Monday, January 26, 2009

The liberal perplex

In a 1956 paper, the British philosopher W. B. Gallie (1912–1998) introduced the term "essentially contested concept." Gallie sought to enhance our understanding of the various applications of abstract, qualitative, and evaluative concepts—such as “art,” “democracy,” and “social justice”—that circulate in such domains as aesthetics, political philosophy, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion.

Gallie’s coinage is useful for several reasons. One is that it challenges the common view among intellectuals that statements must be absolutely clear or they are nonsense. This claim was central to the demarcation criterion defended by the Vienna Circle in the 1920s. More recently, philosophers have become leery of such simple solutions. Still, a popular version is alive and well: “My answer is right and yours is wrong.” This is the trouble, so we are told these days, with disputes between the supporters of Israel and the supporters of the Palestinians. Each side assumes the absolute correctness of its own position, in contrast with the manifest absurdity of that of their opponents.

Baffled by the larger problem, some retreat into skepticism, maintaining that “all answers are equally true (or false); everyone has a right to his own truth.” A related approach proposes that each meaning offers a partial view (perspectivism). In this light, the more meanings we have, the better. While we would all agree that it is important to keep an open mind, overextension of this precept may lead to intellectual chaos.

Some find this thicket exasperating. As Gallie notes,“[s]o long as contestant users of any essentially contested concept believe, however deludedly, that their own use of it is the only one that can command honest and informed approval, they are likely to persist in the hope that they will ultimately persuade and convert all their opponents by logical means. But once [we] let the truth out of the bag — i.e., the essential contestedness of the concept in question — then this harmless if deluded hope may well be replaced by a ruthless decision to cut the cackle, to damn the heretics, and to exterminate the unwanted.” While perhaps understandable, this harsh conclusion must be avoided.

Simply put, an essentially contested concept is one where there is widespread agreement on an abstract core notion itself (e.g., "fairness"), while there is endless argument about what might be the best instantiation, or realization of that notion.

According to Gallie, there are "concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users,” and these disputes "cannot be settled by appeal to empirical evidence, linguistic usage, or the canons of logic alone."

Although Gallie’s term has enjoyed some currency when speaking of issues of overlapping, indiscriminate, and imprecise use of technical terminology the expression has a more specific application. At first glance, it may seem that the notion could be used to justify assuming the weasel principle to the effect that "we must agree to disagree" sort of evasive stance. Yet a closer examination reveals something more valuable.

The disputes that attend an essentially contested concept are driven by substantive disagreements over a range of different, entirely reasonable (though perhaps mistaken) interpretations of a mutually-agreed-upon archetypal notion. One such is the legal maxim "treat like cases alike; and treat different cases differently," with "each party [continuing] to defend its case with what it claims to be convincing arguments, evidence and other forms of justification" (Gallie).

Many laypeople who attempt to come to terms with the contemporary art world are tempted to say that such-and-such a work is not in fact art. In this way the assertion that "this object is a work of art" may meet strong disagreement based on differing views about the proper interpretation and application of the term "work of art." Addressing this problem Gallie suggests that there are three avenues through which one might resolve such a dispute:

1. One might discover an entirely new meaning of the term "work of art" to which all of the disputants could henceforward agree.
2. One could propose one meaning (new or otherwise) and convince all of the disputants to henceforward agree to conform to this new, expressly stipulated meaning.
3. One could declare the term "work of art," as used by the different disputants, to be a number of mutually exclusive and quite different concepts which simply share the same name.

Absent any one of these three solutions, it is highly likely that the dispute centers on an "essentially contested concept."

The ensuing discussion has disclosed a number of interesting points. Instead of going into these, however, let us turn to an instance of current concern: l i b e r a l i s m. (On a later occasion, I will address the idea that homosexuality is an essentially contested concept.)

The Europaeum is an association of ten leading European universities that seeks to foster collaborative research and teaching; to provide opportunities for scholars, leaders, academics and graduates; to stage conferences, summer schools and colloquia; and to enable leading figures from the worlds of business, politics and culture to take part in transnational and interdisciplinary dialogue with the world of scholarship. Just a coule of weeks ago, on January 9-11, 2009, the Europaeum hosted a major international conference on “Liberalisms in East and West,” with leading participants from many countries , including Professors Henk te Velde from Leiden; Paolo Pombeni from Bologna; Michael Freeden, Director of the Centre for Political Ideologies, Oxford; and João Espada from Lisbon Catholic University.

While the proceedings of the conference have not yet been published, Timothy Garton Ash, a participant, offered a lively preliminary account in the New York Times for January 25, 2009.

The election of Barack Obama would seem to have given the concept of liberalism a new vibrancy. As Garton Ash notes, “[l]ike many of Mr. Obama’s speeches, the Inaugural Address presented, in substance, a blend of classical constitutional and modern egalitarian liberalism. The thing, but never the word. Anyone who knows anything about contemporary political discourse in the United States understands why.”

Or do we? First let the Oxford scholar continue. “Just over 20 years ago, a group of leading American intellectuals, gathered by the historian Fritz Stern, placed an advertisement in [the New York Times], trying to defend the word ‘liberalism’ against its [perceived] abuse by Ronald Reagan and others on the American right. It was in vain. Over the last two decades a truly eccentric usage has triumphed in American public debate. Liberalism has become a pejorative term denoting—to put the matter a tad frivolously—some unholy marriage of big government and fornication.”

Why has it been so easy for conservatives to transform “liberal” into a term of abuse? The answer lies in a point made last year by Hilary Clinton in a primary debate. When pressed to define “liberal,” and say if she was one, Clinton replied that a word originally associated with a belief in freedom had unfortunately come to mean favoring big government. So, she concluded, “I prefer the word progressive, which has a real American meaning.”

Setting aside the red herring that “liberal” is possibly un-American, Hilary Clinton has nonetheless hit upon the core of the problem. From British political discourse, the source of many of our noblest political and constitutional ideals, we have inherited a dualistic concept of liberalism.

First, there is classical liberalism (also known as traditional liberalism, or laissez-faire liberalism) Outside the English-speaking world this form is known simply as liberalism (tout court, though sometimes endowed with a prefix: neo-liberalism). This is a doctrine enshrining the principles of individual freedom and limited government. Also stressed are human rationality, individual property rights, natural rights, the protection of civil liberties, and free markets. At the core of classical liberalism, according to some adepts, is the idea that laissez-faire economics will foster a spontaneous order allowing the beneficial operation of an “invisible hand” that benefits the entire society. The state retains a role in helping to guarantee basic public goods, together with maintaining the administration of justice and fairness. In this respect it differs from anarchism.
Abroad, free trade must prevail. And in intellectual life, John Stuart Mill famously defended the free interaction of ideas. By tolerating variant views, we are enabled to strengthen our own ideas, Mill held. Proponents are confident that these components of classical liberalism are mutually consistent, forming an organic whole that must not be tinkered with.

All the same, in early twentieth-century Britain liberalism underwent a fateful change. Somewhat mysteriously, classical liberalism morphed into social liberalism, a very different animal. A group of thinkers known as the New Liberals made a case against laissez-faire classical liberalism and in favor of state intervention in social, economic, and cultural life. The New Liberals, including such figures as T.H. Green, L.T. Hobhouse, and John A. Hobson, saw individual liberty as something achievable only under favorable social and economic circumstances,

To achieve these ends government must move beyond its role as referee, ensuring that free-market principles prevail. Instead, government and its allied institutions must actively intervene in public affairs to achieve the ends of social justice. The New Liberals decried the poverty, squalor, and ignorance in which many people lived, maintaining that these conditions could be ameliorated only through collective action coordinated by a strong welfare-oriented state. After World War II these social-liberal principles triumphed in Britain’s welfare state, only to be curtailed by the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. In the United States, the shift of climate that began with the presidency of Ronald Reagan had a similar effect with respect to the New Deal, a typical social-liberal regime.

As has been frequently noted, freedom and social justice are mutually antagonistic; the more you have of one, the less you have of the other.

Some observers, however continue to believe that one can eat one’s cake and have it at the same time. These bien pensant individuals see the contrast between classical liberalism and social liberalism as unimportant: it is all just liberalism pure and simple. Not so fast, though. It should be clear from what has been said above that this amalgam is not viable. It is like one of those party stunts in which two distinct individuals get under a cloak to simulate a single horse.
Others, viewing the matter in a less pollyannaish way, gravitate to version one of liberalism (classical), while others prefer version two (social liberalism).

At all events, it has become clear that two such radically opposed ideas cannot easily inhabit the same dwelling. Or, to put the matter differently, liberalism, as it has evolved in the English-speaking world, has stretched the principle of an essentially contested concept to the breaking point--and beyond.

