The Mess

Peter Galbraith in the New York Review of Books:

Two books, George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate and L. Paul Bremer’s My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, written with Malcolm McConnell, are essential for those who want to understand what went wrong. Packer’s book is written with great clarity and draws on his experience as one of The New Yorker‘s more perceptive reporters. He is clearly a thorough and careful notetaker. As a result, the people he writes about—Washington neoconservatives, CPA bureaucrats, and ordinary Iraqis whose lives were turned upside down by decisions made elsewhere—speak to the reader in their own voices. In analyzing the war, Packer begins with the ideologies that shaped its architects’ thinking and then brilliantly describes the unrealistic assumptions and bureaucratic maneuvering that resulted in the US taking over Iraq with no plan for its postwar administration. Bremer, as his title suggests, does not believe that the occupation was a complete disaster. He provides a briskly written account of an eventful year, assigning most of the blame to others, notably Donald Rumsfeld, General Ricardo Sanchez, and the members of the Iraqi Governing Council whom he appointed. The value of his book lies in his often inadvertent revelations of failure.

More here.

Vasily Grossman

Keith Gessen in The New Yorker:

52923_grossman_vasilyA new book of Grossman’s war writings—a collection taken from his notebooks and his published pieces—has just appeared in English as “A Writer at War” (Pantheon; $27.50), translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova. Beevor, whose book “Stalingrad” is the definitive account of the fighting in that city and relies heavily for color on Grossman’s reportage, is very fond of Grossman, and this collection weaves together his texts alongside lucid historical commentary to tell the story of the war through Grossman’s eyes. But what about Grossman himself? One wants to read the notebooks as a novel of education, recording a growing consciousness of the brutality and the corruption of the Soviet regime. In fact, a bit disappointingly, the Grossman we meet at the beginning of the book is already skeptical and wary of the regime. He notes the propaganda in the papers. “The bedraggled enemy continues his cowardly advance,” goes the headline, as the Germans take town after town. Interrogations of occasional German prisoners (at this point it was mostly Red Army soldiers who were being taken prisoner, in the hundreds of thousands) are absurd and demoralizing, a pathetic kind of Soviet tourism.

More here.

Barnosky and I

Jeff Barnosky in the Morning News (via Phronesisaical):

The other one, the one called Jeff Barnosky, is the one who buys things. Expensive things and confusing things. Seven bottles of Vaseline. A salt shaker. A Ford Escape. I walk through the streets of Dallas—even though I’ve never been there—and shop at every store. Last Tuesday, I apparently put a down payment on a condo in Orlando. I know of Jeff Barnosky through his charges. He likes waffles, strip clubs, and miniature golf. The other Barnosky rides the highways of America, filling up his 30 gallons with the good stuff, making sure that his engine hums as he takes in the heart of America, staying at the best hotels, ordering room service (more waffles!), and stopping at retail outlets to buy thousands of dollars in leotards.

I applaud the other Barnosky for pursuing his advanced degrees; at least I assume that’s what he’s doing with $40,000 in private student loans. At night, I try to watch television as the phone rings, asking me to pay my outstanding bills. I simply tell them that they must call the other Jeff Barnosky, the one who has digital cable at his winter house in Aspen and broadband at the place he summers in Montauk.

One night, after hearing my name praised on the local public radio station for taking care of their pledge drive in a single phone call (and breaking their heart in a follow-up call), I come home to find my girlfriend packing her bags. She looks up at me, on the verge of tears…

More here.  [Here’s the Borges version, in case you want to remind yourself of it.]

Tasmanian Devils Spread Cancer by Biting

From The National Geographic:

Tasmanian_f For ten years a facial cancer has threatened to wipe out Australia’s Tasmanian devils. The cancer is spreading fast, and scientists now say the disease transferred in tooth-baring combat. Now dubbed devil facial-tumor disease, the ailment produces enormous growths that push the animals’ teeth out of line and make it difficult for them to eat. Afflicted animals generally die of starvation within six months. The disease has spread rapidly. Today biologists report that few animals evade it long enough to live into old age, which for a Tasmanian devil means about five years.

Scientists have long known the disease is infectious, but nobody understood what caused it. Now  they’ve found the answer: The animals inject cancer cells into each other when they engage in mating battles.

More here.

A Plague of Cannibals

From Science:Ant_1

The wrath of god is the traditional explanation for plagues of marauding insects that devour everything in their path. What really drives the swarm, according to a new study of crickets, is a hankering for protein and salt, along with the fear of getting cannibalized. Every few years, Mormon crickets march across the western United States by the millions. Last spring, a team led by Stephen Simpson, an ecologist at the University of Sydney, Australia, found some clues to their motivations in the trail blazed by a 1-kilometer long Mormon cricket marching band. For one thing, the crickets were not starving because they left most edible plants untouched. But they gobbled anything high in protein, such as seed pods, flowers, and even mammal feces. Salt also seemed to be on the menu; the crickets swallowed soil if it was soaked with urine. And a strange clue was the discovery that many crickets were eating each other.

More here.

Cavegirls were first blondes to have fun

Roger Dobson and Abul Taher in the London Times:

MmAccording to the study, north European women evolved blonde hair and blue eyes at the end of the Ice Age to make them stand out from their rivals at a time of fierce competition for scarce males.

The study argues that blond hair originated in the region because of food shortages 10,000-11,000 years ago. Until then, humans had the dark brown hair and dark eyes that still dominate in the rest of the world. Almost the only sustenance in northern Europe came from roaming herds of mammoths, reindeer, bison and horses. Finding them required long, arduous hunting trips in which numerous males died, leading to a high ratio of surviving women to men.

