Saturday, April 27, 2002

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good career must be in want of a wife. Ask Maureen Dowd, who urges men to be more submissive (imitating "bonobo society, [where] the females are dominant"), and find themselves a successful career woman to bake cookies for. Michelle Cottle, in The New Republic, goes further; she wants society to "put a little more heat on Daddy" to get him to "make stark, painful lifestyle choices"--that is, to be more willing to give up his career, stay home and take care of the kids.

Now, I can certainly understand why successful career women might yearn for the same arrangement that successful career men have enjoyed for millenia. And I also strongly suspect that there is a far greater supply of gentlemen willing to settle into a life of ratrace-free househusbandhood than either of these hard-charging feminist journalists realizes. (Hint to women seeking one: a cutthroat big-city newsroom is probably not the best place to look.)

But as I've noted before, efforts to re-engineer social conventions for the explicit benefit of intelligent, ambitious career women, though they may get excellent press (for obvious reasons), can't necessarily be said to benefit womankind as a whole. In the sexual sphere, for example, the virtual obliteration of the traditional conventions of sexual propriety may have greatly expanded the options available to strong, smart, attractive, assertive women, but it has also left their less gifted counterparts defenseless against the consequences of unbridled competition for men--in particular, overwhelming pressure on them to yield unstintingly to male sexual demands. Now successful women are asking that the socially favored division of domestic labor, as well, be tailored to their own needs, at the expense of those who, finances permitting, would prefer to devote at least the early years of their children's lives to caring for them. Surely it's difficult enough these days for mothers to get the fathers of their children to bear the burden of financial support; the propagation of a "bonobo ethic" of kept men and Mr. Moms can hardly be expected to encourage greater male accountability on that score.

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Andrew Sullivan asks if there is an argument with "a modicum of sense" for banning marijuana but not alcohol. The argument is simple: alcohol is regrettably too culturally pervasive for a ban on it to be politically sustainable, while marijuana, fortunately, has not yet achieved that status.

I find it useful in these discussions to define a concept which I'll call, for want of a better word, "vice". A vice is an activity with two properties: (1) a great many people enjoy indulging in it, and (2) some non-negligible fraction of those people (call them "abusers", and their relative numbers the "abuse rate") cannot do so without seriously harming themselves and/or those around them. All the illegal recreational drugs are vices, as are, for example, guns, gambling and perhaps even fast driving. (I prefer to exclude tobacco and fatty food, since limiting a lifetime to the low end of the natural span strikes me as far less catastrophic than destroying the life of an otherwise healthy, productive adult, who may be a provider for a spouse and small children. And other drugs, such as caffeine, simply don't cause enough damage to be called vices.)

Now, I generally support social suppression (including even criminalization) of vices, on the principle that pleasure and joy are relatively easy to obtain without jeopardizing self or society, whereas safety is much harder to come by, and thus deserves greater societal effort and sacrifice. On the other hand, I recognize that there is a legitimate libertarian argument for treating vices as risks that each individual should be free to accept, along with their possible consequences. One could even imagine a finely-tuned intermediate position that weighs the social cost of a particular vice against the "philosophical cost" of restricting it.

In practice, however, the body politic adopts a far cruder approach: voters invariably defend their own freedom to indulge in vices they (or their preferred social circles) happen to enjoy, while advocating bans on vices they personally abhor (or from whose negative consequences they have directly or indirectly suffered). For a good example of this phenomenon, try watching a typical Democrat and a typical Republican debate drug laws and gun laws; they will inevitably swap not only positions, but also arguments--sometimes practically word for word--as the debate shifts from a fashionable Democratic vice (recreational drugs) to a favored Republican one (guns) and back again.

As a consequence of this political reality, vices with a sufficiently low abuse rate (such as alcohol) become politically invulnerable once they achieve a high enough level of popular use. That doesn't mean that they don't devastate millions of lives; it merely means that the constituency of happy non-abusers will handily outvote the victims every time. Marijuana has not reached this threshold yet; but if it is legalized, it may well one day achieve the status of a second alcohol, in terms of both destructiveness (number of ruined addicts, disrupted families, marijuana-related accidents, and so on) and political unassailability. I have no desire to hasten the arrival of that day.

