Monday, June 30, 2003

An Oxford professor of molecular medicine recently sent a truly shocking email, turning down an Israeli graduate school applicant on the grounds that the latter had served in the Israeli army. "I have a huge problem," wrote Andrew Wilkie, Nuffield Professor of (appropriately enough) Pathology, "with the way that the Israelis take the moral high ground from their appalling treatment in the Holocaust, and then inflict gross human rights abuses on the Palestinians because they (the Palestinians) wish to live in their own country." (The professor has since issued a formal apology, and the university is investigating the matter.)

Although the professor's action--rejecting an Israeli simply because of his nationality and previous military service--is outrageous in itself, his explanation for it is even more staggering. For in fact the Holocaust plays virtually no role in Israel's or its supporters' justification for its policies or operations involving the West Bank and Gaza or its inhabitants. It would surely be foolish even to try to use it that way, since even the most sympathetic observer would be unlikely to consider the suffering of Jews sixty years ago as some kind of excuse for any misdeeds Israel might commit today.

On the other hand, supporters of the Palestinian side of the conflict (of whom this professor appears to be one) routinely make precisely this kind of argument. Palestinian terrorism, while not (always) fully condoned, is nevertheless "explained" in terms of the Palestinians' endurance of decades of suffering and "humiliation". Why, then, would Professor Wilkie lob such an accusation against, of all people, Israelis?

Roger Simon explains the professor's outburst as an example of Ron Rosenbaum's hypothesis that modern European anti-semitism stems from a desire to purge European guilt for the Holocaust by "blaming the victim." I'm skeptical; a British academic is far more likely, I imagine, to think of himself as an intellectual descendant of, say, the European leftist anti-Fascists of the thirties than of European Nazis.

On the other hand, the Holocaust is occasionally invoked to impute anti-Semitism to European Israel-bashers. I would guess, then, that Wilkie was simply anticipating accusations of anti-Semitism, and decided to strike pre-emptively, by declaring references to the Holocaust to be nothing more than excuses for "gross human rights abuses."

Now, I'm generally reluctant to lob accusations of anti-Semitism against someone who criticizes Israel, however unfairly. But when a fellow's reaction to an ordinary student application for a research position is to respond, in effect, "I hate Israelis--you're always accusing people of anti-Semitism to defend your misdeeds", one has to ask if anti-Semitism isn't just a little bit too much on his mind.

Then again, given the incoherence of his views on Israel, I suppose we can't exactly expect clear thinking from him on the subject of Jews in general, either.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

A friend has expressed curiosity about "personal" blogs--blogs (unlike this one) which record the blogger's personal thoughts and impressions about his or her life (rather than pompous pronouncements on public affairs). Not being very familiar with that particular form, I thought I'd harness the power of the medium for information-gathering purposes. I would be most grateful if those readers who can recommend any well-written personal blogs--or listings of them--dropped me an email or left a comment. Think of it as an inexpensive substitute for a tip jar....
An Australian man has committed a copycat self-amputation, slicing off his own arm with a knife after his tractor overturned, pinning it to the ground (the arm, not the knife). The catch (as it were) in this case: according to police, "[a]nother worker discovered the injured miner and sounded an alarm, but he didn’t want to wait for rescue crews." He was apparently rescued within hours, an arm short. (And just in time, too--who knows what he might have applied his overeager knife to, given another hour or so.)

Now, let me repeat the key detail, here: the man decided to lop off his own arm with a knife, rather than wait for a few hours until rescuers could arrive. The mysteries abound: how long, exactly, did he wait? How did he react when the rescuers arrived? If the opportunity had later arisen to reattach his arm, but had required him to stay for a few more hours in his hospital bed, would he have checked out in disgust, rather than wait around for the surgeon?

I've been trying to piece together the hypothetical details of this bizarre story in my mind, the better to understand it. For what it's worth, here's my imagined chronology:

  • The man's tractor overturns, pinning his arm in the process.

  • The man panics--perhaps having read the harrowing story of the Coloradan climber who spent several horrible days hemming and hawing before finally doing the necessary thing--and quickly severs the trapped arm.

  • A few minutes thereafter, a colleague finds him, and summons rescuers. The man smacks his own forehead with his remaining hand and begins mentally composing an acceptance speech for his anticipated Academy of Stupidity Lifetime Achievement Award.

  • After his rescue, an incredibly tactless journalist asks him, "why did you cut your own arm off so quickly, instead of waiting a bit longer for someone to find you?" Unable to muster the courage to look the world media in the eye and announce, "it's quite simple, really--I'm afraid I'm just a world-champion bonehead," the man puts on his best Paul Hogan sardonic/stoic grin, shrugs with his remaining shoulder, and says, "naah--I couldn't be bothered to wait for 'em."

  • It doesn't sound like all that plausible a scenario, I admit--but it's the most charitable one I could think of.

