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July 25, 2010

Robert Wright has a piece up in the NYT that’s getting a lot of attention for its insights on the Ground Zero Mosque.  Again, I’m going to leave aside the how-far-is-it-from-Ground-Zero thing, because I think that’s beside the point.  Instead, we’re going back to the “what would bin Laden want” argument:

Bin Laden would love to be able to say that in America you can build a church or synagogue anywhere you want, but not a mosque. That fits perfectly with his recruiting pitch — that America has declared war on Islam. And bin Laden would thrill to the claim that a mosque near ground zero dishonors the victims of 9/11, because the unspoken premise is that the attacks really were, as he claims, a valid expression of Islam.

Well, bin Laden had a good recruiting pitch before 9/11, and although there has undoubtedly been a backlash to American involvement in Muslim countries, al Qaeda wasn’t built as a response to an American war.  Not building a mosque at Ground Zero isn’t a validation of bin Laden’s version of Islam any more than not building a church at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is a validation of David Koresh’s version of Christianity, but I don’t see that there are only two options here.  We don’t have to either build a mosque at Ground Zero or roundly denounce the whole thing as an attempt by Islamists to subject the nation to Sharia starting in Manhattan.  We can just build a memorial there!  Besides, we don’t know that bin Laden would prefer the American “war on Islam” narrative.  Like I say, he did have a good recruiting pitch before 9/11.

Unfortunately, there’s a less vacuous side to this argument, because some of the mosque’s opponents are calling on the imam in question to condemn Hamas:

No doubt Osama bin Laden, if apprised of the situation, would hope that Rauf will cave in to these demands and ritually denounce Hamas. Because the Muslims who are most vulnerable to bin Laden’s recruiting pitch are, it’s safe to say, at least somewhat sympathetic to Hamas. And if moderate Muslims like Rauf can be pressured into adopting Israel’s position, and thus be depicted by truly radical Muslims as Zionist tools, that will make them less effective in their tug of war with bin Laden for the hearts and minds of the vulnerable.

Yeah, this is why I prefer to discuss the argument in a vacuum.  There’s no need to force Muslims to make a choice on this issue because, again, there isn’t a clean divide between moderate Muslims and radical ones.  If we wanted to expel from our sights all those Muslims who are even somewhat sympathetic to Hamas — and thus reluctant to “denounce” it — then that’s a lot of people that we’re choosing to make enemies with rather than friends.  As Ackerman points out, that’s “needlessly limiting your pool of allies”.  You can be opposed to the GZM without requiring that its proponents completely rebuke their fellow Muslims.  Is this really the hill on which you’re choosing to make your stand?

Standing Up For Something… Worth Defending?

July 25, 2010

In a political ploy similar to YouCut, Britain’s new coalition government has launched a website which asks people to give their two cents on which laws they think ought to be repealed, preferably the “intrusive and unnecessary” ones left over from Labour’s long managership that “erode civil liberties” and “are not required”.  What’s the most common suggestion?  You’ll never guess:

In fact, the site has been flooded, overwhelmed and filled with folk wanting the smoking ban repealed; this single subject outdoes all others in terms of comments, numbers of votes and the like. But clearly this isn’t the result Cleggy wanted – so the site’s administrators are doing everything they can to disguise the fact. They’ve hidden ‘smoking’ from the big topic sidebar but included ‘business regulations’ in there. They ‘hide’ posts so that no individual smoking post can attract top numbers, and the search engine is utterly farcical. There are dozens of posts complaining about this distorting admin … which have also been well hidden and difficult to find.

As an example of how a risibly biased and corrupt ‘consultation’ can be manipulated as well by the current government as it was by the last, this web page has no equal.

Color me shockeD.  The feds want the public’s opinion except when the public’s opinion favors something the feds don’t want.  Not exactly a twist in the governmental plot.  Still, though, I don’t understand: what’s the line of reasoning behind steadfastly supporting the smoking ban?  Is it because the NHS can’t afford the social cost of people smoking all the time?  Is it because there’s a huge anti-smoking lobby in Britain?  Is it because the public is overwhelmingly well-disposed to it?  That’s not what the response to the site would insinuate, although the Internet has been wrong before.  How’s Nick Clegg responding to this (that’s the British VP, for the ignorant Yanks)?

