Dignity, Empathy, and the Iraq War

So Digby’s reading these Iraq War mea culpas — and thank god for that because I tried before quickly determining I can’t stands no more:

David Ignatius wrote his Iraq mea culpa today and it’s a good one. He admits that Iraq was an epic strategic blunder and that he was wrong to have been such an enthusiastic cheerleader for it. But in chronicling his mistakes, I find this one to be almost shocking coming from a sophisticated man of the world:

Another lesson is the importance of dignity in the Arab world. Most Iraqis despised Saddam because, in addition to torturing their sons and daughters, he had taken their dignity. But many came to loathe America, as well, because for all our talk of democracy, we damaged their sense of honor and independence. As the Arab world proves over and over, from Palestine to Benghazi, people who are penniless in terms of material possessions would rather die than lose their sense of honor to outsiders.

Right. That’s unique to the Arab world. Imagine, if you will, how even a rich country would feel if someone crashed airplanes into their biggest city and killed thousands of their people? I’d expect they would be quite incensed.  It turns out that poor people, just like rich people, don’t care for it when strangers come in and start killing their families and taking everything they have. It doesn’t take a political genius or a psychologist to know that.

On the specific point of ethnicity and openness to being murdered, Digby is unquestionably right. But when it comes to whether or not understanding the universal, awesome power of dignity, I think American discourse has more than enough evidence to show it does take a genius or a psychologist. Either that or our political class is truly stupid.

You can say a lot of bad things about Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton and all the others who to varying degrees got us into Iraq, but with the exception of W himself, you’d have trouble persuading anyone that these are dumb people. (And for the record I don’t think W was dumb by conventional standards.) The answer, then, is not intelligence or the lack thereof.

The bigger problem — and I sincerely think this is the problem for the human race — is insufficient empathy. Empathy and its absence are common throughout humanity. But empathy’s power is, tragically, the weakest where it’s most needed: among the wealthy and powerful. You might recall this study from a little over a year ago, the one about how wealth makes jerky people even jerkier. It’s not the definitive take on the whole human nature thing, but it’s still worth a second skim:

Are society’s most noble actors found within society’s nobility?

That question spurred Paul Piff, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, to explore whether higher social class is linked to higher ideals, he said in a telephone interview.

The answer Piff found after conducting seven different experiments is: no. The pursuit of self-interest is a “fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing,” Piff and his colleagues wrote yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The “upper class,” as defined by the study, were more likely to break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to raise their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work, the research found. The solution, Piff said, is to find a way to increase empathy among wealthier people.

“It’s not that the rich are innately bad, but as you rise in the ranks — whether as a person or a nonhuman primate — you become more self-focused,” Piff said. “You can change that by reminding upper-class people of the needs of others. That may not be their default, but have them do it is sufficient to increase their patterns of altruistic behavior.”

Forgive the snark, but I simply love Piff’s “solution.” All we need to do, y’see, is make all the powerful people good. Oh, that’s all? Yawn. So easy.

Anyway, I think this can explain how a dude like Ignatius (or the countless others, many of whom haven’t even written passive-aggressive faux mea culpas) can sincerely find it surprising that the globe’s great unwashed care just as much about their own humanity and dignity as Westerners do. You’d wish that a guy who travels as much as Ignatius would be more attuned to noticing the universal nature of so many human traits — but he’s not only a guy who travels a lot. He’s also the most influential foreign policy writer at one of the most influential newspapers in the most influential nation on Earth.

You could spend 3 weeks with taxi drivers in Timbuktu and still not be able to shake off all that intellectual baggage.

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156 thoughts on “Dignity, Empathy, and the Iraq War

  1. You know, I’ve actually changed my thinking on this recently.

    I think the conventional liberal media portrayal of W as a big thoughtless dumb-dumb is exactly wrong: Iraq was a war of theory. The neocon paradigm led us into Iraq precisely because it was so thoughtful – to the point of being disconnected from reality.

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  2. Curiously, the opening bars of that war did feature much rejoicing among the Iraqis. They truly thought they would be liberated. In the south of Iraq, the Marsh Arabs were ecstatic. And they do love us, the Marsh Arabs. They’ve now got their marshes back.

    And the Kurds love us, too. There’s no more pro-Bush43 contingent alive than the Iraqi Kurds. There’s talk about putting up a statue to Bush43. I don’t know what’s come of it, but this much is a fact: the Kurds love the Americans. While David Petraeus smiled and strutted, the Kurds promptly drove Saddam’s favoured few off the lands Saddam had stolen from them over the years. Saddam, let us not forget, had gassed the Kurds.

    There are others who love us too. The Turks think the Iraq War was just great: they got most of the rebuilding contracts.

    But none love America more, for all our much-snarling and whining at each other, than Iran. Yes, Iran. We gave them the most precious gift imaginable, their own holy cities. Now southern Iraq is awash in Persian tourists, come to an-Najaf and Karbala to worship at the Tomb of Ali. We think of Iran as Shiite and so it is — now. But Shiism did not arise in Iran. It comes from Iraq.

    When the US Army was moving up the Euphrates and Saddam’s troops began to withdraw from the eastern side, back into Baghdad, reports began to come in from the scouts on the eastern shore, of thousands of people crossing over from Iran. Alarmed, many eyes turned to the east. Was it Iran, stepping into the ring, to cause trouble? No. It turned out to be ordinary devout Shiites, coming towards Karbala. Saddam had long forbidden them to cross his borders. The US military was prepared for many thousands of refugees created by a conflict which largely didn’t happen: the big fights would come later. So it put up tent cities for these pilgrims, complete with millions of water bottles and food and suchlike, along the way, for much of that stretch of ground is desertified.

    These Iranian pilgrims came back, singing the praises of the Americans. They were all quickly hushed up. But they continued to come, tens of thousands of them. They are still coming.

    This is in no way to justify the Iraq War. I warned everyone I knew — this will only start a war between Sunni and Shiites.

    For ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly. But [Pandora] took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men.

    Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds. But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils and the sea is full. Of themselves diseases come upon men continually by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently; for wise Zeus took away speech from them.

    So is there no way to escape the will of Zeus.

    The war happened. Thousands of Americans and Iraqis lie dead, many more thousands wounded, many minds damaged. Two trillion dollars wasted. If Iraq has become an evil place, if women are less-free, if bombs are still exploding, there is no un-ringing the bell. Iraq must now solve its own problems. We have done enough damage.

    If the worst of evils arises from the best of intentions, not everything we did was evil. Saddam could not have always suppressed the civil war we only exposed. His repression had only allowed it to become rotten, anoxic. Should we have left the jar closed forever, allowed Saddam’s ghastly sons to come to power?

    In Hesiod’s myth, men lived on earth remote and free from ills. If Hope remains within the jar, perhaps we ought to look around in there and fish the shy thing out, show her some sunlight. Unlike the rest of the evils Zeus silenced, Hope hasn’t yet been silenced. Hope still remains within the jar: there is no evil beyond redemption. We must have Hope. Despair is not an option, not any more.

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    • The Iranians have another reason to be grateful to us. By toppling Sadam, we altered the balance of power in the region decisively in their favor. Saddam’s Iraq was a counterweight to Iranian power; now they’re free to dominate the region.

