Tuesday, May 24, 2005

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Some fine blogging going on this week!

Three great things to peruse in the blogosphere:

1) Crooked Timber has arranged a blog roundtable to discuss Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's Freakonomics (which is one of my books on the month). Contributors include the regulars at Crooked Timber, as well as Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen and the Financial Times' Tim Harford.

If nothing else the critiques have certainly impressed Levitt :

Im not sure whether it says more about my own shortcomings, or the quality of these five commentaries above on Freakonomics, that I gained a great deal of self-awareness from reading them. It was a surprising reaction for me. There have been many published reviews of Freakonomics, and not one of them has given me the slightest insight into myself. Strangely, though, I felt like I understand my own motivations and goals better than I did a few hours ago.

2) I didn't think there was anything more to mine out of the Newsweek affair, but Virginia Postrel proves me wrong. This point is particularly trenchant:

While many Americans believe it's wrong to shock and humiliate Muslim prisoners by violating their religious taboos, very, very few Americans--mostly Muslims, of course--would themselves be horrified by the mere idea of flushing a Koran. And that, I think, is the real bias of the Newsweek report. American reporters, whether secular or religious, simply don't feel instinctive rage at the idea of Koran desecration and, hence, don't expect such reports to generate riots. Diversifying reporting staffs to include more red state types couldn't change that bias. By Western standards, it is, after all, completely idiotic--not to mention highly immoral--to kill people over the treatment of an inanimate object, however disrepectful the symbolism....

With its Western biases, Newsweek thought it was writing about allegations of prisoner abuse, a human rights issue. Its overseas audience had a different reading. The differences between us and them really are bigger than the differences between us and us.

3) Greg Djerejian, back to blogging at Belgravia Dispatch, riffs on a New York Times op-ed by Egyptian scholar and democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim that argues moderate Islamist parties in the Middle East might follow the path that Christian Democrats took in Western Europe.

Djerejian's takeaway point:

I believe the Middle East may have passed a tipping point with peoples increasingly demanding political breathing space. We are seeing it in Kuwait, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq, in Iran, in Bahrain. Just about everywhere, really. It is the dominant narrative at this juncture. What responsible actors in the U.S. must do is figure out how best to maximize the chances of these trends taking root over the long-term and in a manner beneficial to the U.S. national interest. We should not recoil in fear, for instance, whenever we hear the word Islamists. If moderate Islamists were to take control in certain countries (though I think their popularity is often overstated) and guide stable polities, this will prove better than secular butchers like Saddam. We must be careful, however, to ensure that foreign influence is wielded in a manner calibrated to not lead to nationalist backlashes or radical Islamist reaction.

This is why B.D. is so sensitive to tales of torture, of denigration of Islamic tenets in detainee treatment, and so on. This is not born of squeamishness; but of realism. An important element in securing a long term victory in this struggle against extremist terror is denying the enemy propaganda tools. Where are our fluent Arabic speakers on al-Arabiya explaining what legal reasons compelled us after 9/11 to have a detention center in Guantanamo for fanatical al-Qaeda detainees? Where are our spokesmen apologizing for the death of detainees in Bagram and Abu Ghraib who perished under U.S. custody? Loudly, repeatedly, in Arabic?.... Is it just me, or are we behind in getting these messages out? If so, why?

Read the whole thing.... especially if you've seen the movie Battle of Algiers.

posted by Dan on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM


I am totally sick of remarks like Greg Djerejian's. The whole viewpoint is crazy. It starts at the assumption that everyone in the world is so blind to the conditions in their own lives that a bit of propaganda will fix everything. His whole final paragraph is just condescending and annoying. As though putting someone on tv "in arabic" to explain that our colonialism is in their best interests, that we are bombing them to save them, that "a manner beneficial to the U.S. national interest" is by definition in the interests of Iraqis or Egyptians or Iranians... is so arrogant that this man must be from imperial Great Britain.

It is the saddest thing really. It just shows the pathetic level of debate on issues in the USA. As though our policies are secondary to our message. Really, it is Orwell telling the Arab world that war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength.