Lighter hair colours, which started as rare mutations, became popular for breeding and numbers increased dramatically, according to the research, published under the aegis of the University of St Andrews.

More here.

Wings of desire

They have 32,000 major parts, 750,000 rivets, 23 miles of wiring and, when assembled, a pair will have a span wider than a football pitch. But if the wings of the Airbus A380, the biggest passenger plane ever built, are unprecedented in scale, it is the journey they take from north Wales to the company’s HQ in southern France that is truly astonishing. Aida Edemariam follows one wing on its epic voyage, and traces an extraordinary tale of engineering.”

From The Guardian:

A380_2When the A380 finally goes into service at the end of this year, it will carry about 550 people, making it the largest passenger aircraft ever to take to the skies. It is not the largest aircraft ever built (the Russian Antonov, a freighter, holds that honour), but at up to 35% greater capacity, it can claim to represent as titanic a revolution in commercial flying as Boeing’s jumbo – the 747-400 – was 36 years ago. Partly because of the unique challenges of its size (73m in length, the equivalent of seven London Routemasters queued nose to tail, and with a wingspan of 79.8m) and partly because of demands from airlines that planes should be quieter, less polluting and above all cheaper to fly per passenger, it has not been enough simply to tinker with designs for previous aircraft. Airbus went back to the drawing board and designed the A380 from scratch, which means it is also as major a technological achievement as Concorde. Being manufactured at 16 different European sites, however, using the skills of 1,500 suppliers in 30 countries, this singular aeroplane demands a level of international cooperation that the Concorde project did not even hint at.

More here.

Raised by Wolves

Our friend, Lindsay Beyerstein, of Majikthise, relates endearing details of her childhood while explaining that it is possible to be the child of academics and still be a decent person (unlike, say, Alex Rawls–yes, son of the John Rawls):

Cash20blog203_1My parents met in Berkeley in the 1960s while my dad was doing his PhD. Being raised by academic hippies is like being raised by wolves–you can rejoin human society, but you can never integrate seamlessly.

In my family, even pets and infants are addressed in complete sentences. There are no taboo subjects, except when the conservative relatives visit from the interior. Then we can’t talk about religion.

I remember the day in kindergarden when one little boy announced that he had a baby brother. How did that happen, someone asked. The kid said something about God. Other kids were floating theories about angel-storks. I felt I had to set the record straight. Many children cried. My mom was called in for a parent-teacher conference. The teacher was very upset.

“Did she tell the truth?” Mom asked.
“Oh, yes,” the teacher said, “In great detail.”
“I don’t think we have a problem, then,” Mom said.

My uncle, the philosopher, used to be a heavy smoker. One day when I was about six, I said, no doubt irritatingly,

“If I were you, I wouldn’t smoke.”

He answered, “If you were me, you’d smoke. I smoke.” I thought about that for a long time.

Another early philosophical memory is from a long car trip. My mom sent my dad to the library to get some books on tape to amuse me 10, and my brother 6. He came back with “The Death of Socrates” and “On The Road.” By the time we reached southern Washington my brother and I were sobbing inconsolably and mom looked about ready to kill dad. The mood brightened after we popped in “On the Road” and mocked the dated sex scenes as a family.

More here.  [Lindsay needs money for a new computer. Help her!]

Recent Quantum Computing Advance, Brilliantly Explained

Smc6_1Robin posted this and then this a couple of days ago about a puzzling advance in quantum computing. Both posts confused most people who read them (even the writers at Nature seemed quite unsure of what exactly they were reporting, taking refuge in vague but dramatic language), so I turned to the smartest physicist I happen to be friends with, Sean Carrol, of Cosmic Variance for clarification. He has obliged (thanks Sean!) with a tour de force of scientific exposition. It is still not trivial (please, we are talking advanced quantum theory here!) to understand, but if you pay careful attention, you should get the basic idea. This is how he explains it:

Quantum mechanics, as we all know, is weird. It’s weird enough in its own right, but when some determined experimenters do tricks that really bring out the weirdness in all its glory, and the results are conveyed to us by well-intentioned but occasionally murky vulgarizations in the popular press, it can seem even weirder than usual.

Last week was a classic example: the computer that could figure out the answer without actually doing a calculation! (See Uncertain Principles, Crooked Timber, 3 Quarks Daily.) The articles refer to an experiment performed by Onur Hosten and collaborators in Paul Kwiat’s group at Urbana-Champaign, involving an ingenious series of quantum-mechanical miracles. On the surface, these results seem nearly impossible to make sense of. (Indeed, Brad DeLong has nearly given up hope.) How can you get an answer without doing a calculation? Half of the problem is that imprecise language makes the experiment seem even more fantastical than it really is — the other half is that it really is quite astonishing.

Let me make a stab at explaining, perhaps not the entire exercise in quantum computation, but at least the most surprising part of the whole story — how you can detect something without actually looking at it. The substance of everything that I will say is simply a translation of the nice explanation of quantum interrogation at Kwiat’s page, with the exception that I will forgo the typically violent metaphors of blowing up bombs and killing cats in favor of a discussion of cute little puppies.

Dogbox_1So here is our problem: a large box lies before us, and we would like to know whether there is a sleeping puppy inside. Except that, sensitive souls that we are, it’s really important that we don’t wake up the puppy. Furthermore, due to circumstances too complicated to get into right now, we only have one technique at our disposal: the ability to pass an item of food into a small flap in the box. If the food is something uninteresting to puppies, like a salad, we will get no reaction — the puppy will just keep slumbering peacefully, oblivious to the food. But if the food is something delicious (from the canine point of view), like a nice juicy steak, the aromas will awaken the puppy, which will begin to bark like mad.