    Thursday, June 26, 2003

    It's hard to imagine someone failing more completely to understand the spirit of a particular song.
    While we're on the subject of Supreme Court decisions, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds and Sasha Volokh both note a New York Times article about a mathematical analysis of Supreme Court decisions. The analysis, by Dr. Lawrence Sirovich, a mathematician at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, has determined that the justices are not entirely independent in their decision-making. In particular, the nine of them are the effective equivalent of 4.68 completely independent justices.

    "Although his refusal to draw any political implications from his analysis may disappoint some people, the neutrality of the approach is what makes it appealing to political and legal scholars," writes Times reporter Nicholas Wade. In fact, one doesn't need to delve into politics to question the interpretation of Sirovitch's result as characterizing the independence of the justices' thinking. It appears to me, in fact, that the analysis says as much about the nature of the lower courts as about the Supreme Court itself.

    Cases may reach the Supreme Court for several different reasons. A case may be deemed so important and controversial that a Supreme Court decision is necessary to resolve it. The Supreme Court may be dissatisfied with lower court rulings on the matter, or two different lower courts may have ruled differently on it. Or the Supreme Court itself may be divided enough to want to hear and resolve the case through its own deliberations.

    In the first three instances, it would not necessarily be unexpected for the court to rule 9-0--say, if a "rogue circuit" issued a bizarre appeals court ruling that the Supreme Court saw fit to overrule. Thus the ratio of cases from each category (which likely fluctuates considerably over time) can have a significant effect on the "apparent independence" of justices' opinions.

    To see this point more clearly, imagine a world without lower courts, in which all cases made it to the Supreme Court. The vast majority of those cases would be easy, and decided 9-0 by the justices. A mathematical analysis would therefore indicate a high court of strongly correlated thinkers--the effective equivalent of not much more than a single justice.

    Now imagine that the same Supreme Court were suddenly supplied with a "perfect" lower court system--in the sense of being almost perfectly capable of anticipating the propensities of the higher court. The result would be that only the most difficult, marginal cases would make it to the Supreme Court--the rest would be decided by lower courts and allowed to stand by a satisfied high court. In those cases, the justices' choices would naturally be somewhat arbitrary, hinging on legal niceties that the lower courts couldn't anticipate--the kinds of judgment calls that justices might easily differ on, compared with more straightforward legal decisions. Professor Sirovitch's analysis would therefore suggest strong independence among justices. Nothing would have changed about the justices themselves, of course--only the skill of the lower courts in "filtering" cases for the high court.

    I would speculate that certain types of event--say, a period of high turnover in the court system, or a flurry of controversial legal issues, perhaps emanating from a political crisis--would increase the number of cases of the first three types, thus reducing the apparent independence of justices. A more careful analysis of the origins of cases that make it to the Supreme Court, might help determine whether the apparently low "entropy" of Supreme Court opinions is a reflection of polarization within the court or merely an artifact of turmoil in the lower courts.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2003

    An update to my previous posting about anticipated reactions to the Supreme Court's recent affirmative action rulings:

    Eugene Volokh has explained to me, via email, that he he considers Justice Ginsburg's position different from candidate Gephardt's, because Ginsburg only discussed others' (i.e., university administrators') potential disrespect for the Court's ruling, whereas Gephardt promised to undermine the ruling himself. That's a valid distinction, and certainly explains why Volokh spared Ginsburg the opprobrium he heaped on Gephardt.

    But it doesn't explain why he was so easy on the university administrators whose contumacious behavior Ginsburg predicted (and plausibly, in Volokh's eyes). Indeed, Volokh also informed me by email that he does "think it's worse when a President publicly announces his intention to violate his oath than when lower-level decisionmakers break the law" (although he opposes both).

    So there we have it: it's bad enough--though sometimes, regrettably, predictable--for a bureaucrat with no accountability to undermine the Supreme Court's authority. But if a president should get elected on a platform that includes a promise to undermine a Court ruling, and then attempt to live up to that promise--that would be really terrible.

    In other countries, we sometimes see a populist president trying to dismantle the democratic process and install himself as absolute dictator. Venerable institutions like the judiciary might then intervene to preserve the sovereignty of the citizenry. In America, it seems, things work the other way around: politicians attempt to enhance respect for the people's will, and right-thinking legal minds scold them relentlessly for suggesting that an electoral mandate might entitle them to speak on major matters of public policy.

    Monday, June 23, 2003

    There seems to be an odd inconsistency among blogging law professors regarding two rather similar recent threats to defy any anti-affirmative action ruling emanating from the Supreme Court. First, Democratic Presidential Candidate Richard Gephardt declared that "We'll do executive orders to overcome any wrong thing the Supreme Court does" with respect to affirmative action. Eugene Volokh calls Gephardt's statement "shocking" and thinks Gephardt "should be taken to task for this, and severely." Fellow law professor Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds describes the remark as "absolutely pathetic."

