Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Catherine Millet is a 54-year-old French art critic with a very unusual hobby. Since her teens, she has performed housework for literally thousands of men she has never met. She especially enjoys doing laundry, but cooking, cleaning, polishing, tidying--she loves it all, and has done it for strangers (sometimes several in one day) for decades, with abandon and panache. She says she'd never become a professional maid--she has no taste for such "mercenary" domesticity--but, as she writes in her recent memoir, she "cannot put a number on those" whose homes she has cleaned.

Okay, I lied a little--Millet actually performed sexually, not domestically, for those thousands of strange men. But how much of a difference does that make, really? Sure, the number of women who list sex among their favorite activities is probably higher than the number citing housework. Still, there are women who throw themselves into domestic chores with at least as much energy as others devote to sex--though, in both cases, usually in the context of the proverbial "committed relationship", or (among some) for material reward, or (if single) alone, strictly for personal satisfaction. Yet Millet the nymphomaniac is either lambasted as a harlot or applauded as a brave bohemian, while a hypothetical Millet the promiscuous scrubber would most likely simply be dismissed as a prize chump. Why the difference?

The key distinction is that the downsides of cleaning--discomfort, exhaustion, sensual unpleasantnesses--are inherent, whereas the costs to women of sex--pregnancy and disease risk, possible social opprobrium, the danger that a strange male will turn out to be violent--are conditional on circumstances. And from Messalina to Catherine the Great, there have been powerful women in a position to insulate themselves from these costs, some of whom have then chosen to indulge themselves in Milletian levels of casual sexual promiscuity. Such behavior has thus acquired something of an aristocratic association quite lacking (needless to say) in housework.

As I have mentioned before, During the sixties and seventies (before AIDS), the combination of penicillin, prosperity and the pill created a set of circumstances that made Western middle class women, in this respect, a kind of mass aristocracy. Those inclined to follow their ravenous urges were thus suddenly quite free to do so without substantial risk--indeed, acquiring a distinct aura of elite invulnerability in the process. It is that mystique which now provokes such strong reactions from those who read Millet's story (and separates her starkly from, say, a common housecleaner).

The risks of promiscuous sex never disappear, though, and they are more widely recognized and better understood today than they were, say, thirty years ago. In that light, Millet seems to have been making quite a significant sacrifice for the sake of her string of anonymous liaisons. She may in the end have turned out little the worse for wear, but given all the risks she took, she might well have been wiser, in retrospect, to have confined herself to dusting all those men's homes instead.
Anthony Lewis calls them "provocative". Robert Wright calls them "famously provocative". Thomas Friedman referred to them as "a cancer". Eric Alterman identifies them as "[s]ome of the people who piss me off most in the world". British Poet Tom Paulin is more succinct; he says, "I feel nothing but hatred for them", and that suggests that they "should be shot dead".

In case you haven't figured it out, these people are talking about Jews--in the latter case, American-born Jews--living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Now, it's not usually considered a provocation merely to live in the wrong place; in most civilized countries, objecting to (let alone hating) people of a particular race or religion living in one's neighborhood is a symptom of crass prejudice, not injustice. In Israel, for example, where twenty percent of the population is Arab, only a tiny fringe of fanatics opposes the presence of Arab citizens in the country. Yet the idea of Jews living in a future Palestine is considered (as it was during Egyptian/Jordanian rule over the territories) unacceptable not just to Palestinians, but also to many--probably most--Western journalists.

The reasons offered are pretty weak. The classic "humiliation" complaint I have ridiculed previously is often invoked; Anthony Lewis even blames the settlements for having "ravaged the environment". The most common (and least implausible) claim is that they represent an attempt to alter the demographics of the territories, turning them into Jewish-majority areas. That might indeed be the goal of some Israeli nationalists, but their "greater Israel" vision peaked in popularity in the 1980s, is not widely shared among Israelis today, and has never even been close to plausibly implementable. (The Jewish population of the territories these days is less than 10% of the total.) And throughout the Oslo process, dismantling of most of the settlements was more or less assumed to be part of any future final deal (the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt included evacuation of settlements in the Sinai; and at Camp David in 1999, Ehud Barak explicitly offered the Palestinians removal of all the Gaza settlements and most of those in the West Bank).