It would seem that we are stuck. If we stick a salad into the box, we don’t learn anything, as from the outside we can’t tell the difference between a sleeping puppy and no puppy at all. If we stick a steak into the box, we will definitely learn whether there is a puppy in there, but only because it will wake up and start barking if it’s there, and that would break our over-sensitive hearts. Puppies need their sleep, after all.

Fortunately, we are not only very considerate, we are also excellent experimental physicists with a keen grasp of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, according to the conventional interpretations that are good enough for our purposes here, says three crucial and amazing things…

More here.  [Photo shows Sean Carroll.]

Reality Bites

What is it with these writers who feel the need to make up significant portions of their “true life” stories? Why do they think they’re going to get away with it (they never do), and why does the literary world feign surprise with each new scandal? At least the much-feted youthful phenom J. T. Leroy had the novelty value of not existing at all; Leroy was invented by the California couple who had supposedly adopted him and promoted his story of childhood abuse to celebrities. The beleaguered James Frey presents the more typical case. The Oprah Book Club chose his memoir precisely because of its depiction of the author’s harrowing real life experiences, and therein lies the rub: the success of this kind of book relies on the public’s voracious appetite for horrible and nasty events, but of course they have to have really happened in order to satisfy our voyeurism. We feel disgusted and cheated by the revelation that the author’s life may not have been as wretched and terrifying as he or she had convinced us it was.

So, is the problem that there is simply not enough interesting reality to go around – in economic terms, there’s more demand than supply, essentially forcing writers to invent it simply because it would make a better story than what actually happened? Is reality, at least the “good” kind that will sell, like oil, a kind of precious and finite commodity? Or is that people who actually have nightmarish lives tend not to have the wherewithal, connections, literary skills, or relentless desire for self-promotion required to please our compulsive need to pry into their suffering? (As a friend pointed out, in such cases it’s often true that the writer’s supporters and promoters have an inkling of the fraudulence to be unmasked later on; part of the attraction of any good con job involves a nagging feeling at the back of head that one is being scammed.)

The current trend to consume reality as entertainment or even art – from Survivor, American Idol, and The Swan to the memoir fad in publishing – isn’t actually new. Daniel Defoe basically invented the English novel when he realized that the public’s demand for shipwreck stories was so insatiable that he could just make something up rather than actually go through all the bother of risking his life on a deserted island. The result was Robinson Crusoe. Defoe, intriguingly, claimed that he hated fiction in his Serious Reflections: “This supplying a story by invention is certainly a most scandalous crime…It is a sort of lying that makes a great hole in the heart, at which by degrees a habit of lying enters in.”

Viewing the novel as a form of compulsive lying – the entire story has to be internally coherent and plausible even while every detail is false – is one way to understand why so many memoirs bend the truth. A lot of memoirists are novelists, and novelists lie for a living. William Faulkner, for example, wore a phony uniform and claimed throughout his life that he served as an airman in WWI; he did learn to fly, and his fiction about flying, in Pylon and his WWII short story “Turnabout,” is masterful. The word “fiction” comes from a root meaning “to fashion something.” It’s the magic mechanism of fabrication, the urge to create what Shakespeare, in The Tempest, called “the baseless fabric of this vision.”

Should we care whether it’s made up or not? Clearly, there are some cases where a line is crossed, like The Painted Bird, whose author, Jerzy Kosinski, pretended to have experienced the horrors of WWII up close. (Kosinski’s suicide is often linked to the reputation-destroying revelation that the story was made up.) But most memoirists’ sins are minor: exaggerations, additions, tall tales, and the like. Of course, anybody who puts dialogue of any kind into a memoir is essentially writing fiction. Unless they possess a preternatural memory, they have no choice but to invent what people said. Perhaps there are hidden rules to this sort of thing: everyone understands that it’s possible that not every hilarious comment recorded in a David Sedaris story was actually said, word for word, but nobody would (or should) conclude that Sedaris is trying to trick anyone. The standard, then, is somewhat murky in a similar fashion to the problem of plagiarism, which, it is generally agreed, must be intentional in order to be a serious academic offense. Similarly, it is not enough to misremember the name of the hospital where you were born, you have to be caught making up lies about how you were born with a hole in your lung and how it shaped your later character, by a blogger who looks up your medical records.

Hollywood has taken the lead in parsing the finer distinctions of the reality-based fiction. In addition to the old standby Based Upon a True Story, we now have the brilliant formulation Based On True Events, or the even more interesting Inspired by True Events. These terms have become increasingly all-encompassing. Presumably, if somebody is on their way to get coffee and they witness a mugging, and later turn the incident into a screenplay, that could be “based on true events,” whereas if they only read about the mugging in a newspaper while sitting in the coffeeshop and did the same thing, they have been “inspired by true events.” But these phrases aren’t just so vague as to be meaningless, or studio legalese. They are also statements implicitly acknowledging that a story is far more salable if it can be shown to have some connection, however tenuous, with something that once really happened. The horror movie bomb White Noise, for example, was promoted with a frightening commercial – far more scary than the movie itself – in which (supposedly real) recordings of the voices of dead people had been caught on tape speaking from beyond the grave.

In their movie Fargo, the Coen Brothers already mocked this entire concept by claiming that their film was based on a true story when it almost certainly wasn’t. (“Names have been changed out of respect for the dead,” the opening credits read, surely a fitting ironic prelude to the “respectful” wood-chipper scene.) The Coens hemmed and hawed when they were asked to fill in details about their sources, but the deception was deliberate and satirical. It was a sly comment on our entire obsession with reality, as well as a nod to the implausible “true detective” pulp stories invoked and parodied in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Weren’t the Coens really making a subtle case for fiction, and for art, where receding levels of playful irony operate in ways that true stories, limited to the facts, can only dream about?

