Monthly Archives: January 2008

Palpable Hostility at Wednesday Night’s Republican Debate

(Post by LB)

The Republicans, specifically Romney and McCain, got right back to attack mode in tonight’s Reagan-fest debate after playing civil in the last debate. After receiving the support of Rudy Guiliani, and with Super Tuesday looming, McCain saw the opportunity to deliver to Romney the lethal blow. Romney needed to stop McCain’s surge before Super Tuesday. They both saw advantages in attacking the other, and the resulting exchanges were some of most openly acrimonious to date.

As in the last debate, the moderators asked questions that they hoped would ignite the candidates. Romney was happy to draw first blood, jumping on a question on whether he had warned voters that McCain would lead America down a liberal path. McCain was decidedly unpleasant and arrogantly snide, and was unrelenting in his assault. Romney noted that the New York Times had endorsed McCain, to which McCain replied by pretending to chuckle with Romney for a second too long, then saying that the two Boston newspapers, who know Romney best, had endorsed McCain as well. He said “You’d better believe, my friend” that the Arizona newspaper would support him as well,  in a tone that was dripping with sarcasm. Romney had no response.

Jihadi Terrorism Becomes ‘Anti-Islamic Activity’ In The UK

(Post by LB) Just when positive signs were coming out of the UK suggesting that they were moving in a positive direction in their understanding of the Jihadist threat, the British government went back to their pattern of over-the-top pandering to Muslims. So afraid are the British government bureaucrats of offending Muslims that they forbade NHS employees from eating lunch in public office space during Ramadan (why they assume a Muslim would be offended by a Christian eating on an Islamic holiday, I still have not figured out), and mandated that already overworked nurses must turn their Muslim patients toward Mecca five times a day if they so wish, dropping all their vital work to turn beds back and forth. No such stipulation exists for Jewish patients.

And now, Her Majesty’s government has decided to rename Jihadi terrorism, committed exclusively by Muslims in the name of their religion and discussed in purely religious language, as ‘anti-Islamic activity’. One can accurately address the threat without descending into Islamophobic bigotry or, conversely, making all discussion meaningless by giving priority to political correctness and outreach.

Mark Steyn addressed Britain’s pandering problem in National Review Online.

My favorite headline of the year so far comes from The Daily Mail in Britain: “Government Renames Islamic Terrorism As ‘Anti-Islamic Activity’ To Woo Muslims.”

President Bush’s Final State of the Union Address

(Post by LB)

Some thoughts after seeing President Bush’s final State of the Union address tonight-

President Bush did not mention the word “Muslim” or “Islam” once. Though he did not discuss the war on terror, Bin Laden, or Israel during the first half of the speech, the second half featured those topics heavily. I understand why Bush goes out of his way to ensure that America is not seen as fighting Islam, and to prevent an outbreak of anti-Muslim sentiment in America. But regardless of whether or not most Muslims agree with the Jihadists, or whether or not the Jihadists misinterpret their religion, they draw their inspiration and guidance from their religion, and appeal to followers in exclusively Islamic terms. In order to understand the enemy, we must understand the ideology and legal system in which their doctrine is rooted. By pretending the terrorists operate in an irrational vacuum, our government is, intentionally or not, promoting an approach that will never understand our enemy, nor will it predict their next move.

President Bush adamantly defended his foreign policy outlook, the American export of liberty. He referenced democratic developments in Ukraine, Georgia, Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, saying “These images of liberty have inspired us.” He then turned the focus on terrorism, specifically in Lebanon, Pakistan, Jordan, and London. Bush defined terrorists as extremists who oppose liberty, and called the struggle against them “The defining ideological struggle of the 21st century.”

Bush very briefly referred to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, using the standard lines about two democratic states living side by side in security. He again called for a Palestinian state by the end of the year.

President Bush appealed to the people of Iran, reassuring them that America respects their history and culture, and looks forward to them achieving liberty. His toughest rhetoric toward Iran was -“America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our interests in the Persian Gulf”.

This year, Bush did not mention Syria or North Korea, and overall his language was somewhat tepid.

Thoughts on Thursday’s Republican Debate

(Post by LB)

In the aftermath of the vicious fighting between Hillary/Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, I expected the Republicans to capitalize by refraining from attacking each other in last Thursday’s Florida debate. The Republicans could present themselves as more unified and focused on the future than the Democrats for the first time in the campaign.