Moreover, far from acting as if they view settlements in the territories as a crucial issue, Palestinian terrorists have shown a conspicuous lack of interest in distinguishing between Jews living in the occupied territories and Jews living in Israel proper. Their victims are disproportionately in the latter category, despite the obvious greater ease with which the nearer, more isolated settlements can be attacked. Indeed, Hillel Halkin argues, plausibly, that if "the notion that [the settlers] could live in a Palestinian state may seem laughably quixotic", then "so is the notion of a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace". After all, what kind of relations can a future Palestinian state be expected to have with a neighboring country whose dominant ethnicity has been officially banned from their soil?

But most of the settlement critics are clearly unconcerned about such matters; for them, the settlements are merely a pretext for condemning Israel. That much can be readily deduced from the fact that their obsession with Jews living in the West Bank is in precisely inverse proportion to their level of concern about Palestinians murdering Jews. Thomas Friedman, for example, used to fulminate at length about the evil settlers; having recently ratcheted up his rhetoric against Palestinian terrorism, he now voices his objections to the settlements at a somewhat toned-down level. Anthony Lewis, on the other hand, continues to show, in this recent article as in his past columns, far more concern for where some Jews live than for whom some Arabs kill. Alterman, as well, has a history of condemning Jewish settlement (among other sins) as an outrage while mentioning Palestinian terrorism in passing as a regrettable matter. And Tom Paulin, from the sound of it, finds terrorism against Jewish targets quite unobjectionable altogether.

This imbalance of attention is understandable; if one were to give serious consideration to both issues in turn, then the overwhelmingly greater severity of Palestinian terrorism would be self-evident (as it has lately been to Friedman), severely undercutting one's anti-Israel rhetoric. It is a measure of Israel's remarkable scrupulousness in the face of the terrorist threat that so many of her critics continue to focus so much of their ire on her supposedly heinous crime of building homes in the wrong places.

Monday, May 20, 2002

According to Mackubin Owens, the "failure of intelligence" leading to 9/11 was a result of "congressional reforms that forced [the CIA] to shift to from the use of human assets to reliance on technology." Of course, Peter Beinart was blaming a bureaucratic CIA back in February (although he complained that Congress wasn't overseeing it enough). And former agent Reuel Marc Gerecht was explaining the fecklessness of the CIA's efforts against Osama bin Laden last summer, before the WTC attack even happened. Another former agent, Robert Baer, has written a book more or less corroborating the others' views.

Personally, I've always taken it for granted that a huge, widely-known government bureaucracy can't possibly be an effective intelligence agency, and I've therefore been assuming all along that the CIA has been a dead letter (and known as such by those who matter) ever since it became every paranoid's favorite obsession back in the 70's. In recent years, the NSA, which had taken over from the emasculated CIA the role of main source of intelligence for the US government, has also become noticeably huge, famous, and popular among paranoids--right around the time that the proliferation of effective encryption technology has rendered its signals intelligence-based approach nearly useless against many of its most important targets. Even the shadowy NRO, the agency responsible for satellite reconnaissance, has become relatively familiar of late--along with its commercial competitors, who sell the same capabilities at surprisingly affordable rates--prompting those with secrets to take care to hide them from the skies.

So who's doing the real spying these days? Well, I've spotted scattered mentions of something called the Special Collection Service, or SCS, a small organization specializing in more "direct" intelligence collection methods than the NSA's and NRO's (to say nothing of the CIA's, which, according to the aforementioned critics, amount to sitting in plush offices in embassy compounds). There seems to be little publicly available information about them, though.

Sounds promising to me.

