From the monthly archives:

December 2005

Peace in Aceh

by John Quiggin on December 31, 2005

The long-running guerilla war in the Indonesian province of Aceh is finally over. Indonesian troops (other than those recruited locally) have been withdrawn, and the military wing of the Free Aceh Movement has been disbanded and disarmed. The pointlessness of this long war was brought home to both sides by the catastrophic tsunami a year earlier, which killed 170 000 people and forced everyone to co-operate in rescue and rebuilding.

Sadly, a similar impetus towards peace in Sri Lanka, appears to have faded. And of course the slaughter just goes on in places like Iraq and Darfur.

Overall, though, it’s Aceh that is representative of the trend. The number and severity of wars and conflicts has declined greatly since the end of the Cold War.

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

Terrorism and Cancer

by John Quiggin on December 30, 2005

I just received an email drawing the (far from original) comparison between terrorism and cancer. It struck me that, to make this metaphor exact we’d need

* attacks on cancer researchers for seeking to ‘understand’ cancer

* even more attacks on anyone trying to find ‘root causes’ for cancer in the environment, such as exposure to tobacco smoke

* lengthy pieces pointing out that the only thing we need to know about cancer cells is that they are malignant

* more lengthy pieces pointing out that criticism of any kind of quack remedy marks the critic as “objectively pro-cancer”

I guess Steven Milloy and other “junk science” types come pretty close to providing the first two. Has anyone seen examples of the third and fourth?

Ten worst Britons (and Americans)

by Chris Bertram on December 29, 2005

Following the publication of a “BBC list of the 10 worst Britons of all time”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4560716.stm , there’s now a meme going round “listing nominations for the 10 worst Americans of all time”:http://www.allthingsbeautiful.com/all_things_beautiful/2005/12/a_challenge_to_.html . The propensity of “conservative” blog commenters to include Jane Fonda, MLK, or Paul Robeson on their lists is somewhat worrying … Still, nominations for either Britons or Americans are welcome in comments below. My own personal nomination for the worst American of all time would be the person most responsible for the TV series Friends. There should be a special place in hell reserved for that individual. (via “Lawyers, Guns and Money”:http://lefarkins.blogspot.com/2005/12/10-worst-americans.html , where Robert Farley has a sensible list ).

British government complicity with torture

by Chris Bertram on December 29, 2005

Lenin’s Tomb has “some interesting material”:http://leninology.blogspot.com/2005/12/foreign-office-tries-to-censor-craig.html concerning the attempts of the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, to expose the British government’s complicity with torture in that country. Worth a read.

UPDATE: There is more, and in more legible form, over at “perfect.co.uk”:http://www.perfect.co.uk/2005/12/documents-the-government-doesnt-want-you-to-see .

The American empire

by Chris Bertram on December 28, 2005

Does the United States have an empire? That question seems to generate a certain amount of serious and not-so serious debate in the blogosphere and media. Blogger Adloyada, for example, “gets seriously upset”:http://adloyada.typepad.com/adloyada/2005/12/today_programme_1.html with historian Linda Colley, writing huffily of Colley:

bq. For example, she represents the USA as self-evidently an imperial and imperialist power.

But the terms of the argument that Adloyada and Colley both accept seem to me to be seriously misleading since they centre on such questions as whether an informal network of client and subordinate states constitutes an empire or not. But there’s an obvious and much more straightforward way of answering in the affirmative, and that’s to hold the United States to the same standards that people (including Colley) use when dealing with other countries. And here I’m thinking of Russia and China.

Just to take the latter for a start, here’s Colley, “in the course of her article”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1669433,00.html :

bq. Some variants and examples of empire have proved powerful and durable. China, for example, is essentially a land-based empire, forged over the centuries by conquest and migration, which has managed to reposition itself as a nation state.

And how about Russia? The boundaries of Imperial Russia in, say, 1904 were rather larger than they were under Peter the Great at the end of the 17th century due to a progressive expansion, subjugation of native peoples, colonization of new territories by ethnic Russians, and so forth.