Monday, April 15, 2002

Is Bush going wobbly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, appeasing radical Arabs by putting unjustified pressure on Israel? Or is he engaging in a clever "rope-a-dope" strategy, making meaningless diplomatic gestures to placate fussy Europeans and Arabs while tacitly giving Israel a green light to take care of its terrorism problem as it sees fit? That's the debate convulsing conservative circles these days. Andrew Sullivan and "Instapundit" Glenn Reynolds are in the "rope-a-dope" camp; George Will, Bill Kristol, Jeff Jacoby and Michael Ledeen suspect otherwise (although they're careful to target Powell rather than Bush himself). Mark Steyn is on the fence.

Of course, all of these people are pundit types: academics, journalists, political operatives--the kind of folks who, as Michael Kinsley has recently pointed out, don't have a clue what being a manager is all about. In their eyes, the president, as an executive, makes decisions, and they're just trying to figure out whether he's made the right one.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, really is a manager, by nature, training and experience, and he understands what pundits, who thrive on decisive opinions (however rashly embraced) don't: a good manager avoids making a major decision unless it's clearly correct and overwhelmingly supported by both superiors and subordinates. Pundits aren't really accountable for their missed predictions and horrible advice, but the real-world cost--both personal and organizational--of an executive's mistaken "bet the farm" decision can be devastating. Thus, when faced with a controversial dilemma that pits multiple factions of subordinates and superiors against each other, a careful manager gives encouraging hints to all factions, so that they will each work hard to demonstrate the superiority of their preferred path, confident that the manager is actually pulling for them to win. Then, once it becomes blatantly obvious which faction has demonstrated its correctness, the manager simply falls in line with the winners, professing to have supported them all along.

And that's clearly how the president has been handling the latest crisis in the Middle East. Had Colin Powell returned to the US with solid commitments from regional leaders to support a campaign against Iraq in return for an immediate Israeli withdrawal, while revelations of Israeli atrocities prompted harsh retribution from the Europeans and huge protests in the streets of Tel Aviv against a suddenly-deeply-unpopular prime minister, you can bet that Bush would be laying down the law to Sharon right now, demanding a complete pullout as of yesterday and threatening all manner of punishment for any delay. As it turned out, though, Powell got the bum's rush from America's Arab so-called allies, the Europeans confined themselves to their trademark tasteless harrumphing about ill-bred Jews, and the crowds in the streets of Tel Aviv--and Washington--are marching in support of Sharon, not against him. All of this makes Bush's decision (for now) a no-brainer, and the president's rhetoric about withdrawal has accordingly been toned down to the level of a whisper--where it was all along, he (now) claims.

Pundits and other fantasists will no doubt decry this managerial style as "incoherent", "mealy-mouthed" or "disingenuous"; but the real-world truth is that an American president involved in a worldwide war against terrorism can't afford to blow his credibility on snap decisions that backfire. And those of us opinion-mongers who have true confidence in the practical superiority of our prescriptions are not afraid to have skeptical executives hold them up to the harsh scrutiny of empirical trial.
A student theatrical production at Kennesaw State University in Georgia in which two actors briefly appear in the nude has apparently sparked a petition of complaint signed by 500 students. The petitioners are objecting to the breach of community standards of propriety; supporters of the production argue for artistic freedom. But nobody seems to be speaking out on behalf of the real victims in this story: the poor, humiliated actors who must face the fact that 500 of their fellow students, upon being granted the opportunity to gaze upon their naked forms, responded with a formal, written request that they please put their clothes back on. (If a millihelen is the unit of beauty sufficient to launch a single ship, perhaps two millikennesaws is the quantity of hideousness that prompts exactly one Georgia student to petition for you to at least wear a towel or something, for heaven's sake.) As someone who could probably inspire a "March on Washington"-scale protest just by threatening to remove my shirt in public, I can only sympathize with their plight.

Monday, April 08, 2002

Slate's Benjamin Soskis notes that the so-called "peace activists" who "marched into Yasser Arafat's besieged Ramallah compound to volunteer their services as human shields" were in fact openly partisan supporters of a renowned terrorist leader. Somewhat naively, he asks, "What did these demonstrators do to deserve the peace imprimatur?"

In fact, they did what "peace activists" have always done, agitating for democratic societies to appease a brutally violent dictator. In 1938, it was Adolf Hitler; in 1983, Yuri Andropov. In 1991, they sought to protect Saddam Hussein; in 1999, Slobodan Milosevic; in 2001, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. The peace activists of 2002 are now defending none other than Yasser Arafat.