From the outset, it was clear that the candidates had agreed not to get into the name-calling and attacks that had characterized their earlier debates. The moderators, Tim Russert and Brian Williams, did everything in their power to get the candidates to turn on each other, including a series of early questions reminding candidates what they had said about one another. There was an entire section of the debate that consisted of the candidates asking each other questions. Notably, Romney and McCain did not ask each other questions, instead lobbing softball questions about China and the economy to Guiliani and Paul.   Russert still would not relent, and asked Romney if he trusted McCain to lower taxes. Romney almost took the bait, and said McCain should have voted for the Bush tax cuts, then quickly relented and noted that McCain does now support them, and that he respects McCain but sometimes has differences of opinion with him.

Overall, the Republicans seemed more confident, especially on Iraq. Romney attacked Clinton for her answer in the Democratic debate to the question “What is more important to you- winning in Iraq or ending the war?” to which she replied “Bringing the troops home”. If she overcomes Bill Clinton’s recent harmful statements (such as today’s observation that Jesse Jackson also won South Carolina) and becomes the nominee, that answer will hurt her in the general election.

The Truth About Hesham Islam’s Past

This week, the Augean Stables will post a review of Major Stephen Coughlin’s thesis, “To Our Great Detriment”. Major Couhglin, an attorney and expert on Islamic law, was recently informed that his contract with the Pentagon would not be renewed after submitting his thesis on the roots of Muslim terrorism in mainstream Islamic law. Observers have opined that the firing of Coughlin was urged by Hesham Islam, head of Muslim outreach in Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert England’s office. Critics say that Islam has brought Islamist front groups into the Pentagon, and that his presence and influence is symptomatic of the ideological decay present within the nation’s national security establishment.

Claudia Rosett, journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote an article on National Review Online about the questions surrounding Hesham Islam’s past.

Questions for the Pentagon
Who is Hesham Islam?

By Claudia Rosett

In the sorry tradition of shooting the messenger, the Pentagon is cashiering its top expert on Islamist doctrine, Stephen Coughlin. Some members of Congress are now contemplating hearings to ask why. Along with drawing attention to Coughlin’s research, now circulating on the Internet, the growing controversy has thrown a spotlight on Coughlin’s alleged nemesis at the Pentagon, a top aide named Hesham Islam – whose tale deserves closer attention. Not least, as a reporter for the Armed Forces Press Service observed last year, it would make a great Hollywood blockbuster.

Second Draft examines another Pallywood Production: Gaza Beach Tragedy: Exploiting Grief

We have just put up a ten-minute documentary on the Gaza Beach explosion that killed seven of the Ghalia family on June 9, 2006.

Gaza Beach Tragedy: Exploiting Grief

We hope, in the near future to put up the documentation for the movie in the same manner as we did with both Pallywood and Al Durah, including some of the footage we cut (for example a focus on the behavior of Ayham Ghalia the surviving brother).

At the time it happened, I posted several items on it:

At first I expressed doubt that the incident had even happened at the beach. Too little blood on and too little damage to family possessions led me to speculate that the accident happened elsewhere and the bodies had been brought to the beach.

But since then, Danny Seaman of the Government Press Office gave me the rushes provided to him by Rammattan (which we will post shortly). After careful examination, I have changed my opinion, and in the film suggest that the family did die at the beach (considerable, but localized blood), and that it was most likely from a Palestinian land mine.

This is Pallywood not in the sense of pure staging, as I think in the case of al Durah and many of the ambulance evacuations, but of a genuine tragedy — the family were killed on the beach — in which the Pallywood producers were able to create a story that accused the Israelis of killing them when they were most probably killed as a result of Palestinian actions.

There is much to speculate on here:

  • Was the cameraman aware that this was — or may have been — from a Palestinian mine, rather than from an Israeli shell?
  • Just how dishonest was Marc Garlasco, the Human Rights Watch specialist, whose testimony pegs him either as one of the great useful idiots of all time, or a dishonest advocate and propagandist?
  • When did the media realize the problem but chose either not to mention their mistakes, or to present the counter-case as minimally as possible?
  • What’s wrong with the Rory Peck Award Committee that, despite all the evidence of foul play, they gave the cameraman an award?

In preparation for the dossier at the Second Draft, we welcome any references to articles or material that we can include in the dossier, including material that may contradict our thesis.