It really is a reflection of our own political atmosphere, shown in our own political campaigns and our utterly consumer society. As a result of feelings like this, our political campaigns include debates without any debate or endless news coverage about TV ads (not issues). It is a degradation of democracy here.

The people of the world will see through it. It will not work. You can't tell a Palestinian that the occupation is really a good thing because it is against terror. Their lives prove to them otherwise. And if we are focused on message more then on honesty and actually being a leader in things like human rights and democracy, it will just demonize ourselves further. We will be even bigger hypocrites then we already are. And make us more out of touch with reality, both ours and the reality of the rest of the world.

posted by: When will We Americans Learn? on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Hiring more Red Staters for the newsroom? Putting more conservatives on the faculties of America's colleges?

I'm from Texas but went to boarding school in the East. Of my liberal/Blue state friends, I'd say at least 1/3 of the smart ones that could have gone to law school or into I-banking took jobs in teaching, social work, academia or journalism. When I take an equal number of conservative or Texan friends, that number drops to zero.

What Glenn Reynolds and these other types don't understand is that it's about money. A veteran NY Times reporter, someone who's theoretically climbed to the top of his industry, makes about the same as a kid - who did well - right out of law school. Conservatives are much less likely to accept a life of modest salaries.

posted by: Michael on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Sorry, I just can't get over it:
"This is why B.D. is so sensitive to tales of torture, of denigration of Islamic tenets in detainee treatment, and so on. This is not born of squeamishness; but of realism. An important element in securing a long term victory in this struggle against extremist terror is denying the enemy propaganda tools."

Why is he sensitive to tales of torture (as if they are just "tales")? Not because it is immoral, not because it is atrocious, not because it is against the international law or is just plain inhuman, not because it is it shows we are the same crule animal as everyone else (check the Stanford Prison Experiment on this one)... but because it is all about "denying the enemy propaganda tools."

Sure, he never says it is the only element, but "an important" one (and, mind you, one so important that we need not mention others). Fuck this guy.

Dan, the other day you asked why we are so hated, well, I would like to suggest that a major reason is that we are criminals just like everyone else, but that in the process we force the rest of the world to eat our bullshit too.

posted by: When Will Americans Learn? on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Like most conservatives, Postrel starts her narrative with false premises, adds some lies, and then reaches (unsurprisingly) bizarre conclusions.

The Newsweek report had little or nothing to do with the deaths that occurred -- it was merely a convenient symbol used in a pre-planned effort to generate anti-American enthusiasm. (I mean, these folks already knew that the US was desecrating Islam as part of its "war on terror", and weren't waiting for the US government to confirm it.) The killings were not perpetrated by the anti-American protestors, but by security forces trained by the USA.

Postrel's suggestion that the "Newsweek problem" is a result of not enough Red-States in newsrooms is laughable at best. The rest of the world doesn't rely on the American media for its facts. And putting clones of General Boykin in America's newsrooms isn't going to help the situation.

Instead, American newsrooms could use a lot more non-Americans --- more Europeans to explain to America to itself in terms of western culture, more Islamic fundamentalists to show Americans that American actions are perceived differently in the Islamic world, etc.

The last thing the media needs are more people who, like Postrel, are divorced from the "reality based community."

posted by: p.lukasiak on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

I rather liked the reference to The Battle of Algiers, evocative and timely.

In re the issue at hand, since I am here in the region and consume the media here, Arabic and Eurolang, I have to say I agree the BD. There is a serious absence of American presence on the ArabSats making its own case.

While the first commentator here sees such presence as somehow demeaning, that comes from a failure to understand the value of putting one's own perspective out there. Arab lang audiences do not oft here the American view on itself (as oft self-involved as it is) and it would be a useful sustained effort, if only to create a better less conspiratorial view of why the benighted policies were made to begin with.

Rather than pissing away its money by the millions on al-Hurra, which virtually no one watches, the US would be far better served training media reps to appear on the ArabSats and pitch the American view - but in an idiom that the general audience will at least be able to listen to.

Second, the commentator who suggests Islamists on to explain the Islamic world, this is a terrible idea. Such people rarely know how to speak to western ears - regardless of language their idiom is usually strange and will do nothing but reinforce stereotypes. Bad idea, terrible idea.

