Saturday, November 28, 2015

Mort Sahl on the Madrid Conference (1991)

My hometown paper has a tribute to Mort Sahl this morning. Sahl was a pioneer of the political satire practiced by Robin Williams, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert.

Here he is in Atlantic City, on November 16, 1991.

He has that same fundamental optimism about America displayed by Williams, Stewart and Colbert.

Was he optimistic about the Israel/Palestinian peace process?

"The great jokes in America," says Sahl, "come from around the water cooler in the Executive office." [Starting at 38:50 of the above video] "They're observations of professional men with a sense of urban irony....." To illustrate, he delivers a great joke about inefficiency and waiting lines in Russia.

Then he moves on to riff on the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, in a way that is as fresh today as it was 24 years ago. It's a sad testament to just how little progress has been made.

You know, we're gonna have peace talks in the Middle East, thanks to the good offices of George Bush. We had a hang up, you know, for a couple of days in which they couldn't figure out who would represent the Palestinians 'til they settled on Secretary Baker. 
.... just kidding.... just kidding.... don't take me away!
This is an Israeli joke. Israeli folklore. And who knows the origins?
Baker keeps going back and forth in the shuttle diplomacy. And Yitzhak Shamir is trying to brainwash him to become an advocate of Israel. And so he takes him to the wailing wall. This local site. And these elder Hebrews are praying at the wall (he davens) and writing--the custom is to write the name of your deceased relatives and stick it in the crevice of the wall. And have good things for them. 
So, Baker says "what are they doing?" Because he's a Baptist. And Shamir says "Oh, they're praying for their elders and everything." And Baker says, "Well, that's terrific! We don't have anything like this in Texas. What a great wall." You know. "And I wish I were Jewish sometimes." 
So Shamir says, "Well, you came 10,000 miles. We believe that when you're standing in front of this wall you're talking to God. So if you want to talk to God, why don't you ask for something." And Baker says, "Well, President Bush and I don't want anything specific for ourselves; we just want world peace." 
Shamir says, "Well when you're standing in front of this wall you're talking to God. (Beckoning towards wall) Ask for it." So Baker asks for world peace. 
And Shamir says, "Before we go to lunch, do you want to ask for anything else? You're here anyway, you're in front of this wall talking to God." And Baker says "Yeah, I'd like to ask for friendship between all nations in the new world order." And Shamir says, "You're talking to God" (beckoning....) So he does. 
And Shamir says "Are you ready for lunch?" And Baker says "Just a minute! I want to add a postscript to God...... It seems to me that in my eleven years of experience with Reagan and Bush at the White House, the actual roadblock to peace is the intransigence of the Israeli government, and I believe that peace would be aided and abetted if the Israelis would set a humanistic example by voluntarily giving back all the occupied lands to the Palestinians." 
And Shamir says "Now you're talking to the wall." 
And thus it ever was.

This appearance in Atlantic City was at the time of the Madrid Conference, two years before the Oslo agreements. The First Gulf War (August 2, 1990-February 28, 1991) had come and gone. It was the start of Kurdish independence in Northern Iraq, and Shiite uprisings in the South of Iraq.

Spain hosted a peace conference intended to revive the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Madrid on October 30-November 1, 1991. In addition to the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the United States, the conference was attended by Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, as well as the Soviet Union. I'm guessing this was the last international conference attended by the Soviet Union. Eleven Soviet republics (including Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) met in Kazakh city and announced the dissolution of the empire, effective on Christmas Day 1991.

Bill Clinton succeeded George H.W. Bush in the White House on January 20, 1993, and eight months later, on September 13, 1993, Rabin and Arafat signed the Oslo Peace accord on the White House lawn.  A short two years after that, on November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv.  The second Intifada came and went; three Gaza wars have come and gone; there was another Israeli war in Lebanon (2006); the occupation has deepened and has become more entrenched.

And here we are, 24-year-old jokes sounding fresh as today's smelly fish wrap. And that's no joke.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Gabon's President Advocates Banning Female Circumcision.

