An Ugly Hypothesis Slain by an Unbeautiful Fact

by Henry Farrell on February 3, 2005

Are leftwing academics really responsible for the events of September 11? My “post below”: on Robert Conquest attracted two “outraged”: “responses”: from ‘Armed Liberal’ at the popular pro-war blog, Winds of Change suggesting that indeed they are. In his more recent post, AL seems to be retreating rapidly from his forthright factual assertion of yesterday that

bq. The 9/11 hijackers found their ideological center in European universities, and took up a philosophy rooted in Western leftist thought there.

while leaving in his wake a rapidly-expanding ink-cloud of “equally interesting to note”s, “wonder if”s, “worthwhile effort to discuss and explore”s and “may have something to do with it”s. Still, even now, AL is trying to insinuate that anti-Western Nihilist academics in European universities somehow turned Arab students into terrorists, without providing either facts or testable arguments to support his case. Which is probably a good thing for him, as the facts indicate that he’s completely wrong. “Marc Sageman”:, who has actually done some real research on this topic, has the goods. In his network analysis of 400 terrorist biographies, he found that:

bq. Al Qaeda’s members are not the Palestinian fourteen-year- olds we see on the news, but join the jihad at the average age of 26. Three-quarters were professionals or semi- professionals. They are engineers, architects, and civil engineers, mostly scientists. Very few humanities are represented, and quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion. The natural sciences predominate. Bin Laden himself is a civil engineer, Zawahiri is a physician, Mohammed Atta was, of course, an architect; and a few members are military, such as Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, who is supposedly the head of the military committee.

This is exactly the opposite of what you would expect to find if exposure to leftists in the humanities and social sciences caused people to become terrorists. Unless AL wants to make the case that those notorious humanist Nihilists at engineering schools, computer science departments and urban planning institutes have been indoctrinating their students with Romantic anti-Western ideas, he’s plumb out of luck. Sageman, who unlike AL has some idea of what he’s talking about, puts forward a rather more plausible explanation of how Arabs studying in the West drifted into terrorism.

bq. When they became homesick, they did what anyone would and tried to congregate with people like themselves, whom they would find at mosques. So they drifted towards the mosque, not because they were religious, but because they were seeking friends. They moved in together in apartments, in order to share the rent and also to eat together – they were mostly halal, those who observed the Muslim dietary laws, similar in some respects to the kosher laws of Judaism. Some argue that such laws help to bind a group together since observing them is something very difficult and more easily done in a group. A micro-culture develops that strengthens and absorbs the participants as a unit. This is a halal theory of terrorism, if you like.

(I’m grateful to a commenter at “Unfogged”: for the Sageman link).

Update: description of WoC changed in response to comments below.

Data on blog authors and readers

by Eszter Hargittai on February 3, 2005

I am reviewing data about blog authors and blog readers (I don’t just mean aggregate numbers but specific demographic info about them). As far as I know there have been few systematic studies of these questions. The recent data memo by the Pew Internet and American Life Project has some helpful figures as does their earlier report on Content Creation Online (p.5.). Some have collected related data by analyzing blogs. We also have some information from reports by commercial firms. Plus we have some figures from informal surveys conducted online, but unfortunately these are not at all representative. I want to make sure I haven’t missed anything. Please point me to additional sources that come to mind. Thanks.

A little off-topic, but this is a promotional photo from the off-Broadway show COOKIN’!

They’re all playing cooks. In the show, they’re cooking a big Korean dinner, rhythmically. (Contain your excitement. CONTAIN IT!) And they put the woman in a chef’s coat with the belly cut out. You know, where the burners are.

I can’t even begin to express how stupid that is.

If you want to annoy your favorite Ayn Rand groupie …

by Henry Farrell on February 3, 2005

Direct him or her to “Scott McLemee’s”: speculations about where Rand got her ideas (Scott doesn’t do permalinks – so if this link decays rapidly, don’t blame me).