    Meanwhile, another commentator noted that "[o]ne can reasonably anticipate . . . that colleges and universities will seek to maintain their minority enrollment . . . whether or not they can do so in full candor through adoption of affirmative action plans of the kind here at issue....[i]f honesty is the best policy, surely Michigan’s accurately described, fully disclosed College affirmative action program is preferable to achieving similar numbers through winks, nods, and disguises."

    What kind of scoundrel would effectively condone Gephardt-style flouting of the Supreme Court's Constitutional rulings--this time by university admissions officers? Turns out the scoundrel in question is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her majority opinion in Gratz, one of the affirmative action cases decided today by the Supreme Court. In his dissent, Justice Renquist takes his colleague to task for her apparent preference for "changing the Constitution so that it conforms to the conduct of the universities." Volokh leans towards Renquist's position, but concedes that Ginsburg has a point.

    Now, why would Volokh be so much gentler on Ginsburg for saying, in effect, that universities are going to adopt racial preferences regardless of the Supreme Court's ruling, than on Gephardt for saying that as president he would have the government adopt racial preferences regardless of the Supreme Court's ruling? The most charitable explanation I can think of is that he considers sneaky, sub rosa disobedience to the Supreme Court's rulings less objectionable than open defiance of them. But this position is pretty hard to defend as a matter of principle. In fact, Volokh himself, in defending Ginsburg, makes the point that "less transparency in the design of race preferences....may lead to less political accountability."

    Moreover, Gephardt's words don't necessarily imply that his undermining of a hypothetical Supreme Court ruling would be particularly brazen. In fact, it's perfectly reasonable to interpret Gephardt as saying that he will sign executive orders which will not explicitly contradict the Supreme Court ruling, but will instead lead, guide and encourage civil servants to promote racial preferences in the same way that Ginsburg imagines universities would--that is, surreptitiously.

    I'm left with a disturbing speculation as to the underlying difference between the two cases: university administrations, like the Supreme Court, are appointed, (largely) unaccountable, and undemocratic, and we must therefore bear it stoically should they decide to shrug off Supreme Court rulings. Heaven forbid, though, that an elected, accountable, democratic official--say, the President of the United States--ever utter a peep of resistance to a judicial edict. Such effrontery would threaten the very foundations of non-democracy itself. Why, pretty soon, ordinary citizens would be wondering why they have to submit to the arbitrary authority of the Supreme Court in the first place.
    Everybody's commenting on the recent New Republic article by Spencer Ackerman and John Judis accusing the Bush administration of deliberate deception regarding the justifications for invading Iraq. Opinions vary (roughly along party lines) as to whether the Ackerman-Judis accusation is justified or overblown. But on one subject, pretty much everyone agrees: the fact that even after weeks of searching the US has failed to find "smoking gun" evidence of an Iraqi WMD (Weapons of mass destruction"--chemical, biological or nuclear weapons) program, casts significant doubt on the claim that there had ever been one in the first place.

    Well, consider the following fact: US troops attacked an alleged terrorist training camp in Northwest Iraq, killing more than 70 people and losing a helicopter--about a week ago. Surely such a facility--an armed encampment containing dozens of active, hostile troops--would have been attacked earlier had it been detected. Given that the Iraqis would have had to keep a WMD program--say, a covert nuclear weapons development project--absolutely secret from the entire world for over a decade, wouldn't it likely have been even more carefully hidden than this terrorist camp?

    Sunday, June 22, 2003

    Oxblog's David Adesnik has countered my arguments in defense of Israel's strikes on Hamas leaders by invoking the issue of civilian casualties. Now, I've already conceded that this is a legitimate issue--although not for the reasons Adesnik cites. Rather than expressing moral qualms, he worries about the effect of Palestinian casualties on their willingness to countenance a ceasefire. As I've already pointed out, current Palestinian opinion strongly favors the use of terrorism in any event, and Israel therefore hardly needs to worry about further "provocation". On the other hand, if terrorism appears not to be working--that is, if it leads to Palestinian civilian deaths, rather than Israeli ones--then it's possible that at least some Palestinians will become disillusioned with it.

    Regardless, almost as if in response to Adesnik's concerns, Israel has just killed the senior Hamas official in Hebron, during an arrest attempt--and without any civilian casualties. I look forward to seeing if Adesnik sticks to his position, and concedes that this attack is therefore unexceptionable.

    Interestingly, Ha'aretz reports that "[i]n recent weeks, the Hebron area [the Israelis] encountered difficulties gathering
    intelligence on the cells operating there." Hmm...I wonder who might have tipped them off, then?

    Thursday, June 19, 2003

    Although I'm on record as predicting the endurance of the Ayatollahs' regime beyond the end of the year, nobody would be more pleased than I to be proven wrong in this case. Nevertheless, I note that so far the anti-government demonstrations in Iran seem to lack three crucial criteria for success:

  • Mass support. Crowds have been reported in the hundreds or thousands, not hundreds of thousands. The regime has been enduring that sort of minor irritation for years now.

