Thursday, June 21, 2018

State versus children

Before there were screaming children at the US southern border, there was Iraq. This famous photograph is of Samar Hassan, then 5 years old in January 2005, whose parents had just been killed by US soldiers who treated their car as hostile when it approached a checkpoint. The photographer who took it, Chris Hondros, was killed years later during the Libyan war.

The New York Times did a great story in 2011 to find out what happened to Samar. Her circumstances were OK, but not great, and certainly no recovery from the disaster captured in the image.

If the trajectory of the country is that every so often, a child terrorized by its actions becomes the signature image, it's time to reflect on a fundamental problem. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Pacific Rim

Wall Street Journal on the personal dynamics at the G7 summit:

At one point, Mr. Trump brought up migration as a big problem for Europe and then told Mr. Abe, "Shinzo, you don't have this problem, but I can send you 25 million Mexicans and you'll be out of office very soon," according to the senior EU official who was in the room.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Killed in action in a country the Commander-in-Chief can't spell

They'll eventually correct it.

He does not want to wear the ribbon

Trump is the only leader at the G7 (plus EU) summit in Quebec who didn't wear the summit symbol badge. He's wearing the stars and stripes pin, and that's it. 

This one table explains why the media can't help helping Trump

TV Channel B

Cover Trump
Don’t Cover Trump
TV Channel A
Cover Trump
(-2, -2)
(0, -3)
Don’t Cover Trump
(-3, 0)
(-1, -1)

It's the Prisoner's Dilemma, adapted to the world of TV news competition. There are two TV channels, A and B. A's strategy is in the rows, and B's strategy is in the columns. The first number is A's loss, and the second number is B's loss. So (-2, -2) means A loses 2 and B loses 2 when they both cover Trump, etc.

Trump benefits from the endless media coverage, regardless of substance, so the cooperative solution would be to not cover Trump -- the lower right cell. It's still not an ideal world (after all, Trump is still President). But the problem for each TV channel is that if one of them decides not to cover Trump (e.g. A) while the other still does (B) -- the lower left column of the table -- then A loses all the viewers to B, because they still want the spectacle of Trump. The optimal strategy for each TV channel is therefore to cover Trump, even though the better outcome for A and B together is not to cover him!

Friday, May 25, 2018

On Norms

There are frequent references to how the Trump Presidency is characterized by "norm violations." Here is Josh Marshall arguing that the term has become a way to avoid addressing outright criminal or at least guilty-mind conduct. But what did violating norms ever mean? Here's German sociologist Niklas Luhmann in The Reality of the Mass Media on that exact topic (and, yes, we've quoted Luhmann before, in the belief that he's a genius) --

Norm violations are especially selected for reporting [by the media] when they can be accompanied by moral judgements, in other words, when they are able to offer an opportunity to demonstrate respect or disdain for people. In this regard the mass media have an important function in the maintenance and reproduction of morality. However, this should not be taken to mean that they are in a position to fix ethical principles or even just to raise society's moral standards towards good behaviour. No person or institution in modern society is able to do that - neither the Pope nor a council, neither the German parliament nor Der Spiegel. It is only wrongdoers caught in the act who demonstrate to us that such criteria are needed. It is only the code of morality which is reproduced, in other words the difference of good and bad, or evil, behaviour. The legal system is ultimately responsible for setting criteria. The mass media merely provide a constant irritation for society, a reproduction of moral sensibility at the individual as well as the communicative level. However, this leads to a kind of 'disembedding' of morality, to moralizing talk which is not covered by any verifiable obligations. The way morality is imagined and its ongoing renovation is linked to sufficiently spectacular cases - when scoundrels, victims, and heroes who have gone beyond the call of duty are presented to us. The receiver will typically align herself with none of these groups. She remains - an observer.

Now apply this insight, that the media treatment of norm violations is "moralizing talk which is not covered by any verifiable obligations" to the current political context in the USA. How did things get to the point where restraints on power were almost a play, a show, with standards that could only be verified when broken? That's quite a constitution you have there, America.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Quickly reconciled

Mark Dubowitz has been telling the Washington foreign policy community that on the Iran nuclear deal, he was a "fixer" not a "nixer" i.e. that he wanted to improve the deal rather than end it, and he has edged his predictions for what would happen now with all sorts of qualifications about whether Trump can successfully implement a new approach. As Peter Beinart points out, having done all the lobbying that could be done to kill the deal, he now claims that he never wanted it ended -- cynically recognizing the risk of being associated with a failed alternative that he enabled.