And that is not all, for Garton Ash acknowledges another complicating factor. “The United States is not the only place where ‘liberalism’ is fiercely contested. [At the Oxford conference,] with speakers from the Americas, Europe, India, Japan and China, we explored what we deliberately called ‘Liberalisms.’ Interestingly, what is furiously attacked as ‘liberalism’ in France, and in much of Central and Eastern Europe, is precisely what is most beloved of the libertarian or ‘fiscal conservative’ strand of the American right. When French leftists and Polish populists denounce ‘liberalism,’ they mean Anglo-Saxon-style, unregulated free-market capitalism. (Occasionally the prefix neo- or ultra- is added to make this clear.)”

Garton Ash further comments as follows. “Faced with this worldwide conceptual cacophony, some at the conference argued that we should abandon the term, or at least dismantle it into component parts with plainer meanings. But combinations and balances belong to liberalism’s defining essence, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As the Oxford political theorist Michael Freeden observed, if just one of the necessary components—for example, the free market — dominates, then the result can be illiberalism. The vital, never-ending debate over liberalism is not just over its indispensable ingredients, but also over their form, proportion and relation to one another.”

Frankly, I find this procedure more suitable as a recipe for cooking a soup--where too much garlic, say, can be a problem--than for meaningful discourse about a key political concept. Freeden is offering a salmagundi, not a viable political theory.

For his part, Garton Ash proffers some specifics. “A plausible minimum list of ingredients for 21st-century liberalism would include liberty under law, limited and accountable government, markets, tolerance, some version of individualism and universalism, and some notion of human equality, reason, and progress. The mix of ingredients differs from place to place. Whether some distant cousin really belongs to the extended family of liberalisms is a matter of healthy dispute. But somewhere in this contested, evolving combination there is a thing of enduring value.”

Nice try, but this really will not do. It is too late in the day for such flaccid iteration to perform the task. Up to a point, Garton Ash acknowledges this problem. “T]he United States is still full of liberals, both progressive or left liberals and, I would insist, conservative or right liberals. Most of them just don’t use the word. Liberalism is the American love that dare not speak its name.”
“For obvious reasons,” he goes on to say, “we are now witnessing worldwide criticism of a version of pure free-market liberalism, a k a neo-liberalism, charged with having led us into our current economic mess.” This critique is a major complicating factor, for outside the English-speaking world liberalism is being routinely and endlessly denounced by those who (in anglophone terms) should be its allies.

What is the upshot? After reading Garton Ash’s piece one is left in a quandary. The concept of liberalism is manifestly afflicted with several serious disorders, yet--he holds--we can still rally to it. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, this is just feel-good scholarship.

Garton Ash and other defenders are whistling as they go past the graveyard, a graveyard that contains an embarrassing corpse.

The difficulties that attend any proper resuscitation of liberalism transpire from the fate of a text first promulgated in Oxford itself in 1947, just after the end of World War II. The Oxford Manifesto, drawn up by representatives from nineteen liberal political parties at Wadham College in Oxford, under the leadership of the Spanish thinker Salvador de Madariaga, is a document that sought to define the basic political principles of the Liberal International.

Fifty years later, in 1997, the Liberal International returned to Oxford, and issued a supplement to the original manifesto, called “The Liberal Agenda for the 21st Century,” seeking to describe liberal policies in greater detail.

I will not rehearse the contents of the Oxford Manifesto and its supplement; the texts are readily available on the Internet.

A key point, which speaks eloquently about the difficulty of simply reaffirming the old-time religion of liberalism, is that little letter added to the title of the 2009 conference: “LiberalismS.” It may be, as Garton Ash proposes, that the egregiously pluralistic jumble accumulated from some 150 years of evolution can in fact be reassembled with greater coherence so that a new synthesis emerges.

In my view, this expectation is decidedly overoptimistic. The subject of liberalism is now the object of a study in the history of ideas, not a reliable rallying point for actual policy proposals. By contrast, Hilary Clinton is probably right: “progressive” may work; “liberalism” will not.

POSTSCRIPT. While it is true that today the best known deployments of “liberal” as an epithet of derision stem from the right, the ploy was actually launched by elements of the Far Left. In their continuing struggle against social democrats, Communists and their allies did not hesitated to demonize their “progressive” rivals. It was leftists, for example, who invented the term “cosmetic liberalism” to designate what they viewed as vain efforts to address social problems by gradual change, instead of the radical solutions the far leftists demanded. Now, of course, the Far Left is no more. But it has wrought substantial damage.

SECOND POSTSCRIPT. Today (January 26) the hapless William Kristol has published another of his characteristically lazy columns in the NY Times: “Will Obama Save Liberalism?” Committing the familiar error of reification, Kristol doesn’t even acknowledge that there are two liberalisms. Which is it then that he hopes (so transparently) Obama will fail to save?

The good news is that this column will be Kristol's last in the Times. Kristol, who more than anyone else is responsible for bringing us Sarah Palin, should never have been hired in the first place.

One wag has said that the reason Kristol was let go is that he wasn't conservative enough for the NY Times. But what about the wacko leftist Paul Krugman? Well, what about him? His recent calls for throwing more and more and more dollars at our problems only serve to discredit the cause he is ostensibly supporting. And his Nobel Prize in economics only shows that that category has been overtaken by the same grotesquerie that has long characterized the process for awarding the Nobel literature prize. QED.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thomas Friedman, moron

George Bush has confessed to being “disappointed” that the weapons of mass destruction were not found. He has not yet acknowledged that the case for the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a preposterous fraud, from beginning to end. That has been quite a disappointment to the rest of us.

And what about the war-monger’s huge army of enablers--the high-paid-pundits, “political analysts,” and Washington experts? Shouldn’t they have known better? After all, millions of us ordinary folks sitting in our living rooms understood perfectly that the case for war was worthless. Those who claim special abilities to instruct us were wrong and we were right.

Why are there no penalties for this enormous set of mistakes? To the best of my knowledge, no heads have rolled. The same incompetents continue to regale us from the lofty perches of their columns and television appearances.

One of the worst offenders has been the moronic Tom Friedman. Yet there he was the other night on Charlie Rose, big as life. Bigger in fact, as he is ballooning out.

Friedman was one of the most active boosters of the Iraq war. He has never admitted his mistake, but only adopted the conventional copout that it was “poorly conducted.” Critics have noted his recurrent assertion that "the next six months" will prove critical in determining the outcome of the conflict. The watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting first pointed out this phenomenon in May 2006, citing 14 examples of Friedman declaring the next "few months" or "six months" as a decisive or critical period, dating from in November 2003, describing it as "a long series of similar do-or-die dates that never seem to get any closer."

In a TV interview aired on June 11, 2007 on CNN, the media critc Howard Kurtz asked Friedman himself about the concept: "Now, I want to understand how a columnist's mind works when you take positions, because you were chided recently for writing several times in different occasions 'the next six months are crucial in Iraq.'" Friedman responded, "The fact is that the outcome there is unclear, and I reflected that in my column. And I will continue to reflect." Not nearly enough, it appears.

Scathingly, the blogger Atrios has coined the term “Friedman Unit,” to refer to this interval in relation to Iraq, noting its use as a supposedly critical window of opportunity.

Tom’s roster of error boasts many sterling items, not limited to his misguided views about the Middle East. At one point he propounded the McDonald’s rule: two countries that have McDonald’s franchises will not go to war. Shortly after he uttered this fatuousness, we began bombarding Serbia. There is a McDonald’s in Belgrade.

Then he claimed that India’s Muslims were perfectly content in their Hindu-majority country. Democracy is great for everyone. Not long after this bromide was emitted, Hindus engaged in a horrible massacre of Muslims in Rajasthan. Doubtless Friedman’s claim afforded them scant comfort.

Then there are his petro-idiocies, including the assertion that countries that have an abundance of oil are invariably corrupt. Oil itself is corrupting. Curiously, Scotland and Norway, which have considerable oil deposits, are among the least corrupt countries on earth.

Now, of course, Friedman has hugely turned his attention to global warming. How original!

With all this error and mediocrity, Friedman has nonetheless garnered three Pulitzer Prizes. It just goes to show: what are you going to believe, your own lying eyes reading his screeds, or the august Pulitzer committee?

For some time, Matt Taibbi, that wonderful bad boy of Rolling Stone, has been tracking Friedman. Here is his latest hilarious column from the New York Press. Enjoy.

“When some time ago a friend of mine told me that Thomas Friedman’s new book, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded,” was going to be a kind of environmentalist clarion call against American consumerism, I almost died laughing.

“Beautiful, I thought. Just when you begin to lose faith in America’s ability to fall for absolutely anything—just when you begin to think we Americans as a race might finally outgrow the lovable credulousness that leads us to fork over our credit card numbers to every half-baked TV pitchman hawking a magic dick-enlarging pill, or a way to make millions on the Internet while sitting at home and pounding doughnuts— along comes Thomas Friedman, porn-stached resident of a positively obscene 11,400 square-foot suburban Maryland mega-monstro-mansion and husband to the heir of one of the largest shopping-mall chains in the world, reinventing himself as an oracle of anti-consumerist conservationism.