  • Signs of weakness in the regime. The closest the government has come to capitulating to its opponents is its arrest of some of its own thugs, after they rampaged through some universities beating up anti-government students. This could easily be a purely symbolic gesture meant for foreign consumption, rather than a genuine concession to the opposition. And otherwise, the evidence of cracks in the Ayatollahs' power structure is pretty scarce. (Kieran Healy elaborates on this point, adding some scholarly detail.)

  • An iconic leader. I don't recall a single popular uprising against an indigenous tyrant that has succeeded in recent years without first rallying around a single opposition leadership figure. Nor am I aware of such a figure emerging in Iran. (Of course, I urge any reader with the knowledge to correct me on either of these points to post a comment with details.)

  • I don't doubt that the Iranian clerical regime is deeply unpopular, that its opposition has been strengthened by the fall of Saddam Hussein, and that its longevity is in doubt. But I also suspect that a great deal more will have to happen before it progresses from just another hated dictatorship to another notch on the belt of democracy. The time scale of that progress is likely to be a lot longer than the Michael Ledeens of the world tend to imply.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2003

    Mark Kleiman points out that a Los Angeles County regulation requiring restaurants to post the results of their health inspections appears to have reduced hospital admissions for food-related illnesses by 20 percent. Kleiman challenges libertarians to argue against this type of government regulation, given its obvious positive effects on the county's diners. I would go even further: health codes for restaurants benefit (acceptably hygienic) restaurants themselves, as well as their patrons. With the regulations in place, customers feel safer eating at a restaurant, and especially trying out a new one, and are thus more likely to dine out in general.

    Of course, diehard libertarians will argue that private inspection services could substitute for the public authority, enforcing sanitary practices by contract. But that would require restaurant patrons to take the trouble not only to examine each restaurant's private certification, but also to investigate the reliability of various inspection services and the authenticity of the restaurant's claim to have been certified by them.

    More generally, the entire libertarian obsession with private contractual alternatives to government regulation is massively inconsistent. In fact, the enforcement of real-world contracts often relies on a rich, complex web of governmentally-determined laws, rules, conventions and institutions that make health department regulations look positively anarchistic by comparison. For example, private restaurant inspection services would inevitably depend on the conventions governing trademark protection and the "implicit contracts" that restaurants are said to make with their customers merely by, say, posting an inspection service logo.

    Now, this array of legal constructions is quite defensible on pragmatic grounds. But then, government health regulations are also defensible--indeed, clearly preferable--on pragmatic grounds. (After all, government health regulations don't preclude private inspection services, if the latter happen to offer any practical advantages.) Libertarians therefore tend to justify relying on private solutions by invoking fundamental principles like "non-coercion" and "private, voluntary contract"--principles that they are then happy to fudge when necessary to create feasible contractual solutions to problems like policing restaurant hygiene.

    Sunday, June 15, 2003

    Oxblog's David Adesnik disagrees with my claim that Israel's attacks on Hamas leaders are no worse for peace prospects than was Israel's isolation of Arafat. "[D]estroying credibility is far more difficult [sic] than reinforcing it," he writes. (I think he means, "easier".) "A combination of American and Israeli intransigence forced Arafat to back down. But that same combination cannot persuade Palestinians to embrace Abu Mazen."

    Certainly, it's true that Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. "Abu Mazen") has yet to be embraced by the Palestinian public. But I don't see how easing the pressure on Hamas could improve his stature any more than easing the pressure on Arafat would. In either case, a long-term competitor to Abbas would win enhanced prestige, having being shown greater "respect" by Israel. By the same token, terrorism as a tactic would also win increased credibility, thereby undercutting Abbas' tentative attempts to persuade Palestinians to abandon it.

    Now, some argue that Abbas' status among Palestinians is doomed unless he forcefully defends terrorists like Hamas and Arafat. That may (or may not) be the case; but if so, then lending him more credibility is synonymous with promoting terrorism, and there's thus no good reason for even attempting to prop him up. On the other hand, if Abbas is able to establish himself as a credible non-terrorist leader, it will only be because the Palestinian people perceive the terrorist alternatives as demonstrably worse. And--let's face it--a few helicopter-borne missiles slamming into the cars of terrorist leaders drives home the message that terrorism doesn't work, far better than implicitly giving "do not touch" VIP status to the top eschelon of Hamas.