Roosevelt and Bush

by Kieran Healy on February 3, 2005

In the conclusion to his “state of the union address”: last night, President Bush invoked Franklin Roosevelt’s words from his second inaugural: “each age is a dream
that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.” Here’s a bit more from that speech by FDR:

Instinctively we recognized a deeper need-the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization. Repeated attempts at their solution without the aid of government had left us baffled and bewildered. For, without that aid, we had been unable to create those moral controls over the services of science which are necessary to make science a useful servant instead of a ruthless master of mankind. To do this we knew that we must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men.

We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable. We would not admit that we could not find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease. We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster. …

In fact, in these last four years, we have made the exercise of all power more democratic; for we have begun to bring private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government. The legend that they were invincible-above and beyond the processes of a democracy-has been shattered. They have been challenged and beaten. …

In that purpose we have been helped by achievements of mind and spirit. Old truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned. We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.

As they say on the internets, “read the whole thing”:

Will you go bankrupt before Social Security?

by John Q on February 3, 2005

In his push for Social Security privatization choicepersonal accounts abolition, George Bush is raising the prospect that, some time around 2050, Social Security will go bankrupt. This claim has been refuted quite a few times, so let me raise a different answer.

If you’re a young working-age American, don’t routinely pay your credit card balance(s) down to zero each month, and don’t have top-flight health insurance, it’s odds-on, based on recent experience[1] that you’ll go bankrupt at some point.

[click to continue…]

The EU and democracy promotion

by Henry Farrell on February 3, 2005

I meant to blog a couple of weeks ago about the EU’s decision to end sanctions against Cuba and accede to a Cuban government veto on invitations of opposition figures to Embassy parties. Now I see via “Jim Lindgren”: that Vaclav Havel has condemned the EU’s action. Quite right too – but unfortunately the EU seems to have gone rather cool on democracy promotion across at least three fronts at once. In addition to Cuba, there’s the EU’s relationship with Iran. Here, the EU has effectively sidelined demands for greater democracy in favour of concentrating on the nuclear security issue. In its relations with China, the EU is abandoning the post-Tianamen arms embargo for no better apparent reason than to boost trade, and make nice with a rising power. Of course, it’s still interested in democracy promotion in its own back yard (various bits of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region), where it has a clear selfish interest in stabilizing wobbly governments, slowing down immigration flows etc.

It seems to me that there are three plausible explanations of what’s going on.

(1) Pure coincidence. It could be that this is just a random conjunction of three unrelated events. In favour of this theory – the changes in policy are being pushed by different coalitions of states within the EU. Spain has been pushing the change in Cuba policy, France the change in China policy, and a troika of France, Germany and the UK (with the tacit support of most other EU states) have been reshaping Iran policy. But still, it seems a little odd that these different policies would all change in the same direction within a relatively short period of time.

(2) A sea-change in the EU’s _raison d’etre_. A large part of the EU’s self-image is bound up in the idea that it represents an alternative order to the wars that ravaged mainland Europe in the first half of the last century, which is based on mutual coexistence and the spread of democratic norms. Critics like Robert Kagan have been telling the EU for a long while that it needs to wake up, and realize that it’s been leading a sheltered existence – its model depended on a unique set of historical circumstances. Maybe the EU is beginning to smell the coffee.

(3) A variant of old fashioned balancing. The EU (and its constituent states) are pushing back against US dominance, by (a) seeking new friends which give it new options vis-a-vis the US, and (b) demonstrating in the process that it isn’t to be taken for granted by the hegemonic power. As a side-effect, this means that the EU is less inclined to push for democracy, except where it’s demonstrably in its own self-interest to do so (i.e. around its own borders, or where it’s not liable to annoy potential friends).

My personal inclination is to plump for (3) as the most likely explanation of what’s going on. Which is personally disappointing for those, like me, who’d like to see the EU to continue to work seriously to promote democracy (it actually did pretty good work in Cuba back in the day). But the other two possible explanations have some merit too (as I’m sure do others that I haven’t thought of).

Update: “Quentin Peel”: has an interesting article on EU policy toward China today (sub. required) – he seems to plump for a mixture of 1 and 3, with 1 dominating.