“Where does a man who needs his own offshore drilling platform just to keep the east wing of his house heated get the balls to write a book chiding America for driving energy inefficient automobiles? Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie and even a ... Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a “Green Revolution”? Well, he’ll explain it all to you in 438 crisply written pages for just $27.95 . . .”

Taibbi goes on to say, “I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular his tortured use of the English language. Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn’t make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the “illustrative” figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

“Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? “It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,” he wrote, “as long as you remember you’re driving without one.” Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May: The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”

“First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the f-ck is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? [Sorry, Matt, but the triple-play not so difficult to do. You put your right foot in one hole, your left in another, and your dick in the third. Or maybe your dick goes in your mouth? Actually, the hard part is teaching your dick to use a shovel. --WRD]

Taibbi continues: "It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen. 

“Even better was this gem from one of Friedman’s latest columns: “The fighting, death and destruction in Gaza is painful to watch. But it’s all too familiar. It’s the latest version of the longest-running play in the modern Middle East, which, if I were to give it a title, would be called: “Who owns this hotel? Can the Jews have a room? And shouldn’t we blow up the bar and replace it with a mosque?” There are many serious questions one could ask about this passage, but the one that leaped out at me was this: In the “title” of that long-running play, is it supposed to be the same person asking all three of those questions? If so, does that person suffer from multiple personality disorder? Because in the first question, he is a neutral/ignorant observer of the Mideast drama; in the second he sympathizes with the Jews; in the third he’s a radical Muslim. Moreover, after you blow up the bar and replace it with a mosque, is the surrounding hotel still there? Why would anyone build a mosque in a half-blown-up hotel? Perhaps Friedman should have written the passage like this: “It’s the latest version of the longest-running play in the modern Middle East, which, if I were to give it a title, would be called: “Who owns this hotel? And why did a person suffering from multiple personality disorder build a mosque inside it after blowing up the bar and asking if there was a room for the Jews? Why? Because his editor’s been drinking rubbing alcohol!”

"OK, so maybe all of this is unfair. There are a lot of people out there who think Friedman has not been treated fairly by critics like me, that focusing on his literary struggles is a snobbish, below-the-belt tactic—a cheap shot that belies the strength of his overall “arguments.” Who cares, these people say, if Friedman’s book “The World is Flat” should probably have been titled [differently] if  he had wanted the book’s title to match its “point” about living in an age of increased global interconnectedness? And who cares if it doesn’t quite make sense when Friedman says that Iraq is like a “vase we broke in order to get rid of the rancid water inside? ”Who cares that you can just pour water out of a vase, that only a f-cking lunatic breaks a perfectly good vase just to empty it of water? You’re missing the point, folks say, and the point is all in Friedman’s highly nuanced ideas about world politics and the economy—if you could just get past his well-meaning attempts to explain himself, you’d see that, and maybe you’d even learn something. 

“My initial answer to that is that Friedman’s language choices over the years have been highly revealing. When a man who thinks you need to break a vase to get the water out of it starts arguing that you need to invade a country in order to change the minds of its people, you might want to start paying attention to how his approach to the vase problem worked out. Thomas Friedman is not a president, a pope, a general on the field of battle or any other kind of man of action. He doesn’t actually do anything apart from talk about shit in a newspaper. ,,,

“But whatever, let’s concede the point, forget about the crazy metaphors for a moment, and look at the actual content of “Hot, Flat and Crowded.” Many people have rightly seen this new greenish pseudo-progressive tract as an ideological departure from Friedman’s previous works, which were all virtually identical exercises in bald greed-worship and capitalist tent-pitching. Approach-and-rhetoric wise, however, it’s the same old Friedman, a tireless social scientist whose research methods mainly include lunching, reading road signs, and watching people board airplanes. 

“Like “The World is Flat,” a book born of Friedman’s stirring experience of seeing IBM sign in the distance while golfing in Bangalore, “Hot,Flat and Crowded” is a book whose great insights come when Friedman golfs (on global warming allowing him more winter golf days: “I will still take advantage of it—but I no longer think of it as something I got for free”), looks at Burger King signs (upon seeing a “nightmarish neon blur” of KFC, BK and McDonald’s signs in Texas, he realizes: “We’re on a fool’s errand”), and reads bumper stickers (the “Osama Loves your SUV” sticker he read turns into the thesis of his “Fill ‘er up with Dictators” chapter). This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people, and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs. 

“Friedman frequently uses a rhetorical technique that goes something like this: “I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year, watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I said to myself, ‘We need better headlights for our tri-plane.’” And off he goes. You the reader end up spending so much time wondering what Dubai, BP and all those Balinese workers have to do with the rest of the story that you don’t notice that tri-planes don’t have headlights. And by the time you get all that sorted out, your well-lit tri-plane is flying from chapter to chapter delivering a million geo-green pizzas to a million Noahs on a million Arks. And you give up. There’s so much shit flying around the book’s atmosphere that you don’t notice the only action is Friedman talking to himself.

“In “The World is Flat” the key action scene of the book comes when Friedman experiences his pseudo-epiphany about the Flat world while talking with himself in front of InfoSys CEO Nandan Nilekani. In “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” the money shot comes when Friedman starts doodling on a napkin over lunch with Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. The pre-lunching Friedman starts drawing, and the wisdom just comes pouring out:

“I laid out my napkin and drew a graph showing how there seemed to be a rough correlation between the price of oil, between 1975 and 2005, and the pace of freedom in oil-producing states during those same years.

“Friedman then draws his napkin-graph, and much to the pundit’s surprise, it turns out that there is almost an exact correlation between high oil prices and “unfreedom”! The graph contains two lines, one showing a rising and then descending slope of “freedom,” and one showing a descending and then rising course of oil prices. 

“Friedman plots exactly four points on the graph over the course of those 30 years. In 1989, as oil prices are falling, Friedman writes, “Berlin Wall Torn Down.” In 1993, again as oil prices are low, he writes, “Nigeria Privatizes First Oil Field.” 1997, oil prices still low, “Iran Calls for Dialogue of Civilizations.” Then, finally, 2005, a year of high oil prices: “Iran calls for Israel’s destruction.” Take a look for yourself: I looked at this and thought: “Gosh, what a neat trick!” ...

“Obviously this sounds like a flippant analysis, but that’s more or less exactly what Friedman is up to here. If you’re going to draw a line that measures the level of “freedom” across the entire world and on that line plot just four randomly-selected points in time over the course of 30 years—and one of your top four “freedom points” in a 30-year period of human history is the privatization of a Nigerian oil field—well, what the f-ck? What can’t you argue, if that’s how you’re going to make your point? He could have graphed a line in the opposite direction by replacing Berlin with Tiananmen Square, substituting Iraqi elections for Iran’s call for Israel’s destruction (incidentally, when in the last half-century or so have Islamic extremists not called for Israel’s destruction?), junking Iran’s 1997 call for dialogue for the U.S. sanctions against Iran in ’95, and so on. It’s crazy, a game of Scrabble where the words don’t have to connect on the board, or a mathematician coming up with the equation A B -3X = Swedish girls like chocolate. 

“Getting to the “ideas” in the book: Its basic premise is that America’s decades-long habit of gluttonous energy consumption has adversely affected humanity because a) while the earth could support America’s indulgence, it can’t sustain two billion endlessly-copulating Chinese should they all choose to live in American-style excess, and b) the exploding global demand for oil artificially subsidizes repressive Middle Eastern dictatorships that would otherwise have to rely on tax revenue (read: listen to their people) in order to survive, and this subsidy leads to terrorism and a spread of “unfreedom.” 

“Regarding the first point, Friedman writes:
Because if the spread of freedom and free markets is not accompanied by a new approach to how we produce energy and treat the environment… then Mother Nature and planet earth will impose their own constraints and limits on our way of life—constraints that will be worse than communism.

“Three observations about this touching and seemingly remarkable development, i.e. onetime unrepentant free-market icon Thomas Friedman suddenly coming out huge for the environment and against the evils of gross consumerism:

1. The need for massive investment in green energy is an idea so obvious and inoffensive that even presidential candidates from both parties could be seen fighting over who’s for it more in nationally televised debates last fall.

2. I wish I had the balls to first spend six long years madly cheering on an Iraq war that not only reintroduced Sharia law to the streets of Baghdad, but radicalized the entire Islamic world against American influence—and then write a book blaming the spread of fundamentalist Islam on the ignorant consumers of the middle American heartland, who bought too many Hummers and spent too much time shopping for iPods in my wife’s giganto-malls.