Pacifists protest all violence equally; their moral views are certainly open to argument, but they are at least consistently non-partisan. Neutral mediators believe that all conflict is resolvable through "meet-in-the-middle" compromise. They, too, can be criticized for their lack of moral distinctions, but like pacifists, they have the virtue of consistency--and occasionally their efforts even bear fruit.

But "peace" is a good that never needs defending and never lacks advocates. Thus those who march under its vacuous banner are invariably using it as mere cover for their real cause, which is not peace but rather capitulation to evil. The foreign volunteers who have thrown their bodies into the physical defense of Yasser Arafat, shielding him from an entire nation of his victims, are embracing a very long and deeply shameful heritage.

Wednesday, April 03, 2002

From CNN, April 3, 2002:

"Tuesday, an estimated 1 million demonstrators took to the streets across Egypt to express their anger with the United States and Israel. That kind of sentiment expressed throughout the Arab world 'clouds everything else,' explained one senior diplomat....Arab officials warned [assistant secretary for Near East affairs William] Burns that their leaders are under intense pressure from their citizens."

From CNN, October 9, 2001:

"As the United States continued to hit Afghan targets Tuesday, administration officials kept a keen eye on the Arab world, and on the wider Muslim sphere, as they assessed the strength of anti-American protests worldwide....[An administration] official said, 'One of the unspoken rules for some in the coalition is to keep that to a minimum, and I think you are seeing that.'"

I understand that people tend to have short memories when it comes to their past misjudgments. But six months?

Tuesday, April 02, 2002

New York Times scribbler Nick "Sue Saddam" Kristof has written yet another foolish column about the Middle East. Most of it is pretty much self-refuting, but one error is worth debunking explicitly, because it's widely enough believed that it has become something of a cliche at this point. "While Mr. Sharon talks about removing the 'infrastructure' of terrorism," he writes, "the real infrastructure is simply the rage and frustration of ordinary Palestinians. Many of the suicide bombs are made of sugar and fertilizer and cost less than $150 to produce."

Let's examine this claim a little more carefully. Suppose that some Mahmoud al-Disgruntled in a random West Bank village has decided, all on his own, that he's really, really ticked off at the Israelis--so ticked off, in fact, that he doesn't mind blowing himself up if he can take a few of those Jewish bastards with him. How does he go about it? Does he pick up an explosive belt--even the cheap $150 low-power sugar-and-fertilizer model--at the local Wal-Mart? Does the local yeshiva sell Orthodox-Jew disguises, to help him blend into the crowd he's headed for? What story does he tell the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint? Or does he somehow already know the secret route through the fields that gets him past the patrols and into a big Israeli city? (And how does he avoid being noticed, wandering into town from the fields like that dressed as a lone Hasid?) How does he know where to go, and when, so that he'll find a crowd? He probably doesn't hang out much in Israeli cities these days, after all.

Of course, a smooth-functioning terrorist infrastructure makes all of this far, far easier, by putting together the people, knowledge and equipment needed to make an attack succeed with high probability. By disrupting that infrastructure, the Israelis hope they'll have massively reduced--not eliminated, of course, but massively reduced--the likelihood of our hypothetical suicidal fanatic executing a successful suicide bombing. And let's not forget the propaganda, recruitment and training/indoctrination infrastructure that helps turn an ordinary depressed teenager with dreams of glory into someone actually willing to pull the trigger and blow himself to bits. It may seem like there's an endless supply of them, but even in a brainwashed society like the occupied territories, it cannot be assumed that every kid who shows up at Arafat's door volunteering to be a shahid actually has the guts to do it. Like Al Qaida's terrorists, they all go through a careful training and winnowing process to make sure they don't waste all the time and resources being invested in them.

Of course, there's a simple empirical test of the relative correctness of Kristof's hypothesis and mine: assuming that the Israelis continue their offensive in the West Bank for the next couple of weeks, we should see, if Kristof is correct, a massive new wave of angry suicide bombers plunking down their Benjamin-and-a-half for an express ticket to Paradise, and waltzing into the midst of an Israeli urban crowd sugar-and-fertilizer-in-hand. On the other hand, if (as I predict) the rate of suicide bombings declines substantially as the Israelis continue with their arrests and searches, then we will know that Kristof has (among other errors) seriously underestimated the important contribution of well-staffed, well-heeled, well-protected, undisrupted terror organizations to succesfully bloody terrorist campaigns.

One notable data point: how many major terrorist strikes has Al Qaida pulled off lately?