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      • I don’t believe Iran wants to dominate the entire region: they couldn’t if they wanted to. We must distinguish between Iran’s Shiite theocracy and the Persian people. Let me attempt to lay this out, might be a longish comment.

        The Persians and the Arabs have been at each others’ throats forever, long before Islam came around. Let me make an extended analogy here. Imagine that Jesus Christ, instead of being crucified by the Romans, waged an amazingly successful war against the Romans. His disciples are there, they fight alongside him. Jesus gets married, to several women and has children. Then he dies, very early on.

        Who gets to run the Jesus Empire? His children or the disciples? There’s a war between them. Jesus’ grandson is murdered and becomes a martyr for the Children Side of this fight, though the Disciple Side still holds him in reverence. This grandson is Ali and his tomb is in Najaf, Iraq. It is in Najaf where the Sunni and Shi’a are seen together, about the only place, too, except in Mecca, where the Shi’a have caused trouble.

        The Children Side become the Shi’a, to the east of Najaf. The Disciple Side become the Sunni, to the west. Like the Catholics, the Children Side have something akin to popes, a strict hierarchy of allegiance to doctrine. And like the Protestants, the Sunni divide into many denominations.

        As vicious as the fights between Catholics and Protestants have been, they do not hold a candle to the Sunni/Shi’a fights. Baghdad, once the greatest city of the Middle East, has been sacked and burned at least four times by the Persians. The Shi’a are viewed as backward, poor — but mostly they are associated with the hated Persians. The Shi’a are widely hated for they also fight among each other.

        The Shi’a clerics of Iran are currently in control. This may not last much longer. But whatever the outcome, there will be no peace between Persians and Arabs, ever.

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    • “If the worst of evils arises from the best of intentions, not everything we did was evil. Saddam could not have always suppressed the civil war we only exposed. His repression had only allowed it to become rotten, anoxic. Should we have left the jar closed forever, allowed Saddam’s ghastly sons to come to power? ”

      You know, the Autobahns are great. I’d drive down them, when I was there in the Army (at 25 miles/hr, in convoy, really, really honking off the Germans).

      And frankly the EU, all things considered, is great.

      The process of getting there sorta sucked.

      Now, this does tie into the empathy theme of this post – BlaiseP, do you have the same attitude towards the 9/11 hijackers and Al Qaida? I’m sure that at least *some* people in the USA benefited (Bush, Cheney, et al definitely did).

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      • Do you really want my take on the 9/11 hijackers or is this just pulling my chain?

        Many years ago, when Egypt was run by a fat, corrupt slob named King Farouk, it was a plaything for the West. There was a fascinating writer in that mix, Sayyid Qutb, an intellectual who saw the problem for what it was: Egypt and the rest of the Muslim world had no faith in itself. He looked back in time, to when the Muslim world was strong, when it still tolerated dissent, when its universities were the best in the world, when it was a culture of science and literature. He wrote a book, Ma’alim fi al-Tariq, landmarks along the road, milestones, if you will.

        Sayyid Qutb changed everything. He was the Tom Paine of the Muslim world. For his trouble, he was eventually imprisoned and hanged. But his enemies had only created a martyr. Qutb had become a martyr, rather against his will. He had only asked for Muslims to quit aping the West and be true to their own heritage, an entirely reasonable request. It is a fascinating book. In many ways, Qutb’s message struck home. Its influence is still growing: we see it in the Arab Spring. But in the days of Qutb, the Islamists were persecuted, run to ground, treated like shit. This only made things worse. The Islamists lashed out, setting in motion all that would follow.

        Farouk was ousted and the Era of the Strong Man began, of Nasser and the Ba’athists. The Strong Men were secularists and they had no more use for Qutb than Farouk. May I add in passing, the Ba’athists began with the writings of a Syrian Christian, Michel Aflaq. The Ba’athists began well enough, preaching a similar message: we are all Arabs. Qutb had said: we are all Muslims. That wasn’t really true, but for our purposes, it was a call for Arab unity where Qutb had called for Muslim unity.

        Among those who read Qutb was an Egyptian surgeon from a prominent family of scholars and physicians. His name was Ayman al-Zawahari. He would go on to influence Osama bin Laden. Though we have killed Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahari is still alive and kicking and the West has not yet gainsaid Qutb’s claims and goals. The harder we strike at his followers, the more we confirm our own guilt in their minds.

        The Islamists had begun well enough, as all these movements do at their inception, peace ‘n brotherly love, much high-minded talk and Kumbaya Talk. Neither the Arab royalty or the Arab Strong Men had any use for such talk: they jailed and executed the Islamists with a vengeance.

        Osama bin Laden saw the world through the lenses of Qutb and his mentor, al-Zawahiri. And it is true, almost everything Qutb said is still true. We are still propping up the vicious Saudi monarchy, we went in to save the Emir of Kuwait. We have been cuddling up to dictators and tyrants and refuse to see our role in their continued oppression of political reforms in the Muslim world.

        Reserve your questions about al-Qaeda’s motivations until you have read Qutb’s complaints. If Americans understood the scope and magnitude of our connivance in the oppression of Muslims — not by us, mind you! — we think we’re the good guys! — but in our support for monsters like Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam Hussein (until he no longer served our purposes), the coup in Iran, installing the Shah, our uncritical support of Israel’s petty tyrannies and land thefts, our stupidity in Iraq and Afghanistan and damned near everywhere else — we would be sickened and appalled.

        That isn’t the American Way. We did deals with the devils we knew, knowing they were devils.

        We are not the bad guys. I am not going to condemn America. Americans really do want to help the rise of democracy in the world. For sixty, seventy years, though, we’ve been proving the exact opposite. If we’re going to beat maniacs like al-Qaeda, we’re going to have to read Qutb and answer those questions. Qutb is not going away. Martyrs can only die once. We can smash down al-Qaeda but we will never, ever, be able to deny what Qutb wrote. And that’s a war we’d better win, folks. And from what I’ve seen over all these years, we’re losing it, big time. Shock ‘n Awe hasn’t changed anyone’s mind.

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        • Look, I know we’ve fought a lot lately, and I’ve been trying not to say anything, just to maintain a polite distance between us.

          But to both this comment and the first one you wrote, I want to say a whole hearted bravo. +1 just ain’t even enough.

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        • “Do you really want my take on the 9/11 hijackers or is this just pulling my chain?”

          Just trying to help you see that people standing in the sh*t might not agree with you.

          “We are not the bad guys.”

          The big problem here is that you seem to think that you can say things, and that people will ignore your actions.

          “America. Americans really do want to help the rise of democracy in the world. For sixty, seventy years, though, we’ve been proving the exact opposite. ”

          It’s been rather mixed. We’ve also worked really, really hard to unseat democracies and install tyrants whenever somebody in the bowels of DC or NYC decides to. In places like Iraq and Iran, among others.

          This is the empathy thing.

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          • That’s just self-serving, self-pitying crap [not you, of course, gimme a few sentences here] If we are to fight and win, and we must fight and we must win — we will not do so with with our usual “Oh, the guys standing in the shit don’t think so.” Almost without exception, not one swinging dick standing in that shit is attached to a soldier who speaks either Arabic or Farsi or Pashtun. And even fewer of them have any goddamn idea what their enemies believe. The very idea, that we can send troops into these shitholes with no intelligence on the enemy and no clue how to not make enemies and win this war — well it’s just bullshit. From top to bottom.