3. To review quickly, the “Long Bomb” Iraq war plan Friedman supported as a means of transforming the Middle East blew up in his and everyone else’s face; the “Electronic Herd” of highly volatile international capital markets he once touted as an economic cure-all not only didn’t pan out, but led the world into a terrifying chasm of seemingly irreversible economic catastrophe; his beloved “Golden Straitjacket” of American-style global development (forced on the world by the “hidden fist” of American military power) turned out to be the vehicle for the very energy/ecological crisis Friedman himself warns about in his new book; and, most humorously, the “Flat World” consumer economics Friedman marveled at so voluminously turned out to be grounded in such total unreality that even his wife’s once-mighty shopping mall empire, General Growth Properties, has lost 99 percent of its value in this year alone.

“So, yes, Friedman is suddenly an environmentalist of sorts. 

“What . . . else is he going to be? All the other ideas he spent the last ten years humping have been blown to hell. Color me unimpressed that he scrounged one more thing to sell out of the smoldering, discredited wreck that should be his career; that he had the good sense to quickly reinvent himself before angry gods remembered to dash his brains out with a lightning bolt. But better late than never, I suppose. Or as Friedman might say, “Better two cell phones than a fish in your zipper.”

UPDATE. (March 5). They say that great minds think alike. On the other hand, one doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to detect Friedman's absurdities. Rocket scientist or not, here is another incisive comment, from the pages of Vanity Fair.

"Thomas Friedman’s Five Worst Predictions'
by Barrett Brown

"In this morning’s New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman makes a grave prediction regarding Obama and the ongoing financial crisis: “I fear that his whole first term could be eaten by Citigroup, A.I.G., Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and the whole housing/subprime credit bubble we inflated these past 20 years.” Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a staple of The New York Times, and a bestselling author, and thus this prediction should be taken very seriously—in some alternate universe where the news media is a meritocracy and Thomas Friedman is a competent observer of the world and its workings. The rest of us can probably relax.

"Let's review:

"In October of 2000, Friedman decided that the Chinese regime would soon find itself threatened by a major unemployment crisis caused by an influx of American wheat and sugar into that country. In fact, American wheat and sugar failed to make any inroads whatsoever, while Chinese unemployment figures (however unreliable they may be) remained at low levels for a period of seven years.

'After the announcement of Colin Powell’s Secretary of State nomination in December 2000, a clearly impressed Friedman related to his readers that “it was impossible to imagine Mr. Bush ever challenging or overruling Mr. Powell on any issue,” that Powell “can never be fired,” and that “Mr. Bush can never allow him to resign in protest over anything.” Five years later, Powell was out via “resignation” after having been consistently challenged and overruled by Bush, who must have missed Friedman's column.

"In 2001, Friedman advised the American citizenry to “keep rootin’ for Putin,” hailing the K.G.B. veteran as “Russia’s first Deng Xiaoping” and a strong force for reform. Three years later, Friedman announced in his most awkward prose that “I have a ‘Tilt Theory of History’,” and called Russia “a huge nation” (this part checks out) “that was tilted in the wrong direction and is now tilted in the right direction” with regards to free speech, the rule of law, and the like. In 2007, Friedman finally noticed that Russia cannot even properly be termed a democracy and promptly wrote a column to this effect.

"Then, a month into the Afghanistan conflict, Friedman complained that “the hand-wringing has already begun over how long this might last” and advised readers to “take a deep breath,” noting that Afghanistan is “far away.” Besides, Friedman had “no doubt, for now, that the Bush team has a military strategy for winning a long war.” A month later, he noted in passing that “America has won the war in Afghanistan” and that “the Taliban are gone,” though he did express some concern about “all the nonsense written in the press about the concern for 'civilian casualties’,” a term he took to using with scare quotes. Seven years later, civilian casualties remain a major item of concern for Afghan’s in the non-won war against the non-gone Taliban.

"In 2005, Friedman explained that it was necessary for Democrats “to start thinking seriously about Iraq” lest the party “become unimportant.” Though Democrats never came around to Friedman’s way of serious thinking , they did manage to take control of both chambers of Congress the following year, ushering in a period of nearly unprecedented political dominance that continues to this day, which strikes me as a pretty important thing to do.

"Now, I don’t ask a lot of favors from the American citizenry and rarely even hit it up for money, but I was thinking that it might be kind of neat if everyone could stop pretending that Friedman’s prognostication deserves to be taken seriously.

"Also, could we key his car or something? This is a time for bold moves."

Barrett Brown is the author of Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny and serves as director of communications for Enlighten the Vote, previously known as GAMPAC.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Israel rampant

The following account may seem hard to believe, but its basic substance seems to be true. As Israel entered the third week of its Gaza campaign, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert regaled a crowd in Ashkelon with a remarkable tale.

He had, said Olmert, telephoned George Bush, interrupting him in the middle of a speech in Philadelphia, and told him to instruct Condoleeza Rice not to vote for a UN resolution Condi herself had written. Bush did as he was told, said Olmert.

Here is the background. After intense negotiations with representatives of other countries, Secretary of State Rice had persuaded the Security Council to agree on a resolution calling for a cease-fire. Olmert was opposed: he needed more time to pulverize Hamas.

Here, in Olmert's words as reported by the Israeli press, is what happened next:

"In the night between Thursday and Friday, when the secretary of state wanted to lead the vote on a cease-fire at the Security Council, we did not want her to vote in favor.

"I said, 'Get me President Bush on the phone.' They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care. 'I need to talk to him now.' He got off the podium and spoke to me.”

According to Olmert, Bush was clueless.

"He said: 'Listen. I don't know about it. I didn't see it. I'm not familiar with the phrasing.’

"I told him the United States could not vote in favor. It cannot vote in favor of such a resolution. He immediately called the secretary of state and told her not to vote in favor. ...

"She was left shamed. [It was a] resolution that she prepared and arranged, and in the end she did not vote in favor."

The UN diplomatic corps was astonished when the United States abstained on the 14-0 resolution Condoleeza Rice had crafted and claimed her country supported. Arab diplomats said that Rice promised them she would vote for it.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack denied the story. And in fact, the video does not show Bush interrupting his speech to take any call. Yet the substance of the account rings true and is widely believed, with Olmert happily describing Rice’s humiliation:

"He (Bush) gave an order to the secretary of state, and she did not vote in favor of it--a resolution she cooked up, phrased, organized, and maneuvered for. She was left pretty shamed."

This incident is only the latest indicator of the way in which Israel, in concert with AIPAC and with the active complicity of the majority of the US press, has been controlling US policy in the Middle East.

Here is another piece of evidence from a few years back. On October 3, 2001, I.A.P. News reported that according to Israel Radio (Kol Yisrael) during one of the weekly cabinet meetings an acrimonious dispute erupted between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his foreign Minister Shimon Peres.  Peres warned Sharon that refusing to heed urgent American requests for a cease-fire with the Palestinians would endanger Israeli interests and "turn the US against us.” Forget about it, Sharon angrily instructed: "don't worry about American pressure. We the Jewish people control America."

Will matters change under President Barack Obama? Based on existing statements I very much doubt it. Should he be tempted to go astray, Rahm Emanuel, the enforcer who has both Israeli and US citizenship, is but a few feet away in the West Wing.

Still there is some good news. Space has at last been opened for an honest discussion of this deplorable situation. Together with my colleague at, I have tried to do my part. Of fundamental importance are the incisive columns by Glenn Greenwald published daily at Other important dissident voices have appeared in the venerable left-leaning weekly The Nation and even in The American Conservative.

One commentator who has weighed in is John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and coauthor of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Because Mearsheimer’s is an important voice, I have copied below the gist of a recent column published in The American Conservative.

“. . . The campaign in Gaza is said to have two objectives: 1) to put an end to the rockets and mortars that Palestinians have been firing into southern Israel since it withdrew from Gaza in August 2005; 2) to restore Israel’s deterrent, which was said to be diminished by the Lebanon fiasco, by Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, and by its inability to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
“But these are not the real goals of Operation Cast Lead. The actual purpose is connected to Israel’s long-term vision of how it intends to live with millions of Palestinians in its midst. . . .

Specifically, Israel’s leaders remain determined to control all of what used to be known as Mandate Palestine, which includes Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians would have limited autonomy in a handful of disconnected and economically crippled enclaves, one of which is Gaza. Israel would control the borders around them, movement between them, the air above and the water below them.

“The key to achieving this [goal] is to inflict massive pain on the Palestinians so that they come to accept the fact that they are a defeated people and that Israel will be largely responsible for controlling their future. This strategy, which was first articulated by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s and has heavily influenced Israeli policy since 1948, is commonly referred to as the “Iron Wall.” [Jabotinsky, the sinister prophet of what has been happening, will be the subject of a future posting. --WRD]

“What has been happening in Gaza is fully consistent with this strategy.