SF Chronicle--11/27/15. Gambia's president advocated banning female genital mutilation.... President Yahya Jammeh ... [said] he could not find any religious justification for female circumcision.  Female genital mutilation is practiced in more than half of African countries. It entails the complete or partial removal of the external genitalia of women and girls for non-medical reasons. 
For a poetic and sensitive story about female circumcision set in Ethiopia, read Camilla Gibb's "Sweetness in the Belly."  It's one of those books that, even eight years after I read it still resonates.

The Chronicle news snipped uses the word "mutilation." It's the right word, even if pregnant with condemnation.  Here is the controversial anti-Islam crusader Ayaan Hirsi Ali, describing her experience growing up in Somalia. Her grandmother carried out the circumcision contrary to wishes of the parents, and behind her parents' back.

Somalia, where Ali grew up is on the horn of Africa, on the Indian Ocean at the entrance to the Red Sea.  It is a lawless country that scores dead last in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance--with a score of 8.9 out of 100!

Gambia is clear across the continent on the Atlantic coast, the smallest African country, with a population of just under 2 million. Its a pinky of a country, sticking into the belly of Senegal.

In 1588 a claimant to the Portuguese throne sold rights to operate in the Gambian river basin to British traders. In 1618, King James I granted a charter to a British Company, and from 1821 to 1965 Gambia was a British colony and protectorate.

Three million slaves were shipped out of the Gambian area during three hundred years of the slave trade. Britain banned the slave trade across its empire in 1807.

Gambians speak English, while the official language in the surrounding Senegal is French. Last year president Jammeh said Senegal would drop English as its official language "very soon." He did not state a replacement language. Several native languages are spoken: Wondigo (38%), Fula (21%), Wolof (18%), and Jola (4.5).

In October 2013 The Gambia unilaterally withdrew from the Commonwealth of Nations (the British Commonwealth). President Jammeh, who seized power in a military coup in 1994, equated calls for good governance with past colonial exploitation in a speech to the UN.

The Gambia's rank in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (comprehensive ranking of the 54 African countries) has fallen from #12 in 2007 to #27 in 2015. The report for Gambia states:
Gambia is one of five countries to have shown deterioration in every category in the past four years. This trend is reinforced at the sub-category level, with Gambia registering only minimal progress in Rights, Business Environment and Education.

In Safety & Rule of Law, the category in which it shows its most pronounced decline, Gambia shows improvement in only one indicator.

Gambia’s broad-based downturn in governance performance, even in Human Development in which it receives its highest rank, is a particular cause for concern.
The economy (nominal GDP of $918 million in 2012 est.)  is dominated by agriculture, fishing, and tourism. There is extreme inequality of income. A third of the population lives below the poverty line of $1.25/day.

There is no established state religion in The Gambia, although approximately 90% of the population is Muslim.  The Economist has the following chart indicating that nearly 80 percent of women in Gambia have been subjected to genital mutiliation, and more than 60% percent think the practice should continue.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Scan a Gun and print it out on a 3D Printer, at Home?

What is 3D printing, you ask? explains:
3D printing ... is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. 
You can print small things, like bowls, jewelry, and utensils, to large things like houses. Consumer 3D printers are available for $1,000 to $3,000.

... And now you can print guns!

Companies like Microsoft and Google are woking on scanning apps that allow you to scan an object (like a gun!) with your phone, and later print it at home.

The battle to contain guns is about to get a whole lot more complicated.

H/t to Eugene Volokh.

Keeping an Eye on the Originalist Fallacy

Justice Scalia/official portrait
When we interpret our American constitution, the question arises “Does one ask what the Framers said in 1789, or what they would have said 200 years later, or something in-between, such as what is the current meaning of what they said then?”