    Meanwhile, Gregory of "Belgravia dispatch" also objects to my defense of the attack on Rantisi, arguing that its timing interferes with the "road map" initiative, and that the resulting incidental Palestinian civilian casualties hurt long-term prospects for peaceful coexistence. Funny--it used to be that ultra-doves like Amram Mitzna would declare that Israel should "fight terror as if there were no negotiations and negotiate as if there were no terror attacks." Gregory is apparently to the left of Mitzna, arguing that attacks on Hamas should be put on hold for the sake of the "road map". Again, this seems completely backwards to me; if one goal of the "road map" is to isolate Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations from terrorism, then the attacks on Rantisi and his partners in terror couldn't be better timed to assist in that decoupling. And if the Palestinian response is to rise to the defense of Hamas--immediately after the latter has explicitly refused to halt its terrorist attacks--then the "road map" itself is a sham, doomed to collapse in another heap of unfulfilled Palestinian commitments to suppress its own side's terrorists.

    The issue of the attack's civilian casualties is, I'll concede, a serious one, and Israel should certainly not be cavalier about it. The concern, pace the ever-clueless Thomas Friedman, is not the effects of such operations on long-term hopes for peaceful coexistence. If Israelis can somehow manage to live peacefully with a population that spent over half a century dedicating itself to their brutal liquidation, then a few accidental deaths in Gaza shouldn't be a formidable obstacle to ultimate reconciliation. Rather, Israelis themselves quite rightly oppose the erosion of their moral standards, which include placing a high value on protecting innocent life. Waging a morally unimpeachable war against a terrorist organization hiding within a civilian population is no easy matter, to be sure, and reasonable individuals can differ on the appropriate boundaries. I don't believe the attack on Rantisi was excessive, but I can understand that others might make a different judgment call

    The best solution, of course, would be for the local Palestinian authorities to break up the terrorist organizations themselves, jailing their leaders. (Note, though, that the danger of incidental civilian casualties in such operations is also far from negligible.) However, given that the Palestinian authorities have not yet so acted, or even made a commitment to act, it is therefore up to Israel to fight Hamas as carefully and effectively as it can.

    My own strong suspicion, in fact, is that for the moment Abbas et al. actually prefer Israel to take the initiative (and the subsequent blame), feeling their own current political status a bit too precarious for such boldness. If I'm right, then it's hard to make the case that Israel's actions were unwarranted, given that the local authorities had the opportunity to accomplish the same task with less danger to civilians, and nevertheless chose the riskier option.

    Saturday, June 14, 2003

    Steven Landsburg, who appears to be some kind of covert mole in the economics profession, conspiring to make it look unbelievably stupid, is at it again--this time with a just-so story about why Jews don't farm. Landsburg cites a team of "economic historians" who argue that the relative historical paucity of Jewish farmers is an economic consequence of their religious requirement of literacy, which gave them a comparative advantage in other vocations such as commerce and medicine.

    Now, if one were actually serious about this theory--not just blithely tossing around silly speculations, mind you, but genuinely proposing an intellectually defensible hypothesis--one would obviously want to look for other test cases to which it might apply. And it would be hard to do so without immediately stumbling upon yet another European ethnic group with a relatively small proportion of farmers: the Roma (colloquially known as "Gypsies"). And--wouldn't you know it--the Roma have a long historical tradition of illiteracy. So much for that theory....

    (On the other hand, if one were really a covert mole, trying one's best to discredit the field of economics.... )

    Friday, June 13, 2003

    Volokh Conspirator Orin Kerr points out Eric Muller's remarks on an interesting jury selection issue. Apparently, "a judge in Pennsylvania is delaying a murder trial until the district's jury selection procedures are changed to produce a jury pool that is ten percent black." According to Muller,
    [L]egally speaking, there's really nothing to be outraged about here. It has been settled law for decades that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury pool or "venire" to reflect a fair cross-section of the community. A jury venire is not a fair cross-section if the selection system is calibrated to underrepresent a "distinctive group" in the community. Racial groups are, under the Sixth Amendment, "distinctive." The district where this murder trial is to occur is twelve percent black, but the venire is never more than five percent black. So this ruling strikes me as an elementary application of well settled law.


    To the extent that people are talking about this story, it is because some people seem to be upset that this area of Sixth Amendment law appears to run counter to the "colorblindness" theory that is all the rage in some constitutional quarters. And, in an important sense, it does do that: this area of the law works from the assumption that race is not completely irrelevant to people's life experiences, perspectives, and perceptions.

    So it's worth taking a moment to think: if you're bothered by what this Pennsylvania judge is doing, is it because you think that the assumption underlying this area of law is actually false? Or for some other reason?
    Well, if race is "not irrelevant" when creating a pool of jurors, then surely political and legal views are not irrelevant, either. Would it therefore be legitimate for the judge to observe that, say, popular support for legalizing drugs runs at x percent in the polls, and consequently to require every jury pool to contain at least x-2 percent proponents of drug legalization?

    The problem with this kind of thinking is not that these human categories are "irrelevant", and therefore should be ignored. On the contrary, precisely because they are relevant--like so many other factors--their inevitably selective inclusion in the jury pool creation process cannot but become a powerful device for "jury pool engineering". As we've already seen in the case of jury selection, increasing the number of tools with which a jury can be painstakingly sculpted in the name of "fairness" or "representativeness" only increases the likelihood that those tools will be wielded so as to undermine, rather than enhance, justice.