The process of inserting fiction into reality can have unexpected consequences. Consider the case of Ted Perry, a professor of film at Middlebury College who worked on a television documentary, Home, about enivronmental issues, in 1972. Perry was asked to write a script about the virtues of environmentalism, but the show’s producers thought that Perry’s words would sound better if some of the text was presented as the wisdom of a respected Native American historical figure, Chief Seattle. The show claimed that Chief Seattle had said, “The earth does not belong to man – man belongs to the earth.” Decades later, the saying is still ascribed to Chief Seattle, and appears in school textbooks and bumper stickers. Perry, in a turnabout from the norm, has spent years trying to get the true story out. (The saying is really an inversion of a line of poetry by Robert Frost: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”) In all probability, however, the phrase would have never become famous without the trickery. Chief Seattle was a profound guy with plenty of wisdom, and someone realized, shrewdly, that the quotation was more marketable as a Seattleism than a Perryism.

I think it was Schopenhauer who once said that there are two kinds of books worth reading, the kind that exposes us to an experience we could never have ourselves, and the kind that is artfully written and constructed. The best kind of reality entertainment, such as Norman Mailer’s “true life novel” The Executioner’s Song – or The Armies of the Night, with its slogan “The novel as history, history as a novel” – combines both dimensions. But the truth is that many books achieve their only salability and public interest because they are true; the plain fact is that they are often so badly written that they could not sell as fiction. If your writing is false, then your story had better be true.

Monday Musing: Darfur, Privatized Humanitarian Intervention, and Moral Ambiguity

Darfur32It’s one of the moments in the annual cycle where some of us at 3QD increase our focus on Darfur. Tilting toward the liberal-lefty bleeding heart side of the spectrum, we get incensed by the news, then feel that perhaps we’re being too monomaniacal and strident. Perhaps something by the powers that be suggests that something may be done—Colin Powell calls it a “genocide”, the African Union intervenes, using mostly Rwandan soldiers—lessens the urgency for attention. Then it all goes to pot—the UN puts the Sudan on its Human Rights Commission, really, and the AU decides, of all things, to host this year’s summit in Khartoum of all places and, even worse, considers Sudanese President Omar El Bashir a candidate for chair of the AU. (Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo was elected.)

This has happened a few times now, with the fact that it has happened a few times being the result of the lack of meaningful action by the international community of nation-states. This current rise in our own attention to Darfur resulted from a few disconnected events: a quick back and forth about Darfur in the comments section of a post, a conversation with a friend of a friend at a party about the work she’s been doing to help organize an upcoming call to action on Darfur, and an HRW report that Janjaweed militia are attacking refugee camps in Chad and the Chadian army is no longer protecting many of the camps. The cycle has been iterated often enough that it seems unlikely that anything will be done—suggestions of NATO intervention included.

In the midst of some back and forth in the comments section of the blog, I recalled a questioned posed by Daniel Davies over at Crooked Timber a while ago. Davies was commenting on an editorial about Sir Mark Thatcher’s alleged bankrolling of a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea, which is run by a venal and brutal petty dictator—although no one was under the illusion Sir Thatcher was motivated by a desire to liberate the country.

The serious issue raised by this joke is, if we accept the logic of the “strong version” of humanitarian intervention, then why should we also say that it is only the job of states to carry out such interventions? Since, ex hypothesi, any special position for states is ruled out by the strong pro-war internationalist liberal stance, why shouldn’t groups of private individuals take action? For example, Harry’s Place has five main contributors, each of whom could probably raise about $200,000 if they took out a second mortgage; maybe they should be ringing up Executive Outcomes and getting a few estimates in on smallish African states. Why leave this to the government?

Certainly, mercenaries have been used before. Both Executive Outcomes and Sandline International were used in Sierra Leone against the remarkably thuggish Revolutionary United Front of Foday Sankoh, and they were apparently very effective and relatively cheap. (To make it perfectly clear, I’m not a fan of mercenaries, whom I consider slightly better than international arms dealers, whom I consider, by and large, parasites that feed upon the weakest member of our species.) The UN under Annan considered using Executive Outcomes in Rwanda in the face of the unwillingness of the international community to halt a genocide.

In a footnote the his post, Davies clarifies, “By this [“strong version”] I mean the version pushed in the pro-war blogosphere, under which any intervention that removes a bad regime is by that token good. Not the rather stronger criterion used by Human Rights Watch.” That criterion is fairly straightforward:

In our view, as a threshold matter, humanitarian intervention that occurs without the consent of the relevant government can be justified only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life. To state the obvious, war is dangerous. In theory it can be surgical, but the reality is often highly destructive, with a risk of enormous bloodshed. Only large-scale murder, we believe, can justify the death, destruction, and disorder that so often are inherent in war and its aftermath. Other forms of tyranny are deplorable and worth working intensively to end, but they do not in our view rise to the level that would justify the extraordinary response of military force. Only mass slaughter might permit the deliberate taking of life involved in using military force for humanitarian purposes.

I don’t think that anyone doubts that the criterion has been met in Darfur. HRW of course is calling for UN-approved intervention carried out by the military forces of member-states, not mercenaries. Davies had raised the question of privatized humanitarian intervention to imply that the strong state-led interventions of the sort seem in Iraq are wrong and wrongheaded by appeal to our intuitions that it would be wrong if carried out by a private force, or at least it seemed so by the tone. (If states have no privileged place in sense that sovereignty is inviolable even if they’re committing atrocious crimes, then states don’t necessarily have a privileged place in the sense of a monopoly in using arms to stop these atrocities, though for many reasons we may want to turn to them first.)