Judge Scalia is an "originalist." He subscribes to the view that we should interpret the constitution in light of what the Framers said in 1789.  He believes that if the framers believed the constitution was compatible with slavery, slavery can never be unconstitutional absent a formal constitutional amendment, like the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States. The constitution has a static meaning, he would say

Since the framers thought capital punishment was not cruel and unusual punishment when the constitution was drafted, originalists like Scalia argue that capital punishment can never violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the eighth amendment absent formal amendment. Most (I would hope) legal scholars, by contrast, would argue that our concept of what is "cruel and unusual punishment" can evolve over time. As Justice Kennedy said in Obergefell v. Hodges
The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a re- ceived legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.
The import of what Kennedy says here is that, even though the death penalty may not have seemed cruel and unusual to the framers, it may appear so to us today, and it is the task of the Supreme Court to interpret the phrase "cruel and unusual punishment" in light of our modern sensibilities.

In addition to the question of whether it is appropriate for judges to look at the current meaning of the words in the constitution, originalists confront the problem of determining original meaning. Is it practical or reasonable to expect judges in the 21st century to be expert of how words were understood in the 18th century?

Last Sunday, Richard Primus, professor of constitutional law at the University of Michigan, pointed us to an example of Scalia making a broad and sweeping historical claim and getting it just plain wrong:  "Before this country declared independence, the law of England entrusted the King with the exclusive care of his kingdom's foreign affairs,” said Scalia. In fact, the British Parliament had quite a bit of influence over foreign policy in the time of King George III.

Primus believes this example illustrates that even if we wanted to follow an originalist interpretation of the constitution, it is entirely impractical; every judge would need to have specialized knowledge which they don't have--and cannot have (because they are lawyers, not historians).

Here is Primus with his conclusion:
I don’t think that judges—even Supreme Court Justices—should be responsible to know how the British constitution worked more than two hundred years ago.  The world is full of specialized knowledge, and nobody can know everything, and federal judges have enough to keep track of without having to be historians, too.  ...  Instead, the point is that we should all expect that even our leading judges will not know what they would need to know in order to interpret eighteenth-century materials.... If a Supreme Court opinion by a leading originalist ... can open with an entire paragraph of historical fantasy, what hope is there for the practice of originalism in the courts more broadly?  We should not think “Look, sometimes it won’t work out, but most of the time it’s fine.”  We should think “Originalist interpretations are liable to be shot through with misunderstanding even under what seem like favorable conditions.”  
Scalia studied history in college, although this did not guard him against this particular mistake. Most lawyers have no training in history.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Five Books of Krinsky

The Five Books of Krinsky
A novel with commentary
Kindle Ed. $2.99
by Don Shearn

Don Shearn is a poet.  A good one.  Don't take my word for it.  Here he is reciting his poem "Shake Down at Kiddie Land." In 2014 he demolished the competition in the North Shore Poetry Pentathlon. Jennifer Dotson interviewed him for Highland Park Poetry, below. Take a look.  If this seems like a man you'd want to spend some time with, read on. If not..., well, I think you're making a big mistake.

Don has a blog, Don's Basement. Check it out; it will prepare you for what you're in for. It will also be someplace for you to go after you finish The Five Books of Krinsky, because you'll be wanting more.

Turns out Dan Krinsky is a good one to spend some time with too. He's attuned to male sexuality like Philip Roth.  He's middle aged, trying to get oriented after his wife, Jackie, left him. He gets together with Kara, his younger by a decade, a woman from his weekly minyon.
“I’m getting ready.” Her laughter lined the narrow corridor that led to her bedroom. She sensed Krinsky’s unease. “Our relationship?” “It’s changing. “ She opened her bedroom door and Krinsky followed her in.
He's also having dreams of Elayne from years ago. Here's a dream:
"Elayne is nude. Her body covered in white make up. She sits on a wooden chair painted black, at a single pedestal table in the center in the center of the ravine. 'Good night,' she says to Krinsky, 'we’ll have to do this again, you know right after Moshiach comes.'” 
Yeah, sex is like that.

Krinsky went to college in San Francisco "way late for the beats, he only missed the hippies by a few years."