    Perhaps there really is a bias against African Americans in Philadelphia's jury pool selection process. But whatever that bias may be, it's bound to pale in comparison with those introduced by rules that make it much easier for some categories of people than others to avoid jury duty, and that allow both defense counsel and the prosecution to exclude jurors on the flimsiest of pretexts. It's absurdly naive to think that adding yet another gimmick to the mix will somehow shift the system more towards a fair balance, rather than simply pushing it even further askew.

    Thursday, June 12, 2003

    Consider this recent sequence of events:

  • Under heavy international pressure, Yasser Arafat appoints a prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

  • Abbas, with Israeli and American support, and despite ferocious opposition from Arafat, insists on naming the PA's former Gaza security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, as minister of state for security affairs. Dahlan was in charge of the PA's crackdown on Hamas in 1996.

  • Hamas pulls out of talks with Abbas on a proposed ceasefire with Israel.

  • Israel launches a spate of rather well-scouted missile attacks on high-level Hamas operatives in Gaza.

  • Wednesday, June 11, 2003

    Was the Israeli attempt on the life of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi detrimental to Israel's security, as President Bush has suggested? Bush's implicit argument is that by firing missiles at Rantisi, the Israelis weakened the hand of the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who has been trying to pressure groups such as Hamas to refrain from terrorist attacks. The problem with this argument, however, is that it is refuted by the very existence of the Palestinian prime minister in the first place.

    Yasser Arafat appointed Abbas prime minister under heavy international pressure, (only) after Israel had decided to declare its complete refusal to deal with Arafat, confining him to his Ramallah compound and attempting to isolate him from contact with his worldwide diplomatic supporters. When Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon first made this decision last spring, in the wake of operation Defensive Shield, he was widely and roundly condemned, in exactly the same tone, and with exactly the same argument, that is used today against the Rantisi strike. By attacking Arafat, it was claimed, Israel was only discouraging him from embracing moderation, and spurring moderates to make common cause with him in his defense.

    In fact, Palestinian terrorists like Arafat and Rantisi have repeatedly demonstrated their complete unwillingness to abandon extreme demands and murderous methods under any circumstances short of the destruction of Israel. Hence, expecting moderation from them in response to Israeli restraint is (and has been proven time and again to be) an utterly futile approach. Moreover, their power depends not at all on the sympathy of moderates, but rather on their ability to wring concessions from Israel through terrorism. Thus, to the extent that Israel refuses to attempt to mollify them--indeed, that it attempts instead to capture or kill them--their power diminishes, and the credibility and prospects (however slim) of moderates such as Abbas (if, indeed, that is what he is) are significantly enhanced.

    This is precisely what has happened with Arafat; once Israel declared him "irrelevant", his support and credibility among "moderates" in the international community quickly began to erode. (His standing among Palestinians has also declined modestly but steadily.) If the world can be (at least partially) persuaded that Yasser Arafat ought to be frozen out of the "road map", then why not Abdel Aziz Rantisi as well?

    Tuesday, June 10, 2003

    Several prominent bloggers, basking in the glow of their medium's collective triumph over the New York Times, have decided on a new project: bringing freedom to Burma, where a brutal dictatorship has recently launched a crackdown on its main political opposition. Now, I hold no brief for the Burmese government, which is by all accounts exceedingly nasty. But it's important to remember that the blogosphere's choice of Burma as cause of the moment is not merely a consequence of its being run by a brutal dictatorship--after all, any number of countries fit that description. In fact, to get adopted by sympathetic Westerners, a nation's suffering population must possess one more thing: an opposition leader with enough political support to be a credible alternative to the current despots. (It helps, of course, if the opposition leader is articulate, attractive and Western-educated, like Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose recent imprisonment set off the latest round of bloggers' outrage.)

    Now, I don't deny that this selection criterion makes a certain amount of sense. After all, if the alternative to the current despot is either another despot or complete anarchy--or if there is simply no credible alternative to prefer--then it's hard to muster enthusiasm for deposing the ruling bad guy. But it does mean that the integrity and democratic bona fides of the opposition leader merit careful scrutiny. Corazon Aquino, for example, worked out pretty well--but Robert Mugabe and Jean-Baptiste Aristide (to mention just two cases that come to mind) were both lionized as democratizers in their day, and both were terrible disappointments, arguably every bit as bad as their predecessors.

    In fact, it turns out that Aung San Suu Kyi's record is a very promising one. She won an election in 1990, for example, and she has a long history of speaking out on behalf of democracy in general, not just opposition to the current government in particular. Still, because these campaigns are almost always implicitly on behalf of a particular alternative--not just against a particular evil--the details of that alternative should be placed front and center, and examined carefully for plausibility and decency. Western attention is a scarce resource, after all, and should not be squandered on an undeserving politician, however monstrous his or her opponent.