“Let’s begin with Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005. The conventional wisdom is that Israel was serious about making peace with the Palestinians and that its leaders hoped the exit from Gaza would be a major step toward creating a viable Palestinian state. . . .

“This is pure fiction. Even before Hamas came to power, the Israelis intended to create an open-air prison for the Palestinians in Gaza and inflict great pain on them until they complied with Israel’s wishes. Dov Weisglass, Ariel Sharon’s closest adviser at the time, candidly stated that the disengagement from Gaza was aimed at halting the peace process, not encouraging it. He described the disengagement as “formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” Moreover, he emphasized that the withdrawal “places the Palestinians under tremendous pressure. It forces them into a corner where they hate to be.”

“Arnon Soffer, a prominent Israeli demographer who also advised Sharon, elaborated on what that pressure would look like. “When 1.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.”

“In January 2006, five months after the Israelis pulled their settlers out of Gaza, Hamas won a decisive victory over Fatah in the Palestinian legislative elections. This meant trouble for Israel’s strategy because Hamas was democratically elected, well organized, not corrupt like Fatah, and unwilling to accept Israel’s existence. Israel responded by ratcheting up economic pressure on the Palestinians, but it did not work. In fact, the situation took another turn for the worse in March 2007, when Fatah and Hamas came together to form a national unity government. Hamas’s stature and political power were growing, and Israel’s divide-and-conquer strategy was unraveling.

“To make matters worse, the national unity government began pushing for a long-term ceasefire. The Palestinians would end all missile attacks on Israel if the Israelis would stop arresting and assassinating Palestinians and end their economic stranglehold, opening the border crossings into Gaza.

“Israel rejected that offer and with American backing set out to foment a civil war between Fatah and Hamas that would wreck the national unity government and put Fatah in charge. The plan backfired when Hamas drove Fatah out of Gaza, leaving Hamas in charge there and the more pliant Fatah in control of the West Bank. Israel then tightened the screws on the blockade around Gaza, causing even greater hardship and suffering among the Palestinians living there. [It is this blockade, an act of war, that is the original casus belli in the current situation. WRD]

“Hamas responded by continuing to fire rockets and mortars into Israel, while emphasizing that they still sought a long-term ceasefire, perhaps lasting ten years or more. This was not a noble gesture on Hamas’s part: they sought a ceasefire because the balance of power heavily favored Israel. The Israelis had no interest in a ceasefire and merely intensified the economic pressure on Gaza. But in the late spring of 2008, pressure from Israelis living under the rocket attacks led the government to agree to a six-month ceasefire starting on June 19. That agreement, which formally ended on Dec. 19, immediately preceded the present war, which began on Dec. 27.

“The official Israeli position blames Hamas for undermining the ceasefire. This view is widely accepted in the United States, but it is not true. Israeli leaders disliked the ceasefire from the start, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the IDF [the Israeli army] to begin preparing for the present war while the ceasefire was being negotiated in June 2008. Furthermore, Dan Gillerman, Israel’s former ambassador to the UN, reports that Jerusalem began to prepare the propaganda campaign to sell the present war months before the conflict began. For its part, Hamas drastically reduced the number of missile attacks during the first five months of the ceasefire. A total of two rockets were fired into Israel during September and October, none by Hamas.

“How did Israel behave during this same period? It continued arresting and assassinating Palestinians on the West Bank, and it continued the deadly blockade that was slowly strangling Gaza. Then on Nov. 4, as Americans voted for a new president, Israel attacked a tunnel inside Gaza and killed six Palestinians. It was the first major violation of the ceasefire, and the Palestinians—who had been “careful to maintain the ceasefire,” according to Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center—responded by resuming rocket attacks. The calm that had prevailed since June vanished as Israel ratcheted up the blockade and its attacks into Gaza and the Palestinians hurled more rockets at Israel. . . . [N]ot a single Israeli was killed by Palestinian missiles between Nov. 4 and the launching of the war on Dec. 27.

“As the violence increased, Hamas made clear that it had no interest in extending the ceasefire beyond Dec. 19, which is hardly surprising, since it had not worked as intended. In mid-December, however, Hamas informed Israel that it was still willing to negotiate a long-term ceasefire if it included an end to the arrests and assassinations as well as the lifting of the blockade. But the Israelis, having used the ceasefire to prepare for war against Hamas, rejected this overture. The bombing of Gaza commenced eight days after the failed ceasefire formally ended.

“If Israel wanted to stop missile attacks from Gaza, it could have done so by arranging a long-term ceasefire with Hamas. And if Israel were genuinely interested in creating a viable Palestinian state, it could have worked with the national unity government to implement a meaningful ceasefire and change Hamas’s thinking about a two-state solution. But Israel has a different agenda: it is determined to employ the Iron Wall strategy to get the Palestinians in Gaza to accept their fate as hapless subjects of a Greater Israel.

“This brutal policy is clearly reflected in Israel’s conduct of the Gaza War. Israel and its supporters claim that the IDF is going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, in some cases taking risks that put Israeli soldiers in jeopardy. Hardly. One reason to doubt these claims is that Israel refuses to allow reporters into the war zone: it does not want the world to see what its soldiers and bombs are doing inside Gaza. At the same time, Israel has launched a massive propaganda campaign to put a positive spin on the horror stories that do emerge.

“The best evidence, however, that Israel is deliberately seeking to punish the broader population in Gaza is the death and destruction the IDF has wrought on that small piece of real estate. Israel has killed over 1,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 4,000. Over half of the casualties are civilians, and many are children. The IDF’s opening salvo on Dec. 27 took place as children were leaving school, and one of its primary targets that day was a large group of graduating police cadets, who hardly qualified as terrorists. In what Ehud Barak called “an all-out war against Hamas,” Israel has targeted a university, schools, mosques, homes, apartment buildings, government offices, and even ambulances. A senior Israeli military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explained the logic behind Israel’s expansive target set: “There are many aspects of Hamas, and we are trying to hit the whole spectrum, because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel.” In other words, everyone is a terrorist and everything is a legitimate target.

“Israelis tend to be blunt, and they occasionally say what they are really doing. After the IDF killed 40 Palestinian civilians in a UN school on Jan. 6, Ha’aretz reported that “senior officers admit that the IDF has been using enormous firepower.” One officer explained, “For us, being cautious means being aggressive. From the minute we entered, we’ve acted like we’re at war. That creates enormous damage on the ground … I just hope those who have fled the area of Gaza City in which we are operating will describe the shock.”

“One might accept that Israel is waging “a cruel, all-out war against 1.5 million Palestinian civilians,” as Ha’aretz put it in an editorial, but argue that it will eventually achieve its war aims and the rest of the world will quickly forget the horrors inflicted on the people of Gaza.

“This is wishful thinking. For starters, Israel is unlikely to stop the rocket fire for any appreciable period of time unless it agrees to open Gaza’s borders and stop arresting and killing Palestinians. Israelis talk about cutting off the supply of rockets and mortars into Gaza, but weapons will continue to come in via secret tunnels and ships that sneak through Israel’s naval blockade. It will also be impossible to police all of the goods sent into Gaza through legitimate channels.

“Israel could try to conquer all of Gaza and lock the place down. That would probably stop the rocket attacks if Israel deployed a large enough force. But then the IDF would be bogged down in a costly occupation against a deeply hostile population. They would eventually have to leave, and the rocket fire would resume. And if Israel fails to stop the rocket fire and keep it stopped, as seems likely, its deterrent will be diminished, not strengthened.

“More importantly, there is little reason to think that the Israelis can beat Hamas into submission and get the Palestinians to live quietly in a handful of Bantustans inside Greater Israel. Israel has been humiliating, torturing, and killing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories since 1967 and has not come close to cowing them. Indeed, Hamas’s reaction to Israel’s brutality seems to lend credence to Nietzsche’s remark that what does not kill you makes you stronger.

“But even if the unexpected happens and the Palestinians cave, Israel would still lose because it will become an apartheid state. As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently said, Israel will “face a South African-style struggle” if the Palestinians do not get a viable state of their own. “As soon as that happens,” he argued, “the state of Israel is finished.” Yet Olmert has done nothing to stop settlement expansion and create a viable Palestinian state, relying instead on the Iron Wall strategy to deal with the Palestinians.

“There is also little chance that people around the world who follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will soon forget the appalling punishment that Israel is meting out in Gaza. The destruction is just too obvious to miss, and too many people—especially in the Arab and Islamic world—care about the Palestinians’ fate. Moreover, discourse about this long-standing conflict has undergone a sea change in the West in recent years, and many of us who were once wholly sympathetic to Israel now see that the Israelis are the victimizers and the Palestinians are the victims. What is happening in Gaza will accelerate that changing picture of the conflict and long be seen as a dark stain on Israel’s reputation.

“The bottom line is that no matter what happens on the battlefield, Israel cannot win its war in Gaza. In fact, it is pursuing a strategy—with lots of help from its so-called friends in the Diaspora—that is placing its long-term future at risk.”



Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Apartheid and how to deal with it

A few days ago Bob Simon gave an interview of remarkable frankness about Israel on the Charlie Rose TV program See the interview at Charlie's website: Simon is a CBS News correspondent who has lived in Israel for ten years and knows the country well.

In his somber comments, Simon said that only if an American president were to threaten to suspend all aid and other support would the Israelis withdraw from the settlements on the West Bank. Of course because of the “political dynamic” in this country, that will not happen. Such is the dismal reality of American politics today.

In Bob Simon’s view, the settlements have now so thoroughly sliced and diced the Palestinian population that a two-state solution is no longer possible. We keep hearing of the two-state plan on all sides, but that is now simply a fantasy. As regards an alternative solution, Simon thought that expulsion of the Palestinians into Jordan was not likely (I am not so sure).

In this relentless logic only one possibility is left. The Palestinians already believe that they are living under apartheid. In any event, as Simon acknoledged, an apartheid system is inevitable. In fact, it is already here, as the facts on the grounds clearly show. The Jewish settlements are linked with new highways on which no Palestinian can go. These highways slice up the Palestinian population, apportioning it into “cantons,” ethnic reservations, in effect. Imprisoned in these zones, they can only go from one to another by passing through time-consuming, humiliating checkpoints. Without any doubt, this system recalls that of apartheid South Africa.

There is an even more sinister parallel. During World War II the occupying power proposed to slice up Ukraine in a similar fashion. Members of the dominant group would have exclusive rights to settle in cities, which would be connected by superhighways. In the interstices between the elements of this network the subject people would be forced to live. This system was called “human polderization,” after the method of recovering land from the sea by dividing it into small zones bordered by dykes.

In contemporary terms, this is the reality about the “democratic” country with which we are allied: apartheid Israel.

Plain speaking is needed. Yet it is not necessary to limit ourselves to words. In a brilliant column, published in The Nation ( and elsewhere, Naomi Klein suggests the next step.

“Enough. It's time for a boycott.”

“It's time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa. In July 2005 a huge coalition of Palestinian groups laid out plans to do just that. They called on "people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era." The campaign Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] was born.

Every day that Israel pounds Gaza brings more converts to the BDS cause --even among Israeli Jews. In the midst of the assault roughly 500 Israelis, dozens of them well-known artists and scholars, sent a letter to foreign ambassadors in Israel. It calls for "the adoption of immediate restrictive measures and sanctions" and draws a clear parallel with the anti-apartheid struggle. "The boycott on South Africa was effective, but Israel is handled with kid gloves ... This international backing must stop."

Yet even in the face of these clear calls, many of us still can't go there. The reasons are complex, emotional and understandable. But they simply aren't good enough. Economic sanctions are the most effective tool in the non-violent arsenal: surrendering them verges on active complicity. Here are the top four objections to the BDS strategy, followed by counter-arguments.

[1] Punitive measures will alienate rather than persuade Israelis.

The world has tried what used to be called "constructive engagement." It has failed utterly. Since 2006 Israel has been steadily escalating its criminality: expanding settlements, launching an outrageous war against Lebanon, and imposing collective punishment on Gaza through the brutal blockade. Despite this escalation, Israel has not faced punitive measures - quite the opposite. The weapons and $3 billion in annual aid the US sends Israel are only the beginning. Throughout this key period, Israel has enjoyed a dramatic improvement in its diplomatic, cultural and trade relations with a variety of other allies. For instance, in 2007 Israel became the first country outside Latin America to sign a free-trade deal with the Mercosur bloc. In the first nine months of 2008, Israeli exports to Canada went up 45%. A new deal with the EU is set to double Israel's exports of processed food. And in December European ministers "upgraded" the EU-Israel association agreement, a reward long sought by Jerusalem.

It is in this context that Israeli leaders started their latest war: confident they would face no meaningful costs. It is remarkable that over seven days of wartime trading, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange's flagship index actually went up 10.7%. When carrots don't work, sticks are needed.

[2] Israel is not South Africa.

Of course it isn't. The relevance of the South African model is that it proves BDS tactics can be effective when weaker measures (protests, petitions, backroom lobbying) fail. And there are deeply distressing echoes of apartheid in the occupied territories: the color-coded IDs and travel permits, the bulldozed homes and forced displacement, the settler-only roads. Ronnie Kasrils, a prominent South African politician, said the architecture of segregation he saw in the West Bank and Gaza was "infinitely worse than apartheid". That was in 2007, before Israel began its full-scale war against the open-air prison that is Gaza.

[3] Why single out Israel when the US, Britain and other western countries do the same things in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic. The reason the strategy should be tried is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work.

[4] Boycotts sever communication; we need more dialogue, not less.

This one I'll answer with a personal story. For eight years, my books have been published in Israel by a commercial house called Babel. But when I published The Shock Doctrine, I wanted to respect the boycott. On the advice of BDS activists, including the wonderful writer John Berger, I contacted a small publisher called Andalus. Andalus is an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew. We drafted a contract that guarantees that all proceeds go to Andalus's work, and none to me. I am boycotting the Israeli economy but not Israelis. . . .

My point is this: as soon as you start a boycott strategy, dialogue grows dramatically. The argument that boycotts will cut us off from one another is particularly specious given the array of cheap information technologies at our fingertips. . . . “



Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bush exeunte--at last

Tenderfoot that I am, I simply cannot watch the last farewells of George W. Bush. Fortunately, my friend at Gay Species ( is made of stronger stuff. Here are his astute comments:

"George W. Bush gave a final exit news conference in the midst of disbelief. G.W.B. admits to some mistakes, refused to talk about pardons, cautioned the Republican Party to be inclusive and wondered aloud what it would feel like to make coffee for his wife, Laura, at their ranch in Crawford, TX. His observations -- if one can call them that -- or his reminiscences -- if one admits a huge capacity for self-deception and imagination -- were breathtaking for their contempt of people's intelligence and his own oblivion of the facts.

"For every one of his major failures (time did not permit the minor ones) -- including some of the potential 269 crimes, not the least his admission to committing war crimes --he retorted that, “all these debates will matter not if there is another attack on the homeland.” A one-issue president, who gets the one issue wrong, too. Seven days until redemption, or at least, relief cannot come fast enough."

Absolutely. One of the recent revelations is that Bush signed off personally on torture. Should he not be tried as a war criminal? It seems that Obama, in his quest for "consensus" (with war criminals?), will not hear of it.

It is time to revive the Bertrand Russell Commission that operated during the Vietnam War. Bush can be tried before an international tribunal. Of course the US will not surrender the culprit, but perhaps he could be obstructed, as was General Augusto Pinochet, his fellow war criminal, from traveling abroad. At home, house arrest would be best--possibly in the company of his fellow swindler Bernard Madoff. Bush "made off" with the United States.

A case can be made for GWB as the Manchurian Candidate. Could any avowed enemy of the US have accomplished even half as much to devastate our country? And in this light, will an an invitation to set up shop in Bin Laden's hideout be long in coming? They are two peas in a pod. And I am told that there is some similarity between the landscape of NW Pakistan and Texas.

Many will console themelves by saying that Bush's greatest accomplishment is to devastate the Republican Party. Yes, that is something. However, we do still have a two-party system, and the Republicans recovered from Richard Nixon--after a fashion. Can there be recovery from George W. Bush? That seems doubtful. Only a Tacitus could fully record the immense desert of his crimes and stupidities.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Gaza slaughter

News reports indicate that hundreds of Gazans have been killed or wounded in the Israeli invasion. Almost all of them are civilians.

A few days ago, Andrew Sullivan offered the following enigmatic comment:

"This is instructive:

"'In 2002, at the height of the second intifada, more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed, compared with about 400 Israelis. In the past eight days of war, more than 460 Palestinians were killed, and four Israelis died by rocket fire.'

"From 2-1 to 100-1 in six years is a big gain in killing efficiency. Just so long as the Israelis never expect any actual relationship with any actual Gazans, it works after a fashion. But does it deny Hamas a psychological victory?"

Is the only issue here one of "psychological victory"?

During World War II the Nazis infamously massacred ten civilians for every one of their soldiers killed. Now the Israelis have boosted the ratio to 100-1.

At the same time, by a curious coincidence, movie theaters are showcasing a series of new films on the Holocaust, with the ferocious "Defiance" at the head. Once again, it seems that the Holocaust is being deployed as a heat shield to mask outrageous Israeli behavior.

Mass slaughter continues to go on in Darfur. In the Congo, some four million people have been killed. When will there be high-budget films on these holocausts? The reason they are absent, of course, is that there are very few Darfurians or Congolese in influential positions in the US media and government.

I have no brief for the Palestinians. They are killing gay men. But the misdeeds of the Palestinians cannot excuse what is going on in Gaza now--not to mention the shameful complicity of George W. Bush.