            Every one of those soldiers should have been given a copy of Milestones, on 9/12/2001. Just so they would understand who they were fighting and why they were fighting.

            It has not been a mixed message we are sending. It has been one of a Big Powerful Country dropping 65,000 dollar weapons to kill a single man. We have so completely fucked up these wars, we have made so many millions of enemies in the way we’ve fought these wars, if America had any idea of just how ruinously stupid these wars are and how completely we have played into the hands of our enemies, they would march on Washington and there would be generals and politicians hanging from light posts.

            We’re so stupid as a nation, we don’t even realise any of this. We’d better goddamn well start fighting this war, seriously, the way it ought to be fought. I have no empathy for these terrorist bastards but I understand the reasons they give. And not all of them are wrong, not that America will ever man up and admit we’ve been bagmen, carrying water for a collection of tyrants and bullshit artistes. We have learned nothing, worse, we refuse to learn. And as long as folks go on with this Folksy Dumbassery about how the guys in the shit don’t agree with what Qutb has to say, it will only get worse.

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  3. One day a rich man visited a rabbi. The rabbi took the rich man to a window. “Look out there,” he said. “What do you see?” The rich man answered, “I see men, women and children.” Then the rabbi took the rich man by the hand and led him to a mirror. “Now, what do you see?” The rich man answered, “I see myself.” The rabbi said, “There is glass in the window and there is glass in the mirror. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver. No sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others but see only yourself.”

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  4. I’d be much more impressed with the people who feel tremendous empathy for the dispossessed if they were capable of feeling even a slight percentage of that empathy towards Jews when we need help. We always get lectured about how we should feel so much empathy because of our horrible history but when bad things happen to us and we need help than we get abandoned. Its worse when our persecutors are not white, than people actively find excuses for them.

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      • The fact that people like Digby continually ignore or find justifications for the vast amounts of Jew-hatred in the Muslims world from the end of WWII to the present among other things. I can go on a truly long rant about this but I think that a lot of people who are otherwise very good at identifying hatred and racism are horrible when it comes to Jew-hatred.

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        • Bunk.

          If, instead of Ashkenazim, another bunch of Europeans had showed up in the Middle East, declared the intent of setting up a state dominated by themselves on part of that area, actually set up that state, driven the original inhabitants off their land, and created laws in which immigration and residence rights were based on ethnicity, I’m pretty sure the Arabs would have hated them just as much.

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            • The meaning I was intending was “the people who were living in the land at the time, and who had been doing so for many generations”.

              An ethnicity can’t hold property rights over a land on the basis of “we had it 2000 years ago, and now we want to go back”. Think of what that would do to borders if we tried it places other than Israel. Does Iran get to own everywhere that Persia ruled? Does Italy get the territories of the Roman Empire?

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          • And what would should the Jews have done? Stay in Europe and be slaughtered by the Far Right and Far Left? Go to the Americas when the United States, Canada, and other countries were putting up immigration quotas at the worst possible time? You aren’t exactly providing us with viable alternatives. Or maybe you think that Jews alone of the persecuted groups should just take their beatings and be quiety about it.

            Furthermore, if you think that the Jews of the Middle East would have been incorporated into the polities of the Middle East if Israel did not exist than you are a moron. Its not like the other minorities of the Middle East are being successfully incorporated into the various states. The Jews would have been just one more minority for the majority to persecute and the Juan Coles of the world would ignore it.

            Also, if the reaction if the Arabs really only hated Zionism and not the Jews per se than why did they go off the deep end into the deepest conspiratoral forms of anti-Semitism? Article after article, book after book, lesson after lesson, and sermon afte sermon shows deep hatred of Jews in Muslim-majority countries. Do you think that they might be serious? Its not like they are exactly shy about it.

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            • Or maybe you think that Jews alone of the persecuted groups should just take their beatings and be quiety about it.

              Lee, I think it’s safe to say Katherine could not possibly think this. I understand that this is clearly a subject that’s of exceptional importance to you, but I think we can have a more productive discussion if we don’t assume the worst about each other.

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            • I’m not quite sure the Zionists were thinking logically at the end of WWII when they made the big exodus to the Middle East. If I were a European anti-Semite, I could think of no better thing than shipping Jews out of Europe and into a land where all their neighbours hated them.

              Had it been up to me, I’d have asked for Austria, and deported the Austrians.

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                • If I understand correctly, one of the early Zionist proposals (around the turn of the last century) was a Jewish state in Argentina or thereabouts. I think an interesting alternative history project would be to explore what sorts of conflicts this would have produced.

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                  • There were various different proposals for where to build a Jewish state. This including setting up some farm colonies in Argentina by the JCA, the Jewish Colonization Association but most Jewish immigrants to Argentina settled in Buenos Aires. The British proposed giving the Zionist Movement part of Uganda for settlement in 1904 but this ended up being a fiasco because nobody wanted it.

                    Eretz Israel was always the primary focus of the Jewish National Movement because it was the most logical place. It had more emotional pull than any other alternative. It was also the most logical focus for Jewish nationalism since its place where nearly every Jew could relate to.

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                    • I mock Texas relentlessly only because Texans boast about the state relentlessly. They seem absolutely convinced that their state is incomparably better than any other state, and I have had multiple Texans look at me in absolute bewilderment when I told them I didn’t care much for the place and thought there were an awful lot of better places to live in the U.S. When they chill, I’ll chill.

                      To be fair, this is also the reason I mock Frisco (which, of course, is never ever ever “Frisco,” but only San Francisco or, to be truly proper, “the City”).

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                    • I’ve often said, because it’s true, that Texans think Texas is the best place on Earth because they’ve never been anywhere else. As soon as a Texan goes somewhere else, they either realize that Texas isn’t the most wonderful place in the world, or they suffer serious cognitive dissonance.

                      A few years ago, a friend of mine who was born here (actually Dallas) and has lived here all her life, drove from Austin to North Carolina. She stopped in Nashville for a day, and when she got back, she said, “Why are you here?” At first I didn’t understand, but then she started raving about how beautiful Tennessee is, and how amazing the southern food was, and how much fun she had, and how people were so much nicer there. All I could say is, “Duh. I’ve been telling you all of that for years.”

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                    • Chris,

                      Yes, agreed, and I think it’s as much a function of size as anything else. Texas is more than large enough to be a significant independent country, and Texans’ view of themselves and their state really is nationalistic in that sense. But like Americans who travel abroad, an appreciation grows for what you never knew of before.

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                    • I should add, this is why Johanna and I try to do a lot of travel with our kids, even if we can’t afford to do international travel with all of them. They’ve been from D.C. to the West Coast multiple times, and have all been in almost half the states in their young lives. Last summer Johanna took daughter #1 to Europe, and chances are daughter #2 will get to go to Japan about a year from now. And I badger my students relentlessly about studying abroad, because this all ties in to my comment down below, with what I call the “Red Dawn Complex” of American exceptionalism. As political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset said, “Those who know only one country know no country.”

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                    • In all fairness, it is a twelve hour drive from one side of Texas to the other. :) Texas is…sizeable. You can travel farther than most Americans and still be in Texas.