Sunday, May 19, 2002

Myriad commentators have been arguing that heads should roll as a result of the government's failure to heed advance indications that something like the 9/11 attack might occur. But as the New York Times reminds us, "[i]n recent months, officials have issued threat alerts regarding nuclear plants, financial institutions and even specific structures like the Seattle Space Needle and the Golden Gate Bridge". Why, then, aren't these pundits now advocating heavy-duty security measures to protect all of these alleged targets? And if, heaven forbid, one of the latter should suffer a terrorist strike in the near future, will the finger-waggers again be calling for government officials to pay the political price for the same complacency, in the face of vague or inconclusive reports, that they themselves are exhibiting today?

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

In Salon, Ann Marlowe argues that feminists should reject the tradition of men paying for dates. "[A]s long as we construe gender as being about the flow of funds from men to women," she writes, "in some deep but inescapable way all women are prostitutes, and all men are johns." Lisa Dusseault agrees.

I could be snide, of course, and ask why a hardcore "equality" feminist would object to women being prostitutes and men being johns in the first place. After all, few men would consider themselves devalued victims if women paid them for their sexual services; why, then, should women feel any differently?

Fortunately, I'm not a hardcore "equality" feminist, and I know what I disparage about prostitution: not "the flow of funds from men to women", but rather the reduction of something as personal and central as sexual intimacy to a cash transaction between strangers, degrading both parties in the process. Most men who pay for a date's meal, on the other hand, do so for roughly the same reason most women on a date wear lipstick: it's a simple, popular and effective way to enhance one's attractiveness to the opposite sex. Both might seem slightly unsavory if analyzed too closely for anthropological origins and social meanings, but in practice their immediate motivation is nothing more disreputable than a natural desire to put one's best foot forward and make a good impression--in short, to "look good". (And, as Billy Crystal's "Fernando" would say, "to look good is to feel good.")

No doubt there are plenty of people--both male and female--who see dating finances in Marlowe's coarse transactional terms. But such people are also far more likely to embrace "equality" feminism, with its disdain for chivalry and hearty endorsement of cold sexual self-interestedness, than traditional romance, which recoils from crude notions of sexual barter. In other words, it's not the man who always automatically pays, but rather the man who doesn't always pay, who's obviously thinking carefully about what he's giving up--and what he might get in return.

Sunday, May 05, 2002

If the aftermath of the Jenin pseudo-massacre has demonstrated anything, it's the absurdity of European opinion makers' claims to a more "nuanced" and "complex" view of foreign affairs than that of their brashly "simplistic" black-and-white-thinking American counterparts. The parade of EU politicians and journalists visiting Jenin, calling for war crimes investigations of the Israelis and condemning--with what has sounded remarkably like resounding moral clarity--the destruction and suffering visited upon the Palestinian people, has made George W. Bush's language about Islamic terrorism sound downright diplomatic by comparison. And at least the US president had most of his facts right.

Not that anyone should be surprised; in a world of imperfect souls, it is natural for both people and nations to appreciate the "complexities" of their friends' faults and misdeeds, while passionately decrying the myriad sins of their enemies. In fact, throughout the Cold War, the US demonstrated exactly such a "double standard" with respect to pro-Western and pro-Soviet tyrannies in the Third World, forgiving or excusing (if not actually defending) human rights abusers lined up on the American side, while excoriating Soviet-leaning regimes for their cruelty. European leftists, of course, did the same--only in the opposite direction. This time around, it's Israel getting the breaks from its American friends, while Europe sides with the Arabs in general, and the Palestinian Authority in particular.