I guess readers will see where I’m going with this: if the expansion of China and Russia via a process of subjugation of native peoples and colonial settlement is a bona fide instance of empire and imperialism then so must be the expansion of the United States across the North American continent in the 18th and 19th centuries. It too involved the subjugation of native peoples and the projection of settlers and the eventual incorporation of the newly colonized territory within the expanding state. Of course, a little bit of selective amnesia and pretence can avoid the acknowledgement that, just like Britain and France, American too was a classically imperial power, just one that, in the end, was more successful.

This doesn’t sit well with a certain American self-image: one that sees the United States as somehow different from other powers, as not, historically, imperialist or colonialist at all. And that isn’t an image that is restricted to the right, it also occupies the thoughts of American liberals who believe that there is a danger of the US becoming something that, historically, it wasn’t and thereby somehow betraying its original ideals. But like their opponents, those liberals have bought into a myth. If China and Russia both were and are imperial powers, then, by exactly the same token, so was and is the US.

Merry Christmas

by Kieran Healy on December 24, 2005

Best wishes this Christmas to all our readers. Here’s a little bit from Alexander McCall Smith’s _At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances_ that I like to think about at this time of year. Plenty of time for shouting at one another in the New Year, but for the moment:

The Master then rose to give a short address.

‘Dear guests of the College,’ he began, ‘dear Fellows, dear undergraduate members of this Foundation: William de Courcey was cruelly beheaded by those who could not understand that it is quite permissible for rational men to differ on important points of belief or doctrine. The world in which he lived had yet to develop those qualities of tolerance of difference of opinion which we take for granted, but which we must remind ourselves is of rather recent creation and is by no means assured of universal support. There are amongst us still those who would deny to others the right to hold a different understanding of the fundamental issues of our time. Thus, if we look about us we see people of one culture or belief still at odds with their human neighbours who are of a different culture or belief; and we see many who are prepared to act upon this difference to the extent of denying the humanity of those with whom they differ. …

‘Here in this place of learning, let us remind ourselves of the possibility of combating, in whatever small way we can, those divisions that come between man and man, between woman and woman, so that we may recognise in each other that vulnerable humanity that informs our lives, and makes life so precious; so that each may find happiness in his or her life, and in the lives of others. For what else is there for us to hope for? What else, I ask you, what else?’

The Company You Keep

by Chris Bertram on December 24, 2005

I’ve just finished reading Neil Gordon’s “The Company You Keep”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0142004529/junius-20 which I’ve enjoyed and been stimulated by as much as any work of fiction I’ve read in the past year (I’ve barely put it down in the last two days). I won’t post plot spoilers here, but the central drama revolves around a former member of the “Weather Underground”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weathermen whose elaborate new identity comes apart in 1996, thereby risking both prison and the loss of his seven-year-old daughter. There are plenty of implausible coincidences in the plot, but Gordon manages to make the whole believable. The central literary conceit of the book is that it is presented as a series of emails from the main protagonists to the seventeen-year-old daughter ten years later. And those emails so do not read like any email anyone has ever written! The main theme of the book is about how trust in friends is more important than abstract principle. Questionable, perhaps, but Gordon puts the case persuasively. There’s also a lot of the spy thriller about the book, and plenty of revolutionary tradecraft that took me back to reading Victor Serge’s “What Every Revolutionary Should Know About State Repression”:http://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1926/repression/index.htm and to the whole mystique of the “professional revolutionary” as once cultivated by the groupuscules. (Though it isn’t mentioned in the book, Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” seemed to play in my head as the appropriate sountrack as I read, together with a few others from Blood on the Tracks.)

I’d love to give every Crooked Timber contributor and reader a copy of this book for Christmas, but I’m afraid you’ll have to buy your own.

Back to the Future

by John Quiggin on December 23, 2005

Offering the converse of a point made here not long ago, the Economist observes that

France quarrels with America not because the pair are so different but because they are so alike

What struck me most about the article was a reference to the appeal in France of US culture, epitomised by “Harry’s American Sandwich Shop”.

Thinking about this, it struck me that this kind of reference to American culture always, for me, brings the the 1950s to mind – Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, diners, Corvettes, the Mickey Mouse Club (OK, mainly Annette Funicello). And the same is true for France. I think of Sartre and existentialism, Bonjour Tristesse, Truffaut and so on.

By contrast, the 1950s in Australia are pretty much a blank for me – there was plenty happening before and after, but nothing then that made an impact. Culture at that time, and for most of the 60s, was something that came from overseas (this was true of both ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture). Is all this something generational, a personal idiosyncrasy on my part, or do particular cultures have defining decades?