Certainly, on the Left, one of the greater and more heroic images is of the international brigades that came to the defense of the Spanish Republic against fascists. (Yes, they were not mercenaries but idealistic volunteers, but that seems a technical difference rather than an ethical one. Idealist NGOs in this hypothetical would be hiring specialists, who I imagine are better at armed conflict than human rights workers.) In fact, if there was a problem in retrospect with the defense of the Republic, it was the involvement of the Soviet Union.

I’m not advocating that we do so here, that is, have private organizations send in mercenaries. Rather, I’m trying to work out an ethical puzzle or quandary. (The internet is supposed to be an effective tool for pooling information, deliberation and collective problem solving. While that dynamic usually works with technical issues with a right answer, it may help with this moral-technical problem of how should we go about assigning weights to the competing moral principles involved.)

I’m aware of the problems associated with NGOs raising money to hire mercenaries to intervene in humanitarian disasters: unlike with states, there is the problem of weak or absent institutions for exercising accountability, and that fact could thereby lead to more chaos; there is no transparency; there is the problem of precedent, in that do I want some alliance of radical anti-abortion forces in the world to raise money and take out a weak government which allows abortion because it believes it to be mass murder; there is the problem that it encourages mercenaries (parasites) by creating a demand for them; there is the fact that it is a crime in most countries to conduct this kind of private foreign policy; that the further privatization of certain services which are collective goods, the provision of which should be subject to democratic debate and monitoring, is the last thing that the world needs; and there are probably many more that don’t come to mind right now.

Against this there is: the fact that Darfur is a catastrophe; that we are witnessing state failure, in the sense that those who are supposed to stop this sort of thing have failed to do so on enough occasions for us to believe that they won’t do so at all, and perhaps in the same way that individuals have a right to organize their own security if states cannot provide reasonable safety, perhaps we have a right to organize collective security when states won’t; that it is reasonable at times to commit a lesser crime to prevent a greater one; and that it would save a lot of lives. (While the figures come from Executive Outcomes and are probably very self-serving, it’s not unlikely that 1,500 EO mercenaries in Rwanda could have saved tens of thousands of lives.) Perhaps even more importantly, that there are instances which act as exceptions, where other principles weigh enough to suspend in that instance countervailing principles, and that by acting in this instance in violation of the lesser principle, we’re not nullifying it altogether. Darfur may be a reasonable candidate for such an instance. But this last part is just the pro side being the pro side.

In all honesty, I don’t know how to weigh these against each other. I go back and forth, and I find that my best moral reasoning doesn’t seem to yield any kind of resolution to it.

Sojourns: Judaism as Style

Matisyahu_216_1I’ve found myself listening to the much-hyped, Hasidic reggae/hip-hop artist Matisyahu the last couple days. Needless to say, that makes me a confirmed bandwagon jumper. The live recording of “King without a Crown” and the accompanying video shot in Austin TX have been getting heavy rotation. His new CD is due next week and already two shows have been sold out at Manhattan’s sizable Hammerstein Ballroom. Writing this column, I merely join the rubes finally noticing a sub-cultural phenomenon as it percolates up to the mainstream.

Let me say at the outset that I am no aficionado of dancehall or reggae. But for what it’s worth, it does seem to me that the rhythms of toasting and the syncopations of Jewish prayer and song go well together (biddi-bum, biddi-diddi-bum, sounds equally appropriate for Marley or Tevya). And I like the easy translations Matisyahu has made from Jah to Hashem while incorporating elements of Torah, the Psalms, and the like. Still, I don’t really know enough about music to do anything other than listen to it, and so I’ll leave the discussion of the songs to those who can write about them with some expertise. What interests me here instead is the phenomenon of Matisyahu himself. At first glance, he has every appearance of a novelty act, an amusing suturing of Lubovitcher Judaism with West-Indian dancehall. Use whatever metaphor you would like. He’s a jerk pastrami sandwich, Vanilla Ice made from Manishevitz. Except that he’s not. Read over his fawning press, and you’ll see that he’s survived the inevitable skepticism. Indeed, the verdict has come in on the opposite side. Matisyahu is an authentic fusion of two distinct musical, ethnic, and religious cultures: Jewish and West Indian, matzo and roti. He’s a one man, cross-pollinated product of Crown-Heights Brooklyn.

OK, so in other words, one myth has taken the place of another. We are to imagine a yeshiva boy who cut class to run across Flatbush Avenue and spend afternoons spinning and toasting with the boys from the Islands. But that isn’t exactly right either. As is usually the case, the truth is more complicated and more interesting. Matisyahu was born Matthew Miller to a middle-class secular family in West Chester Pennsylvania. Late in his teens, he found God and decided to become Orthodox while staring deeply at the mountains during a camping trip in Colorado. He subsequently enrolled in a Hasidic yeshiva designed especially for converts to Orthodoxy. The young Matthew Miller seems to have had a wide interest in music, but his interest in the particular religious culture of Jewish Hasidism, with its messianic mysticism, its separatist resistance to modern living, and in the particular, Lubavitch sect he joined, its commitment to the charismatic authority of the late Rabbi Menachem Scheerson, was rather late in coming. It is not right to say that he was Hasidic and then found reggae. Rather, the two seem to have fed off each other in a wholesale reconfiguring of his life.