A good example is German author Peter Schneider's column in (where else?) Sunday's New York Times. Schneider claims to want "to get past these destructive clich├ęs" of America's "Manichean world view and simplistic solutions", and Europe's "weaklings and cowards". But his column is really all about how the US should join him in cutting (only) the Palestinians a break. Take Israeli settlements in the occupied territories: "When American commentators mention this problem," Schneider writes, "they treat it as inappropriate behavior, but hardly justifying any kind of strong response." They don't mention the settlements much, he suggests, because "to do so might present a motive for the suicide bombings." Schneider never mentions what "might present a motive" for building settlements; Israeli wrongdoing, in his view, need not be probed for possible mitigating justifications. As for those suicide bombings, "nothing has hurt the Palestinian cause more than its strategy of terror". Schneider never even bothers to mention those other victims of the bombings; but then, I suppose it is only natural to worry about harm to one's friends first.

Now, Peter Schneider (who, we should not forget, speaks, in the end, only for Peter Schneider) is free to choose his allies as he pleases, as are his fellow European intellectuals--or, for that matter, Americans of all stripes. (As he puts it, "European skepticism about American views of the Middle East arises from the very strong alliance between the United States and Israel." Well, it would, wouldn't it?) But perhaps Schneider and his friends might wish to pause and consider what happened scarcely a decade ago, when, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. those fond of giving Moscow, rather than Washington, the benefit of the doubt in international disputes found themselves sporting world-historical-scale volumes of egg on their faces. Defending corrupt, ambitiously irredentist autocracies in their efforts to destroy vibrant pro-Western democracies has not always proven, in retrospect, to be a wise choice.

Thursday, May 02, 2002

Apparently, it's "don't call me a Jew-hater" week over at Slate. On Tuesday, James Fallows complained that while "[t]wenty years ago it would have seemed insultingly obvious to say that disagreement with Israeli military policy did not make you an America, a combination of conservative Christians and Likudnik Jews has started waving the anti-Semitism flag" against critics of Israel. On Wednesday, Robert Wright admitted that "most people who truly are anti-Israel probably are anti-Semitic", but pleaded that "many of Sharon's critics, such as [Israeli ultra-dove] Yossi Beilin, are quite pro-Israel. In fact, they oppose Sharon's policies precisely because they think the policies are bad for Israel." Both men obviously have a point, but their manner of complaint also seriously undermines their own arguments. In essence, they both protest too much, while explaining too little.

Certainly, mere criticism of Israeli policy implies neither anti-Semitism nor even an anti-Israel bias. But it's hardly surprising that the connection is being made more frequently these days, given the explosion of overtly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment around the world, and the growing solidarity among Jews and Israel's defenders in support of the Israeli government's recent actions. As a simple statistical matter, opposition to Israel has become (as Wright admits) more closely correlated with anti-Semitism than ever, and vigorous opposition to the current Israeli government's policy correspondingly closely associated with an anti-Israel stance.

Not that any of this demonstrates that either Wright or Fallows is anti-Israel, let alone anti-Semitic. But it sets up a mild statistical presumption that requires addressing, not mere dismissal. If I were to advocate, for example, that James Fallows and Robert Wright be pushed off a cliff, I might not hate them (perhaps I believe death to be a route to their greater spiritual elevation) or even wish them physical harm (perhaps I believe they both can fly). But because most people who want to push these two men off a cliff do in fact hate them, it is my responsibility to make some argument as to why the statistical presumption is wrong in this case.

And if I did so, I wouldn't need to gripe about people assuming I hate them; my argument would speak clearly for itself in refuting that assumption. Yossi Beilin, Robert Wright's favorite pro-Israel opponent of the current Israeli government, is no doubt occasionally accused by his less tactful opponents of being anti-Israel. But he doesn't spend much time explaining how it's possible to be both pro-Israel and anti-Sharon; he's too busy, as a pro-Israel dove, arguing with his fellow pro-Israel Israelis that his own political approach is better for his country than Sharon's. Likewise, there are a fair number of fervently anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox rabbis who accuse the largely secular Israeli state of blasphemy, but they never wring their hands over critics who call them "self-hating Jews". Like anti-Sharon Israeli doves, they let their arguments demonstrate that, however unpopular their opinions may be, their intentions towards the Jewish people are in fact wholly benign.