A Great Miracle Happened There

by Kieran Healy on December 23, 2005

It’s that time of the year again: the “King William College General Knowledge Paper”:http://www.kwc.sch.im/gkp.html has arrived. It’s the kind of quiz that exists at a point just (or far) beyond the production possibility frontier of a space defined by your fondness for crossword-puzzles and your stock of cultural capital. If previous years are anything to go by it’s designed to be google-proof, but you’re in with a shot if you can guess the theme that unites all the questions in each section. Have at it. (The Great Miracle, incidentally, is scoring more than, say, 20 points.)

Intelligent Design and Faith Schools

by Harry on December 23, 2005

The Christmas issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement carries a piece by Steve Fuller defending Intelligent Design, though in a very roundabout way, and a piece by me which is very unkind about Intelligent Design but not about faith schools. (Both free content, accessible without registration). If anyone gets the paper edition, by the way, I’m curious how the photos turned out — I went through 2 45-minute photoshoots, which convinced me not to make a career change to become a model.

Wonkery or Wankery?

by Henry on December 22, 2005

“Kevin Drum”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_12/007834.php reads this Washington Monthly “article”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0601.wallace-wells.html on Kos, and says that we need more wonkishness in the leftwing blogosphere. “Duncan Black”:http://atrios.blogspot.com/2005_12_18_atrios_archive.html#113528562485802439 disagrees.

bq. there’s just little point in detail-oriented grand policy proposals when Bush and Republicans are in office. Just about everything their side offers up involves tax cuts, corporate pork, or cuts to programs that help keep granny from freezing to death in winter. The rest are complete disasters for obvious reason, like the Medicare drug plan, and there’s really not much to discuss. If our team actually had some power we could be debating the merits of various universal health care proposals, or considering just how large a minimum wage increase might be appropriate, or various other wonky things.

I think this misses the point. Not only is a certain amount of wonkishness on the left a good thing in itself, but it can be an important political weapon. Looking back to the Social Security debate, left-of-center blogs played a real role in helping to torpedo Republican proposals – but it wasn’t only the Cossacks (or even Josh Marshall’s information-gathering campaign to separate the sheep from the goats) that did the trick. Wonkish critiques of the bogus figures and rationales that the administration was floating helped shift the public debate from one about a purportedly necessary and inevitable reform, to one about a political ploy that looked like backfiring. More to the point – one of the reasons that Republicans seem to have a dealers’ edge in politics these days is that the terms of debate have been shaped by right-wing talking points emanating from the AEI, Heritage etc. A politically savvy wonkishness is an essential part of the long campaign to claw back some of this lost ground. You can make a pretty good case that the Democratic party, and the left more generally, has done a lousy job in connecting wonkish proposals together into a coherent political agenda for change, but it seems to me that that’s a different argument altogether.

Class dismissed

by Henry on December 22, 2005

I “blogged”:https://crookedtimber.org/2005/12/12/not-in-kansas-anymore/ Larry Bartels’ take-no-prisoners “critique”:http://www.princeton.edu/%7ebartels/kansas.pdf of Thomas Frank last week; now Frank has come back with an “equally frank rejoinder”:http://www.tcfrank.com/dismissd.pdf. It seems to me that Frank’s riposte to Bartels on the issue of how to define the white working class strikes home, although some of his other jabs miss the target. Since the definitional question is key to Bartels’ critique, it looks to me as if Franks comes out ahead (unless Bartels comes back with a more convincing justification). Still, I find some of Frank’s apologia unconvincing. He’s absolutely right to say that working class conservatism is still important, even if it isn’t a majority phenomenon – but there is a tendency (which Frank is by no means immune to) to generalize from the particular and to draw big conclusions on the basis of limited and somewhat impressionistic information. National survey data is imperfect – but it can serve as a very useful corrective to these tendencies, and it’s unfortunate that more pundits don’t use it (or at least acknowledge more directly the limits of the kinds of information that they do refer to).

(via Rick Perlstein)

Update “Matt Yglesias”:http://yglesias.tpmcafe.com/story/2005/12/23/10559/462 is blegging social scientists to crunch NES data for a different measure of the ‘real’ working class.