The US media are slavishly copying the talking points of AIPAC. The central theme of these pieces is the childish bleat: "they did it first." That is not even true. It is the Israeli blockade, an act of war, that constituted the first aggression that launched this sequence of hostilities.

UPDATE (Jan. 10). One meme that is going the rounds among the vociferous defenders of Israel's "incursion" into Gaza is as follows. "Supposing that Mexicans had been firing rockets into San Diego. How long to you think it would be before the US would take action?"

The comparison is preposterous. If we had subjected Mexico to a blockade so that no sea or air traffic could go in or or out, and no Mexicans could ever leave, so that they were reduced to the direst misery, how long do you think it would take for Mexicans to act? They would fire rockets if they could. And, as someone has suggested, let's turn the tables. Imagine that the Mexicans had successfuly invaded San Diego, and forced its inhabitants into a giant prison in Death Valley. Then what?

All these scenarios are hypothetical. Instead of entertaining such parallels, which can go on endlessly, we need to concentrate on what is actually happening in Gaza. That is difficult because the Israel Defense Force, in defiance of a decision by their Supreme Court, has imposed a news blackout. To be sure, some photographs of the atrocities are getting through. But Israel-firsters don't want our media to print them.

Shamefully, the US Senate has u n a n i m o u s l y passed a resolution in support of Israel. The House of Representatives is preparing to do the same. Those actions tell the whole story. We do not control our foreign policy in the Middle East. Another country does.

SECOND UPDATE. In the House of Representatives, at least Rep. Ron Paul has had the courage to speak out. The following is Rep. Ron Paul's statement on H. Res. 34 entitled "Recognizing Israel's right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza, reaffirming the United States' strong support for Israel, and supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process."

"Madame Speaker, I strongly oppose H. Res. 34, which was rushed to the floor with almost no prior notice and without consideration by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The resolution clearly takes one side in a conflict that has nothing to do with the United States or U.S. interests. I am concerned that the weapons currently being used by Israel against the Palestinians in Gaza are made in America and paid for by American taxpayers. What will adopting this resolution do to the perception of the United States in the Muslim and Arab world? What kind of blowback might we see from this? What moral responsibility do we have for the violence in Israel and Gaza after having provided so much military support to one side?

"As an opponent of all violence, I am appalled by the practice of lobbing homemade rockets into Israel from Gaza. I am only grateful that, because of the primitive nature of these weapons, there have been so few casualties among innocent Israelis. But I am also appalled by the long-standing Israeli blockade of Gaza – a cruel act of war – and the tremendous loss of life that has resulted from the latest Israeli attack that started last month.

"There are now an estimated 700 dead Palestinians, most of whom are civilians. Many innocent children are among the dead. While the shooting of rockets into Israel is inexcusable, the violent actions of some people in Gaza does not justify killing Palestinians on this scale. Such collective punishment is immoral. At the very least, the U.S. Congress should not be loudly proclaiming its support for the Israeli government's actions in Gaza.

"Madame Speaker, this resolution will do nothing to reduce the fighting and bloodshed in the Middle East. The resolution in fact will lead the U.S. to become further involved in this conflict, promising "vigorous support and unwavering commitment to the welfare, security, and survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state." Is it really in the interest of the United States to guarantee the survival of any foreign country? I believe it would be better to focus on the security and survival of the United States, the Constitution of which my colleagues and I swore to defend just this week at the beginning of the 111th Congress. I urge my colleagues to reject this resolution."


Sunday, January 11, 2009

The American Founding: Was it Christian?

My overall project of examining the intertwining of the Abrahamic religions and their influence-- beneficent or pernicious according to the theme in question--has perforce neglected many ancillary issues. After all, I can scarcely expect to live a hundred years more, the time that I estimate it would take to deal properly with all the issues.

One important theme is the role (or not) ascribed to Christianity in the American Founding. As Jon Rowe acknowledges, this depends on how Christianity is defined. See his superb blog:

As Rowe shows, the opinions of the Founders evolved over time. In my view the most remarkable evolution was that of John Adams. Beginning from a relatively conservative viewpoint, Adams came to believe towards the end of his life that Jesus Christ had never existed. Rather, this personage was a surrogate for the solar principle, as some scholars of the French Enlightenment had suggested.

It could be maintained that many Founders chose a kind of Averroist position, with a sophisticated set of truths for themselves, and more simplistic pablum for the masses. The greatest exponent of this split consciousness was, I believe, Abraham Lincoln who made masterful use of the Bible, a text that he probably regarded as a set of fictions. As indeed it is.

At all events, I urge readers to consult Jon Rowe's blog, where all the relevant issues concerning the American founding are thoroughly canvased.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Queer Bible Commentary

The period from about 1800 to 1933 was a golden age in Germany for scholarship of all kinds. Among the fields that rejoiced in substantial advances were Biblical studies and the history & theory of homosexuality. Curiously, these two interests hardly ever intersected. Biblical scholars were mainly concerned with furthering the discoveries of the historical-critical school, which devastated the conventional hermeneutics of the Scriptures. For their part, gay scholars were seeking to interpret data from the past so as to lay the foundations for a more positive understanding of homosexuality. We are still indebted to their pioneering work.

Practitioners of both these disciplines seem to have assumed that there was little need to go into the views of the Bible regarding “sodomy” (as the matter was still conventionally termed), for the texts clearly condemned it. Hence golden-age contributions, as recorded in Manfred Herzer’s invaluable German-language bibliography, were very scarce.

So matters stood until the 1950s, when some parties within the Church of England intervened. The results appeared in Canon D.S. Bailey’s book “Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition” (1955). Bailey concluded that a number of passages, which had been confidently assumed to condemn homosexual conduct, did not do so--or were at least ambivalent. This tendency to reexamination--or as some would term airbrushing--culminated in John Boswell’s well-known monograph of 1980.

These efforts seemed solidly buttressed by philology and history, and as a result some began to assert--counterintuitively--that the Bible was actually gay friendly. These claims found a ready audience in such denomination-based gay organizations as Integrity, Dignity, and Axios, as well as in Troy Perry’s Metropolitan Community Church, which established thriving congregations in a number of cities.

Yet when the bearers of the new eirenic dispensation expounded their views to groups of more traditionally oriented Christians and Jews, they made little headway. It turned out that there was no consensus that the Bible had been successfully detoxified. In fact, for most traditional observers the "clobber passages" retained their force. In the light of this resistance, certainty proved more elusive than the first enthusiasts had assumed.

At the same time feminist Bible scholars were at work on a more ambitious project. They could not deny that many passage in the Scriptures were downright misogynistic, reflecting a pervasive patriarchal ideology of subordination. The more virulent passages were termed “texts of terror.” In order to recover what they continued to hold was a genuine humanistic and liberatory impetus in the Bible, they needed to confront these misogynistic elements directly.

Some scholars pointed out that the current fashion in Bible translation for gender-neutral language, replacing “he” with “he and she,” or even avoiding gender determination in general, was counterproductive because the alteration served to conceal underlying male bias. This tendency, rooted in a remote civilization, must be displayed for what it was, and not swept beneath the rug.

Accordingly, GLBT Biblical scholars came to see the need for a more nuanced and complex approach, contrasting with the simple refutations of the Bailey-Boswell era. What was needed was full commentary for the twenty-first century. In 2006 this need was addressed in “The Queer Bible Commentary,” a massive volume of 877 pages, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache (SCM Press). This tome comes with a hefty price tag of $100. Through an Internet search, I was able to acquire a copy of the QBC for a good deal less.

Unlike the earlier era of gay biblical scholarship, in which independent scholars were numerous, the thirty-one QBC contributors are mostly professionals, with eleven being university professors, four teaching in seminaries, and eleven serving as pastors in GLBT congregations. Four are Jews, and a number of the Christian contributors show evidence of pondering Jewish scholarship and approaches.

This impressive roster of contributors signals the rise of a genuine interpretive community, a network of thinkers and scholars who are united by a common pursuit, notwithstanding differences in detail. This advance contrasts with the more scattergun approach of the second half of the twentieth century, in which a number of more-or-less isolated individuals struggled against the powerful mainstream current, a current that either disparaged or ignored their concerns.

For those of a certain age, like myself, the word "queer" carries a negativity that remains repellent. In order to access the riches of this book, however, one must set aside this queasiness. A more serious problem is the scope of the term queer among those who prefer it. Is it simply an umbrella term encompassing gay-male, lesbian, bisexual, and gender-variant individuals, or is it something more--an all-purpose term for people who march to a different drummer? It may even apply, some say, to everyone, in the sense that we all harbor some eccentricity or other.

