “translation” and entering the realm of “interpretation”. Come on. Every single person that reads Dogen’s words is interpreting them. It’s certainly not unreasonable to ask the translator, presumably well-informed, to participate in this interpretive process.

So to make “all-law” meaningful to Westerners, what should we do with the “law” (?, dharma)? Some Buddhist dictionaries list as many as several dozen meanings of the term. But it’s a fair guess that in this case the meaning is “phenomena” or “things”. So we have “many things”, which is indeed how Tanahashi translates this.

It’s really a delightful post, go read the whole thing.
This maps well to a comment I made in response to commenter Kevin Donoghue:

Kevin -

Let’s wrap some context around this.

We have a Farsi phrase which we’ll agree means “Israel should be erased from history.” The question is, whether that’s metaphorical or material.

Does this help us settle the question??

Tens of thousands of Iranians took part in the rally in Tehran which Iran organises every year on the last Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

Shouting “Death to Israel, death to the Zionists”, the protesters dragged Israeli flags along the ground and then set them on fire.

Many carried posters and placards sporting the slogan “Israel should be wiped off the map”.

Joining the protest, Mr Ahmadinejad said: “My words were the Iranian nation’s words.”

So do you really think they mean in a purely metaphical sense Israel should be erased?


Cole’s defenders are parsing the question to a close of literal translation. I’ll suggest – with the author above – that literal translation is inexact.

Here is the Nabokov quote, from his article ‘The Art of Translation’ in The New Republic:

Barring downright deceivers, mild imbeciles and impotent poets, there exist, roughly speaking, three types of translators–and this has nothing to do with my three categories of evil; or, rather, any of the three types may err in a similar way. These three are: the scholar who is eager to make the world appreciate the works of an obscure genius as much as he does himself; the well meaning hack; and the professional writer relaxing in the company of a foreign confrere. The scholar will be, I hope, exact and pedantic: footnotes–on the same page as the text and not tucked away at the end of the volume–can never be too copious and detailed. The laborious lady translating at the eleventh hour the eleventh volume of somebody’s collected works will be, I am afraid, less exact and less pedantic; but the point is not that the scholar commits fewer blunders than a drudge; the point is that as a rule both he and she are hopelessly devoid of any semblance of creative genius. Neither learning nor diligence can replace imagination and style.

Now comes the authentic poet who has the two last assets and who finds relaxation in translating a bit of Lermontov or Verlaine between writing poems of his own. Either he does not know the original language and calmly relies upon the so-called “literal” translation made for him by a far less brilliant but a little more learned person, or else, knowing the language, he lacks the scholar’s precision and the professional translator’s experience. The main drawback, however, in this case is the fact that the greater his individual talent, the more apt he will be to drown the foreign masterpiece under the sparkling ripples of his own personal style. Instead of dressing up like the real author, he dresses up the author as himself.

We can deduce now the requirements that a translator must possess in order to be able to give an ideal version of a foreign masterpiece. First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.

This places the problem of translating the original Farsi into clear context – we must “know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations.

History matters in making translations, as does context and association. So let’s use those in trying to understand what is really being said.

A Response to Kevin Drum

So in response to my side comment about my dinner with Kevin Drum in the post below, Kevin posted something puzzling on his site:

As I recall from that dinner, “fire all the teachers” was #1 on the list, and not as a joke. That was followed by raising the California sales tax and repudiating every interest group that actually supports the Democratic Party. Oddly enough, I didn’t think that was an especially inspiring strategy for liberal Democrats to get behind.

I sent him a “Huh?” email, and he responded with a comment that our talk had been kind of stream of consciousness and I didn’t really set out bullet points for California policy (which is a fair description but hardly a fair critique – it was cross conversation at a dinner, not a lecture by anyone).

So let’s go to the points in his post first and foremost:

I didn’t say ‘fire all the teachers'; I said that reforming education was going to be so hard that it might be necessary to simply fire everyone and start over. I’ll discuss education reform in more detail in a bit.

