Saturday, December 22, 2001

So, there's more from Orange Coast college. This is the garden spot where four Saudi Arabian students accused professor Ken Hearlson of calling them "terrorists", "Nazis", and "murderers", comments which were mysteriously absent from two students' tapes of the class in question. Were these tapes faked by the Jew-dominated media, or the Zionists in the CIA? The choice is yours!

But, while you're pondering that question, consider as well the backup accusation which has emerged from the faculty --- that even if Hearlson didn't accuse the students of anything, and if all his comments were in fact directed at the behavior of Arab governments (as those oh-so-suspicious tapes seem to show), he was still "inferentially guilty" --- that is, that from Hearlson's observation that Arab governments hadn't clearly condemned the violence, one could "infer" that the students in front of him were responsible for it.

Which is clearly ridiculous, though no more so than the oft-blogged op-ed piece from the Boston Globe which argued that

Whether it's the dark, sad eyes of a woman in purdah or the anxious darkly circled eyes of a girl with anorexia nervosa, the woman trapped inside needs to be liberated from cultural confines in whatever form they take. The burka and the bikini represent opposite ends of the political spectrum but each can exert a noose-like grip on the psyche and physical health of girls and women.

Which brings us to the question, why is there a certain strain in academe that keeps saying this sort of stuff? One possibility is that they're just dumb, but you'd like to think that some brains are required to get ahead in academe. Another possibility is raised by Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, who claims that some academics would just rather be clever than right. NYU media critic and professor Mark Miller phrases this critique in economic terms, saying in effect, that when it's publish or perish, putting words --- any words --- on paper can be much more important to an aspiring academic's career than worrying about whether those words make any sense.

But, as Miller also points out, that explanation only goes so far. Op-ed pieces count for nothing on a curriculum vitae, yet the authors of the Globe piece feel strongly that they are conveying some important truths that the general public needs to hear, so they clearly feel that what they're doing is more than trading moves in some intellectual parlor game. So, the careerist, or as Miller would have it, the economic explanation can't explain this.

So, is it leftist politics? You might think so, but Miller, who's seen a lot, doesn't think that's quite it either:

... militant obscurantism, combined, absurdly, with the constant pretense that such work is somehow for the masses ... and the theorists' evidently inexhaustible desire to flog the dead horse of High Culture, do indeed suggest, if not descent from, a certain temperamental kinship with the Stalinists of yesteryear. But there's this crucial difference between then and now: Whereas that Marxist-Leninist critique was all about the scourge of capital, and placed its hopes in an awakened working class, what academic theory analyzes--or, rather, demonizes--now is merely "power"; and its collective hero is the (putatively) "powerless."

"Power" is an elastic concept--so imprecise, that we might best grasp it by personifying it. For there's a spectre haunting all that theory: a privileged and judgmental white man, elegantly dressed, articulate and sly, who fears and loathes the colored hordes, believes that women should stay in their place (where he can have his way with them), and thinks that homosexuals should either act like "us" or go to jail. ...

"Power," in other words, does not refer to what a Communist would once have called "the ruling class" or "the bourgeoisie." Nor, concomitantly, does "the powerless" mean "the workers of the world," but refers instead to those "outgroups" whose interests are reflected in what Kimball calls that "menu of left-wing social initiatives, from feminism to radical multiculturalism." Thus women, gays and people of color are "the powerless," as are some populations of the poor--i.e., those that can be understood (or "theorized") as female or non-white. Academic theorists will acknowledge each such bloc only insofar as they can see it as a group locked in heroic opposition to the certainties and/or conspiracies and/or desires of "power." (Thus post-colonial studies, for example, tends to concentrate on those bi-cultural encounters that are easiest to melodramatize--as East vs. West, or North vs. South--while it largely skirts those cases, such as Tunisia, where the opposition never was so stark.)

If you want to know where this bizarre idea of "power" comes from, try reading this essay, by UCLA sociologist Phil Agre, who is trying to figure out why some of his colleagues look askance at his "oppressive" how-to guides ("How to help someone use a computer", "How to be a leader in your field", etc.) because they are themselves, somehow, an expression of "power".

In particular, Agre discusses how this originates from a certain strain of literary criticism run amok, which in turn helps explain howlers like the opening of the Globe piece:

THE FEMALE BODY - covered in a burka or uncovered in a bikini - is a subtle subtext in the war against terrorism.