A queer approach has the advantage of broadening the perspective. In this way it becomes clear that what it is involved is not just the handful of proof texts singled out by the Bailey-Boswell crowd, but a much broader conspectus. Moreover, the queer perspective has the advantage--or so it would seem--of not importing the heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy, which is deemed anachronistic. In their texts, however a number of QBC writers freely use the terms “heterosexual” and “heterornomative,” showing that the older terminology is not so easily discarded.

For some time Biblical scholars have decried any resort to what they term “eisegesis.” If exegesis is the leading forth of information which is genuinely present in a text, eisegesis inserts meanings that are not there. Sometimes, of course, this contrast is a little too convenient. “I practice legitimate exegesis, while you--my opponent--have slipped into eisegesis." Still, the term “queering” suggests that one may cross the boundaries a little too freely. As a result, the interpretations advanced may be too speculative or “far out” to gain traction in the larger world of Biblical hermeneutics.

Courageously, the QBC authors have chosen to examine all the canonical books--66 according to the traditional reckoning--that collectively comprise what used to be termed the Old and New Testaments. In recent years, the term Old Testament has been largely abandoned, on the grounds that it incorporates a supersessionist agenda in which those books are simply treated as precursors of Christianity rather than as the autonomous creation of the ancient Israelite people. Accordingly, this--the larger part of the Scriptures--is now usually termed the Hebrew Bible or the Tanakh. This leaves the term New Testament high and dry so to speak, though it is still commonly used. The editors of the QBC have opted for a compromise solution, which emerged in seminaries in the 1990s. The arrange the individual books under “Part I: The First Testament” and “Part II: The Second Testament.” Evidently, this solution proved satisfactory to the Jewish contributors to the volume.

Recent scholarship, particularly with regard to the Hebrew Bible (the “First Testament”) has overturned many traditional assumptions. The scholars known as minimalists challenge the historicity of the scriptural texts, holding that most were written centuries after the events they purport to describe. They point out that there is no independent evidence for the existence of Moses, Joshua, Saul, David, or Solomon. In all likelihood, none of them actually existed. The exodus story of the sojourn in Egypt and the subsequent conquest of Canaan is likewise rejected.

With some reservations, the authors of the QBC tend to accept these revisionist views. This acceptance means that the old dichotomy between Canaanite “fertility cults” and strict Israelite monotheism can no longer be maintained. This change has an important consequence because some homophobic passages (such as the ones in Leviticus 18 and 20) can no longer be ascribed to anti-Canaanite sentiment, a ploy that tended to restrict their force to that (long-vanished) context.

As far as I can tell, the writers judge recent advances in New Testament scholarship of less moment. They do not feel the need to discuss the work of the Jesus Seminar on the authenticity of passages in the Gospels. They also do not deal with the attempts to reconstruct the source document Q, and Morton Smith’s still problematic assertion that he found a lost (and cryptically homoerotic) text from the Gospel of Mark.

The chief accomplishment of the QBC is its uncovering of a pervasive pattern of abjection. Disparagement of same-sex conduct may indeed be limited to a few passages. But these cannot be examined in isolation. Rather, they must take their place in a larger context of discriminatory social hierarchy in which most women, men perceived as weak, non-Israelites, and all those tainted with otherness are subject to a relentless process of inferiorization. Those who find themselves in an inferiorized group but who still cherish the Bible contend that this massive negativity is overbalanced by the powerful liberatory message of justice and dignity espoused by the prophets and by Jesus.

According to one definition, “education which is liberatory encourages learners to challenge and change the world, not merely uncritically adapt themselves to it. The content and purpose of liberatory education is the collective responsibility of learners, teachers, and the community alike who, through dialogue, seek political, as well as economic and personal empowerment. Programs of liberatory education support and compliment larger social struggles for liberation.” Burdened as it is with so much negativity, can the Bible really help to accomplish this goal? Assuming that liberatory education is the aim, would it not be best to approach the task more directly, without having to shoulder oppressive baggage inherited from an era that has long passed? 

That said, we turn to some more specific critical points. In its day-to-day practice, the Christian ministry has long emphasized a strategy of relevance, in which Bible texts and theological principles are brought up to date by citing contemporary parallels. As the QBC writers point out, in the pastoral mainstream such seeming fidelity to the Biible is often selective and distorted, as when “family values” are reduced to the slogan of “one man, one woman.” Many Bible worthies had more than one wife, with Solomon ostensibly holding the record with 700 (together with 300 concubines). In the Jewish pastoral tradition midrashic principles sometimes lead to similar selectivity.

While they protest against anachronism in traditional interpretation, the QBC writers are not above some indulgences of their own in the realm of present-mindedness. Thus one commentator labels Joseph (he of the coat of many colors) as “a flaming queen.” Could it be that Joseph was just a dandy, a time-honored role? In another flight of extravagance Yahweh and Moses are portrayed as gay-male lovers. On a higher intellectual plane, the postmodern insights of such figures as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler are retrojected back into a remote world where their applicability is contestable. This practice, it would appear, is the downside of “queering.”

In principle one must applaud the attention that Christian Biblical scholars are now giving to Jewish hermeneutics of the First Testament. Some writers, though, in their newfound enthusiasm fail to distinguish between the sober peshat tradition (which seeks carefully to attend to the text) and the flights of fancy found in the Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts. There is also a tendency to endorse folk etymologies and other questionable understandings of the Hebrew text. Allegorical and fanciful Jewish traditions must be examined with the same skepticism as that applied to the web of speculation and wishful thinking that characterizes Christian medieval hermeneutics.

Another unconvincing feature is the endorsement of the current campaign to desexualize the male and female cult prostitutes, the kedeshim and kedeshot. Several generations of biblical scholars have held thast the kedeshim, or holy ones, were male cult prostitutes.

Some feminist scholars seem uncomfortable with any discussion of prostitution. Yet the Hebrew Bible luxuriantly documents the custom, which provides, among other things, a major metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh. A prostitute, Rahab, played an important role in the tale of Joshua’s conquest. Another married the prophet Hosea. The New Testament frequently decries "porneia." The bible is saturated with the phenomenon.

Among a number of texts, the following (Deut. 23:18) is key: "No Israelite woman shall be a kedeshah, nor shall any Israelite man be a kadesh. You shall not bring the fee of a zonah (whore) or the pay of a kelebh (dog) into the house of the Lord." The kedeshah/zonah is one linkage, and the kadesh/kelebh one parallels it. There is independent evidence that such kelebhim were male hustlers; at all events, dogs in the ordinary sense do not generally receive fees. Thus there are two types of cult prostitutes, female and male, and two types of ordinary prostitutes, female and male. Yet those who wish to erase the stigma of sex for hire from the kedeshot.

As Warren Johansson remarked in his classic article in the “Encyclopedia of Homosexuality”: the term kadesh "occurs as a common noun at least six times (Deuteronomy 23:18, I Kings 14:24, 15: 12 and 22:46, 11 Kings 23:7, Job 36:14). It can also be restored on the basis of textual criticism in II Kings 23:24 (= Septuagint of II Chronicles 35: 19a) and in Hosea 1:12." Yet the commentators of the QBC think that the sexual services these men are characterized as offering are merely slurs invented by their opponents. To speak plainly, this method of eliminating passages one doesn’t like is just too convenient.

The editors have completely missed another important discovery. A quarter of a century ago I had the honor of publishing in “The Cabirion,” a quarterly I then edited, an article by my friend Warren Johansson. This article, which deals with the context of the word “racha” in Matthew 5:22, is now accessible at, and in a shortened version at the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (

Here is the textual source: Matthew 5:21: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.

Matthew 5:22: "But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Racha, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."

Translators and commentators have long been puzzled by the word "racha," which is left in the original in the King James version. Clearly racha was a term of disparagement, some sort of insult. In a general sense, one may conjecture that the word is related to a Hebrew term meaning "empty," "empty-headed," or "brainless." That would parallel the imprecation "thou fool" in the last clause of Matthew 5:22.

If Johansson is right, as he seems to be, then the teaching ascribed to Jesus is that his followers should not insult men, impugning their masculinity by labeling them “softies,” that is, passives or effeminates, types of persons generally disparaged at the time. "What the text in Matthew demonstrates," Johansson concludes, "is that he forbade acts of violence, physical and verbal, against those to whom homosexuality was imputed, in line with the general emphasis on self-restraint and meekness in his teachings." Warren Johansson cautions that none of his analysis implies that Jesus accepted or approved of homosexual conduct. Condemnation of homophobic slurs does not necessarily entail approval of homosexual behavior, as some overenthusiastic gay-Christian admirers of Johansson’s piece have concluded. All the same, Johansson’s discovery seems to preclude the common perception that Jesus did not say “one word” about homosexuality. In fact, according to Matthew he did say one word: racha.

With its graphic personal asides, extravagances, and oftentimes sheer creativity, the QBC ranks as the most entertaining Bible commentary I have read. That is not necessarily a compliment.