A Word from the Nerds

by Kieran Healy on December 22, 2005

John “Hannibal” Stokes at “Ars Technica”:http://arstechnica.com has some “interesting speculation”:http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20051220-5808.html/ on what the new technology behind the NSA “wiretap abuse”:http://news.com.com/Bush+lets+U.S.+spy+on+callers+without+courts/2100-1028_3-5998178.html?tag=st.num scandal might be. Because he knows a lot about computers, he’s also in a position to explain to the likes of “Richard Posner”:https://crookedtimber.org/2005/12/21/posner-forgets-himself/ one of the (several) things that’s wrong with “computer-automated mass surveillance:”:http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20051220-5813.htm

Just imagine, for a moment, that 0.1% of all the calls that go through this system score hits. Now let’s suppose the system processes 2 million calls a day. That’s still 2,000 calls a day that the feds will want to eavesdrop on—a very high number, and still much higher than any courts could possibly oversee. Furthermore, only a miniscule fraction of the overall total of 2 million calls per day on only a few days of each month will contain any information of genuine interest to the feds…

… Here’s where the real problem with this scheme lies: the odds that a particular terrorist’s phone call will rate enough hits to sound an alarm are not primarily dependent on factors that we have control over, like the amount of processing power and brain power that we throw at the task, but on factors that we have no control over, like how good that terrorist is at hiding the content of his communication from the feds. …

As the TSA, with its strip-searching of people’s elderly grandparents, “abundantly proves”:http://news.com.com/Theres+no+getting+off+that+no-fly+list/2100-7350_3-5996897.html every holiday season, blunt instruments and scorched earth tactics are of dubious value in catching genuine bad actors. … All you need to beat such surveillance tools is patience and know-how. This is true for face recognition, it’s true for biometrics, it’s true for RFID, and it’s true for every other high-volume automated technique for catching bad guys. …

Targeted human intelligence has always been and will always be the best way to sort the sharks from the guppies … Government money invested in much less intrusive and much less defense contractor-friendly programs like training more Arabists and developing more “human assets” in the field will be orders of magnitude more effective than mass surveillance could ever be. … any engineer or computer scientist worth his or her salt will tell you that an intelligent, targeted, low-tech approach beats a brute-force high-tech approach every time.

There is no high-tech substitute for human intelligence gathering. … In the end, brute force security techniques are not only corrosive to democratic values but they’re also bad for national security. They waste massive resources that could be spent more effectively elsewhere, and they give governments and countries a false sense of security that a savvy enemy can exploit to devastating effect.

In short: don’t be seduced by technology. Computers are extremely powerful tools, but this isn’t the movies. Think of the last time you had to deal with the confluence of state bureaucracy and computer-based record-keeping — at the DMV, say, or at tax time, or at the local University’s Registrar’s office. Did it strike you as a ruthlessly efficient, accurate, and purpose-driven system?

Dr Who bleeped

by Chris Bertram on December 22, 2005

Presumably aiming for a universal classification, the producers of “Dr Who: The Beginning”:http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000C6EMTC/junius-21 boxed set of DVDs bleeped out some bad language, with perverse consequences:

bq. Basically, it was a mistake by the BBFC. We had bleeped the word “bastard” in one of the comedy sketches and they believed that what they could hear was an inadequately bleeped “fucker”. They can’t reverse decisions, even if the error is theirs ….

An ‘inadequately bleeped “fucker”‘ gets you a 12 rating, apparently. (via “GagWatch”:http://www.pulpmovies.com/gagwatch/2005/12/no-obligation-to-accuracy/ )

Domestic surveillance UK-style

by Chris Bertram on December 22, 2005

Much of the blogosphere, including this bit, is getting excited about the US government’s surveillance of its citizens and whether Bush has acted outside the law. I have to say, though, that what we British have to put up with exceeds the worst imaginings of the most paranoid US libertarian. The latest plan, “as summarized in the Independent”:http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/transport/article334686.ece :

bq. Britain is to become the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded. A new national surveillance system will hold the records for at least two years.

bq. Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.

Read the whole scary thing, notice that MI5 will have access to all the data, and wonder whether the information will be used to expose the extramarital affairs of inconvenient politicians, or similar.