Anyway, here is in the opinion page of Tuesday's Wall Street Journal (writing with Richard Goldberg) --
America’s new strategy also presents European leaders with a choice: Either help curb all of Iran’s malign activities in exchange for major American economic and diplomatic concessions, or cast their lots with the repressive theocracy responsible for a 2012 terror attack in Bulgaria, and for the bloodshed in Syria that created a refugee crisis in Europe.

Does this sound like someone with regrets about the new course of American strategy? Instead, it sounds like someone who got what he wanted -- the ability to wage an all-out economic war against Iran, regardless of the direct and collateral damage.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

How to get on in society

Last year, Richard Reeves published a book, Dream Hoarders, arguing that the focus on the top 1 percent was distracting from the obstacles to mobility caused by the upper middle class. Liberal writers headed to the nearest keyboard to debunk Reeves (e.g. Mike Konczal in the Crimson-hued Vox) with the debunking taking the form of interpretations of charts of income and wealth distributions, while minimizing by assertion the significance of the cultural and class analyses in his book -- and indeed making the topics of culture and class a source of mockery when they were picked up by David Brooks.

It was therefore to the great annoyance of the debunkers that Matthew Stewart took another run at the Reeves argument in The Atlantic and this time it's Jordan Weissman who steps forward in the Crimson-hued Slate, again with the aid of income and wealth distribution charts, to debunk Stewart. And again refuses to engage with the social and cultural aspects of the argument, while allowing that there might be a bit of a point on housing and education capture by the upper middle class.

Anyway, the most telling omission in the Konczal and Weissman articles is politics. They take it for granted that the 1 percent, or the 0.1 percent, must be having an outsized gilded age influence on politics. But they don't want to extend that to pondering how the merely very wealthy -- but far more numerous -- upper middle class might be influencing politics, both in the issues and approach they champion, and in the reaction to that that is drawn from further down the income and wealth distribution.

It's only coincidental, but it's an especially strange week to have such a blind spot in your political analysis: the death of Tom Wolfe, who chronicled in real time the transition of an influential cohort from radical to, er, chic, and there are the numerous reflections on Paris 1968 and its American parallels, where the fact that this was an emerging consumerism associated with a new class is now taken as an initial given -- at least for people who care about the sociology of it all. How did that class rise from being in the streets in 1968 to dominate the professions and the political-cultural complex now?

But somehow, a certain type of economics has become a shield for a certain type of liberal from having to think about that question, because it is a question about class.

Saturday, May 19, 2018


Texas Governor Greg Abbott uses a wheelchair because, in 1984, he went jogging after a storm and an oak tree fell on him and paralyzed him below the waist.

He sued the landowner and won a US$10 million settlement.

After the Santa Fe high school shooting yesterday, he was reduced to the usual NRA-friendly platitudes and simply dodged the question of the responsibility of the gun owner -- the shooter's father.

Why does he believe in accountability for landowners of fallen trees but not for gun owners of mass murder weapons?

Quote of the Day

Jo Ellison in the Financial Times:

One wonders whether the choice to wear a designer who melds a British artistic sensibility with a French house fabled for its classic silhouettes and minimal allure could mark the announcement of globally focused, pro-European tastes within the house of Windsor? It probably does. At least when it comes to clothes.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Handshake or handcuff

Above, Bashar al-Assad on an unannounced visit to Sochi today to meet his main backer, Vladimir Putin. There was no indication afterwards that Russia had used any of its leverage to extract new concessions on a political process for the conflict. Incidentally, despite the energetic efforts of the Al-Assad/ Maduro fanboys on Twitter, the booing at the Eurovision song contest on Saturday is probably a more reliable indicator of how Russia's foreign policy stances are viewed abroad. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Image problem

It's not among the top 10 things that's wrong with Israel's security forces shooting Gaza border protesters, but somewhere down that list is the fact that Israel's rationale for using lethal force doesn't hold together. Suppose that a few hundred or even a few thousand protesters were determined enough to break through the fence. Then they'd be ... in Israel, with nowhere to go, no support base, no logistics, just facing inevitable pursuit and capture. But what would be gone with their incursion is the psychological barrier, that Israel can literally and figuratively fence itself off from the Palestinian question. And that doubt, that fear of the hordes, justifies in Israeli eyes what by usual standards would be a disproportionate response. All the embassy gloating in Jerusalem can't remove that idea from people's heads. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Palestinian reality

In the New York Times Book Review, Ian Black's review of Anshel Pfeffer's biography of Bibi --

Netanyahu, in this view, has always seen the Palestinian issue as a diversion — a “rabbit hole” that misinformed Westerners insist on going down. 