What is interesting about this, I think, is that the intensely religious and observant Judaism that so marks the persona of Matisyahu was something that he chose, not something he was born into. The beard and the side curls, the long black coats and felt hats, the tsitsis and the like, are self-conscious stylings. They are a Hasidic aesthetic, or Hastheatic, if you will. I do not mean to disparage at all the sincerity of Matisyahu’s beliefs. His commitment to the messianic religiosity of Lubovitcher Hasidism is evident in his lyrics and in his life. Even so, the religious persona is clearly as much a question of style as it is of belief. The more so, I would imagine, for his audience. There is something intrinsically appealing about seeing a Hasid perform his kind of music and perform it well. Matisyahu’s Judaism is interesting because it is so visible and marked, so much like the inner city of a mythical old-world. When it is fused with the musical style of his West-Indian neighbors, it is clearly updated to our polyglot and hybrid moment.

Matisyahu’s sudden popularity is owing in part to the role he has taken within a larger resurgence of hipster Judaism in popular culture, a fascination with Yiddishkeit and klezmer and Bar-Mitzvah-Disco and the like.  As it has long been, Judaism is here a sign of urbanity, of knowingness, and of cosmopolitanism. But in this case the urbanity and knowingness and cosmopolitanism dwell in the musical hybridity: the nexus of Hasidism, reggae, and hip-hop as distinct urban forms. Thus I suspect that few of Matisyahu’s listeners are drawn to the religious content of his music, important as that content may be to him. Whether they know it or not, they are drawn to the familiar unity of Judaism and modernity, the ineffably current and relevant something that resonates in the sound of the Yiddish or the Hebrew, the look of the side curls and the tsitsis, when they are combined and overlaid with an unexpected kind of music. So, while there is little in Hasidism one can relate to as doctrine, and even less as a way of life, there is something clearly attractive about it as a contemporary style. So much so that the fusion with reggae and dancehall and hip hop seems not so implausible, and not at all kitsch. Given the alternatives, that is not so bad a use for religion.

Talking Pints: The Bode Miller Problem and Hamas

In my last column I noted how Political Science, along with most social sciences, has a bigger problem with prediction than seems to be generally acknowledged. This is of course hardly unique to members of this particular tribe; the media are even worse. Take for example the US media’s treatment of Bode Miller in the Winter Olympics. For those of you who have been living in a cave for the past month, Miller was the ‘sure thing’ for the US ski team. After all, he had his own set of sponsored ads, videos, and an interactive website from Nike. Miller was competing in five events and was, according to the US media, the front runner to lift possibly all five gold medals. Quite why this was the case was a mystery to me. Sure, he’s a damn good skier, but if you looked at his world cup results you would see that he was hardly head-and-shoulders above the competition, and in particular events he was well below the top rank.

Bode_millerNow, consider that each event Miller participated in at the Olympics was hardly an independent event due to the psychological impact of each result on the next, and that he is fully entitled (like the rest of us) to have a bad day at the office. Well, he did. He missed in all five events. Needless to say the media are now picking his corpse clean for defying their predictions. As the New York Times put it after his first ‘failure’ – “He is paying the price for misplacing career priorities.” Quite how the writer of this piece knows exactly where Miller left his priorities is unclear. The fact that he did not win is insufficient evidence, and you can bet your last dollar that had he won his next event such concerns would have been completely erased. Moreover, the last time anyone won five gold medals at a Winter Olympics was Eric Heiden in 1980 for speed skating. As far as I am aware, no one has ever won five medals in an Alpine event. Why Miller didn’t win could be a surprise only if one was deliberately ignoring much relevant information. Indeed, taking a select few data points and projecting them forward as an inevitability almost always produces disappointing results.

Two things stand out for me from this nonsense. First, why is anyone surprised that Miller did not win any gold medals, let alone five, when no one has ever done so? Second, and more interestingly for the non-skiers out there, why do people have a tendency to take two or three data points and project them into the future as an inevitable trend? Beyond the hype associated with US contenders, and the sheer myopia of the US media to the possibility of ‘foreigners’ actually beating the home-grown talent, such a tendency has consequences far beyond the Winter Olympics.

Consider Condoleezza Rice and Hamas’ electoral victory. The Secretary of State noted after Hamas’ victory at the polls that “I don’t know anyone who wasn’t caught off guard by Hamas’s strong showing.” In fact, me, my wife, my cat, and The Economist Newspaper all knew this was coming down the track. Why then didn’t the Secretary of State, with all the resources at her disposal, not have an inkling that such a thing was going on? Perhaps what might be called ‘the Bode Miller problem’ was at work here too?

Consider that on issues as disparate as the invasion of Iraq, Social Security privatization, and energy policy, the Bush administration has never been one to let mere facts get in the way of a good ideology. Disconfirming evidence is screened out and only confirming evidence is admitted. A few supporting data points are projected as a trend while everything else is ignored.

Hamas_1In the case of the election of Hamas, while Fatah had recently done what the US has wanted in terms of halting suicide attacks, holding elections, and playing nice with Israel (all of which was acknowledged (trended) by the US), what Israel had done to Fatah over the past few years, in particular, bombing the PLO’s governing infrastructure into the ground thus cutting off their all important patronage network, was, like the totality of Miller’s results, totally ignored. The trend-line predicting Fatah’s victory was projected forward since only confirmatory data were being examined, and everything that didn’t fit the trend was ignored. Consequently, when a Palestinian voter said at an exit poll “Fatah hasn’t done anything for us,” this seemed to come as surprise; despite it being manifestly obvious to anyone who wanted to look at the totality of the data. Simply ignoring data because it does not fit with a preconceived model can be justified if the data is randomly distributed and constitutes clear ‘outliers’ from the observed trend. But to ignore a clear trend in the data and simply focus on what you want to see is pretty much guaranteed to end up producing a nasty surprise, pace Hamas.