At the other extreme, there are people like Wilhelm Marr, the 19th-century German originator of the term "anti-Semitism". Now there was a fellow who really cared about distinguishing gradations of opposition to Jews. Marr believed that it was very important to separate his scientifically based disdain for Jews from mere religious bigotry; recognizing Jewish moral and intellectual inferiority, he insisted, was not tantamount to "Judenhass"--Jew-hatred. Jean-Marie Le Pen and other far-right figures with a record of anti-Semitic remarks are similarly finicky about distancing themselves from hatred of Jews; they may, say, decry the excessive power of Jewish commercial interests in America, they argue, but that doesn't make them anti-Semitic. Somehow, though, concrete indications of their non-hostility to Jews--indications that normal politicians eager for votes ought to be happy to display--just never seem to arise.

And that's the point--political positions that are explicitly not anti-Israel, and even anti-Israel positions that are explicitly not anti-Semitic, are their own best defense, and need no supplementary whining about false accusations to bolster them. Both Fallows and Wright conspicuously declined to express any such positions, though, confining themselves instead to snide protests that one can't oppose the Israeli government these days without being accused of anti-Israel bias or worse. Perhaps they both have genuinely nuanced beliefs that lead them to loathe the current Israeli government out of love for Israel and the Jews. But if they did, then why weren't they ready to come out and present them, instead of hiding behind what amounts to an "I didn't do it, nobody saw me, you can't prove anything" defense?

Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Am I the only person who's disturbed at the bizarrely roundabout way in which the Benevolence International Foundation and its director were prosecuted? According to informants, Osama bin Laden used the group as a conduit for funds and information--including information on chemical and nuclear weapons--during the 1990s. But that wasn't enough for an indictment. It was, however, enough to allow the FBI to raid their offices and freeze their assets in December. And when the organization sued to recover its assets, it committed perjury by denying that it had aided terrorist groups.

Al Capone was famously convicted on income tax charges, of course; but that was because the feds couldn't pin anything else on him. Here, the problem is much more disturbing: the kind of assistance the organization was giving bin Laden apparently wasn't illegal at the time. (Otherwise, they'd have been indicted for it from the start.) Presumably the Patriot Act has fixed such loopholes, but obviously that statute can't be applied retroactively.

All of which raises a question I first posed back when John Walker Lindh was first captured: suppose that a known, Afghan-trained Al Qaida "sleeper" has been stationed in the US (perhaps even become a US citizen), but has not yet committed any terrorist acts. What, if anything, can the law do about him? If he were to receive his training today, I believe he would likely be a felon under the Patriot Act; but again, that law cannot be applied retroactively. It seems as though America may well end up paying for years to come for its past lack of statutorial vigilance with respect to the threat of foreign terrorist organizations.
Mickey Kaus has discovered another loophole in the recently-passed McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. His last discovery, which I discussed a while ago, was an obscure, complicated hack that involved a wealthy contributor pretending to be an electoral opponent. The new loophole, however, is so wide and straightforward that it completely changes the character of the law--turning it from an appalling-but-incomplete limitation on legitimate political speech into a fairly benign--even useful--"clean campaigns" measure.

According to Kaus, the law does not actually prevent independent organizations from purchasing campaign advertising in the runup to an election. Only corporations and labor unions fall under this prohibition; unincorporated organizations do not. And as Kaus points out, the main purpose of incorporation is to shield individual co-owners from legal liability for the action of the corporation. Kaus neglects only the last step of the argument: that the main effect of the new law is therefore to require political advertisers to accept personal legal accountability for their speech. In other words, advertise all you like, but if you engage in last-minute libelous accusations, you can't protect yourself from lawsuits. That's not only not a threat to free speech--it sounds like excellent public policy. So why isn't the law being celebrated as a victory for accountability in campaigning, instead of being both praised and lambasted as a restriction on campaign spending?