Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Review of Bernard Lewis' The Political Language of Islam

I remember as a visiting student at Hebrew University, the first week there was a get-together of sorts for all the new students in the overseas program. There was mostly music and chit-chat, all of us in our broken Hebrew, of course trying to communicate with the Russian, French, and miscellaneous students with whom we only shared broken Hebrew as a language. The entertainment was this guy and his band singing these hippy songs, one in particular stands out in my mind. The Song was basically the word "salam" repeated over and over again, with an occasional "shalom" thrown in. Reading Bernard Lewis' The Political Language of Islam I have come to understand that why that song could only have been written and sung by an Israeli. The word "salam": was never used to indicate peace between any Muslim and a non-Muslim. There were other words for that.

The book is an interesting historical/linguistic study of the vocabulary of power and politics in Islam. It starts out with a discussion of what the significance of metaphor and language is for Muslims, and how that is reflected in the modes of discourse and how it reflects Islamic views of politics. For example we discover that unlike for Westerners, power is not thought of in terms of hierarchies. It is thought of in terms of being closer and farther from the power center.

There are chapters on The Body Politic, the rulers and the ruled, war and peace, and the limits of obedience. Over the course of the discussion we encounter the various forms of the word for ruler, and where and why each one was applied. We learn what a jihad is and when the term is really applied (only in religious wars, and never against Muslims). We learn the lingo of obedience and usurpation, as well as that of tyranny and oppression.

Overall the book was pretty interesting. Those with an interest in the language of politics in the Muslim world will be greatly enriched by this book.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Universal Stupid Constant

So I have been having discussions about science, philosophy, politics, religion, and things like that for a really long time. I spend a lot of my day discussing these sorts of things with all sorts of people. By now I have heard all the arguments. I teach many people, and fortunately I get to spend a lot of time listening to their boring drivel. Teaching philosophy gives me the opportunity to have people feel free too expound on "their" philosophy of life (as if I care).

So I have come to a number of conclusions about people and the way they are. Here is one of them: Most people have a stupidity constant. That is to say that people do not mature and have their stupidity levels decrease over time. What happens is that people often realize that they are stupid about something and try to improve, but inevitably it comes with a comprable rise in stupidity about some other belief.

You have perfect examples in college students. You find that when they come in they believe in every folk tale they heard as children. Columbus discovered America, The Earth is flat, God exists, mathematics is useless, evolutionary theory is based on an athiest guess, other types of people are barbarians while yours are perfect, rain causes colds, . . . whatever. There are many things we learn in college that enlighten us about the world and improve us as human beings. In almost every case though there are people who then take what they have learned and become wiser and at the same time feel that they must become stupid in some other area. So they start embracing these leftist trendy political causes despite the fact that it contradicts a whole bunch of things that do make sense. They learn that (and this I read in an article by M. Levin) that since soem of the things they learnt must be false, then all of them are. So they do a 180 degree turn on EVERYTHING. This is silly, because it is rare that people start their education with beliefs that are 100% false. So they end up discarding even the good ones.

Thus there is likely a constant amout of stupidity that exists in humans. It ought to be measured and recorded as a universal law of psychological thermodynamics. This is related, of course to Sidney Morgenbesser's "Universal Tzorus Constant", the law that states that the amount of tzorus in the world is a constant. ("Tzorus" is Yiddish for Pain of all sorts.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Anan on the origins of the UN

Kofi Anan reminded us in his recent speech of the mission of the founder of the UN, invoking by name, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Undoubtedly this was designed to appease the US and remind us of our obligation to take the UN seriously.

What Anan failed to remind us of is that the UN was founded by the US only AFTER the US took care of the crazy dictatorial and genocidal menace that threatened to destroy the planet. He of course did not speculate on what the world would have been like had the UN been around before the rise of Nazi Germany. Undoubtedly as France was being invaded they would have fought the US on our interference in European affairs. The US never expected to have to face a maniac who was able to threaten the US, US interests, or indeed the planet.