And yes, I do support raising the California sales tax – and rebating a healthy chunk of what’s raised to pay the Federal and state payroll taxes of low-wage workers, giving them a pay raise they’d see every two weeks – is something I believe would be a good idea.

And repudiating every interest group supporting the Democratic Party is a little strong; I suggested that the three interest groups driving the Party off a cliff were a) state and public employees; b) The gambling interests masquerading as Indian tribes; and c) Hollywood and the media companies, who never met a subsidy they weren’t greedy enough to demand. I think that all three of those interest groups – as opposed to, say real working people – have interests that lie in opposition to what ought to be core Democratic values which I expressed at dinner in a simple test:

What benefits does the Democratic Party bring to a 35-year old single mom, who’s trying to raise her two kids as best she can while living three paychecks from homelessness? Or a working couple who collectively make $70k year, and are officially ‘middle class’ but can’t afford decent childcare, health care, or to live anywhere near where they work? Or an immigrant family, trying to live on $40K year?

For far too long, the Democratic Party has handed away the interests of the working class (which certainly includes large groups of middle-income workers) and the working poor in favor of a collection of interest groups who have the ability to mobilize large donor pools. The Kossaks are simply the latest investor group hoping to mount a hostile takeover of the party.So here (cribbed from an email I sent Kevin this morning) are some of the policy points I raised at dinner:

First goal: Grow jobs. Ideally, grow middle-income as opposed to minimum-wage jobs.

Policy: Review all regulation to minimize compliance costs while retaining regulatory goals. I.e. make the paperwork simple to fill out. Structure the regulatory agency to be more service oriented and more results oriented, rather than paperwork and process oriented. Note that isn’t a Chamber of Commerce crack fantasy – when we did this in constructing the new Bay Bridge, accidents fell by at least 50%.

Policy: Build infrastructure, and fix the infrastructure we’ve got today. Sewers, water systems, electrical grids, generating capacity, roads, railroads, airports. The environmental impacts will be significant, and have to be managed, but will be offset by a) greater efficiency in the new stuff (less leaky water systems, better sewer treatment, more efficient electrical transmission and less polluting new plants and upgrades to old ones).

Policy: Portability of health and pension benefits. Pooling of small business pension plans (lower admin cost) and health plans (lower cost). Kevin may be right that a French-style national health insurance scheme could work; I don’t know enough yet to comment.

Second goal: Fix education, from preschool through grad school. the issues here are first, true equality of access; next, the burden placed on households by expensive and low-quality childcare; and finally, the need for a highly educated workforce at all levels.

Policy: Free or low cost public preschools. The French actually do this very well with the creche programs. (Note that I don’t support meathead’s plan to fund this by raising, again, the taxes on high-income Californians) This has two goals: First, helping prepare all children for school. Second, providing high-quality child-care to working families. Look, let’s face it. Having a parent stay home is the ideal child-rearing environment. But it’s not a realistic one for families who are trying to make ends meet in an increasingly expensive world.

Policy: Break up all large school districts. I’m not sure what the upper limit ought to be, but I’ll suggest that somewhere around 10,000 – 15,000 high school kids is probably the maximum size. Here in Torrance, I can directly interact with my school board members, and residents have a lot to say about how the schools are run. At the scale of LAUSD, you have to be a professional lobbyist to get traction. That alone may be enough to balance the power of the teachers unions at the local level.

Policy: Reinstate vocational education in the schools, as well as counselors and school support for extracurricular activities. Elite high schools find ways to do these things. Average ones should as well. Access to even sub-elite colleges requires massive investment in time and activities outside the high-school classroom; make sure that all high schools have the tools motivated students need to make that investment.

Policy: Make schools the center of social-service delivery in neighborhoods. Poor-performing schools are all in poor neighborhoods. The problems of students who don’t have core skills to function in the classroom because they aren’t given them at home, and where success in the classroom is made impossible by failure at home, have got to be addressed. We’re spending a boatload on social services in a haphazard and overlapping way. Why not target them on families via the kids in school? Go Google ‘Full-Service Schools’.