Now this tendency to see trends, ignore data, and pointlessly project into the future is not only sadly common among the media and the political classes, (remember the US government not so long ago predicting budget surpluses into infinity on the basis of three data points?) it has determinate effects on likely future outcomes. When Hamas won the election the reaction of the US, Israel, and even the normally placid Europeans, was swift and condemnatory, and who could be surprised by this? After all, the Hamas Charter of 1988 does call for the destruction of Israel and cites The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the current “Nazi-Tartar” invasion by the West as reason enough. Indeed, there are undeniably a lot of data points out there pointing to actions by Hamas consistent with that interpretation and those ends. But even here there may be a ‘Bode Miller problem’ at work in that even here the past may prove no real guide to the future.

Consider that until into the 1990s the main body of the Irish Republican Army believed and proclaimed (quite seriously) that the UK government was holding the six counties of the North hostage as part of a colonial struggle, despite the exercise costing the rest of the UK millions of pounds each month with nothing in return except mainland bombings and death. Indeed, some breakaway Republican groups still adhere to the same beliefs. Yet, in order to believe such things one has to filter out massive amounts of data and project the few points that fit the preferred theory into the eternal and unchanging future. But when is the future ever eternal and unchanging? I am sure that much of Hamas is quite capable of continuing to believe in the forgery of the Protocols and act violently towards Israel, but let’s remember that one could have made the same projections about the IRA a decade ago, and yet they changed fundamentally, and quite unexpectedly.

Filtering the data to see only one trend negates potential futures. Seeing Hamas as a trend that cannot be stopped inevitably leads one to conclude that isolation and punishment is the only way forward. But Hamas has only ever known isolation and punishment. As such, proposals to cut-off aid in order to encourage capitulation is to fundamentally misread the data. True, there has been no IRA-like change yet, but to address the situation as an inevitable conflict preordained in the data will surely bring about such a conflict since we are blind to other possibilities.

So is expecting Bode Miller to win five gold medals the same as expecting Hamas to never change? Yes, but with one difference. Whereas Miller ‘failed’ on his own terms given the competition and the randomness of the day (after all, he might win six world cup races in a row in 2007), Hamas may only really ‘fail’ in the eyes of the Palestinians if the West and Israel are seen to make them fail. Key to the West and Israel doing this is to pick the data points they want to see (Hamas as unchanging and violent due to the trend line of the data) and project it forward.

Now, I freely admit that I know more about skiing than I know about the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics, but it does seem to me that, as the millions of people who read their astrology every day attest, humans like patterns and can see them in almost anything. Add to this ‘the Bode Miller problem’ that we can ignore much of importance in order to see much of irrelevance since it reinforces the patterns that we want to see, and perhaps it is better to let Hamas run the schools’ budget rather than deprive them of it. After all, something new in the data might be the start of a new trend, both for Bode Miller and Hamas.

Old Bev: Letter to Dalton Conley

Dear Dr. Conley,

Dalton_3You won’t remember me. I took your “Introduction to Sociology” lecture in the Fall of 2001 at New York University; I received a B+ in the course and we never spoke. I liked your class because it was full of good conversation starters and softball assignments and my only complaint was that I was required to buy your 1999 title “Being Black, Living in the Red” (we discussed it for only half of one session and the connection was shaky). I thought of you again when a glamour-shot of you appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine. I experienced a brief thrill. But I can’t say I would have spent much more energy on you had it not been for your New York Times op-ed that appeared on December 1 of last year, “A Man’s Right to Choose.”

By now a rebuttal of your argument is old hat – it’s been four months – but gosh, I was riled up. A few days after I read your statement that “If a father is willing to legally commit to raising a child with no help from the mother he should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create,” I sat in Blue 9 Burger with my boyfriend and struggled, between bites, to articulate a scathing letter to the Times that would use remembered principles from Intro to Soc. to dismember your argument. My basic strategy was to remind you of one Tuesday morning when you asked your class to “Think about bathroom lines. The women’s line is always longer. Why?” By this point, my ears had perked up (conversation starter!). “They do more in there,” you continued. “They have to sit down, they have to use sanitary products, they change babies more than the men do. But the bathrooms are the same size as the men’s, and so the lines are longer.” I was convinced: for all members of society to receive equal treatment, their inequalities must be addressed. The women should have more stalls than the men, so everybody can pee and buy popcorn at intermission. So when I reached the portion of “A Man’s Right to Choose” when you described the “real work” of pregnancy as “morning sickness, leg cramps, biological risks and so on,” and used that reduction to argue that a male lifetime commitment to his child should render that nine-month female commitment fairly irrelevant, I was baffled. It seemed to me that pregnancy alone (forget the kid!) could and often does threaten a woman’s job, support system, and health. Her boss doesn’t care, her family sure does, and not in a good way, and her diabetes can’t handle it. Those problems aren’t solved with soda crackers and a back rub, Dr. Conley. What you glibly called “biological risks and so on” is a exclusively female set of predicaments, and should inform women’s rights accordingly.

Opedpic_1I didn’t write that letter, and I didn’t need to. Critics much more intelligent and eloquent than I, namely Longview Fellow Carole Joffe, took you up on your challenge to examine “men’s claims to a role in the reproductive decision-making process” outside of marriage. In her open letter to you, she primarily focuses on the practical (or rather, impractical) implications of your proposal, finding that it “would create havoc in this already over-regulated and unnecessarily chaotic branch of the health care system.” Joffe points to surrogate mothering as an example of what happens when a pregnancy involves two contractually bound parties, and she asks how your proposal would accommodate these documented problems: “What happens when prenatal diagnosis in such a pregnancy reveals severe fetal anomalies? Does the father now have the right to change his mind about wanting the child that will result from this pregnancy? Even if he does relent and free the woman to choose an abortion, he is subjecting her to a later, more complex and considerably more expensive procedure. And will the father also have the right to monitor the pregnant woman’s behavior during her pregnancy? Will he obtain further court orders to forbid drug and alcohol use? If the pregnancy becomes “high risk,” will he ask a court to mandate bed rest, and to forbid sexual intercourse with others during the pregnancy?” I must say that though I was compelled by the anecdotes you shared about your ex-girlfriend’s abortion (against your wishes) and your friend’s ex-fiancee’s pregnancy (against his wishes), I found Joffe’s scenarios of more urgent concern. If you haven’t yet read her letter, I strongly urge you to do so – she also includes information about the “considerable efforts to involve men in the abortion process in appropriate ways.”