The book starts with a visit to Lenny Cahner' apartment on Michigan Avenue, during the summer of '68. Elaine had drawn a mural in Cahner's apartment: "In the foreground were cartoon bombs and guns with the figure of a black rain-coated terrorist with a bowling bowl bomb and a sparkling fuse. The gender symbol for women with a front view of a snub nose 38, a band of Mexican peasants firing rifles at a passing train, a black man handing a machine gun to a little boy." It's middle aged memories of revolution; memories like sex. The Chicago riots at the Democratic convention are not mentioned; they are just out of the frame like Machu Picchu in the opening scene of Werner Herzog's Aguirre.  "Turns out [Cahner and Krinsky] were a couple of stoned teen-agers eating Italian salami slathered with condiments." Memory, sex and revolution are like that.

It's a Talmudic story. Krinsky's a Jew, in case you haven't noticed. Jews are people of the book. They get together and read weekly portions of Torah (the Five Books of Moses). There are 54 portions (one for each week of a leap year); then the cycle starts over. Each of the 53 chapters of The Five Books of Krinsky starts with a short Torah passage: an epigram that loosely sets the theme for the chapter.  Like Talmud, it's not plot driven, this book. But there is Krinsky, there is commentary, and there is commentary on the commentary.

There are important stories from youth, mysteriously involving a golf slice. There is lust, there is marriage, there is divorce. There are children. Siblings. There is death.

There are the seasons of the Jewish calendar, and non-seasons of the Jewish calendar:
November is not a Hebrew month. The major holidays have passed. Jews have reflected, rejoiced, fasted and repented. They’ve built their little huts or at least strung up a gourd or two. Jews dance with the Torah and begun their cycle of reading the scroll. Again. By the middle of November, (as reckoned by the Gentile calendar) Jews, especially in northern climes are hunkered down, living Shabbat to Shabbat (or weekend to weekend) and hoping for a mild winter.
There is meta-commentary, anti-foreshadowing:
Being non-violent sorts, Krinsky and I favor Jacob. That could be why the book is a little light on conventional action and there will not be a car chase.
There is Zen-like wisdom: “Irreverence is the step sister of knowledge, it's almost the same as ignorance.”

There are traffic directions, Baghdad to the ruins of Babylon:
 The ruins of Babylon lie 65 miles southwest of Baghdad, in the current city of Babil, about an hour and ten minutes on route 1 in light, non-insurgent traffic.
...and Goshen to Jerusalem:
 This place is about 150 hours on foot or a 9 hour drive from Jerusalem. It is clear that the Hebrews who took 40 years to get to the land needed a lot of seasoning.
There are observations about the Jewish condition:
Frankel insisted that Jews are professional victims and not having enough anti-Semitism to go around we are currently blaming assimilation as the cause of all our problems.
...and the relationship between God and the Jews:
Jews will never win the battle of statistics. Because Jews survive. Because in the minds of many of them God wants them to. This is a big boost for a People. For a tribe. A real good unifier. A country is terrific. Don’t get me wrong, Israel. Great. Great. Thing. Not America, a given. But not as good a unifier as God. God while He never seems completely comfortable with the Jewish people, has managed to keep Himself involved with them, His people. They in fairness keep Him involved with them. In their hearts.
 There is psychoanalysis, like this:
His mother might never have showed him compassion but she did believe in loyalty. Compassion can be a gesture. A kind word. Flowers. Loyalty is made of sterner stuff. It is made of the full cloth, the mixture of linens of sickness and health, good and evil.
... or this,
You can never really know another person. Any more than you can know yourself. There are no brain mirrors. Some of the chemistry is invisible. The gap between what we know and what we think is only spanned by God, or faith or drugs or television.
How does this book differ from Maimonides' The Guide for the Perplexed? you ask. The author explains:
Rambam (Moses Maimonides) wrote this “to promote the true understanding of the real spirit of the Law, to guide those religious persons who, adhering to the Torah, have studied philosophy and are embarrassed by the contradictions between the teachings of philosophy and the literal sense of the Torah. (Whereas my book is for those people familiar with some of the Bible and lots of TV, movies, pop music and the internet and just find this stuff kind of interesting.)
That is true. But it's also true that by the time we get to Book Five it is very profound, and we don't want it to stop.