Third goal: Figure out a way to pay for all this.

Policy: Start by looking hard at the state budget. In 2004, the state employed 316,000 employees – down from a peak of 324,000 in 2001, but up from 296,000 in 1999. In addition, the total compensation package for state employees continues to increase. When I was a State employee in the late 1970’s it was explained to me that we made about 90% of the market wage for our job, but we got awesome job security and benefits.

Today, many state employees make more than the market wage for their job, and still get awesome job security and benefits. They get these because their unions are the single most powerful advocacy group in Sacramento.

Policy: Enact controls on labor union and corporate advocacy spending without direct employee and shareholder assent.

I’ve written before about the problem that we face when we adopt a ‘well, let the rich guys pay for it’ attitude toward state funding. There’s an additional problem is that as long as people think they can/should vote for policies that they have no financial stake in, they won’t work very hard to vote for effective policies.

Policy: Raise the state sales tax about 1.25% and use a portion of the funds collected to make the employee portion of Federal and State payroll tax payments for employers of low-wage workers. Those employers will then pass the former tax payments on to the employees as an increase in take-home pay. The State will get extra income that isn’t as volatile as income tax income, and as a benefit, those working ‘off the books’ will be disproportionately taxed.

Policy: Require all property held in corporate or partnership names to register the majority owner with the local Assessor’s office, and register any changes with the Assessor’s office. On a change of ownership exceeding 51%, reassess the property.

So – Kevin – that’s pretty much what we discussed at dinner, except for my plan to abolish skyboxes at stadiums and arenas, and force the rich and powerful to sit wit hthe rest of us if they want to come to a game.

I’ll happily hold up my vision of a Democratic Party against the present one – even with the bonus of a national healthcare program and a higher minimum wage, as you suggest.

This Morning, The LA Times Email Servers Are Gonna Melt Down…

[Update: We’ll be seeing a lot of comment traffic from Kevin Drum’s site where he’s posted an puzzling and inaccurate precis of our talk. Developing, as they say…]

I was scanning the paper on my way out to door for a ride, and d**n if I didn’t see something that made me stop and boot up the laptop.

It was today’s “Current” (the old Opinion section – editorials, commentary, and opeds).

The lead article was headlined “Draft Hollywood,” and is by detective novelist Andrew Klavan (don’t know his work, sorry) in response to ‘United 93′.

… “It is hard for those who live near a Police Station to believe in the triumph of violence,” as T.S. Eliot wrote. That’s us — we Americans, protected by a mighty military that by and large obeys the rules of our republic — safe enough, and keeping much of the world safe enough, so that we find it hard to believe in what would happen if that protection failed.

But these fighters do keep us safe. And because keeping us safe is harsh, dangerous work, we should glorify them, exalt them in story and song by way of appreciation.

“United 93″ — the film celebrating the heroic civilian attempt to retake a hijacked plane on 9/11 — opened last week. That’s great. Well done and about time. But now, let’s have some war movies.

We need some films celebrating the war against Islamo-fascism in Afghanistan and Iraq — and in Iran as well, if and when that becomes necessary. We need films like those that were made during World War II, films such as 1943’s “Sahara” and “Action in the North Atlantic,” or “The Fighting Seabees” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” which were released in 1944.

Not all of these were great films, or even good ones, but their patriotic tributes to our fighting forces inspired the nation.

Go read the whole thing.

Now this is an issue that’s near and dear to me – I’ve blogged about it more than a bit.

But more important to me, it’s the beginning of a change in our regional paper of record. Now, I’m no Patterico – I’m not focused with Ahab-like intensity on the problems that the Times seems to flaunt. And, unlike Patterico, I’m not a conservative who wants my team to get a fair shake from the press. (Note that I do come down firmly on the side of the press being liberal – but establishment liberal)

I’m a liberal Democrat (Kevin Drum, at dinner, expressed shock at the kinds of policy proposals I thought the Democratic Party should be making) – and I think the paper needs to be balanced so that the liberal Establishment can stop deluding itself and start dealing with reality.