I can only speculate, but if there was a threat that the US would have suspected that there would be new challenges to US sovereignty, we would not have pressured for an international body which can interfere with our ability to handle it.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Consistency, globalization, and independent states

It strikes me as odd that it is always the same people who advocate for a strong INTERNATIONAL governing body like the UN, and strong respect for the wishes of coalitions of nations, are also the same people who advocate for an end to global economies (globalization) and are the same peopel who press for independence for small states, like Tibet, Taiwain, and Palestine.

There seems to be a minor sort of inconsistency there. Either you want a larger group controlled by a smaller group, so then you can have the UN controlling everyone, or you can have smaller groups controlled by a larger group of people.

You can't have it both ways and still expect to make sense.

I am all for the latter, myself. The more states - the better. What benefit is gained by having a large international tyrant in charge of everything? Of course when you throw away the only thing that makes sense to have internationally, namely an economy, what is left?

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Arab Anti-Semitism didn't pay

During the last election there was a general consensus in the Arab world that Bush would be much better. (This piece is interesting and says the same thing about Muslims.) The reason for this is of course simple. Leiberman is Jewish. Having a Jew in the White House could not be good for the Arabs, or the world as a whole.

The current general concensus in the Arab world is that the most dangerous group of people in the world today are the neocons. The famous neocons, all the rage in today's political discourse seem to have the ear of much of Americal foreign policy makers, and are always associated in the media with Jews. Not all neocons are Jews. But some of the the big famous ones (Leo Strauss, Alan Bloom, Paul Wolfowitz, Irving Cristol. . . ) are.

Finally, it is hard to imagine Al Gore invading Iraq.

All these together do not add up of course. Had Gore been president the Arab world would have had to suffer the indignity of hating America because it was run by Jews, even though the Jew would have been much better for them then Bush - the Christian. Since Bush won, the Arab world has to suffer the indignity of hating America because it is influenced by Jews and some imaginary Jewish agenda.

I think the big lesson here is this. If Arabs (and of course I refer to the general Arab consensus, not any individual or group of individuals) couldgive up their anti-semitism they might have a coherent political platform. By letting themselves be shaped by which Jews are in charge of what in the US, they limit all their options to the one that has the least Jews involved. In this case they lost. They got Bush. It was an apparent victory, and now they can all bicker if it was worth it just so they do not have to have a Jew in the White House.

Lebanon in the NY Press

This week's New York Press has an article (coincidentially named after this blog whose author is quoted in the piece) about Lebanon and the potential to kick Syria out. The article focuses on a man named Ziad Abdelnour who is well connected in all sorts of things Lebanese and thinks that with a bit of "air support" from the US he can free Lebanon. Much of the article compares him with Chalabi and discusses his relation with washington neo-cons. I have no idea why the NY press carried this as their feature article, but . . . hey.

As I advocated before it is Lebanon's time to free itself from Syrian occupation. It is finally free of Israel, and it needs to resume a real political life. I do not buy the line that claims that Syria is THE stablizing force in Lebanon, and the place would collapse in to civil war again if Syria pulled out. Syria had little to do with ending the war. Everyone was pretty much sick of it, so it ended, and treaties were signed.

I have no idea if this guy's plan is worth anything, but it is a good time for Lebanon to do something.

The Death of Emil Fackenheim

I was saddened to hear about the passing on Friday of Emil Fackenheim. Fakenheim was a good philosopher who was very influential as a post-holocaust thinker. His main idea regarding the holocaust is that it is to be viewed as an injunction to Jews to continue being Jews and to perpetuate Judaism. To cease to contintinue, or to stop the chain of Jews is to grant Hitler and the Nazis a postumous victory. (This is an argument I disputed in print once, by the way, but I will not discuss here). His passing is a loss to Judaism, Jewish thought, and philosophy.

Jews in the Park

Today I was at the Chabad Jewish festival in Washington Square Park. The Piamentas were playing, and there were a few cute things to do there. It looks like it is great fun for kids. I just happened to be there, so I took a look.