Of course there are other suggestions which aren’t going to be taken up by this government . . . the introduction of the death penalty or changing the smoking ban; but at least the debate is now really alive.

Uh, okay.  At least now we’re talking about stuff, even if it’s the stuff that the Administration thinks is “of course” not going to happen.  I’m bothered less by the contempt the British leadership seems to have for its constituency than I am by just why in the hell they’re picking that particular policy among a host of others to simply rule out.  I’m actually curious about this: just what is so great about the smoking ban?  Are British people any healthier for it?  Are health-care costs any lower for it?  Is the citizenry more or less free because of it?

(Via Andrew Stuttaford)

Wikileaks Reveals to Us Those Truths Which Most Believe Are Self-Evident

July 25, 2010

Well, Wikileaks appears to have reinforced what the suspicious among us already… suspected.  That is, the notion that Pakistan “isn’t the greatest ally in the world” is just a slight understatement.  Apparently, the latest leak consists of over 90,000 mostly-classified documents, many of which detail “deep ties” between Afghan insurgency and the ISI, Pakistani intelligence.  There is, of course, a certain amount of skepticism that one must exhibit when dealing with leaked material — the Guardian is a bit more unconvinced about the existence of a “smoking gun” implicating the ISI than the NYT is, which follows since the documents all come from the U.S. military rather than the ISI — but it’s unlikely that there are really any earth-shattering developments here.  Blake Hounshell:

Otherwise, I’d say that so far the documents confirm what we already know about the war: It’s going badly; Pakistan is not the world’s greatest ally and is probably playing a double game; coalition forces have been responsible for far too many civilian casualties; and the United States doesn’t have very reliable intelligence in Afghanistan.

I do think that the stories will provoke a fresh round of Pakistan-bashing in Congress, and possibly hearings. But the administration seems inclined to continue with its strategy of nudging Pakistan in the right direction, and is sending the message: Move along, nothing to see here.

Riiiiiiiight.   Seems like the only reason the Administration is steamed about this little guy is that it doesn’t really want anybody to know that Pakistan is as tremendously unreliable as the prophets of doom theorized.  That, and maybe it wants to hide the fact that Administration officials know they missed the last ferry off the island.  It’s always been unclear to me just how much we were counting on Pakistani support for this operation to be completed successfully, but unless it’s anything other than “not that much” — and the selection of David Petraeus suggests that the President hasn’t been reduced to dependence on the Pakistanis’ steadfastness — then undertaking is probably is some pretty hot water.  Not that that wasn’t clear beforehand, but the leak just underscores that fact for large audience, e.g. the American public. Read more…

Picks of the Afternoon

July 25, 2010

How does a lifelong baseball fan not remember that most Sunday games happen before it gets dark?

  • Red Sox (-142) at M’s
  • Dodgers (-185) v. Mets
  • Cardinal (-127) at Cubs
  • Rangers (-240) v. Angels


  • D-backs (+135) v. Giants
  • Over 9 (-105) in Tigers v. Jew Blaze (Game 2)

Yesterday: 4-2 (1-1)


July 24, 2010

1)  Child porn?  Really, fellas?

2)  Just one question here: if a non-Muslim French chick wants to wear some kind of full-body veil just for kicks and giggles, is that breaking the law?  It’s tough to see how this idea, despite its good intentions, doesn’t blanket the French under some despotic wardrobe laws.

3)  A hilarious graph from Alex Tabarrok.  I mean, a -7 career slope?  Yeesh.

4)  I usually save this for people who are real sons of bitches, but John Kerry is a prick.

5)  Matt Yglesias: “What’s maddening about this whole issue is that of course it’s impossible to prove a negative.”  Really?  Like how you can’t prove you’re not a racist?