Reality abroad, and at home.

The title of this post? Well, I’m immature enough to enjoy the vein-popping rage that many Times loyalists must be feeling this morning. (there was also a pro-Lieberman oped by Jonathan Chait)

UPDATE: So, what exactly did I say during our dinner talk? Read “A Response to Kevin Drum” for my thoughts re: a working-class liberal alternative. My key question:

bq. What benefits does the Democratic Party bring to a 35-year old single mom, who’s trying to raise her two kids as best she can while living three paychecks from homelessness? Or a working couple who collectively make $70k year, and are officially ‘middle class’ but can’t afford decent childcare, health care, or to live anywhere near where they work? Or an immigrant family, trying to live on $40K year?

For The Good Of The Party – And The Country

God help me, I’m 100% in agreement with a Daily Kos diary.

‘orthogonal’ says:

Here’s the problem folks: most Americans who aren’t partisans truly believe the democrats and The Republicans are “all the same” and that the power-elite takes care of its own.

Democrats can talk about Abramoff and Cunningham and the Republicans’ toothless ethics bill, but so long as the People see us as just the “other side of the coin”, they have little reason to go to the polls to vote for Dems.

Now we’ve got Congressman William Jefferson who despite allegations of bribery won’t resign, and Patrick Kennedy who announces he’s “going to vote” and so dodges a Breathalyzer test, and now will go into rehab rather than resign.

This gives all the justification in the world to independents who will say that the Dems are “just as bad” and that “all of them are corrupt”.

The Democratic Party needs to show it’s different, that it’s not a club of the elite taking care of the elite.

Much as I feel for Congressman Kennedy, it’s time for him for his own good and for the good of the Party, to resign with dignity.

I’ve said much the same thing:

As I’ve said, I think there’s an opportunity for the Democrats to use this and make both moral and political progress – but it will require cleaning their own house first. I think that’s a smart political move, not a dumb one, because it iwll show the American people that they are serious about changing the culture in Washington.

And at dinner with some Democratic friends last week, the topic was raised again – and I’m going to keep saying it.

The first step on the path to the Democratic Party getting some traction against the GOP on corruption is for the Democrats to hang a few of their own.

It’s not like there aren’t any corrupt (Moran) Democratic (Moran) politicians (Moran) in Washington.

Juan Cole And Secrecy

I’m having too much fun watching ‘Army-of-Juan’ Cole stagger across the Internet (metaphor selected in honor of his assertion that Hitchens is only challenging him because he’s drunk) to let it go this weekend. So I decided to do some homework on Cole’s core claim – that Hitchens had ‘stolen’ his email.

I first thought of Googling Cole’s own site to see what he’d said about others – for example – revealing national secrets via ‘pilfered’ documents, but I didn’t think that would be hard enough to be any fun.

So here’s Cole’s latest, an epistolary post that opens with:

Cole/Weisberg Correspondence on Hitchens

With Mr. Weisberg’s permission, I am posting our correspondence on the Hitchens hatchet job on me in Slate earlier this week.

and ends with Jacob Weisberg:

Dear Mr Cole,

I have read your message and also your blog post today. In my judgment, there is no ethical issue here. Commentators are under no obligation to call people they write about. And Hitchens correctly described the email he quoted from as being from your Gulf discussion group. Your substantive disagreement about the translation and the issues around it are a fit matter for public debate, which appears to be taking place.

Yours sincerely,

Jacob Weisberg

In between, Cole rants about the valuable intellectual property stolen by Hitchens:

I am sorry that I did not do a better job of explaining the issue of the purloined email. It is not a matter of going to the law, but it is a matter of Slate’s reputation, especially in the blogosphere . . .