                      Whereas if you started from New York, you’d have travelled a number of states.

                      Then again, while I’m a Texan, I find the boasting quite annoying too. (Although not terribly limited to Texans).

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                    • I love Texas and it fits like an old glove. There are many other places I have seen were people don’t have much care for themselves or the ground beneath them.
                      I don’t get cold anymore. No more chiseling ice off the windshield or busting holes in ponds so critters can drink. Sun is hot and the Pina Coladas are cold. Cactus paradise in its own right. Admittedly it’s not for everyone.

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                    • Texas is the only state I lived in where you could get ice cubes made in the shape of the state*. I suggest we solve the Mideast crisis the same way. Israel shaped cubes. Gaza cubes.

                      * ok, lots of ice cubes look like Colorado, but I assume this is a coincidence and of no cosmic significance.

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            • Turn New York City and Miami into Israel North and South, since that’s what they are, anyway. Or to switch up the idea of the “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” and build Israel in the Yukon.

              Or, maybe put together a conference of interested parties and have them hash it out instead of forcing it on them.

              No there’s no good guys and no bad guys, just a complete and utter mess.

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            • I entirely agree that the nations of Europe and North America were utter assholes in not allowing Jews to immigrate and escape the Nazis, and that those nations therefore bear some responsibility for the current situation in the Middle East due to not providing European Jews with a lot of other options. The British bear more than most for also promising a “homeland” on territory that Britain had no right to bestow.

              But on the other side, there is a very justified feeling among Palestinians that they are being punished for the crimes of Europe. Forcing them to lose their homes and suffer subjugation because people elsewhere acted wrongly is manifestly unjust.

              There were Jews in the Middle East prior to Zionism, and they generally had fairly good relations with the Muslim majority there.

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            • This is an odd tangent to go on, but have you ever read about the various strange pro-Jewish plots considered by the Imperial Japanese authorities from the 1910s all the way till the end of the war? There were plans (and attempts) to create in Manchuria of autonomous Jewish settlements and the Emperor himself sent a favorable statement on Zionism in general in I think 1919?

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        • I’m pretty sure the Jews were the original inhabitants of the land. From cover to cover, there are no Muslims anywhere in the Bible. There were some issues with Philistines, Assyrians, various worshippers of Ba’al, and a host of others, though.

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          • Aren’t the descendants of the original inhabitants the ones who have the best claim to being the original inhabitants?

            If so, the Muslim Arabs who live in that region are the original inhabitants. It’s just that the original inhabitants converted to a different religion, which didn’t make them stop being the original inhabitants.

            Maybe European Jews are also the original inhabitants (though more mixed with white Europeans, apparently).

            But this business about original inhabitants is not relevant to sovereignty over land.

            Are we sovereign over east Africa? We are the original inhabitants?

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            • It’s actually more complex than that. There were a great number of various tribes of various degrees of ethnic inter-relatedness. Nothing really unusual in that–just think Native Americans of what’s now the U.S., or the various different Germanic groups that eventually coalesced to have a somewhat unified national identity. There’s no doubt the ancestors of contemporary Jews were among those groups, as well as a variety of other semitic tribes. And in some respects they never left–despite the great diaspora, there have always been Jews in the region we call Palestine. The history and continued presence there is why the Zionist movement focused on that geographic location; they saw it as returning home. Think of Irish-Americans who cheer for Ireland in the World Cup, or my 82 year old mother who is about to take her first-ever trip to Switzerland, where her great (and great-great-great) grandparents came from and is excited about it. Ireland is still a kind of conceptual home for many people who’ve never been there, and I have a special fondness in my heart for Switzerland, despite having never been there. Where these groups to face continual resentment, oppression, and even slaughter wherever they went, it would be unsurprising if they dreamed of reclaiming their ancestral homelands for themselves.

              It does create shitloads of problems, though, when there are other people there whose claims go back just as far as your own.

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              • Does the fact that group X feels connected to a piece of land Y or that X believes Y is important to them as an ancestral home imply that X has a claim to sovereignty over Y, even if group Z already lives in X and is sovereign there and group X doesn’t live there? I’d say absolutely not. You and other Swiss lovers have no claim of sovereignty over Switzerland.

                But I get your point.

                —-

                One of the bigger crimes after WWII, IMO, is that the U.S. and Canada (out of anti-semitism, really) didn’t offer the Jewish victims of the holocaust automatic citizenship, with some benefits to find jobs, get free land, etc., as an incentive. They should have done that while also pressing to not create ethnic conflict in the middle east by minimizing the emmigration of Zionist Jews to Palestine, to at least happen more slowly to allow more time for integration of immigrant Jews and the then current Muslim population. (A slower and smaller immigration would have been less violent all around, even if there would have still been a takeover of parts of what is now Israel by Jewish settlers.)

                The Palestinians are still paying the price for that crime and, IMO, the early Jewish immigrants to Israel would have had better lives, in the aggregate, in the US and Canada, and the US and Canada would have benefited from the immigration greatly. And history would remember the US and Canada taking on the Jews as a noble act that made the world a better place all around.

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                • Shazbot, the American and Canadian governments didn’t want to take the survivors because many Americans and Canadians saw the Jews as being too Red because they were Jewish. British Prime Minster Clement Atlee thought that the Jews should rebuild their lives in their home countries, who didn’t want the Jews anyway and tended to greet returning survivors with pogroms. Stalin was actively planning to deport the entire Jewish population of the Soviet Union to labor camps in Siberia but luckily died before it could be implemented.

                  I think its also too much of a mistake to associate the creation of Israel too closely with the Holocaust. The movement for a Jewish state started in 1881-82, with the Bilu Settlers and the formation of the Hovevei Zion. By 1939, there were already 450,000 Jews in Eretz Israel. This rose to 600,000 by the end of WWII. The Holocaust gave new meaning to the movement but the push was already there.

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                • Sort of, but that may be more true in some periods of history than others. Conversions to Judaism may have been reasonably common in the diaspora
                  in later antiquity (at the same time pagans were converting to Christianity) and also in the earlier parts of the middle ages, but then lessened during the later parts of the middle ages (when it became punishable by death to convert in many parts of the Christian and Islamic worlds) and was uncommon in the 17th and 18th century.

                  In particular, conversions in what is now Turkey occured regularly in the Khazar kingdom.

                  This is a good paper:

                  http://www.policyarchive.org/handle/10207/bitstreams/10699.pdf

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                • I think genetic studies revealed that 40% of all Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of four women who lived a thousand or so years ago. The same studies show that most Jews are basically cousins on a genetic level. An Eastern European Jew and a Yemeni Jew have more genetically in common with each other than their neighbors. The closest non-Jewish genetic cousins are the Levantine Arabs, Greeks, and Southern Italians.

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                  • Yeah, there is no doubt that most (almost all maybe) European Jews have at least one ancestor from the Middle East, and there is a study, as you suggest, saying there were four such genetic matriarchs.

                    But the question I was addressing was how much inbreeding into that pool had occurred, not whether the base of the pool was composed of middle easterners.