    Sunday, June 08, 2003

    It seems the Times' editorial page editors read the Weekly Standard's Rick Bragg parody, and decided they could do even better....
    Michael Kinsley's latest jeremiad against the Republican tax cut plan is, like so many of Paul Krugman's similarly-minded screeds, only ostensibly about how terrible the tax cut is. Its real purpose is to grapple with the most difficult question facing liberal opponents of the plan: if it's such a financial disaster for so many Americans, then why isn't it also a political disaster for the Republicans?

    Like Krugman, Kinsley opts for the people-as-duped-sheep explanation. "Campaign contributions are only the crudest way power is transferred from the economic sphere to the political one," he writes. "In addition, there are well-financed lobbying organizations, including some masquerading as research institutes. There is the inherent complexity and boredom of tax and regulatory issues, which repel people who don't have a major financial stake. There is the social milieu of the president and most members of Congress." In other words, the voters are not exploding in righteous outrage at the tax cut because the Republican powers-that-be have conspired to hide the truth of its damaging consequences from them.

    Now, I generally share Kinsley's (and Krugman's) skepticism of the wisdom of the tax cut, although perhaps with less intensity and conviction. A stimulative tax cut is at least defensible at the moment, as an anti-deflation measure. But if that is its purpose, it could have been much better designed than this one, with more immediate spending power delivered at less long-term cost to the federal bottom line. And I can understand why Kinsley would be disappointed in the general public's acceptance of a plan that he believes will bankrupt the country, hurt the poor and those of middling income, and benefit only the rich.

    Still, it's ridiculous to argue that a wealthy, powerful cabal has managed to fleece an unwilling public. In fact, support for tax cuts in recent years has been quite broad-based, across the income spectrum, with a plurality at all income levels--not just the wealthy--favoring a tax cut. That doesn't mean they're sensible to do so, of course. But it's simply false to decry the tax cut as a robbery of the non-rich by the rich, when the non-rich are willing partners in the transaction.

    When foreign populations believe nonsensical things--say, that the September 11th terrorist attack was a CIA plot--pundits tend to blame poor American PR, agressive American foreign policy....anything but a concerted campaign by wealthy, powerful Islamist propagandists. Surely in America, where the likes of Kinsley and Krugman have prominent, popular, accessible soapboxes from which to fulminate, the propaganda conspiracy theory is even harder to defend.

    Perhaps, then, it's time for Kinsley and Krugman to consider the implications of the fact that Americans would sooner believe an economic charlatan of a president feeding them ruinous lies, than trust the reasonable warnings of pundits like themselves. In other words, it's time for them to take their cue from their foreign policy colleagues, recognize their own startling lack of credibility among the public, and start asking themselves, "why do they hate us?"

    Thursday, June 05, 2003

    If you thought there was no art in composing hit songs for "boy bands", think again.

    Wednesday, June 04, 2003

    Most people would agree that the story of Tucker Max is a cautionary tale, but not everyone will agree on the moral. Max is, judging by his Website, an appalling character, a charming drunk with a knack for getting into trouble, behaving badly and publishing ruthlessly funny accounts of his exploits that are humiliating to all involved--but especially to the women foolish enough to get themselves entangled with him. One of the latter, it seems, is Katy Johnson, a two-time Miss Vermont whose Website advocates, among other things, abstinence and sobriety. Needless to say, Max' posted account of an evening's interaction with Johnson painted a rather different picture of her character. Johnson sued, and has so far won an injunction forbidding Max to mention Johnson or his claims about her on his Website.

    Now, I have no idea whether Max' unflattering portrait of Johnson is in any way accurate, but let us assume for the sake of argument that it is. (After all, a defamatory tale about a beauty queen, invented out of whole cloth by a notorious jerk, would make for a rather straightforward, uninteresting libel lawsuit.) One lesson that free-speech enthusiasts such as Eugene Volokh apparently draw is that prohibiting "kiss and tell" writings in the name of protecting women's reputations does great damage to First Amendment rights. He's no doubt correct, but to me the legal aspects of the story are by far the least compelling. An anonymous female correspondent has offered Volokh a somewhat less legalistic, and hence more interesting, perspective: "He was doomed the second his case was assigned to a female judge. I'm not an easily offended woman, but Max is the worst kind of cad. He is every woman's worst nightmare come to life."

    Now, I know of some people who would dismiss this reaction as unfairly indulgent towards Max' "victims". And they have a point--after all, if Katy Johnson's behavior was unexceptionable, then why should she complain that Tucker Max is telling the world about it? And conversely, if her behavior was less than exemplary, then whom but herself does she have to blame for the entirely predictable consequences?