Rationale vs. Rationalization: or "making shit up to score political points?"

Rationale: (1) an explanation of controlling principles of opinion, belief, practice or phenomena. (2). an underlying reason. 
Rationalize: "to think about or describe something (such as bad behavior) in a way that explains it and makes it seem proper, more attractive, etc." 
Paul Brian's Common Errors in English Usage: 
Rationale/rationalization:  When you’re explaining the reasoning behind your position, you’re presenting your rationale. But if you’re just making up some lame excuse to make your position appear better—whether to yourself or others—you’re engaging in rationalization.
In the political wars, it's sometimes convenient to confuse the two on purpose.

Four days after the November 13, 2015 horrific mass shootings in Paris, John Kerry made remarks  to staff and family of the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Kerry suggested that he could see a rationale in the Charlie Hebdo attack last January (the terror attack on the Franch satirical magazine, which repeatedly lampooned Mohammad) but that the most recent attacks in Paris seemed to him to be "absolutely indiscriminate."

Here is an excerpt of Kerry's remarks:
[W]e are deeply appreciative for your commitment to helping us to help people to share the values and the interests that we are all working to protect. In the last days, obviously,   that has been particularly put to the test. There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of – not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people. .... And it’s indiscriminate. They kill Shia. They kill Yezidis. They kill Christians. They kill Druze. They kill Ismaili. They kill anybody who isn’t them and doesn’t pledge to be that. And they carry with them the greatest public display of misogyny that I’ve ever seen, not to mention a false claim regarding Islam. It has nothing to do with Islam; it has everything to do with criminality, with terror, with abuse, with psychopathism – I mean, you name it. [Emphasis added]
Right wing media outlets and columnists [e.g. CNS,  Breitbart, Jennifer Rubin] have been all up in arms misrepresenting Kerry as rationalizing terrorist attacks. Jennifer Rubin reports that Jeb bush, at a campaign rally:  "got fired up, reading Kerry's remarks and declaring, 'There is no rationale for barbaric Islamic fundamentalists who want to destroy Western civilization.'" Donniel Hartman accuses Kerry of engaging in "political correctness."

Some errors in usage, of course, are deliberate because they are convenient.

Of course we can see a rationale in a Muslim terrorist attack on the intentionally provocative Charlie Hebdo; and to acknowledge this rationale is not to rationalize the attack.

If Bush and the horde of right wing troglodytes breathing heavily about Kerry's remarks mean to say they can see no underlying rationale for the Charlie Hebdo attack, then they are being dense and they are guilty of a common error in the English language. If they are saying there can be no rationalization for this attack, then they are correct. And so was Kerry.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Olivier Roy on Why the Impulse to "Crush" ISIS Should be Resisted

A few days ago, Jim Schutze, directed us to a NYT op-ed by Olivier Roy. Roy is a Mid-East scholar and a professor at the European University Institute in Florence. "This is must reading for anybody who thinks there is any simple or obvious path forward on ISIS," said Jim.  So I did, and here is a summary of what Roy has to say:

Until now, says Roy, France has been in the lead in treating ISIS as a great strategic threat in the world. All of a sudden, in the wake of the Paris attacks, France has company.  There is a lot of noise from various quarters that we should consider ISIS a world strategic threat that merits a ground invasion. Obama, by contrast, has said that ISIS is being degraded and a ground invasion would be a mistake.

Roy says Obama is not alone in not seeing ISIS as a global strategic threat. In fact, ISIS's neighbors don't consider ISIS to be a strategic threat for the Middle East.