More journos properly trained in the region, that would be useful. Less reliance on people like myself and westernized Euro lang speaking Arabs.

posted by: collounsbury on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Second, the commentator who suggests Islamists on to explain the Islamic world, this is a terrible idea. Such people rarely know how to speak to western ears - regardless of language their idiom is usually strange and will do nothing but reinforce stereotypes. Bad idea, terrible idea.

On the contrary, it is an excellent idea- if the goal is the get the average American to understand that peaceful co-existence with jihadis is not possible, and that it is preferrable to fight them there than to fight them here.

posted by: rosignol on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

I think p.lukasiak may have misread a bit, she isn't advocating red state reporters as a fix here, although I agree that Postrel is a bit off to work from the assumption that the riots were a direct result of Newsweek.

Ms. Postrel isn't a typical conservative, in the red-state, red meat sense. But I'd add to her very perceptive understanding of what's going. First, it's not just that reporters don't understand the reaction, the public doesn't either. None of us in the US want to live in such a world.

Which leads to a irony I can't resist. All this anger at such overreaction to "the treatment of an inanimate object, however disrepectful the symbolism" from a political faction that has for years been trying to imprison people who burn the American flag.

What goes around indeed comes around, doesn't it?

posted by: pblsh on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

"I am totally sick of remarks like Greg Djerejian's. The whole viewpoint is crazy. It starts at the assumption that everyone in the world is so blind to the conditions in their own lives that a bit of propaganda will fix everything"

Its not propaganda. Its ideas. Ideas are important. Much of the Muslim world has been trapped in a system of fascism, central planning, misogynism, religious intolerance, and antiintellectualism that has created tremendous poverty and ignorance. Those arent just 'conditions', those are policies and policies are ideas. It is part of the hypocracy of the so called progressives to excuse all of those terrible worldviews and treat Muslims and Arabs specifically like children in a way they would never dream of excusing anyone in the West that held even a sliver of. Those ideas are being shaken and new ideas are rising up in competition for the first time in decades, and that is _the_ most important thing that can happen in the Middle East. You dismiss this so vapidly, yet the evidence before your own eyes in places like Iraq and Lebanon prove you wrong. The left never managed to come up with a single idea to reform the region in 50 years, and they have none now except to try to put the brakes on that which is actually making some progress. Real progressive.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Postrel's observation was acute. Even in the few comments above we can see how easily some Americans -- and others also -- assume that the reasons that, say, Iraqis, Saudis or Pakistanis resent the United States are the same reasons liberals and left-wingers here do.

I suspect it wouldn't be too hard to find Iraqis a lot more down on America because they still only had electricity for six hours a day or their sewers were backed up than because of anything that happened at Abu Ghraib. In context -- that is to say in the context of their lives -- this order of priorities makes perfect sense. The Western value system, of which representative democracy is only a part, is largely new in this part of the world. It isn't understood as we understand it, and may not be for many years. Lack of electricity in the heat of an Iraqi summer is something anyone can understand; the level of disillusionment in that country at the fumbled reconstruction must be considerable. The fact that it involves practical failures rather than moral ones is bound to matter a lot less to locals than it does to us.

That this is not an excuse for prisoner abuse should go without saying. That disgraceful scandal cannot possibly have done us any good anywhere. But making public expiation for what we consider our sins, whether in the local language or not, may not do us as much good as some people think. The biggest failing of the Bush administration's public diplomacy from the President on down is its orientation, not to the foreign audiences we should be trying to influence, but to the domestic American audience. Many of the administration's critics are poised to make the same mistake, with the insignificant difference that they seek to appeal to a different part of the domestic audience.

posted by: Zathras on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Well said Zathras. The critics have largely missed their mark. The biggest failing of the Bush administration was and is the 'business as usual' way that reconstruction in Iraq was treated. Instead of taking a chainsaw to red tape and launching a crash effort to turn the power back on and train an army, Iraq was treated like a highway project. Had Kerry focused more acutely on those failings, and (hold your breath) how he would fix them, he could well have won. That has embittered more Iraqis than any amount of Abu Ghraibs. Lets not forget, prisoner abuse is hardly an earth shaking revelation in that region of the world.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

No, Mark, it isn't. But there is little to praise about how the administration handled this scandal, which has done us damage in places besides the Arab world.