Of Models, Movies, and Italians

On Friday I met "I", an old friend whom I have not seen in over 3 years for coffee in Bryant Park. It is fashion week now, and so there were all these models walking around. I also discovered that there is a tiny library that consists of a couple of carts of book that are loaned out to people hanging out in the park.

Then I walked to grand central. There was a cool AMC exhibit featuring all these movie clips and 3D art pieces built around them. It was a cool 10 minute exhibit there.

Yesterday, I met some people and we went to the festival of San Genaro in Little Italy. It was crowded but fun. It was good to see that most of the people were not Italian, not that there is something wrong with being Italian, but rather that there were so many other New Yorkers and tourists there. The festival celebrates some Italian Saint. I understand that the festival has a long history, much of it unpretty with stories of corruption and the like in its past. But it is supposed to be much better now.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Children, abortions, and informed consent

There is this large debate in the country over the question of whether we should allow school children to leave school during school hours to go get an abortion or receive treatment for STDs without the school being obligated or even permitted to inform the parents.

This is a rather odd debate. Why the children cannot go to these free clinics or Planned Parenthood after school is beyond me. Why does this have to be done on school time? Is this a new way to get out of school?

But independent of that, there is a really important issue at stake.

After the various atrocities of the Nazis during WWII were revealed the field of medical ethics arose. That is, after we saw the sorts of experiments that went on in places like Dachau where Jews and other prisoners were used as part of medical experiments, the medical and academic communities took note. Prisoners were the subject of drowning, disease, and pressure experiments that amounted to little more than torture and death for most of them.

What emerged from this was a concept that was to become the cornerstone of medical ethics: informed consent. One can only perform a procedure on a patient when and only when there was informed consent given for that procedure. That means that if there was no consent, or it was not a consent that was given by someone who was able to give consent in an informed way, then there is a major breach of accepted medical ethics.

There are some classes of people who are incapable of giving informed consent. Individuals who are very mentally handicapped are generally taken to be unable to give informed consent. Children too are unable to do this. That is why one is not allowed to have sex with minors, or sell or give liquor to minors. They cannot vote or smoke. We say this because they cannot give informed consent for these sorts of things because they are judged not to have the maturity to make certain decisions.

Parents are charged with these responsibilities. Parents can make the decisions for the children. Parents must make the decision for the students. Parents are taken to have the best interest of the children and thus the capability and the right to make the decision for the children.

Now there are certain criterion where we do want to allow the children to make the decision for themselves. This happens when we believe the child to have the maturity and intellectual maturity to make an informed decision. But if this is the case we should also give the children the responsibilities of an adult. For example, we often refer to emancipated minors who are not accountable to their parents. We sometimes try children as adults in courts of law. We ought to make those analogies. In a case where we can say that had the child committed some crime, we would have tried him or her as an adult, then we can say that we should allow the child to make medical decisions. Of course the responsibility is also on the doctors who perform these procedures that they are performing them on people who can make informed decisions.

If we just allow children the "right" to leave school and make decisions that they are incapable of making correctly we have thrown away 50 years of progress in medical ethics.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Good Slogan. . .don't care for the message

Yesterday I was walking down first ave and I saw some graffiti stenciled on the sidewalk that said "Drop panties not bombs."

(sigh). . . If only. . . .

It was the great theorist of war Martin Van Creveld who suggested that war might disapear if only women were full fledged participants. (In his The Transformation of War, p223.)

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Israel, The Palestinians and the Geneva Conventions

There are a number of interesting issues raised with regards to Israel, the Palestinians and the Geneva Conventions. Recently in an AP story related the following odd sounding claim: "One contentious issue in the draft [resulution regarding the expusion of Yassir Arafat] is a call for the protection under the Geneva Convention of civilians during war or under occupation. Israel claims the convention does not apply to territory it seized in the 1967 Middle East war. It says the land is disputed, rather than occupied."