                    There’s a lot of cool info here:

                    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_studies_on_Jews#Y-DNA_of_Ashkenazi_Jews

                    “All relevant Y-DNA studies have concluded that the majority of the paternal genetic heritage among Ashkenazim and other Jewish communities is similar to those found dominating Middle Eastern populations, and probably originated there. A smaller but still significant part of the Ashkenazi male-line population is more likely to have originated from European populations.[citation needed]
                    A study of haplotypes of the Y chromosome, published in 2000, addressed the paternal origins of Ashkenazi Jews. Hammer et al.[28] confirmed that the Y chromosome of most Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews contained mutations that are also common among Middle Eastern peoples, but uncommon in the general European population. This suggested that the male ancestors of the Ashkenazi Jews could be traced mostly to the Middle East. The proportion of male genetic admixture in Ashkenazi Jews amounts to less than 0.5% per generation over an estimated 80 generations, with “relatively minor contribution of European Y chromosomes to the Ashkenazim,” and a total admixture estimate “very similar to Motulsky’s average estimate of 12.5%.” However, when all haplotypes were included in the analysis, the admixture percentage increased to 23% ± 7%.[Note 3] Hammer et al. add that “Diaspora Jews from Europe, Northwest Africa, and the Near East resemble each other more closely than they resemble their non-Jewish neighbors.” In addition, the non-Jewish components in Ashkenazim and Sephardim are generally South European, specifically Greek.”

                    Also:

                    “Two studies by Nebel et al. in 2001 and 2005, based on Y chromosome polymorphic markers, showed that Ashkenazi Jews are more closely related to other Jewish and Middle Eastern groups than to their host populations in Europe (defined in the using Eastern European, German, and French Rhine Valley populations). However, 11.5% of male Ashkenazim were found to belong to R1a1a (R-M17), the dominant Y chromosome haplogroup in Eastern European populations. They hypothesized that these chromosomes could reflect low-level gene flow from surrounding Eastern European populations, or, alternatively, that both the Ashkenazi Jews with R1a1a (R-M17), and to a much greater extent Eastern European populations in general, might partly be descendants of Khazars. They concluded “However, if the R1a1a (R-M17) chromosomes in Ashkenazi Jews do indeed represent the vestiges of the mysterious Khazars then, according to our data, this contribution was limited to either a single founder or a few closely related men, and does not exceed ~12% of the present-day Ashkenazim.”.[2][31] This hypothesis is also supported by the D. Goldstein in his book Jacob’s legacy: A genetic view of Jewish history.[32] However, Faerman (2008) states that “External low-level gene flow of possible Eastern European origin has been shown in Ashkenazim but no evidence of a hypothetical Khazars’ contribution to the Ashkenazi gene pool has ever been found.”.[33]”

                    All very cool.

                    I think this is an interesting academic issue about genetics and history, but genetic lineage shouldn’t be used to determine who has sovereignty or a legitimate claim to land. What interests me is that the genetic evidence shows that the Jews and Middle Easterners have the same gentic lineage that traces their routes back to the same people, so any claim to a right to the land would be equally valid for either group. (So maybe they should have one country together?)

                    I’m always reminded of that great scene in Star Trek: “But I am black in the right side. And Loki is white on the right side.”

                    http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=vi7QQ5pO7_A&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3Dvi7QQ5pO7_A

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                    • I’m always reminded of that great scene in Star Trek: “But I am black in the right side. And Loki is white on the right side.”

                      I’m sure for adults, that scene was eye-rollingly on-the-nose. But as a little kid, that episode/scene actually really made a big impression on me, as far as pointing out how completely stupid it was to judge someone on the basis of something so superficial as skin color. Score one for media/sci-fi indoctrination.

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                    • I actually don’t think that the Jewish right to self-determination derives from genetics. During the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, we were either persecuted out right or at best treated as citizens-strangers in most countries where we lived. We might have been a citizen of X country on paper but the reality was often different because we weren’t Christian or Muslim or whatever. Jewish self-determination derives from this rather than genetics.

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                    • Agreed Lee,

                      Everyone has the right to self determination. And there was also nothing wrong with Jewish emmigration to the Middle East, as long as it was done slowly enough to not provoke a very predictable crisis over land, that will always happen when one ethnic group floods into already occupied land.

                      But post-holocaust, The US and Canada could have offered the large majority of European Jews citizenship, and economic resources to start over as they saw fit.

                      The moral and practical problem was that there were already people in what is now Palestine and Israel who also had the right to self-determination, too.

                      The question is not whether European Jews had a right to self determination (they obviously did). The question is whether they had sovereignty over (a right to control and govern a region) the land that was then occupied by Arab Muslims who pretty clearly did have a claim to sovereignty in that territory.

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                    • BTW,

                      A consequence of my position is that Palestinians no longer have a legitimate claim to sovereignty over land they have been removed from in Israel proper. (And maybe people who left no longer have it either.)

                      To consistently believe that being the genetic descendant of someone who occupied such and such land (as is required in justifying Zionism when what is now Israel was already occupied by Arabs who were sovereign over that territory) would require you to believe that Palestinians should have the full right of return.

                      Sadly, there is an element of “finders keepers, losers weepers” in claims of sovereignty. (In the long run this can be a distasteful reward for ethnic displacement, but thatis just a consequence of our concept of sovereignty) Once children are born in a place, and some other group has been displaced for more than a generation or so, their claims to have a right to that place fade, as the Palestinian claims to Israel are faded or fading, and just as American citizens have a right to live in the US even if occupying native land.

                      But that means even if we understand that European Jews had no better options, there was something wrong about displacing the Palestinians and violating their sovereignty, at the time. And thus it would have been better if the US and Canada had offered them a place, which would have benefited the US and Canada and the Jews, without displacing the Palestinians or violating their sovereignty.

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          • 1. My father originally lived about 5 km away from our current place when he was a teenager. Then he moved away. Doesn’t mean I can just go in and chase out the current owners.

            2. Or even better. My grandfather used to live in Burma. He had to leave because of WW2. Doesn’t mean he can chase out the people who are currently staying in his old place. The current owners moved in and have homesteaded the place for more than 20 years already.

            3. No Muslims are mentioned in the bible because there was no such religion when the Bible was written

            4. The Jews were dispersed during the Roman Empire almost 2000 years ago. Why is it that 2000 year old crimes don’t have statutes of limitations but much more recent ones with respect to jim crow and slavery do?

            5. Just because the Jews were butchered and discriminated against in many of the countries they were in it does not follow that they ought to have been given their “own country”.

            6. Especially when doing so involves displacing people who did in fact have more recent continuous claims to the land. see points 1 and 2

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        • May I give you some insight into why the Arabs hate Jews? Many Arabs are fundamentally illiterate, at least a third. Probably half the women. They have never met a Jew, most of them. The last time they saw Jews in their countries was in the 1940s..

          They’re poor people, horribly governed, and that’s pretty much all of them. They watch television, which isn’t a particularly good source of news, especially when it’s not coming out of a free press. Their opinions are fundamentally distorted by governments which depend on focussing their attention elsewhere. Israel and the yehudim are a convenient scapegoat and have been since the 1920s.

          Lee, the ordinary Arabs have been lied to so often and for so long, they don’t know what to believe. They see the world passing them by. Since the eighteenth century, the Europeans have been pulling ahead of their societies, it’s horribly frustrating to watch the Jews waltz into Palestine, establish a nation, grow prosperous, make important allies like the USA, take even more ground, push them off their land — if they could do such things, they would.