Say what? Bodies are not texts, except perhaps in the works of your humble author's namesake. If you've lost track of that, it's a whole lot easier to suggest that Cosmo is a tool of oppression on a par with the whips and guns of the Taliban.

Agre's piece has more meat, though it's a tougher read, because he's trying to meet his colleagues on their own ground. But it would be a shame to miss Miller's hilarious takedown of a lecture by multiculturalist Homi Bhabha...

Friday, December 21, 2001

In today's New York Times, Paul Krugman describes just how far the Republicans were willing to go to forge a compromise with the Democrats on the stimulus bill:

The original bill consisted almost entirely of tax cuts ---— 95 percent of the total cost ---— with virtually nothing for the unemployed. The new bill offers slightly more to the unemployed, enough to reduce the share of tax cuts in the bill's total cost to a measly 92 percent.

In the original bill 69 percent of those tax cuts were for corporations; in the new bill this is reduced to a mere 63 percent.

In its most controversial provision, the original bill retroactively eliminated the alternative minimum tax on corporations, refunding $24 billion in past corporate taxes. The new bill doesn't entirely eliminate the alternative minimum tax — but it still offers corporations about $16 billion in refunds, spread out over time instead of all at once.

And so forth. Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, is distressed that these concessions weren't enough to get the bill through the Senate; "Republicans," he opines, "have given up a lot".

The Times of India has a brief piece reporting that Kashmiri separatist group Jaish-i-Muhammed, having denied complicity in the recent attack on India's parliament, is now threatening "shocking attacks" across India, using "sophisticated weapons" to inflict "maximum casualties."

We didn't do it --- but we'll do it again!

via rantburg

Well, it just got a little harder to believe the Osama tape was faked. It seems that the government's publicly released translation left out a few bits. Among these nuggets: Osama's visitor, Khalid al Harbi (formerly known as "the fat guy on the right") was smuggled into Afghanistan by Saudi religious police, and brought tidings of support from prominent clerics with direct ties to the Saudi regime.

Reasons why the United States would want to fake a tape with these bits, incriminating a close ally which the U.S. has otherwise been bending over backwards to protect, are left as an exercise for the interested anti-American fanatic.

Link via Ken Layne.

Glenn Reynolds and Brian Linse are having a debate about the merits of purchases at gun shows, where current law allows sales without background checks or waiting periods. Brian's position is that al-Qaeda's terrorist manuals tell their operatives how to purchase guns at American gun shows, that some Lebanese guy with a felony criminal record bought guns at a show and would have sent them to Hizbollah if an informant hadn't ratted him out first, and this all seems kinda bad. Glenn's take is that most of the people at the shows are good folks who are no threat to anybody, and you can't buy a tank at a gun show anyway, so how bad can things be? He hasn't gotten around to discussing the Lebanese dude yet, but perhaps he'll follow that great American, General Buck Turgidson, in suggesting that it's not quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up.

This spun off an earlier debate between Reynolds and Josh Marshall, about Ashcroft's jealous refusal to allow the FBI to check whether its terrorist suspects were on record as having purchased guns. Reynolds, using his skills as a law prof, cited chapter and verse from the relevant statutes to argue that if he wanted to follow current law, Ashcroft didn't have a choice.

But respect for the letter of the law hasn't otherwise been a hallmark of the Bush administration. Consider, for instance, the Presidential Records Act, which requires certain documents to be released after twelve years. The administration has issued an order which essentially negates the act by fiat, allowing a former or current President to withhold records indefinitely. (If you want to know why that's a big deal, look here). And there was also that 200-page set of changes to current law that got rammed through Congress so fast that some of the people voting on the bill complained that they never got to read it, which could surely have addressed the issue if it was going to be an obstacle.

As long as I'm on the subject, Sgt. Stryker has a few interesting thoughts about folks whose deep veneration for the Constitution starts and ends with the second amendment...

Thursday, December 20, 2001

More allies that the Israelis are better off without: here's a story about a radical Jewish group whose web site has a Flash game which gives you points for killing moderate Israeli politicians. If that strikes you as harmless, remember that not too long ago, a young Jewish radical decided to put that idea into practice, killing Yitzhak Rabin, by his own account, to put the kibosh on negotiations with the Palestinians. Which goes to show that the ongoing Palestinian tragedy is to some extent a folie à deux, with radicals on both sides seeming to have no concrete agenda other than continuing the violence.