Newt’s Single Standard

July 24, 2010

Color me as confused by Newt Gingrich’s argument against the Ground Zero Mosque as everyone else.  I’m less interested in the intentions of those who are planning to build it — apparently their motives are not as pure as most of us would like to think — than I am by the idea to build it in a vacuum as well as its counterfactual.  But Newt’s argument is just, well, un-American, as much as I hate to use that term.  We shouldn’t build a mosque here because there are no churches in Saudi Arabia?  Should we not, as Yglesias asks, build any Catholic churches here because there are no synagogues in The Vatican?  Should we keep Saudi immigrants from pursuing the path to citizenship (and thus voting) because women still don’t have suffrage in Saudi Arabia?  Should we keep Chinese people from practicing journalism here just because Americans can’t practice free journalism in China?

The obvious answer is no, because we don’t abide by the same standards that theocracies such as Saudi Arabia and dictatorships such as China do.  We’re a democracy — the very reason we were founded was that we didn’t want to play by somebody else’s rules when we determined that their rules, frankly, sucked.  We’re supposed to be better than that.  And it’s really weird to argue that the United States should adopt somebody else’s rules when those rules are clearly undemocratic and appalling.

I’m going to gloss over the how-close-can-the-Mosque-be-to-Ground-Zero argument because I don’t understand just exactly where the GZM is supposed to go, but I maintain that I think there should be some sort of memorial at actual Ground Zero.  Newt always seemed more electable, reasonable, and knowledgeable about policy than most other Republicans in the field for the next Presidential campaign.  I don’t know whether he really believes this or if he’s just trying to ride the anti-GZM tide currently present on the Right, but this is a really bad argument.  Better luck to him next time.

But I Swear I’m Not!

July 24, 2010

Michael Moynihan has a good take on the she’s-a-racist-he’s-a-racist B.S. rampant in this past week’s political commentary:

Racism is the most powerful and toxic accusation in American discourse, one that derails careers and destroys futures. Yet despite its toxicity it is also the one that requires the least amount of evidence; the racism, we are told, is institutionalized or subterranean, so trust that it’s being divined in good faith. Well, that won’t do. Because there is no penalty for unfairly calling someone a racist, as David Frum points out—if it sticks, a point for your side; if it doesn’t, who cares?

All of this will soon be forgotten, thankfully, and the charming and efficient pundits of Washington, D.C. will go back to observing the “racist” Tea Party movement and that stupid conservatives aren’t stupid butneo-fascists.” And we’ll be back to business as usual.

I’d only add one other item to the list of reasons not to call people racists: it’s not falsifiable.  As I said the other day, there’s no way to prove you’re not a racist — it just depends on whether people think you are.  It’s like trying to discredit somebody for believing that alien life is more primitive than human life rather than more advanced (or saying that the stimulus is working and we just can’t see it or saying that the rate on 10-year treasuries is only really low because the market’s more worried about Europe right now).  It doesn’t fly because there’s no amount of evidence that an alleged racist can compile that will disprove your claim.  It doesn’t matter if one of Rush Limbaugh’s executive producers, the guy he calls Bo Snerdley, is black, or if one of his most popular guest-hosts, Walter E. Williams, is black.  You’re only as racist as people think you are.  That’s why that claim should never go flying around.  No matter: as long as it remains cheap and unfair, people will continue to use it, and I’ll continue to try and ignore it.

Rolling the Dice, Part II

July 24, 2010

The gambling debate is back: The Economist has posted round two of its debate on legalizing gambling.  Once again, I find Leslie Bernal’s arguments highly unconvincing.  Let’s take them one at a time:

Commercial gambling promoters attempt to elude charges of exploitation by pleading it is a “voluntary” act, hiding behind well-intentioned people who argue the case for “personal freedom”. But the business model for casinos and lotteries only works if our government takes away the freedom of millions of Americans. By definition, someone who is an addict or someone who is in deep financial debt is not free. We live in a country where everyone is considered equal. We do not have kings and queens. In America, all blood is royal. So how can the states actively promote a federal government programme that strips freedom from millions of citizens and renders them expendable?