    Indeed, let us reverse the roles for a moment, and imagine that we are dealing, not with a callous man's humiliating public account of his evening with a naive, vulnerable woman, but rather a callous woman's humiliating public account of her evening with a naive, vulnerable man. (I'll leave the details of the hypothetical humiliation to the reader's imagination.) How many people would feel genuine outrage at his victimization, as opposed to gamely advising him to "chalk it up to experience" and move on?

    Being a bit of a softhearted type myself, though, I recognize that people make foolish decisions sometimes, and don't necessarily deserve public humiliation for them. Of course, a glance at Max' Website makes it clear that for a woman, giving this fellow so much as the time of day is more than a run-of-the-mill foolish decision. What could possess any woman, let alone an abstinence activist, to hook up with this guy? An obvious answer--again, one that someone more coldhearted than myself would give--is that the lady doth protest too much, and her advocacy of abstinence and temperance is a hypocritical overcompensation for a shamelessly uninhibited streak. But then, Katy Johnson makes a bad poster child for Max' depredations in any event, since she can apparently take care of herself--winning, for example, a court injunction against him.

    Much sadder are the numerous cases of horribly messed-up women whose tales Max recounts with a kind of rubbernecker's detached fascination--even as he himself instigates the accident. It is these women on whom Volokh's correspondent presumably took pity in condemning Max so bitterly. (And I daresay that more than a few otherwise intelligent, sensible women--and men, for that matter--have managed to make fools of themselves at one time or another in their choice of opposite-sex companion.)

    But if effectively throwing the book at Max--whether legally or merely socially--is a legitimate means to protect women against his like, then what about, say, the methods proposed by Katy Johnson? Aren't more of the kind of vulnerable women susceptible to Max' charms likely to be protected by social norms that promote abstinence and sobriety than by the occasional court injunction against a cad's Website? Given the existence--indeed, ubiquity--of Tucker Maxes in the world, might it not be more productive for the prevailing culture to fortify people in advance against their lures than to attempt (fecklessly, we can assume) to deter them with social opprobrium?

    Something tells me that neither the free speech advocates nor the cad-bashers will think to draw that lesson from the episode.

    Monday, June 02, 2003

    The Volokh Conspiracy's Orin Kerr reports from his college class' tenth reunion, where he asked his classmates what advice they would give their freshman selves, in retrospect:
    [M]any classmates answered that they would have taken better advantage of all that college had to offer. People who partied a lot said that they should have taken their studies more seriously; people who spent all day at the library would have done more extracurricular activities. Classmates would have attended more lectures by famous speakers, tried more new things, and generally attempted to suck the marrow out of the college experience more than they did. I guess that college, like youth, is wasted on the young.
    I am reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic short story, "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment", in which four elderly, dissipated souls are offered a (possibly illusionary) taste of the legendary fountain of youth. Although they all assert in advance that they will behave with the wisdom of their experience the second time around, the euphoria of recovered sprightliness in fact leads them into exactly the same follies that brought them such disaster in the past. The errors of youth, Hawthorne suggests, arise not from ignorance but from innate character flaws, and age only removes the ability to indulge them, not the urge to re-commit them.

    Considered in this light, Kerr's classmates' advice to their younger selves sounds less like, "I wish I'd done all these things I had the opportunity to do", than "I wish I'd been a more well-rounded, ambitious, experience-seeking person than I was--the kind of person who would have done all of these things I had the opportunity to do". After all, how many of the opportunities college affords really disappear completely after graduation? One can still take classes, go to wild parties, hear famous speakers, and try new things later in life; those who don't bother are probably at least partly using lack of time or opportunity as an excuse, to cover up for lack of initiative or even lack of inclination.

    Certainly I made my share of mistaken choices during college, but if I'm brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that I can't think of a single major one that I made out of ignorance, rather than, say, laziness or timidity. I'd be interested to hear (via comments, perhaps) whether readers see their college years differently.

    Sunday, June 01, 2003

    Apparently this blog's stock has skyrocketed. A Website called "BlogShares" allows users to "invest" in various blogs, buying and selling "shares" in a kind of financial rotisserie league for blogging fans. ICBW's valuation is up by a factor of more than 10 in the last couple of months.

    (Now that I think about it, the stock market is itself a kind of financial rotisserie league for investors, particularly when non-dividend-bearing stocks are involved. The only differences are that (1) most rotisserie leagues don't involve real money, and (2) the rotisserie league participants I know are much, much more attentive to baseball statistics than are most of the equity investors I know towards the fundamentals of the corporations they invest in.)

    Of course I'm flattered that several blog speculators have decided to pour some of their imaginary savings into my humble enterprise. I can't help suspecting, though, that I'm really just a penny stock being subjected to a "pump and dump" maneuver by some virtual scam artists. I wonder if Blogshares operates an SEC equivalent....

    Anyway, I'm sure it's all in good fun--until, that is, the board decides I'm not helping the bottom line enough, and has me replaced with some high-school kid.