Having a proper sense of perspective about what matters to the foreign audiences our public diplomacy must try to influence does not mean ignoring this. The fact that some habitual critics of the Bush administration are especially critical of its handling of prisoner abuse is not a good reason to ignore it either. In general I think it a poor practice for conservatives to define themselves or what they believe based on what liberals are saying at the moment, and prisoner abuse is one of many issues about which too many conservatives have done exactly this.

posted by: Zathras on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Again, agreed. I must admit I was personally unimpressed with the arguments for making the abuse stories high priority, and quite sick of Andrew Sullivan and others seemingly harping on it. I was wrong. Ends do not justify means, and if nothing else this is something that needs to be examined thoroughly and debated openly. The law of unintended consequences catches up with you, as we saw in the wake of the Newsweek story. I think you have to be as scrupulous as possible and honor your values, because even if you think you have a 'greater good' to advance, its entirely likely that your questionable deeds will come back and cost you more than you expected. Forget the arguments back and forth about international law and such, we need to try to do what is Right as often as humanly possible. We've seen too many examples in recent history of how doing what was expediant comes to cost the US in the long run. We need to think more deeply about what self interest really means. Take what you want, and pay for it. When we absolutely have to side with the devil we know, we should have our eyes wide open to danger in it.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Western standards on the treatment of inanimate objects might not be as far apart from non-Western standards as Postrel suggests. Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" generated plenty of Christian rage, up to and including death threats (though luckily no actual deaths), and there was physical violence in France over Scorcese's "The Last Temptation of Christ".

posted by: Matthias Neeracher on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

I wish someone in the White House or Pentagon would show the same courage Mark Buehner does in owning up to the existence of a policy of torture, and its foolishness and wrongness.

Until someone does, Karen Hughes'public diplomacy will have a long hard row to hoe. PR and spin can help, but not so much as having the truth on your side. In this respect, I found rather chilling what I heard as a defense of the necessity of torture by the president in his April 28 news conference.

posted by: Realist on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Re Islamists:
On the contrary, it is an excellent idea- if the goal is the get the average American to understand that peaceful co-existence with jihadis is not possible, and that it is preferrable to fight them there than to fight them here.

No, it is not an "excellent idea" - it is a monumentally stupid idea.

Americans are already poorly informed about Islam and Muslims (naturally, not much reason until perhaps recently to be so, big country the US), selling them on the idea - which would arise naturally - that the Wahhabit lunatics are the default Muslim will only lead to counter productive policy.

I add that I get no sense that Americans feel they can live with the mujahidine extremists, quite the contrary as far as I can tell via business connexions and the like, rather too many Americans are unable to distinguish between the Salafiste mujahidine whack jobs, and the ordinary Mohammed who I do business with.

In re Iraq and Reconstruction:
A brief comment here, as someone tangentially involved with it - having been involved in an investment fund that was looking, initially, to do direct equity investments in Iraq. In fact, I sat the entire conflict right next door.

The Bush Administration or CPA-Iraq did not, sadly treat it like business as usual. It treated it as a political job, or a military job. I am no fan of the development community, but I can assure you the stunning incompetence that I saw going on in the key period of April-July 2003 had bloody nothing to do with business as usual and everything to do with fantastically unrealistic planning and staffing by people with more politics than common sense. My own online journal chronicles my going up the wall over this in that period.

I can attest that there were talented USAID, US DoS and British DFID people with excellent and realistic ideas. However, everything was in the hands of either US DoD or CPA-Iraq political appointees whose approach was so stunningly unrealistic I found it worthy of the anti-globo Left in its cheery divorce from any sense of reality.

posted by: collounsbury on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Postrel's comments, Isikoff/Newsweek

Here's another reason why this can be an ongoing issue and why the blogosphere was right to pay attention to Isikoff's and News-Tweak's culpability, despite the David Brooks's of the world who would slap our hands and deflect attention away from the MSM entirely.