And stuck in the middle, we have Sharon and Arafat, both with blood on their hands; Arafat, from a long career of active and, more lately, tacit support for terrorism, and Sharon, most notoriously, for his role in the massacre of well over a thousand civilians at Sabra and Shatila during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

The intent of the invasion, led by Sharon as defense minister, was to eliminate threats to Israeli security from Lebanese raiders. The effect, argues Knesset opposition leader Yossi Sarid in an op-ed in today's New York Times, was to spawn Hizbollah --- thereby creating a new long-term security threat for Israel. (Hizbollah's own web site concurs, at least to an extent, citing the invasion as "the most important moment" in the movement's history, while not mentioning anything that happened at an earlier date).

Sarid goes on to argue for the United States somehow imposing the Clinton administration's proposed settlement on both parties, because "General Zinni needs to offer a plan for the longer run as part of a strategy to end the immediate violence --- and the only viable plan is the proposal made by the Clinton administration." It is hard to imagine a more direct invocation of the classic syllogism:

We must do something.
This is something.
We must do this.

And there are plenty of reasons to doubt the viability of that strategy, starting with commonsense reservations about Arafat's viability as a negotiating partner, as I've written before. But let's remember that Sharon, left to his own devices, may come up with something just as bad. He's done it before.

And the guys with the web site? They paid for Sharon's house.

Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Alan Dershowitz, having wrung all the notoriety he can out of advocating torture, now seems determined to prove that Ashcroft was right about what a high-profile defense attorney would do with bin Laden.

Basic Books has a new series called "The Art of Mentoring", in which the first two books are "Letters to a Young Lawyer", by Dershowitz, and "Letters to a Young Contrarian", by Christopher Hitchens. Naturally, they thought they'd send them both on a combined book tour. It hasn't exactly worked out. In Boston, the two appeared on separate days; Hitchens went first, and when the moderator announced the upcoming reading from Dershowitz, Hitchens loudly urged the audience to stay away, arguing that advocates for torture, particularly those advancing specious legal arguments, ought to be shunned.

The poor moderator was left to sputter that hecklers usually stood on the other side of the podium...

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Floyd Norris says Enron's accounting was "like a carnival fun house":

The crucial transaction, [Enron's auditor, James Berardino] said, involved just $5.7 million. ...

A few minutes later, Mr. Berardino airily dismissed Andersen's failure to notice that Enron had inflated shareholders' equity by $172 million through bad accounting. Relative to the size of Enron, "it was a very small item," he explained. "Accordingly, the transaction fell below the scope of our audit."

How can $172 million be very small, while less than 4 percent of that amount is crucial? That's the fun-house effect.

What's really going on here is that the $6 million was the price that Enron was paying to sweep $711 million in reported debts (and $45 million in operating losses) under the rug --- or more precisely, off its own books, and on the books of a separate entity which it described as an "independant partnership". The $6 million was the cost of Enron's guarantee to its "partners" that they wouldn't actually face the risks of ownership.

Norris is too kind to note that some Enron executives directly pocketed hefty fees for managing these partnerships --- Business week claims that CFO Andrew Fastow got $30 million. And many more sold shares at inflated prices to investors whose appetite was whetted by the faked-up numbers.

There's a more detailed writeup of similar shenanigans in the Washington Post, explaining how one piece of inconvenient debt, originally incurred by a partnership called JEDI, was transferred to another one, cleverly named Chewco after Han Solo's buddy from the original Star Wars; JEDI was apparently a genuine partnership, but Chewco was essentially wholly owned by Enron, and the segregation of its debts from Enron's was an accounting gimmick which achieved nothing other than to cook Enron's books. The wookie should sue.

And that's before we even get to the deals that sank Enron, which the Post's Debra Rosenberg summarizes by noting that

When a company adds to its assets and nothing else changes, its net worth rises. Hence, Enron marked up its net worth by $1.2 billion.

In Enron's heyday, this sort of thing was known as rocket science, or cutting-edge entrepreneurialism. With luck, we may be getting back to a time when it goes by the more prosaic name, fraud.