          When Israel needed help, the USA was there for them. But who is there for the people of Syria, as they struggle to remove a horrible tyrant? Nobody. Who was there for any of these Arab Spring revolutionaries? The USA turned up to help in Libya, we now have friends there. When our ambassador was murdered in Libya, he was mourned.

          Open your eyes. Open your heart. Stop being so defensive when people criticise Israel or the Jews. Recognise it for what it is. Some of that criticism is justified. If most of it is not, consider why not. We are talking about societies which tolerate illiteracy at between 30 and 50 percent. Who can take such criticism seriously?

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          • It’s pretty routine to hear someone talk about an Arab friend they really like (a doctor, scientist, etc) who they’ve known for years, and then one day over dinner the conversation turns to the Jews, their mouth opens, and out comes the most paranoid and bizarre stream of conspiracy theories in an endless tirade, like they were a wind-up toy. Endless propaganda blaming the Jews for all their problems is apparently very effective, so now they’re worse than old Southern Baptists who would look at a pool hall and see it as absolute proof that Satan walks among us.

            This makes me wonder whether constantly blaming Jews for their society’s troubles creates a mental structure where all of the world’s flaws and imperfections become real-world evidence that the Jews are evil, insidious, and devilishly clever, filling the role normally ascribed to Satan or the “forces of darkness”.

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            • You have to start that conversation. It also probably depends on the country that Arab is from and how long ago they immigrated. It’s also not going to be true of all Arabs.

              I imagine it’s similar to having a Southern friend prior to the 1970’s or so. They’re polished, super-polite and sweet as pie, and then one day over BBQ and beer you bring up something about the blacks and get treated to a long rant filled with the N word and every racist stereotype ever conceived, and you realize that your calm, easy-going, slow-talking friend from Alabama really, really despises black folks and every single thing about black folks, and believes absolutely anything ever said about them, no matter how profoundly stupid, and most of all insists that they have a vastly better understanding of black folks than you do, because obviously you “just don’t know!”

              Of course not all Southerners would’ve fit that mold, but some did, and when you find one over dinner you get quite a show.

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            • But really, George, I’ve heard so much crap about Arabs and Muslims and Turrerists from Americans — who really should know better — again, it’s a question of actually meeting a few of the Hated Others. Straightens it all right up.

              If I had been Bush43 on 9/12/2001, I would have gotten on television with about half a dozen Muslim people, there were plenty of Muslims killed in the Twin Towers, and pointed my finger at the camera and said “You killed OUR Muslims, you bastards. And we will be avenged.”

              Now Bush43, whatever else was wrong with him, was no bigot. He did make a good distinction, saying we weren’t waging war on Islam. But I would have gone one step further and made the point: you killed OUR Muslims. We have freedom of religion in this country, freedom of expression, hell we even invent new religions here.

              This country went apeshit. It’s still going apeshit. For some reason, Americans just can’t get their heads around someone being both Muslim and American. Instead of spying on them and treating them all like Potential Terrorists, we should have enlisted them to fight a PR war against OBL and the rest of those momzers. And gotten the rest of the Muslim world to fight ’em, too. Most Muslims hate the Wahhabis anyway. It wouldn’t have been a stretch.

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              • I’d like to echo Blaise here on that note. I utterly despised Bush the lesser but to his great credit he pushed back pretty hard on the islamophobia line of talk and he did it repeatedly. I wish he’d done what Blaise suggests here (frankly it strikes me as brilliant). I think if Bush had made much of us avenging our lost Muslim citizens from 9/11 it would have played splendidly in the Middle East.

                But then again much of what Bush did was aimed at domestic audience first, first world audiences second, leaders of the “eeeevil countries” third and everyone else a very distant fourth.

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              • I suspect that that is a manifestation of The American Religion. Christianity is probably the main facet of The American Religion (it’s the religion the majority is familiar with anyway) but there’s a lot of (Reform) Judaism as well. Heck, most of *ANY* religion in America is (Reform) (Religion).

                When The American Religion encounters a religion like Islam, however, it tends to take the attitude “Oh, no! A Religion that actually believes stuff!” It doesn’t matter if we have (Reform) Muslims living in the suburbs with 2.3 kids and a dog. We worry that they’re not *REALLY* (Reform) Muslims but the kind that actually believes stuff… The “abortion bombers” of Islam, if you will.

                Every religion in the world is pretty much welcome in America… except for the kinds that actually believe things. Those religions are batshit crazy and anyone of any modernity at all will distance him or herself from those religions.

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                • You’d be surprised how little Muslims actually believe. Their holy book is a tiny little thing, shorter than some of Shakespeare’s plays. There’s almost no doctrine. What little doctrine it has, it borrowed from Judaism and Gnostic Christianity. It’s an amazingly abstract religion: Allaah cannot be defined except in terms of adjectives. Beyond that, it’s mostly what Allaah isn’t. Maimonides used this line of reasoning as well. The overlap between Judaism’s kalam/hokmah and Islam’s kalam/hikma is quite interesting. They fed off each other for centuries.

                  What we think of as “Islam” is mostly cultural.

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                  • Tom Hollard made a convincing argument that Islam didn’t exist per se till the Ummmayad caliphate, when the need to give better structure to the Arab Empire made it more important to differentiate between what Muslims believe and what Jews and Christians believe.

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    • We get abandoned.

      /We/ stand by while our allies are destroyed by bombs we dropped. We publicize the deaths of a man’s children, publicize his screams. A good man, a doctor. An ally.

      How many allies do you expect us to have, when we KEEP KILLING THEM???

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  5. Americans think foreigners are dumb. Yes, it’s a blanket statement, but it’s accurate. Somehow to Americans, people who were born and live somewhere else aren’t human like Americans are human.

    That’s why you get Republicans saying (and believing) that in the Netherlands old people who are sick go to the hospital and face euthanasia – because apparently foreigners are so passive and dumb that they’ll stand for that. I don’t even want to detail the outright lies that were told about the Canadian healthcare system in the last five years. Romney sited Canada’s domestic oil reserves as “domestic reserves” like America actually owned them. Cheney said that by threatening to attack Iran, the Iranian authorities would be too afraid to pursue their nuclear strategy anymore. And the classic case – which is hands down the single dumbest thing George W. Bush ever said – of looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing that he was a decent guy. (I like to imagine that Putin got three different translators to interpret that remark and made sure he kept at least four paces away from Bush at all times in future meetings.)

    So yeah, Americans don’t understand foreigners. Because they’re foreign. Which means weird and stuff.

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  6. I’ve been actively tuning out all this stuff because all this reflection is mental masturbation. Americans believe in their exceptionalism. We’re different, so we can “fix” the world’s problems. Sure, we’ll bring democracy to Iraq and the “graveyard of empires” and we will do it right because we are Americans.

    Right.

    You’d think we’d learn, but that’s the damned thing. We don’t, or there is some other reason for our actions: oil, power, etc. I’ve concluded it’s the latter

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    • I’ve tuned it out largely because the people who got it wrong never really figured out WHAT they got wrong.

      Read some of the mea culpas over the years and you’ll see they still don’t understand. It’s still a bunch of hippie bashing (see Dreher or McArdle), or inability to remember (see Sullivan), or excuse making (see Ezra Klein for instance). No one’ s figured out what they really got wrong when you read what they wrote back then.