It's not an either/or situation Mr. Brooks, buy a vowel, get a clue, and show some concern beyond your next cocktail party invitation in Manhattan.

posted by: Michael B on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Newsweek reports events. That's their job. Get
the story right as best you can, BUT report!
It is NOT Newsweek's job to worry how people will
react to the information.
If Newsweek later on needs to make corrections
in a report, then do so. But news media should not
care one wit how the readers will react.

The only thing Newsweek should care about is the
accuracy of the report.

And for those humans that can't handle the
information in a report...go to He**.

Boy, Am I feisty today...

posted by: James on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Anyway, just to be clear, I am not against Americans going on Arab TV to give their perspective. That is only fair. And if they can argue a better point, then let them try. My point is that the attitude of only propaganda and no policy changes has become so normal in the USA that we are not even democratic anymore. We don't discuss policy, but only presentation.

And too, it just will not work in the Middle East. The real irony is that in the discussion above someone was talking about putting Islamists on American TV. Well, the irony is that that is almost EXACTLY what it looks like when we have American officials puppet the party line on Arab TV. It would just discredit the USA further. What is more is that the whole world is already awash in our idiotic bullshit propaganda. CNN is in more countries then the BBC is. AlJazeera did more election coverage then all the American networks put together. The whole world debates everything Bush says (and they are far more aware of what we do when we are), yet we can't seem to notice because the Michael Jackson Trial is on.

And too, his idiotic position that he talks about torture (and, I assume, other war crimes. unless they happen to Americans) not because he is "born of squeamishness" or thinks they are wrong, but because he wants to look like he cares. Again, he is an asshole. And a perfect example of why we are so hated.

posted by: When Will We Americans Learn? on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

when will we americans learn:

i think you are doing djerejian a real disservice. even liberals like brad delong and mark kleiman have linked him in the past re: his denunciations of torture. his criticisms were not merely related to the bad P.R. impact of said torture; indeed he has often made the case that torture is potentially ruinous to our moral fiber and a real stain on our national reputation. as someone who reads him pretty regularly, i can safely report he's made his views pretty clear over the past years on torture. and they are not the views you are ascribing to him.


posted by: johnson on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Sports Section.

This just in. Game over. Final score:

Newsweek 5, Conservatives 0.

Rematch anyone?

Game next week: Newsweek Vs. Pentagon.

(Update: Pentagon forfeits.)

posted by: James on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

An update on that scorecard.

posted by: jackie mason on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

and another

and another

and another

posted by: jackie mason on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

Insofar as everyone here is interested in serious blog attempts to make sense of what's happening at a reasonably deep level -- including an extensive analysis of BOTH the Saad Ibrahim NYT piece that takes a different line than BD [ att. When Will We Americans Learn ] AND the Newsweek / Koran imbroglio -- you might want to check out the 5-part "The Ides of May" series on Grok Your World.

# The Ides of May I Insane US Plan to Militarize Space
# The Ides of May II Iraq: Shiites Ignore Bizarre US Plea to Love Sunnis
# The Ides of May III Newsweek / Koran: US Media Attacks BOTH Political Islam AND Bush
# The Ides of May IV Growing US Disconnect with Umma Islamiyya / Third World
# The Ides of May V -- A Positive Evolution for Political Islam ???

The link to the Introduction to the series is:


In addition, the piece there on "Europe on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown ???"


takes a slightly less sanguine view of the likely consequences of the apparently likely NON vote than most of the people who commented on that topic.

While it's true there's a lot of institutional inertia in the E-U-nification project -- and that EU referenda often serve as lightning rods to express anger at national governments --

precisely the fact that the "democratic" check that one country;s failure to ratify the Constitution can raise questions about the whole projet -- especially since Raffarin has said there will NOT be a second vote --

indicates that a NON result -- while by no means implying a second Yugoslavia, a Juncker -- will be more problematic than the Irish rejection of the Nice treaty, for example.

That said, this is a substantive and interesting blog, to which I look forward to continuing to comment.


posted by: Grok Your World.com on 05.24.05 at 11:47 PM [permalink]

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