Slate reviews fake meat. Tofurkey, anyone?
Commercial peeve du jour: this one touts a car. We see the car driving through a walled European village to cheery music as the villagers all start running after it --- eventually, it leads them into the countryside, pied piper style. If you want to have a peasant mob chasing you like mad as you drive through the countryside at twelve miles an hour, this is your car.

The music is from "Thick as a Brick" by Jethro Tull. They left out the vocal track, but if you know the lyrics, you can sing along:

Really don't mind if you sit this one out
My words but a whisper, your deafness a shout
I may make you feel but I can't make you think
Your sperm's in the gutter, your love's in the sink
So you ride yourselves over the fields
And you make all your animal deals
And your wise men don't know how it feels
To be Thick as a Brick

The ad becomes a different and much more evocative experience.

Monday, December 17, 2001

Slate's had a couple of interesting things to say about American reactions to the Talimarinista. William Saletan has a few choice words about that notorious, mealy-mouthed apologist for Walker, George W. Bush, asking particularly why he feels more empathy for a "misled" white child of privilege killing Americans in Afghanistan than he does for, say, the mentally retarded black kid who he was so proud of executing for killing Americans in Texas.

And Michael Kinsley wants to know, if the rest of us get to forget about Afghanistan when the next cause celebre comes along, why doesn't our man in the Taliban?

Score one for pseudoscience. A horoscope printed in 2000 actually bears the warning, "avoid terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001."
Some people think that Boston sports fans are negative.
On Slate, Mickey Kaus has an interesting analysis of why immigrant beneficiaries of European welfare states wind up biting the hand that feeds them.

Via Rafe Colburn.

Sunday, December 16, 2001

Glenn Reynolds points out this Newsweek article by Fareed Zakaria arguing that we should be pressuring our Arab client governments to get the anti-Americanism out of their media, and trying to local businesses going, as a way of draining support for networks like al-Qaeda.

The article is on-target as far as it goes, but given the history of fundamentalist movements generally, and in Egypt in particular, there's an odd omission. As I've mentioned before, Islamic fundamentalist movements have a history of gaining adherents by providing social services which aren't available from the Arab governments. Hamas scores huge propaganda points with the Palestinians by providing free medical care. And there are many reasons that kids in Pakistan wind up in those miserable Madrassahs, but one of the big ones is surely that it's the only schooling they can get.

The governments all have their propaganda, and the fundamentalists have their own. But when all sides are spewing propaganda, actions speak louder than words --- and so long as the fundamentalists are running clinics and schools in places where the government doesn't, the message that comes across will inevitably be that the fundamentalists give a damn about the people and the governments don't. Hence, as I mentioned, Israel's demand that Arafat shut down the network of Hamas medical clinics. Yet, Zakaria's advice doesn't mention them at all.

This probably has something to do with politics within the United States. It seems cruel, and it is cruel, for the United States to advocate shutting down the clinics which are providing care to people who otherwise wouldn't have any. But it wouldn't sit well in Congress if the United States were advising other governments to provide services (like free clinics) to their citizens which the United States is loath to provide to its own. So, we ignore the issue and hope it goes away.

But it won't go away soon, and we may well have another one of these situations before it does. And aspirin is cheaper than bullets.

Finally got to the Yoko Ono retrospective at MIT. It's interesting in that the pieces, by and large, aren't given the usual heirloom treatment. In many cases, the viewer is invited to mess with the work --- all-white chessboards, with white pieces on both sides, which visitors are invited to play; a wishing tree by the door to which visitors can add their own wishes on a provided supply of blank tags; a telephone which Ono calls every once in a while to chat with whoever might be there. Some of her most famous work is the "incomplete paintings", which consist of instructions to the viewer --- there are copies which you can remove from the gallery and carry away; I came away with one, "smoke painting", which reads:
Light canvas or any finished painting with a cigarette at any time for any length of time.
See the smoke movement.
The painting ends when the whole canvas or painting is gone.
Another old piece is the "blue room installation", consisting literally of handwriting on a wall, which is recreated afresh for each showing. The work is an idea; the idea is more important than any physical manifestation of the work.

And yet, and yet.

One of the works on display is from the show at which Yoko met John Lennon; it's the first piece he saw, and the one which got him to stay in the gallery. On the ceiling above a white lader, in letters small enough that you need the attached magnifying glass to read it, is the word "yes".

Visitors are strongly cautioned not to climb the ladder.

It's official. The people who do Christmas holiday specials are out of ideas.