Afghan Journalism Student Sentenced to Death for Blasphemy

Another example of the cultural norms that the United States is up against in attempting to create some semblance of democracy in Afghanistan- (from The New York Times)

KABUL, Afghanistan – An Afghan court in northern Afghanistan sentenced a journalism student to death for blasphemy for distributing an article from the Internet that was considered an insult to the Prophet Muhammad, the judge in charge of the court said Wednesday.

The student, Sayed Parwiz Kambakhsh, 23, who also works on a local newspaper, was charged with directly insulting Muhammad by calling the prophet “a killer and adulterer,” the judge, Shamsurahman Muhmand, said in a telephone interview.

Footage of Israeli News Crew Under Palestinian Sniper Fire

On January 15, an Israeli news crew came under fire at Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha on the border with the southern part of the Gaza Strip. This was a short time after an Ecuadorean volunteer was shot dead by Palestinian snipers. The snipers are not firing at soldiers, nor are they firing at Israelis who are on PA territory (not that targeting either of those would be excusable). They are targeting Israeli farmers and journalists, whom they can clearly identify in their telescopicsights. This is not about land, it’s about killing Jews.

Response to Shrinkwrapped on Counter-Knowledge

Shrinkwrapped has an important series of reflections on my post on Damian Thompson’s new book. I respond in detail:

Both Thompson and Landes have identified a serious danger facing our Civilization, however, if anything I think they underestimate the danger.

Both take the position that in our culture and civilization, rationality and reality testing are the default mode of thinking for the population. Unfortunately, this is exactly 180 degrees off. Rationality and logical thinking are late developments and are not universal. They are mental habits dependent on mental structures that are painstakingly assembled over the course of a long period of time. They are abilities that require a tremendous investment of time and energy to acquire and are extremely sensitive to disruption.

I don’t think this represents my position. (I’ll let Damian speak for himself.) I think that a) SW is right that reality testing is a mental habit painstakingly assembled over the course a long time — more or less a millennium in Western Europe — and not the default mode. On the other hand the reason I may sound like I think the way SW says, is that I think that this manner of “reading reality” — which includes self-criticism, a renunciation of narcissistic vanity, exegetical modesty — is at the core of civil society. So if we have a civil society it’s good evidence that this form of thinking has become the “norm” or “default mode” of western civilization, and if this kind of flakey thinking is still seeping into the mainstream, then this is a deviation — from a Western norm.

Damian Thompson seems puzzled by the easy acceptance of Conspiracy Theories and nonsense by large groups of people, and distressed to see such beliefs moving form the fringes toward the center. The cruel secret is that such beliefs are a great deal easier to acquire and hold than true knowledge.

As I have noted on many occasions, the human mind is a conservative device. Once a template has been established it is far easier to fit new data into the existing framework than to question one’s assumptions and expend mental energy trying to make sense out of contradictions.

This is problematic. We are trained to ignore conspiracy theories. That template was established and one of the things that attracts many conspiracy-theorists is that they are violating the accepted template.

If you already know that George Bush stole the election in 2000, then it is much easier to believe he could also be capable of engineering 9/11, of lying about Saddam’s WMD, and a host of other nonsense that has flourished on the left. If you do not understand how the theory of evolution has been researched and examined in minute detail by innumerable scientists, if you have no real idea how the edifice of science was built, then the minor flaws and incompleteness of the theory can easily be used to support beliefs that have no evidence to support them at all, such as Intelligent Design. (Perhaps the Deity did in fact create life and the universe and included a consistent body of evidence to support the theory of evolution; if so, this would not be resolvable using scientific methodology and until he or his agent appears or reappears, whichever you prefer, it is a matter of faith not science.)

There have been many factors that have contributed to the assault on reason which have eroded our capacity for reality testing. Science is hard; scientific knowledge is only slowly accumulated by extremely hard work mastered by only an extremely small minority of very bright people. Most science is impossible to understand by most people. We have long since reached the Arthur C. Clarke inflection point where “technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” Magic is explained by magical thinking, not by science. Science has been reliably demonized by those who are incapable of performing or understanding science. The rigors of the Scientific Method, the single most important reason for our civilization’s success, are too difficult for our children’s tender self-esteem to tolerate. Once we no longer expect our children to understand that 1 + 1 must always equal 2, even if we want it to equal 1.99 or 3, and that all answers are equivalent as long as they are trying really, really hard, we have surrendered our ability to think.