It's a little strange how much that Matrix-influenced terminology -- red pill, rabbit hole -- has influenced the rhetoric of conservatives, but one possibility is that it's something that they've heard from each other as they compare notes on their true knowledge of liberal prejudice and the "real issues" in the Middle East.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Eurovision theory

Putin hacked it for Israel to make it up to Bibi for not keeping the Iranians under control in Syria. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Before the Kanye West revisionism

New York Times, Jesse Green's review of Summer, the Donna Summer musical --

It totally botches, for instance, her relationship with the gay community, which instantly embraced her on the radio and the dance floor for reasons the show doesn’t explore. Comments that Ms. Summer later made about God not creating “Adam and Steve” (let alone others she denied making about AIDS as a punishment for sin) left many gay men feeling betrayed — a betrayal they attributed to her resurgent Christianity. Rather than dramatizing this fascinating conflict head on, the musical brushes it aside as an ancient misunderstanding and uses Ms. Summer’s gay publicist as an alibi. (Singing “Friends Unknown,” she mourns his death to show she couldn’t have been homophobic.) It does not even mention her 1979 announcement that she was born again; she sings “I Believe in Jesus” instead.

Saddam and Bashar

In the weekend FT, Ben Judah mingles with Momentum to get a flavour of the movement from activists. In the studio with Aaron Bastani ---

Next topic: Syria. Is the Stop the War Coalition approach still working? What is "a left geopolitics"? Live-viewers are messaging in: "What we did in Mosul and Fallujah makes Douma look like a picnic." "100 per cent correct," says Bastani.

Note the logic: Iraq gives Bashar al-Assad a free pass for atrocities in Syria. And change that message to "What Bashar did in Aleppo and Homs makes Gaza look like a picnic." Same logic, different reaction.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Quote of the Day (3)

Via Orla Ryan (Financial Times) on the latest iteration of Ireland's decades-long abortion debate --

Whatever happens, perhaps Rhona Mahony [master of the national maternity hospital puts it most succinctly. "Terminations will continue," she says. "They have done since the beginning of time." 

Quote of the Day (2)

Alexandra Petri (Washington Post) on Donald Trump's bizarre Fox and Friends interview --

Stars spun into existence in the deep womb of the sky and burned out again, and planets rose and set, and at the end of the last age of men the great wolf Fenris rose from the deep and swallowed the Earth — and Donald Trump was still on the phone with “Fox and Friends” after calling in with a lot of opinions he wanted to share, against the best legal advice, and also probably the advice of his lawyers.

Quote of the Day (1)

Gail Collins (NYT) on Mitt Romney's struggling campaign for Senator from Utah --

First, he had to get the nomination in a state where he’s lived only a sliver of his life. Romney’s been trying to dig in, buying mansions in Utah (half his four houses are now there). This week he showed up for a Utah Jazz basketball game, eager to prove he was just one of the guys by wearing a Jazz jersey over his dress shirt.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

No chemical weapons used, so it's fine

Via Al Arabiya, a screen grab from a Russian video which appears to show Russian special forces, masked, guarding the Syrian military leadership at a recent appearance in Qalamoun. As the story explains, the video was not shown on Syrian TV, since it would highlight the dependence of the regime on external support, but appeared on Russian websites.

Robert Fisk is making no effort to debunk the reporting of on-the-ground Russian support to the regime, since no one is proposing that anything be done about it. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Move along folks

It's depressing to observe the media interest in certain events drop like a stone as follows:

  • The Toronto truck attack, once it was clear the suspect wasn't Muslim
  • The Nashville Waffle House shootings, once it was clear that the victims, and hero, were not white
  • The al-Assad/ Putin assault on Syrian cities, once it was clear there was no prospect of western countries doing anything about it.

Debate on shorter name ongoing

[Jordan Times] .... Jordanian National Campaign Against the Gas Agreement with the Zionist Entity  ... 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Image of the Day

Poster for the feature on Tunisian directors that will be held as part of the Directors' Fortnight running in parallel to the Cannes film festival next month.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Cheap eats

From the latest iteration of a USA nationwide E.coli outbreak apparently attributable to romaine lettuce, with the latest lead coming from Alaska --

State officials are responding to an outbreak of acute gastroenteritis caused by Escherichia coli (E.coli) O157:H7 bacteria in the Anvil Mountain Correctional Center in Nome. Eight confirmed cases have been identified to date. The recently discovered cases appear to be connected to a nationwide E. coli outbreak affecting at least 53 persons in 16 states and linked to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona. .. No additional cases have been identified in Alaska outside of the Anvil Mountain Correctional Center. 

The outbreak was first reported as nationwide on April 10 and suspicion was on leafy greens from the start. And then a prison got a batch of greens. Interesting timing on the shipping.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Arab agency

First, on Robert Fisk's visit to Douma, ahead of OPCW. If the victims were suffering from "dust" inhalation, then that means that the building they were in was bombed by Russian or Syrian forces ... something that seems to happen a lot, despite Russia/ Syria denials that they target civilians.