      The biggest problem is still structural when it comes to punditry and it still exists now. They’re far too clubby and have difficult calling out their friends and compatriots when wrong. The saddest thing is the stuff they say like “we couldn’t possibly have known and got fooled by Powell” when they were actively shaming people like Scott Ritter and using things like the inefficacy of the UN’s Food for Oil. They attacked anyone who had the audacity to speak out with counterfactuals and then shut them out of the conversation.

      That is their biggest sin, and that is what they generally don’t acknowledge in all their mea culpas. Instead, it’s “the hippies were right even if they didn’t get the facts right!”

      Bull fucking shit. We knew a hell of a lot about Iraq and we knew Bush didn’t have an occupation plan after the invasion. There were reams of essays and articles on this stuff that never made it into the blogosphere club’s circlejerk.
      You were forced to read other news sources or blogs to find out about Chalabi and questionable intelligence sources of MI5, Israelis and the US. You were forced to read Ritter and Hans Blix on their own. You had to read about what happened with Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson elsewhere, or how the aluminum tubes weren’t even weapon grade. The list goes on and on and on. You had to read up on the history of chemical weapons we sold Saddam elsewhere and how their expiry date had passed, or that Saddam feared the Iranians and that his bluster. Or about the satellite photos of his purported moving chemical labs that made no sense.

      Everything you needed to make a solid and fact-based case against invasion was out there BEFORE the invasion, and it turns out that slumming with the white house press corps and giving them access was enough to keep them from asking real questions.
      Helen Thomas anyone?

      Or you only had to wonder why Bush had totally given up on capturing Bin Laden and said so publicly.

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  7. Elias,

    An excellent post. Few things have bothered me more lately than the Republican War on EmpathyTM. They seem to misunderstand the term, and think it means sympathy, feeling sorry for others and taking their side. Of course all it means is being able to recognize others’ mental states, being able to understand them. From the point of view of pure strategic theory, even if you have utter blinding hatred for the other (not that I’m recommending that), empathy is still of indispensable value because to make good strategic choices you absolutely must understand how that other will respond to your strategic choices.

    The aspect of American exceptionalism that I despise the most is what I idiosyncratically call the Red Dawn Complex, the idea that we Americans will stand up and fight back heroically, even our adolescents, but that people of other countries will roll over and submit because they’re different, not like us Americans. Even in the aftermath of Vietnam many people, including high level policymakers, didn’t understand that, and continued to think that we only lost because a bunch of hippies and pusillanimous politicians lacked the will and hobbled our military–the idea that there are others who simply refuse to submit, just as we like to assure ourselves that we would refuse to submit, is beyond the scope of their understanding of the world.

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  8. empathy is still of indispensable value because to make good strategic choices you absolutely must understand how that other will respond to your strategic choices.

    But how do you do that when anyone who opposes you is ipso facto insane?

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    • I think we covered this a bit in a previous thread about Iran and Kim Jong Il and how people still have rational responses if you figure out the inputs correctly.

      If they’re actually insane and don’t have rational responses….well, that was in that discussion as well when I brought up Caligula.

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      • Early on, one of the Iraqi bloggers made a point that Iraqis were ipso facto insane. As he put it, the world’s richest and most technologically advanced country, one devoted to freedom and liberty, topples your oppressive dictator and wants you to become advanced, successful, and free. So of course you try to blow them up. He couldn’t really explain why that was, just that it was so.

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        • Yet they’re not a puppet state. In fact, one of their biggest current complaints is that their government is a headless collection of corrupt self-serving boobs selected from a vast and bewildering array of political parties.

          Iraq was a country that frequently tries to tear itself apart, even under Saddam, and the suspicions and hatreds run deep. For much of the time we were there we weren’t even the primary target, just people in the way as various factions tried to go after each other or a necessary stumbling block to be removed. “First we get rid of the Americans, then we wipe out the Sunnis!”

          Saddam has used a divide-and-conquer strategy backed by collective punishment, along with favoritism to reward loyal tribal leaders. As a result, all the Iraqis had a very deep-seated, complex, emotional relation to power and tribes and factions that supported the powers that be, along with the histories of back-stabbing, betrayals, conspiracies, plots, and mass murder. Given all that, no simplisitic portrayal of the conflict as a simple resistance to occupation and a puppet state will explain much of anything.

          It was an ugly, multi-faceted conflict in a very complicated place, and there was simply no way around that. There is also no realisitic alternative reality where leaving Saddam and his sons in power would’ve been better for the people of Iraq, and pretty much all Iraqis agree on that point (they were quite adamant about that during all the 10th anniverary interviews a few weeks ago).

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          • No, they aren’t. But it was far from a foregone conclusion (mccain would have somehow kept us there. for greater economy!). After all, the current guy in charge of Afghanistan is clinically insane.

            And you’re very right that i oversimplify.

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        • Iraq War II was a mistake. Saddam Hussein wasn’t a threat to anybody but other Iraqis. It was bad for them but the violence unleashed by Saddam’s collapse was worse. Even the best administrators in the world wouldn’t be able to turn Iraq into a functioning democracy if anything because there wasn’t a reliable group of potential politicians.

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  9. James Hanley:

    “To be fair, this is also the reason I mock Frisco (which, of course, is never ever ever “Frisco,” but only San Francisco or, to be truly proper, “the City”).”

    ‘City by the Bay’, you bay-hating anti-Bayist!

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  10. “Another lesson is the importance of dignity in the Arab world. Most Iraqis despised Saddam because, in addition to torturing their sons and daughters, he had taken their dignity. But many came to loathe America, as well, because for all our talk of democracy, we damaged their sense of honor and independence. As the Arab world proves over and over, from Palestine to Benghazi, people who are penniless in terms of material possessions would rather die than lose their sense of honor to outsiders.”

    I’ve pretty much given up on these people (like whathisname, who was the Big Expert on the Ay-rab Mind). To me, they’re just an updated version of a 19th century ‘scholar’, who provided justification for empire (and who in turn were just updated versions of those priests who provided justification for empire in their day).

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    • I always thought Juan Cole fit that mold perfectly, but in the opposite fashion. He even blamed the killing of a US author in Basra on the author’s failure to understand their “Mediterranean culture.” The author’s wife was from Sicilly, in the Mediterranean, and London England is closer to the Med than Basra is.

      The odd truth is that by then, even our enlisted soldiers had spent more time living in the Middle East, negotiating their way through all the complexities of Arab culture, than most all of the Arab experts in the chattering classes.

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        • If ever there was a man defined by his enemies, it was Edward Said. Neither his critics nor his fans understood what he was trying to say. I’ve read a good deal of Edward Said, I disagree with a good many of his arguments, but really, he was just a literary critic. He was trying to explain how the “Orient” had been portrayed in Western literature. Typical PoMo deconstruction, of which he was one of the pioneers.

          Look, there’s always going to be a gap between what an outsider sees and the local sees. Someone can live in Chicago all his life and never bother to go to the Field Museum, or go to the top of the Hancock or walk out to the end of the breakwater on North Avenue beach or take a sightseeing cruise on the river, things everyone ought to do. The outsiders saw all that beautiful Ottoman architecture, oohed and ahhed over it, thought it was great. The Arabs just saw some old-fashioned buildings. Americans get to see the cliché Arabs, the great sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, the belly dancers of Egypt, idiot terrorists hijacking aircraft — so what? That’s all we get to see.