Uhhhh… WTF?  Addicts and people who throw all their money away are now subjects?  This is one of those weird arguments where freedom is defined in some way other than freedom from oppression, like the Steve Jobs argument that the iPad provides “freedom from porn”.  The problem with this line of reasoning is that you can place any word after the preposition “from” and somewhat rationalize it.  The feds are oppressing the poor because they’re not providing them with “freedom from poverty”.  The feds are oppressing jobless laborers because they’re not providing them with “freedom from unemployment”.  And the best one: the feds are oppressing alcoholics because they’re not providing them with “freedom from addiction”.  This is a perversion of freedom — the idea that somehow freedom entails governmental overlords preventing anything bad happening to its citizenry, including those bad things that are a direct result of the poor choices of the people themselves or their ancestors, is a debasement of that which is liberty.  Freedom doesn’t exist to shepherd to weak along the path of righteousness; it exists to allow individuals to pursue that path if they so choose.

Bernal’s other argument is actually fairly interesting, as it applies to more than just gamblers throwing their life savings into the cages at the MGM Grand: Read more…

Picks of the Day

July 24, 2010

Took a day off yesterday.  It was a reinvestment and recovery day:

  • Rays (-180) at Indians
  • Reds (-105) at Astros
  • Padres (-175) at Pirates
  • Red Sox (-200) at Mariners

I’m absolutely killing it down here this week:

  • Giants (-110) at D-backs
  • Rockies (-155) at Phillies

Thursday: 4-2 (2-0)

No Further Questions

July 23, 2010

So I finally saw Inception. I’ll warn you beforehand: I’ve enjoyed every Christopher Nolan movie I’ve ever watched save Insomnia (I was physically unable to get through that’n).  He is by no means my favorite director — The Dark Knight, for all its merits as the best action movie ever made, is still an action movie with poorly written dialogue and little thematic depth; The Prestige is interesting but over-plotted and damaged by its M. Night Shyamalan ending; Batman Begins is actually fairly thematically deep, if restricted by genre; and Memento’s plot gets in the way of what could have otherwise been an even more thoughtful and insightful movie than it was.  Indeed, that last clause is indicative of how I’ve always felt about Nolan.  He takes compelling ideas, applies them to interesting situations, and then crowds out the depth of the idea with over-plotting.  And, with that in mind, Inception is the most Nolan of any Nolan movie.

In the vast realm of science fiction, dream scenarios are nothing new, as John Derbyshire explains.  In fairness, the film is pretty original in terms of other $100+ million blockbusters, especially for a summer picture.  Originality can only take you so far, though, as I’m sure Nolan would acknowledge — simply introducing the concept of dreams-within-dreams and “extracting” ideas from the subconscious is not enough to carry a film.  Unfortunately for those moviegoers looking for something profound (and fortunately for those seeking a bit of summer adventure), Nolan takes these stimulating ideas and wraps an action thriller around them.

Visually speaking, the movie is certainly a spectacle — a majority of the film’s two hours and a half are spent inside dreams inside dreams, where those who share dreamscapes are capable of manipulating their surroundings, i.e. folding cities in half and walking vertically up walls.  In this environment, Nolan inserts a heist story: heist-esque in that the story entails an intricately-weaved plan to accomplish a certain task which is the realization of an afterthought of an overall plot.  In a world in which the technology exists to allow several people to share a host’s dream (you just have to accept that this is possible, which is fine with me; it’s similar to the idea in Memento that somebody can suffer from a condition where he can only remember things for five minutes but nevertheless is able to remember the first thirty years of his life), protagonist Leonard DiCaprio is a so-called “extractor” — somebody who inserts himself into subjects’ dreams to explore their ideas and, presumably, to steal things from them — who intends to perform something called inception for a corporate mogul (Ken Watanabe) so that his competitor (Cillian Murphy) won’t run him out of business once his father dies.  That is, Leo is wanted for the murder of his wife in the United States, where his children are, and Watanabe promises to facilitate his return stateside if he can plant the idea — inception — in Murphy’s mind to break up his father’s energy empire and keep it from becoming a global monopoly (even though this runs afoul of everything that are anti-trust legalities developed during the last century, but no matter, you just have to move past that). Read more…