Which brings us to the question of why Robert Fisk is only trying to debunk one particular type of regime attack (for example, does he have any views on what has happened to the Syrian healthcare system in rebel areas due to government attacks on infrastructure and personnel?). Anyway, the answer is that Fisk is only attempting to debunk one type of attack, because it's the only one that burnishes supposed anti-establishment credentials. If there's no prospect of a western response, then there's no need to debunk, because it's just a plain vanilla al-Assad atrocity.

Fisk's style of reporting does a lot of damage, especially for people whose own anti-establishment mentality locks them into believing him and contrarians like him, and even more especially people who are themselves in the establishment but want the credential of not being so. Here's Michael McDowell explaining the Syrian crisis to his Sunday Business Post readers --

Indeed, it was Qatar and the Saudis, acting back then as joint sponsors of an Islamist Sunni revolution, that started the Syrian civil war. 

This is a standard narrative for soi-disant contrarians, but it ignores the fact that actual Syrians began their own Arab Spring protests, which the regime turned into a civil war by brutally repressing them. Then the Qataris and Saudis got involved (and by the way, here's a post we keep having to go back to as a reminder that the Saudis had no intrinsic quarrel with Bashar until he started killing protesters). But for Fisk and McDowell, it's far easier to view the Arab world through the lens of endless western machinations than to allow a role for choices made by Arabs themselves.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Quote of the Day

There's a class of people giving a lot of their time on social media to claims about "false flags" and "crisis actor" interpretations of chemical weapons attacks in Syria -- people who would scoff at exactly that mode of analysis, and that terminology, when applied to crackpot theories about school shootings in the USA, but somehow don't make the connection to what they are doing in giving Bashar al-Assad the benefit of the doubt. So instead of getting sucked into their descent into troll bait, here's Henry Mance with a perfectly-timed column in the FT --

Anti-conspiracists must release our own irresistible theories. Let’s tell Jim, a local tennis coach, to tell others that Roger Federer is not the world’s best tennis player: someone is sedating his opponents in a scheme to increase national happiness. We should ask Samantha, a local actor, to point out that every new play in London’s West End is written by a so-called “James Graham” who must be a piece of advanced software. The conspiracies go on. Why do Underground trains always arrive marginally later than the arrivals screens promise? How did seagulls survive the 5G apocalypse?

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Audience becoming more selective

Among the things highlighted by today's joint US-UK-FR military strikes on Syria: the extremely degraded quality of Russian diplomacy. In 2013, Russia had its cynical motivations, but it also had the ability to translate those motivations into a deal within the framework of international law. But in the week since the latest (of many) chemical weapons attacks, there was nothing coming out of the Moscow Ministry of Foreign Affairs except trolling and disinformation -- as if the same staff assigned to muddy the Skripal affair were simply reassigned to keep the al-Assad / Maduro fanboys on Twitter happy, but no substantive work got done.

Note: Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov has been in that job since 2004, and was Russia Ambassador to the UN for the 10 years prior to that. It's not just presidents who can be in the same job too long. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Liberal Classism

David Brooks on the ridiculous new Jonah Goldberg book --

His conservatism is missing the bonding sentiments of Edmund Burke, and the idea that the little platoon of the family is nestled in the emotional platoon of the neighborhood and the emotional platoon of the nation.

That little platoon phrase is often pulled out of context from where it appeared in Reflections on the Revolution in France --

Turbulent, discontented men of quality, in proportion as they are puffed up with personal pride and arrogance, generally despise their own order. One of the first symptoms they discover of a selfish and mischievous ambition, is a profligate disregard of a dignity which they partake with others. To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.

Burke didn't mean just family. The little platoon was your place on society, and it was better if you didn't get notions about being above it. Conservatives have struggled with this for a while.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Sublime to Ridiculous

Princeton Alumni Weekly on the course of visiting lecturer in theatre, Fintan O'Toole --

Students reflect on a play or movie each week and submit blog posts before class. Some potential class-discussion topics: Can the state prohibit people from burying the dead (as in Antigone); how are dead bodies portrayed differently in Hamlet vs. MacBeth; and how does the presence of a body throughout Weekend at Bernie’s bring a certain heaviness to an otherwise comedic film? Students will also act out scenes in some of the plays, with the opportunity to portray a corpse themselves.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Quote of the Day

"Social networks are a murky source”

Vladimir Putin, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, visiting the city of the Siberian mall fire disaster, where multiple accounts of what happened are proliferating.