I am not sure what to make of this. This sounds very odd. While the land might certainly be disputed, in the interem it is certainly occupied as well. Moreover, I have no idea who the disputants are. If it is indeed Israel and the Palestinians, then according to Israel what is the status of the inhabitants? What is the exact status of each of the players here? Ido not understand the Israeli claim.

However, I nonetheless believe that the Isaelis happen to be right despite their flawed reasoning. They do seem to have a very important point. Why are the Geneva Conventions applicable to the Palestinians? Now you might naturally say that the Geneva accords were signed by Israel, and therefore binding on Israel. That is not exactly the case. The geneva conventions provide for morally symmetric warfare. That means that the convention is only binding when both sides agree to follow the accord. Have the Palestinians? It is a bit hard to get a clear answer to this. (I can't find it on the web) Moreover, who speaks for the palestinians, and if we do find someone who does, say the PLO, it only applies to the forces which that body controlls, which would exclude all the non-PLO groups. That is to say that Hamas, and Islamic Jihad is exempt, and there are no provisions execpt whining by Amnesty International which governs their treatment. It also only applies when there is a real distinction between combatant and non-combatant. This is non-existant in Palestine as there is little relation between the various militias and the people carrying weapons and carrying out authorized attacks. Furthermore, the lists of atrocitises (namey those which would fall under "treatcherous tactics") which various groups from Fatah to IJ to Hamas have claimed credit for is extremely lengthy. Utilizing ambulances, the enemy's uniforms, and civilians are all illegal, and would seem to deny intent to comly with the Geneva conventions. Without an explanation is would assure us that this is what is happenning.

There is also a rather interesting note appended to the signatures of various Arab (esp Kuait) countries specifically expressing the sentiment that their signature of various international treaties excludes Israel, and does not imply recognition of or a treaty with Israel. It is unclear how this would apply to Lebanon (and the various things Israel has been accused of there) too, but that is another matter.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

My 9/11/03

Today was a busy day. I checked in with my Army unit in the nether-reaches of Queens. It was a real schlep. The base (Fort Totten) is now mostly overrun by the Fire dept and EMS which were holding a small memorial service there, which I watched for a while.

I then met "B" for lunch back in manhattan at Odessa on Ave A. Then I wandered a bit around Lower Manhattan. I noticed the scientologists out in full force in Union Square, just liek they were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11/01. I then wandered in to the B&N right there and later on, met "L" and "S" for dinner at Kosher Delight on Broadway. We then went to the Twin Tower light thingy. They were really cool light towers. I heard you can see them from space, but I could not find any pictures of them on the web.

I wondered: if there was a new moon, and we shined the lights on it, would we have a full moon?

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Rereading Machiavelli's The Prince

I just finished rereading Machiavelli's The Prince. I last read it about 12 years ago. It made a real impression on me then, but I thought I have a slightly different take on the world now, and I had forgotten most of it. Wooton's introduction is pretty good.

This is the book that introduced the world, systematically, to power politics. There is much in the book to consider and take seriously, and no doubt millions of people over the past 500 years have. I think that it might be a good exercise to rewrite The Prince using modern examples. The examples are not really necessary for the book to make its point, but almost every chapter has some examples. They serve to make the book a more interesting read, and also to support the conclusions. It would be instructive to use examples from the last 50 years of history to see how applicable. I suspect that it would be informative to see that there are some places where he was wrong. It would also demonstrate the amazing relevance the book still does have, despite the radically different natures of governments, warfare and religion. Perhaps some enterprising history teacher might want to try this?

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Camo Fad

When I was in Basic Combat Training this summer they told me that when I returned to the civilian world, I would be annoyed if I saw some civilian wearing camoflauge. After all, it is occassionally worn, and after all we "earned" that uniform, and you have to expect that it would be annnoying to see some lazy hippy wearing it. We were punished to no end if our uniform was not in perfect shape. It is annoying when it is worn sloppily.

Anyway. . .

I came bacck from basic, and the first few times I saw people wearing camo, I was a bit annoyed, but not enough to really bother me.