The email correspondence that Mr. Hitchens published without my permission had not appeared publicly. The emails were sent to a small private list, of scholars and experts, for reaction, and I was aiming to write something journalistic or give a major address on Ahmadinejad. The list to which I sent the emails has a requirement that no material appearing there be forwarded off the list. Obviously, a list member violated his pledge and passed the messages to Hitchens.

In his original fulmination, Cole said:

I belong to a private email discussion group called Gulf2000. It has academics, journalists and policy makers on it. It has a strict rule that messages appearing there will not be forwarded off the list. It is run, edited and moderated by former National Security Council staffer for Carter and Reagan, Gary Sick, now a political scientist at Columbia University. The “no-forwarding” rule is his, and is intended to allow the participants to converse about controversial matters without worrying about being in trouble. Also, in an informal email discussion, ideas evolve, you make mistakes and they get corrected, etc. It is a rough, rough draft.

So, being a fact-based guy, i decided to do a simple test.

I Googled [“gulf/2000″ message], and got a pretty extensive result set (420 results).

I went through about half of them, taking about six minutes, and came up with this list of sites, blogs, articles, and messages that cited, quoted, or copied messages from the gulf/2000 listserv:

Reason Magazine: An Ornamental Education? Political relevance and the funding of Middle East studies in the U.S.

A guide to the Gulf arms bazaar maze

Dr. Rasool Nafisi

Center for Contemporary Conflict: “In Defense of the Nation”: Terror and Reform in Saudi Arabia

Iran Focus

Across the Bay: The Latest on the Hit

AFSA News: Diplomats on the Front Lines

Beeman: Understanding Osama Bin Laden (fwd)

Friends of a Free Iran: “People’s Mojahedin of Iran” Mission report

Across the Bay: Young on American Democracy Promotion

Reflections on Bahrain

Regieme Change Iran: DoctorZin provides a review of this past week’s [11/13-11/19] major news events regarding Iran.

I could do more, but this is boring.

Cole’s super-confidential mailing list is leakier than the CIA. Sadly, it contains the ‘rough draft of history’ that he is preparing; and rather than simply standing behind his words, or accepting that they may be in error, he explains them away as “just sayin'”…in an academic sense, of course.

So, Cole’s offense appears to be – once again – “typing while tired.” (check the PPS) I wonder if the Mayo Clinic has a program for that?

An Iranian Talks About Cole’s Farsi Skillz

In the comments to my post on Army-of-Juan Cole’s deranged reply to Hitchens, Tino Sanandaji, an Iranian (apparently living in Chicago) drops by to shed some light on things (note that our comments “bozes” don’t have spellcheck and my comments usually have more typos than his):

I am Iranian, and I can tell you Cole is wrong.

Let’s start with simple fact, that is not directly relevant. He writes that Khomaini said the Shah government “must go”. But “az bain bayad berad” does not mean “go”, it litterarly mean something like “must cease to exist”, and the most direct translation would be “must be destroyed”.

Now to the latter part:

“bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad”

The translation is not perfect, the dear Professor is not convewing the action implyied the sentence, as I or any Iranian would read it.

I am not a translatior, but I can tell you that here is a clear note in that sentence that Israel must be made to wanish from the face of time.

Maybe this is not a theat, as it was not directed to Israel, but to his followers, but it clearly is an decleration of intent. The intent is to make Israel cease to exist.

The word map is not litterarly in there, but “wiped of the map” is a less exagerated translation that Professors Coles translation is underreporting the wording.

Now to the context. Here Cole is not a little of the mark, he is insane and ignorant.

Exactly as Hithens wrote the qute is not that “the occupation of Jerusalem must end, just as the occupation of Gaza ended”, implying that Iran want Israel to give Jerusalem to Palestine. The qute is that the “regime that is occupying Jerualem” must be destroyed.