          And all they see is some hi-tek soldier coming down their street, peering out of a main battle tank, or Cowboys ‘n Indians, or Negroes playing Blues Music, McDonalds, cultural stereotypes, again, that’s what they see.

          Edward Said said, “No, there’s a lot more to it all. Let’s investigate the gaps here. Nobody’s rational, nobody’s got a perfect picture of these differences. I’m a big ol’ PoMo Literary Guy, let’s look at these caricatures, get to the root of them.” And that’s all he was saying.

          But what the hell was Edward Said anyway? A privileged little boy named for an English prince, a hoity-toity public school boy who never wore a dishdasha or had to live on the mean streets of Cairo or Ramallah. I know that sort of boy. I was that boy. Half in, half out of few cultures, sure, it lets me talk with some authority about those — but it doesn’t mean I speak for them. I can look at some of those Romantic Victorian paintings of those picturesque Arabs, I see them for what they are — beautiful pictures.

          Said’s critics have missed his point. They don’t “get” Said. Sure, Said was a pompous ass who said all sorts of unfortunate things about both the West and the Orient. A lot of them were true. There will always be a gap in understanding between those who look into a building and the guy looking out of that same building. Neither has a complete picture of the building.

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          • For a literary critic, he wasn’t very good at reading books:

            http://www-personal.umich.edu/~elias/Courses/War/said.htm

            Buried in the collective culture are memories of the first great Arab-Islamic conquests, which began in the seventh century and which, as the celebrated Belgian historian Henri Pirenne wrote in his landmark book Mohammed and Charlemagne (1939), shattered once and for all the ancient unity of the Mediterranean, destroyed the Christian-Roman synthesis and gave rise to a new civilization dominated by northern powers (Germany and Carolingian France) whose mission, he seemed to be saying, is to resume defense of the “West” against its historical-cultural enemies.

            No, Pirenne wasn’t saying anything of the sort. He was very much an economic historian, and he was saying that the disruption of the Mediterranean trade routes caused by the Arab conquests of North Africa and the Middle East led to the collapse of the ancient European economy, which was later replaced by a continental economy centered further north. The book is nothing like an anti-Muslim polemic; it’s heavily researched and documented, full of facts about the growing rarity of gold and silver coins, as the wealth needed to mint them disappeared. Its thesis is that the famous fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 was of no real importance. Ancient civilization went on pretty much as before until the loss of trade in the 7th century, which was the real cause of the Dark Ages in Europe. Since Charlemagne brought in the beginning of the medieval era at the start of the 9th Century, this cuts the length of the Dark Ages to about 150 years, well down from the more traditional 300+.

            At any rate, there’s nothing in the book that justifies Said’s last clause, other than his need to invent an enemy to defy.

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            • Look, Pirenne was making an entirely different point. I know more about the Byzantine Empire and the Ottomans than is strictly good for anyone. The Roman Empire had decamped to Constantinople: Said is right. The fall of the Western Empire was a big nothing in the larger scheme of things. The Byzantines were the empire that mattered.

              The Ottomans pieced together the wreckage left behind as the Mongol Empire disintegrated. It took more than a century to get the Silk Road running again. By that time, the Europeans were looking for other routes to China. Islam gradually encroached on Byzantine power, eventually closing the door on Christian influence beyond the Bosporus in the late 1400s.

              Christian Europe did have enemies, chief among them the Mongols. The Ottomans might have brought the Silk Road back but they were no friends of Europe, either. The Muslims choked off Europe, knowing exactly what they were doing. History would later show they were cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Charlemagne was at constant war with Islam. For crissakes, Charles Martel, the Battle of Tours — Edward Said was exactly right.

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              • The Byzantines were no threat to Islam after the loss at Manzikert in 1071 lost them half of Asia Minor. There was no Byzantine power to speak of at all after the empire was conquered during the 4th Crusade in 1204. What eventually got pieced back together was no worse than a thorn in the Ottoman’s side until Constantinople finally fell in 1453.

                Charlemagne’s main wars were against the pagans in Germany, whom he converted to Christianity (e.g. the Saxons). He also defeated the Avars, but they were again pagans, not Muslims. Tours merely stopped Islamic expansion past the Pyrenees; it was no threat to Islamic control of either Spain or the Mediterranean.

                And as you say to begin with, Pirenne was making a different point entirely than the one Said accused him of.

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        • The problem with a lot of Arab/Islamic scholarship in the West, whether its produced by Muslims, Christians Arabs like Said, or sympathizers like Juan Cole is that many of them seem incapable of even remotely criticizing Arabs/Islam. Japanese scholars like Donald Richie or Edward Seidensticker love Japan and its culture but understand the negative parts of Japanese society and culture.

          I’ve never really encountered a scholar of Arab/Islamic culture who was able to do this without being a Far Right racist who hates them anyway. There seems to be no balance. You have hagiographers or demonizers and nothing in-between. I suspect this has to do with imperialism in one way or another.

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          • Antony Black, who wrote “The History of Islamic Political Thought” back in 2001, did a wonderful job with his book. (Amazon link) You don’t dare be completely honest in the field of Islamic scholarship until you’re ready for retirement, which is exactly what he did.

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      • But Edward Said was an ajuthentic expert on the region, being a Greek Orthodox American who went to an Anglican school in the region (along with Omar Sharif and King Hussein) before being shipped off to prep-school in Massachusetts, then going on to Princeton and Harvard to become an English Lit professor.

        If spending your first eleven years as a Greek Orthodox, possibly in Jerusalem or possibly not (there’s a huge controversy over Said’s authenticity, which hinges on whether he had been a sheltered child in Jerusalem or in fact was a sheltered child in Cairo) doesn’t make you an expert on Muslim culture, what does? Certainly not spending a few years in the Middle East as a student at an American University, like Juan Cole.

        You think a country as diverse as the US, with many thousands of elite Iraqis and Afghans who’ve worked with us for years, often serving as translators, intermediaries, negotiators, and in everything from counter-terrorism to IT, could put forth some Middle East “experts” who actually were born, raised, educated, and experienced in the Middle East.

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        • Doesn’t work that way. We get the elites, the effetes ,the toadies, the parasites who always seem to cling to the nether parts of the conqueror-du-jour. These are the very last sons of bitches we want guiding American foreign policy.

          Translators work in pairs. The finest pair of translators I know are Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. He’s American, she’s Russian. She does the Russian -> English, he does the English ->Russian backedit, they hammer out some fine prose.

          We need pairs of diplomats, reasonably fluent in both languages. Why nobody’s ever bothered to investigate this model, I’ve never worked out.

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        • You think a country as diverse as the US, with many thousands of elite Iraqis and Afghans who’ve worked with us for years, often serving as translators, intermediaries, negotiators, and in everything from counter-terrorism to IT, could put forth some Middle East “experts” who actually were born, raised, educated, and experienced in the Middle East.

          I suspect that there are a disproportionate amount of “I got the hell out of there as fast as I could” which, while interesting, would probably color the interaction.

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