I’m imagining you. You’ve just read Joffe’s letter. You’re happy she paid you such attention, and you think she makes some great points. Mostly though, you’re frustrated. She took you too seriously. I don’t think you were actually trying to argue for a society that would subject women to such treatment, I think you were trying to urge your readers to think for a few moments about the incongruity of child support and abortion laws in this country. You’re a pro-choice guy with personal experience with abortion, and all you want to do is have a conversation. “I can accept that it is ‘your’ body but will someone please then just engage the argument that fatherhood should then be voluntary?” you beg of those who responded online to your Huffington Post piece, “Why My ‘Man’s Right to Choose’ Abortion Argument is Made from a Feminist Perspective.” You’ve used the site to admit you oversimplified in your piece, and to clarify your argument, and to say you shouldn’t have written that bit about how a committed dad “should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create.” You’re aching for a real dialogue about fathers and mothers and pregnant women and men who impregnate them, and everyone’s focusing on that pesky question: But how would it work?

Bcpills_2I’m interested in that dialogue too, and your initial question crossed my mind again today. “…[W]hen men and women engage in sexual relations both parties recognize the potential for creating life,” you wrote in December. “If both parties willingly participate then shouldn’t both have a say in whether to keep a baby that results?” And I wondered why, Dr. Conley, you chose to focus your energy solely on reproductive rights after conception. Unmanageable, Impractical, Outrageous! we scream when you imply coerced pregnancies and abortions. But what about contraception? Manageable, Practical, Sound. I don’t think both parties should have a legal say in whether to terminate a pregancy that results from consensual sex, but I do think both parties should be able to negotiate the potential for creating life on equal terms. And right now, male options – condoms, abstinence, withdrawal, vasectomy – just pale in comparison to the scads available to women. I’ve got abstinence, diaphragms, the sponge, spermicide, the female condom, an I.U.D., Plan-B, tubal ligation. And more significantly, I’ve got the pill, the patch, the shot, the ring, and sometime soon, a spray. If men and women conceive as equal partners, I wonder why you’re not upset about the gross inequality of contraceptive options for men and women, and why you aren’t taking notice of the trial study of a male birth-control ‘pill’ conducted by the pharmaceutical companies Organon and Schering AG that was set to finish the same month that your op-ed appeared in the Times.

Male_pillContinuous and reversible male contraception isn’t a new idea. In 2003, Duke University Press published Nelly Oudshoorn’s “The Male Pill: A Biography of a Technology in the Making.” In it, Oudshoorn states that the viability of such contraceptives was firmly established as early as the 1970s, and argues that the reason you don’t have a prescription for a male birth control pill is more of a cultural, political, and economic story than a scientific one. Excess testosterone, administered orally, as an implant, or injection, lowers sperm count dramatically. Recent research indicates that when combined with progesterone, the hormones can effectively disable sperm production – and clinical trials of the testosterone-progesterone combination are now under way in Europe and Canada. Alternatively, some researchers posit that rendering sperm unable to reach an egg would do the trick; a study at the University of Washington found that monkeys became infertile when immunized against eppin, a protein found on the outside of sperm that’s necessary for fertilization. Both Planned Parenthood and HowStuffWorks.com have informative and readable articles that support Oudshoorn’s contention that the barriers facing male contraception aren’t technological. Rather, she cites lack of funding, unwillingness of research participants, and larger cultural representations of masculinity that don’t have room for pharmaceuticals that cause male infertility (consider for a moment the ubiquity of Viagra and the total absence of male birth control) as the major obstructions. Nevertheless, Oudshoorn concludes that the advent of male contraceptives is inevitable – as is a reevaluation of gender roles and responsibility.

I think she’s right, and I think you’ll be able to have an equal voice in the bedroom before the clinic and the courts. I think you should focus your attention less on your partner’s body, and more on your own. “A Man’s Right to Choose” rests on the assumption that your sperm is a unavoidable surrender, and that years of child support payment depend on a sea of factors out of your control. Did the condom break? Did we conceive? Is she going to have this kid? If you could use a safe, reliable, affordable, and reversible medication that would allow you to decide whether you were capable of creating life – as women have for years – I doubt you would feel as victimized in this debate. Obviously male birth control couldn’t necessarily prevent situations like yours or your friend’s, but a man should have the right to choose what he’s offering his partner. I think we agree that the ideal number of abortions is zero – and providing men with a way to control their fertility gives them a stake in that number.

Permit me to remind you of the closing words of “A Man’s Right to Choose.” You wrote: “Better to deal with the metaphorical dirty diapers than to pursue an inconsistent policy toward fatherhood and an abortion debate that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of all actors involved. Otherwise, don’t expect anything more of me than a few million sperm.” I’d like you to expect more of yourself, Dr. Conley. I’d like you to consider practically where your agency, both as a prominent scholar with many press contacts and as a male sexual partner, is most valuable and viable. It’s not in the message boards of the Huffington Post, or in court orders. It’s back where you started, in the pages of the New York Times and in the bedroom.

Best Wishes,

Jane Renaud