Now we’re back to my comments on post-modernism. The problem is that one need not understand either the complexity of modern science or its technological magic boxes (computers), in order to partake of reality-testing. Self-criticism and a certain modesty is within the reach of every human being.

Worse, even among those who should know better, the temptation to take mental shortcuts persists. When rationality is further subverted by unconscious desires, it is no contest, real knowledge has no chance of surviving.

Anthropogenic Global Warming, a theory that is reliably presented as “proven” by politicians who have no idea what they are talking about, is a prime example. AGW might be an adequate focus for current anxiety; it might even be a potential problem down the road; but as an avenue to increase state power in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians, it has already been “proven.” They do not see themselves as cynical manipulators but as visionaries warning of danger and trying to save the planet. That science does not proceed the way they think it does completely eludes their attention.

This is a good example of what I meant about modesty. Proponents of AGW have enormous ambitions and no self-criticism; so science becomes another black box to manipulate. It’s interesting to think that in the Middle Ages, as far as I know, no one argued that black magicians actually thought they were white magicians. Today, at least in the West, some of the worst black magicians, think they’re doing white magic.

We are living in dangerous times. Anxiety over the future and the pace of change (change ushered in by magical technologies that no one can fully understand) naturally produces powerful regressive forces in a culture. Our rationality can be so subtly and easily subverted that we usually don’t recognize it until far too late. Worse, those whose grasp of reason is weakest, either through limited native intellectual abilities or poor pedagogy, are most susceptible to adopt the easy solutions of irrationality.

limited native intellectual abilities or poor pedagogy or emotional immaturity…

The pace of change naturally produces anxieties over the future, some of which can activate powerful regressive forces in a culture. The question is, what are non-regressive ways of expressing a legitimate anxiety about runaway technologically-driven social change?

Just beneath the surface of even the most stable and reasoned mind exists a cauldron of irrationality. The Unconscious can never be fully tamed and is forever attempting to find access to the Conscious mind to enable and effect its desires. Conspiracy Theories, false prophets and messiahs, and easily identifiable scapegoats are the result; they are here to stay and will plague us and increase until we re-establish the safe haven that can only come from Knowledge.

I’m a bit confused by this finale. Can you explain what the “safe haven that can only come from Knowledge” is? Is this (regressive) pre-post-modernism: knowledge=truth=objectivity=reality? Why is knowledge “safe”? It may “set us free,” or empower us, or enlighten us, but nothing about it suggests either stability or safety. On the contrary, part of what is so frightening about reality and why people run to the cocoons of conspiracy theory and other forms of counter-knowledge is precisely to flee the ego-wounding world of registering what’s going on around us.

“Present” Will not Do: Obama’s Minister Honors Farrakhan

Richard Cohen, who is not one of my favorite news analysts, had an important article at the Washington Post last week on Obama’s minister and spiritual advisor.

Obama’s Farrakhan Test readers have posted 823 comments about this item.

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 15, 2008; Page A13

Barack Obama is a member of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. Its minister, and Obama’s spiritual adviser, is the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. In 1982, the church launched Trumpet Newsmagazine; Wright’s daughters serve as publisher and executive editor. Every year, the magazine makes awards in various categories. Last year, it gave the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award to a man it said “truly epitomized greatness.” That man is Louis Farrakhan.

Maybe for Wright and some others, Farrakhan “epitomized greatness.” For most Americans, though, Farrakhan epitomizes racism, particularly in the form of anti-Semitism. Over the years, he has compiled an awesome record of offensive statements, even denigrating the Holocaust by falsely attributing it to Jewish cooperation with Hitler — “They helped him get the Third Reich on the road.” His history is a rancid stew of lies.

It’s important to state right off that nothing in Obama’s record suggests he harbors anti-Semitic views or agrees with Wright when it comes to Farrakhan. Instead, as Obama’s top campaign aide, David Axelrod, points out, Obama often has said that he and his minister sometimes disagree. Farrakhan, Axelrod told me, is one of those instances.

Fine. But where I differ with Axelrod and, I assume, Obama is that praise for an anti-Semitic demagogue is not a minor difference or an intrachurch issue. The Obama camp takes the view that its candidate, now that he has been told about the award, is under no obligation to speak out on the Farrakhan matter. It was not Obama’s church that made the award but a magazine. This is a distinction without much of a difference. And given who the parishioner is, the obligation to speak out is all the greater. He could be the next American president. Where is his sense of outrage?