Iranians clerics often use this way of talking, they always don’t say “Israel”, “US” or “the war”, they make some negative phrase and use it as a synonym. Khomeini could have an entire speech and never say amrika, just “the great satan” etc. They would almost always take the effort to say “the war that was emposed on us” instead of the war.

Any student like me student with no academic credentials could tell you “een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods” would best be translated as “Israel”.

As hichens wrote (presumably with the help of some iranian), the sentence is not about the occupation, it is about the state. Cole is completely missrepresenting this (which seems to be his main point) in the letter. Either he is intentionally lying for a good cause (stop a war), or he is just blind because of ideology.

The Ivy league professor, earning his 200 k or whatever it is, writes “He said that the occupation regime over Jerusalem must be erased from the page of time.”

WRONG. The currect translation would be “the regime that is [defined by] occupying the holy city of Jerusalem” must be “erased from the page of time”, or must be “destroyed, or must “be wiped off the map” (I agree that eased from the page of time is closer than whped of the map, but neither is perfect, and the underlying meaning is not in dispute, The State of Israel be destroyed).

Factually the “western journalist” Hichens is right and the western academic wrong. It is NOT just a question of context, it is a question of substituting the Presidents refrens to an entity (Israel, the state the occupyies Jerusalem) to a refrens to what Israel is doing (occupying Jerusalem, as they occupyed Gaza).

Cole writes that the Iranians have not called for a nazi-style exterimation. I would say this is true, they have not done so. Destrying Israel could be done by invading it and forcing the population to move to say Madagascar or Manhattan, it does not by itself imply extermination.

On the other hand I don’t know if people have reported the qute this way, they say Ahmadnejanian wants Israel off the map (a non perfect but acceptable translation, substituting one figurative phrase with another) and leaves the level of violance open. This is by the way exactly what Ahmadnejanian said after the press asked him, he said we don’t want to kill the jews, we want Israel gone, Europe can take them.

Lasty I really have to questions Coles knowledge about Iran in two points, one in the letter and one in the angry answer to Hitchens.

1. That the phrase is “A decades old quote Khomaini” is hardly something that would reduce the seriousness of using it. Khomeini is to the hardliners what Washington, Lincolns and all the founding fathers are to Americans combined, and than some. His quotes are as close as you can come to a ideological program for the Islamic State as anyting.

I can’t come up with a good example, from the lack of knowledge of quotes, but if Americans declared to Japan in WWII “give me liberty of give me death”, the Japanese wouls hardly say “don’t take them seriusly, they are just quoting Patrick Henry”.

2. That Ahmadinejad is not the complete ruler hardly means he has no power. If you say that you are completely ignorant of Iranian politics, which is very complex, and where there are multiple competing layers of power. Basically the President through his institutional role has control over a large part of the massive civilian Iranian state, and in this case through being a hardliner additional power, for example over the Bonyads, the “builders”, the Guard.

It is also context specific, just like America. Bush had more power in march 2003, not only because he is president, but because he used this role and though a political agenda and alliances moved the project of invading Iraq. In May 2006 Bush has more Republicans in Congress and is still the President, but has much less power.

Conlcluding that Khatami became powerless after the hardliners broke him (or after he willingly gave up, that is a question of dispute) and therefore Ahmadinejad is powerless is idiotic.


I hope this conflict can be resolved without violance, for example though sanctions specifically on the regime. If America feels that it must use violance I hope it is only arial bombardment against millitary targets and against the regime. But my hopes in this question have no bearing on what Ahmadinejad said, which Cole also should understand.

Facts are such harsh things to a gentle soul like Juan’s…


OK, this is just too funny.

Check out Jan Ullrich’s MySpace page (somehow, a fake, I think…)

I enjoy watching myself ride the bicycle on TV, crushing the souls of the weak. I do not enjoy watching the OLN on the TV, where the announcers swing from Lance Armstrong’s ******** as if they were a trapeze.

For those whose thoughts never stray toward Puy-de-Dome in July, Jan Ullrich is the leader of the T-Mobile pro cycling team, and I doubt that’s really his MySpace page.