Assad: He views not ISIS, but the other opposition to the Assad regime as his main threat. Russia is now assisting Assad in his fight against that opposition (the opposition that the U.S. supports); so are Iran and Hezbollah. If this non-ISIS opposition can be eliminated, "That would allow [Assad] to cast himself as the last bastion against Islamist terrorism, and to reclaim in the eyes of the West the legitimacy he lost by so violently repressing his own people." Assad doesn't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

Turkish Government: They see not ISIS as their main strategic threat, but rather a greater Kurdistan that would occupy eastern portions of Turkey. "[A] victory of Syrian Kurds over ISIS might allow the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., to gain a sanctuary, and resume its armed struggle against Turkey." Turkey doesn't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

The Kurds: Their priority is to defend their new found borders, not to crush ISIS. "They hope the Arab world will become more divided than ever. They want to seize Sinjar because it is in a Kurdish area. But they won’t attack Mosul, because that would be playing into Baghdad’s hands." The Kurds are opposed to a strong central government in Baghdad, which might curb their new found de facto independence. The existence of ISIS prevents the formation of a strong central government in Baghdad. The Kurds don't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

Iraqi Shiites: Despite American pressure, they are not keen to die to re-take Fallujah (in the Sunni area northwest of Baghdad. "They will defend sectarian borders, and will never let Baghdad fall. But they are in no hurry to bring the Sunni minority back into Iraq’s political mainstream; if they did, they would have to share power with it." Iraqi Shiites don't necessarily need to have ISIS gone now.

Saudi Arabia: They support ISIS; they oppose Iran: "the main enemy isn’t ISIS, which represents a form of Sunni radicalism they have always supported. So they do nothing against it, their main enemy being Iran." The Saudis don't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

Iran: Iran wants to "contain ISIS but not necessarily to destroy it." The existence of ISIS "prevents the return of the kind of Arab Sunni coalition that gave them such trouble during their war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein." Iran doesn't really want ISIS gone now.

Israel: They "can only be pleased to see Hezbollah fighting Arabs, Syria collapsing, Iran mired in an uncertain war and everyone forgetting the Palestinian cause." Israel doesn't need to have ISIS gone now.

"In short," says Roy, "no regional player is willing to send out its forces, bayonets at the ready, to reclaim land from ISIS."

ISIS: And ISIS has reached the limits of its ability to expand. They are not in fact a growing strategic threat. They are not a state in any regular sense. It claims no specific territory or boundaries. There are no more areas for them to expand into because they are bounded by the Alawite state, supported by Russian and Iran to the West, by the Kurds to the North, Shiite Iraq to the East. And to the south, "neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for ISIS."

ISIS is turning to terror (e.g. the Russian airliner in Sinai; Beirut; and Paris) precicesly because it is stalled. That's what Obama has said. But by turning to terror, it is causing the world, including Muslims in Europe, to be revulsed and turn away from it. In short, implies Roy, ISIS is not a world, strategic threat. Obama seems to be correct in his judgment.
The trouble is ISIS is not likely to disappear in the near future. A coordinated effort by regional forces seems unlikely, given the different interests outlined above. A NATO lead troop invasion is unlikely because such an effort would be "likely to get mired down in endless local conflicts." [Indeed, why should anyone expect the aftermath of such an invasion to be more successful than Iraq??]

It looks like Obama, and Hillary Clinton are on the right track. Obama has been saying, essentially what Roy says--i.e. that sending troops will mire us in endless local conflicts and not bring solution.
Here is the text to Clinton's speech, yesterday (November 19, 2015). She is more hawkish than Obama in supporting a no-fly zone over Northern Syria, but otherwise cautious. See THIS NYT editorial.

As usual, in this part of the world, Roger Cohen is beating the war drums. He gives no hint that he has thought about or understands the subtleties discussed by Roy. He gives no basis for assurance that a ground invasion to "crush ISIS" ("with overwhelming force" as Jeb Bush suggests) would not draw us into endless local conflict. He provides no reason for confidence that it would reduce the threat of terrorism in the U.S. or Europe.

Interestingly, David Brooks is on board with Hillary.