Any praise of Farrakhan heightens the prestige of the leader of the Nation of Islam. For good reasons and bad, he is already admired in portions of the black community, sometimes for his efforts to rehabilitate criminals. His anti-Semitism is either not considered relevant or is shared, particularly his false insistence that Jews have played an inordinate role in victimizing African Americans.

In this, Farrakhan stands history on its head. It was Jews who disproportionately marched for civil rights and, in Mississippi, died for that cause. Farrakhan and, in effect, Wright, despoil the graves of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and, of course, their black colleague James Chaney.

I can even see how someone, maybe even Obama, could dismiss Farrakhan as a pest, a silly man pushing a silly cause that poses no real threat to the Jewish community. Still, history tells us that anti-Semitism is not to be trifled with. It is a botulism of the mind.

The Obama and Clinton campaigns are involved in a tasteless tussle over the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. What is clear from rereading King’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech of Aug. 28, 1963, is how inclusive that dream was — “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ ”

This, though, is not Farrakhan’s dream. He has vilified whites and singled out Jews to blame for crimes large and small, either committed by others as well or not at all. (A dominant role in the slave trade, for instance.) He has talked of Jewish conspiracies to set a media line for the whole nation. He has reviled Jews in a manner that brings Hitler to mind.

And yet Wright heaped praise on Farrakhan. According to Trumpet, he applauded his “depth of analysis when it comes to the racial ills of this nation.” He praised “his integrity and honesty.” He called him “an unforgettable force, a catalyst for change and a religious leader who is sincere about his faith and his purpose.” These are the words of a man who prayed with Obama just before the Illinois senator announced his run for the presidency. Will he pray with him just before his inaugural?

I don’t for a moment think that Obama shares Wright’s views on Farrakhan. But the rap on Obama is that he is a fog of a man. We know little about him, and, for all my admiration of him, I wonder about his mettle. The New York Times recently reported on Obama’s penchant while serving in the Illinois legislature for merely voting “present” when faced with some tough issues. Farrakhan, in a strictly political sense, may be a tough issue for him. This time, though, “present” will not do.

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Barack Obama came out almost immediately issued a statement:

    “I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan. I assume that Trumpet Magazine made its own decision to honor Farrakhan based on his efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders, but it is not a decision with which I agree.”

Captain’s Quarters thinks this is guilt by association and a tempest in a teapot. Many of his readers disagree. I do too. According to a NYT’s article on Obama’s Church:

    On the Sunday after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Mr. Wright said the attacks were a consequence of violent American policies. Four years later he wrote that the attacks had proved that “people of color had not gone away, faded into the woodwork or just ‘disappeared’ as the Great White West went on its merry way of ignoring Black concerns.”

The apparent “Afrocentrism of Reverend Wright would seems worrisome to say the least. As for Israel, apparently the good Reverend thinks it belongs in the same category as genocidal Sudan.

This political “catechism” is certainly not reassuring, as are his “10 Facts“. On the contrary, it suggests someone for whom “Black Liberation Theology” and third-worldism, and anti-Americanism blend so effortlessly together that honoring a Black Muslim makes “ecumenical” sense. If the thought of Theresa Heinz in the White House, inviting all her PCP2 guests, made me nervous, the thought of someone who has attended this man’s church for 20 years as president makes me even more nervous.

The relationship of Minister Wright — Obama’s minister for 20 years, his acknowledged spiritual mentor — is much to close to Trumpet Magazine both personally (his daughter is the editor, he writes for it constantly) and ideologically (anti-Western, anti-Zionist, anti-globalization) for him to disassociate himself from this without saying something about Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. whose name graces the award given to Farrakhan.

Apocalypse Fever: Kurt Anderson Talks about the Zeitgeist

Back in the Fall of 2006, Kurt Anderson wrote a column about apocalyptic fever in New York Magazine. In it he goes over the “new” fashion of apocalyptic thinking and worries — but not too seriously — that such thinking, particularly when it spills over into mainstream news analysis of perhaps taking us over the edge. I post it now because, a) if anything, I think he underestimates the power and ubiquity of these ideas, and b) we need to think about this material much more subtly than his rather ham-fisted approach — all this stuff is nutty, stay away.