Who I’d like to meet:

I would like to be meeting Karl Rove, and we would discuss to each other our best strategies for crushing the weak, and the sweet music of their dying pleas for clemency, which we would for a certainty not give to them.

For what it’s worth, I’d say that Tour of California winner Floyd Landis may have something to say about it…

Mouth-Frothingly Good

Future Yale Department Chair Army-of-Juan Cole comes completely, jaw-droppingly unhinged today. Go check it out before he “Winston Smiths” it (note – gruesome pictures of wounded soldiers).

Actually, first, go check out the Christopher Hitchens piece that triggered Cole’s frothing scenery-chewing, then go over to Juan’s site and snicker.

I wonder what the Yale faculty committee thinks of someone who writes like this?

All the warmongers in Washington, including Hitchens, if he falls into that camp, should get this through their heads. Americans are not fighting any more wars in the Middle East against toothless third rate powers. So sit down and shut up.

One, two, three, four! We don’t want your stinking war!

We are not going to see any more US troops come home in body bags at Dover for the sake of some Cheney affiliate grabbing the petroleum in Iran’s Ahvaz fields.

[emphasis, and spittle, in the original]

[Update: Cole replies yet again, elevating the tone – or, more accurately, hitting bottom and continuing to dig:

I had so hoped that the purloined email and the bizarre characterization of my argument, and the attempt of this Western journalist who is clueless about reading Persian texts to correct my philology, was the mere result of too many whiskey sours taken too early in the morning.

I see that instead it is mere asininity and lack of character. Thanks to Sullivan for settling the issue.

Yup, I’d pay $43,050 a year to have one of my kids learn from wisdom like that…]

On Going Where We Look

One of the first things a motorcyclist learns is that “You go where you look.”

Target fixation is the term used for the habit motorcyclists (and drivers) have of running into things they mean to avoid. They do this because we – for some reason – are wired to tend to steer toward whatever we are paying attention to.

So that’s interesting, you reply.

I want to extend this toward the larger debate we’re having here about Iran. And to put it into context, let me base the argument on something I know a bit about directly – personal combat.

One of the key issues in making fighting personal is that typically, it is far from clear that you’re really in a fight for a long time. Often the person who knows that you are – or decides first that you are – has a substantial advantage.

There’s a problem with this formulation, of course.

And that is that a very small proportion of interpersonal conflicts actually become fights. Let me give a concrete example.
You‘re driving cross country, and you stop to put gas in your car late at night. A pickup truck full of violent lacrosse players (note the clever use of stereotype) pulls up next to you and starts making fun of your car, of you, of the trailer you’re pulling, and of your wife sitting in the car.

They get out of the truck and approach you in a menacing manner, challenging you (the technical term is ‘woofing’). So what do you do? The threat is real, and as they approach you – two of them – it’s clear that time isn’t on your side. How do you respond?

The problem, of course is that while there is a conflict, there isn’t necessarily a fight yet. So you have to make a decision. On one hand, the decision ought to be relatively easy – they threatened me – GO!!!

…but on the other, most of us know that if we used that as a criterion to start fighting, society would be a worse place, we’d be ostracized if not imprisoned, and worse – the actual risk of harm we’d face would be higher, not lower – because the increased odds we’d face in each fight because we made the decision first would be far outweighed by the increased exposure to harm that we’d face because we’d be in so many more fights.

There is a conflict of stereotypes that we can look at; on one hand, the meek victim, never willing to realize they are at risk, always in ‘condition white'; there is another stereotype as well – of the person with a ‘hair-trigger’ temper, the bully, the one who always seems to find themselves in conflict wherever they go.

Practically, we want to navigate a middle ground.

It starts by recognizing that conflict =! combat. Conflict is always a precursor to combat – but combat does not always follow conflict.

I’ll quote Clint Smith, a famous firearms instructor:

“You better learn to communicate real well, because when you’re out there on the street, you’ll have to talk to a lot more people than you’ll have to shoot, or at least that’s the way I think it’s supposed to work.”