But what I realized after a few days is that EVERYONE is wearing it. It isn't just a few people who like to shop in Army surplus stores, but it is like all over. I am certain that the world did not start a trend in support of me, but it is nice to imagine.

Either way, I thought it was an interesting coincidence.

Friday, September 05, 2003

An Ethics Question for Suspicious Professors

When you teach, you do not always get to know all the names of all your students. Generally I have about 100 new students each semester. This semester I have about 75, and I hope that by the time it is over I will know the names of 50 of them. But despite this, when you walk in to your class, unless it is one of those large lecture hall classes, you will recognize everyone. If someone is there who does not belong, you will notice. If there is a person who has never shown up, certainly by the third week you will know it.

So when you give an exam, it is not likely that someone will try to get their friend to sit in and take the exam for them. If they do, you will know it right away. If you have a large class, or you are particularly untrusting, you can ask your students for a photo ID to prove that the person registered is the person taking the exam.

Now what do you do when you have a female Muslim student in your class who wears a veil that covers her entire face except her eyes. You will never know if it is her, her sister, or her friend in your class at any given time.

Should a professor in that position just let it slide? I would not want my teaching suspicions to interfere with her religious right to wear whatever she wants, I just want to have some way of verifying that I am teaching the same person who I am testing.

Addendum:People have apparently taken advantage of the anonymity of veils for illegal activities before.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Friends and enemies

When it comes to choosing friends, the US could probably use some advice. Here is mine. We should have friends. Everyone knows that. Everyone is saying that. But who should our friends be? I suspect that the answers are not simple.

First, we should keep the friends we have. England likes us. Cultivate that. Make them like us more. Canada has to like us. Make them want to like us. Israel likes us. Don’t change a thing. Etc.

Second, ignore the countries who are not going to like us no matter what we do. Say kaddish for our friendship with France. Screw Iran. We have no need to appease China. Etc.

Third, invest in the start-up countries. There are a whole slew of countries who were once worth something and show promise of making a comeback. Or they are just new countries with spunk. There is all of Eastern Europe who like us, and want to be our friends. Get them before the EU does. Make them owe us before they owe Europe. It will pay off when they start producing something. With our help it can be soon.

Fourth, there are all these neutral countries which seem to have little opinion about us. Court them. Invite Iceland to all the cool parties. Be nice to New Zealand. Don’t spend too much on them, but compliment them on their shoes and stuff. Make them feel like big players. They will then want to hang out with the biggest - us.

Fifth, if we have extra money in the budget throw it at the third world. Not the crappy terrorist countries like Pakistan, but like all of middle Africa and things like that. Zaire, India, Malawi, Bolivia, Zanzibar. . . We want to look like we are doing more than all of the EU together. We want to help the world, and not spend too much.

Sixth, enemies. They are a bigger problem. A) Isolate the country. The works, trade sanctions, cold diplomatic relations. . . 2) Regime change, if it is the last resort. Help the pro-democracy troops there. Don’t make any promises, but give lots of money. Don’t make the mistake of funding the psychos this time. Pinochet and the Taliban were our best bets at the time, but we should know better. 3) We need to start bringing the worst of them here for study. Have the CIA open and fund a few universities. Spread the word in Saudi Arabia that they are very Islamic-friendly places. Bring people from the fundamentalist ghettoes. Ignore all the princes’ children who pay a fortune, and come out figuring how to get more out of us. Get them for a short time, and figure out what propaganda works. 4) Educate our college students about the politics of these countries. Until 9/11, I suspect 1% of college grads could find Afghanistan on a map. We need university graduates who speak Pashtun, Arabic, Swahili, and whatever they speak in the Sudan. There are plenty of students who waste away taking years of Spanish in high school or college. This gets them no where. It just makes life harder for immigrants from Mexico, who have even fewer incentives to learn English. Let them learn a language that makes them valuable if we need them. Also integrate language study in to the military. We have two and a half million people in the military. Why are there only a few hands-full in the Defense Language Institute? Why is there not more education about foreign counties there as well? The more they know, the more effective they will be when the time comes.