So what’s the goal?

On one hand, the goal of personal defense skills, as it’s always been explained to me, is to enable you to have the comfort not to have to respond too quickly, and thereby make combat certain.

On the other, it is to give to the mindset and skills to win when you do fight.

But most of the skills you learn – on the mat in the dojo or on the firing range – don’t do a good job of teaching you the hardest thing – which is to know when you are really in a fight.

Expanding back to geopolitics and Iran, some of the bloggers on this site are convinced that the fight is here, and that we need to act accordingly and act soon. We get something for that – we get a tactical advantage, and the certainty that Iran won’t create or use nuclear weapons in the next five or ten years; if we invade and make it stick, we’ll get the certainty that Iran won’t in the near term, make them at all.

But we’ll trade some things away for that.

First, it means that we’ll certainly have a fight.

Next it means that others will be making decisions about whether to make nuclear weapons in a different light. Will they be more likely to make them – more hostile, more committed to opposing our interests, more certain we are Crusaders? Or less likely – as they are more afraid of our response, more convinced of our commitment to reshaping the Muslim world? It’s hard to say.

Finally, it means that we’ll be fighting without the tactical advantage time can give us, if we use it.

There is no certainty in this kind of world; mistakes are made on both sides – in World War I, in fighting too soon, in World War II in fighting too late. There is no ‘right’ answer. We have to weigh the odds, and decide what kind of risk we’re willing to take.

The thing to watch out for is target fixation – of either kind.

Trent, Tom, and Joe are convinced we’re in a fight. To be honest, they’re looking for one, and if we follow their policies, we’ll certainly have one.

Matt Yglesias, Josh Marshall and others are convinced that a fight is out of the question. To be honest, they’ll make the opposite mistake, and won’t know we’re fighting until the planes have flown into the towers again.

There is a large middle ground, which doesn’t reject force – even the first use of force – but doesn’t list it as the opening gambit.

The situation at the gas station I’m describing above really happened to someone I know, at an isolated gas station on an Interstate late one night.

It happens that it happened to Clint Smith, a retired Marine combat veteran, former SWAT sniper, and then a shooting instructor on his way to teach a submachine gun class to a local police department. He was armed with a handgun under his jacket, and his wife had a MP-5 submachine gun in her lap, as the trailer was stacked full of submachine guns, ammunition, and police munitions.

How does that change the response you’d propose? How does it change the kinds of mistakes you’re willing to make in that situation?

Where would you look? Where would you want to go?

“Hello,” They Lied

In case you missed it, Benny Morris has a – scathing – takedown of the Mearsheimer and Walt paper in the current New Republic.

It’s subscription-only, and worth getting one. But here are two quotes…

John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” is a nasty piece of work. Some of what they assert regarding the terrorist tactics of certain Zionist groups during the 1930s, and the atrocities committed by Israeli troops in the War of 1948, and the harsh Israeli measures against the Palestinians during the second intifada, and certain activities of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States over the past decades–some of this is correct, and I realize as I write this sentence that it will henceforth be trotted out by the Mearsheimers and Walts of the world, as by their Arab admirers, while they omit the previous sentence and all that now follows. But what these distinguished professors have produced is otherwise depressing to anyone who values intellectual integrity.

In their introduction, Mearsheimer and Walt tell their readers that “the facts recounted here are not in serious dispute among scholars…. The evidence on which they rest is not controversial.” This is ludicrous. I would offer their readers a contrary proposition: that the “facts” presented by Mearsheimer and Walt suggest a fundamental ignorance of the history with which they deal, and that the “evidence” they deploy is so tendentious as to be evidence only of an acute bias. That is what will be not in serious dispute among scholars.

They are separated by a detailed, fact-based takedown by a historian who is known for his unblinking look at the history of modern Israel.

If you can read it online, do. If not, go buy the magazine.