The End of the World As They Know It
What do Christian millenarians, jihadists, Ivy League professors, and baby-boomers have in common? They’re all hot for the apocalypse.

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By Kurt Andersen Published Sep 25, 2006

The week of September 11 (two weeks ago, not five years), I noticed a poster up at Frankies, my sweet neighborhood trattoria in Brooklyn: It advertised a talk on 9/11 by Daniel Pinchbeck—the former downtown literary impresario who has become a Gen-X Carlos Castaneda and New Age impresario. My breakfast pal nodded at the poster and said, “The guy is selling his apocalypse thing hard.”

“Apocalypse thing?” I knew of Pinchbeck’s psychedelic enthusiasms, but I’d somehow missed his new book about the imminent epochal meltdown. In 2012, he interprets ancient Mayan prophecies to mean “our current socioeconomic system will suffer a drastic and irrevocable collapse” the year after next, and that in 2012, life as we know it will pretty much end. “We have to fix this situation right fucking now,” he said recently, “or there’s going to be nuclear wars and mass death … There’s not going to be a United States in five years, okay?”

2012 is big. Google 2012 Crop Circles and see what you get. In an age when our leaders — Republican and Democratic — seem to be flailing around without any sense of what to do, the younger generation can take “comfort” in these kinds of “promises.” It’s a form of “counter-knowledge” that’s particularly appealing as “reason” commits suicide.

The same day at lunch in Times Square, another friend happened to mention that he was thinking of buying a second country house—in Nova Scotia, as “a climate-change end-days hedge.” He smirked, but he was not joking.

On the subway home, I read the essay in the new Vanity Fair by the historian Niall Ferguson arguing that Europe and America in 2006 look disconcertingly like the Roman Empire of about 406—that is, the beginning of the end. That night, I began The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s new novel set in a transcendently bleak, apparently post-nuclear-war-ravaged America of the near future. And a day or so later watched the online trailer for Mel Gibson’s December movie, Apocalypto, set in the fifteenth-century twilight of, yes, the Mayan civilization.

So: Five years after Islamic apocalyptists turned the World Trade Center to fire and dust, we chatter more than ever about the clash of civilizations, fight a war prompted by our panic over (nonexistent) nuclear and biological weapons, hear it coolly asserted this past summer that World War III has begun, and wonder if an avian-flu pandemic poses more of a personal risk than climate change. In other words, apocalypse is on our minds. Apocalypse is … hot.

Millions of people—Christian millenarians, jihadists, psychedelicized Burning Men—are straight-out wishful about The End. Of course, we have the loons with us always; their sulfurous scent if not the scale of the present fanaticism is familiar from the last third of the last century—the Weathermen and Jim Jones and the Branch Davidians. But there seem to be more of them now by orders of magnitude (60-odd million “Left Behind” novels have been sold), and they’re out of the closet, networked, reaffirming their fantasies, proselytizing. Some thousands of Muslims are working seriously to provoke the blessed Armageddon. And the Christian Rapturists’ support of a militant Israel isn’t driven mainly by principled devotion to an outpost of Western democracy but by their fervent wish to see crazy biblical fantasies realized ASAP—that is, the persecution of the Jews by the Antichrist and the Battle of Armageddon.

I’ve addressed this aspect of the problem — one person’s messiah is another’s antichrist — in this post, and especially in this comment.

When apocalypse preoccupations leach into less-fantastical thought and conversation, it becomes still more disconcerting. Even among people sincerely fearful of climate change or a nuclearized Iran enacting a “second Holocaust” by attacking Israel, one sometimes detects a frisson of smug or hysterical pleasure.

As in the excited anticipatory chatter about Iran’s putative plans to fire a nuke on the 22nd of last month—in order to provoke apocalypse and pave the way for the return of the Shiite messiah, a miracle in which President Ahmadinejad apparently believes. Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, at 90 still the preeminent historian of Islam, published a piece in The Wall Street Journal to spread this false alarm.

That last sentence is ambiguously phrased. Lewis didn’t publish the piece to spread this false alarm, but to warn about something he feared. It’s also not clear whether publishing it did not have an effect on Ahmadenijad’s plans. In all these matters elaborate chess games are afoot. And Ahmadenijad does not “apparently” believe in this miraculous material, he does.

Charles Enderlin’s Personal Contribution to The Bloody Years: A Flier Prepared for his Talk

The following is a flier I prepared for Enderlin’s talk at Harvard on January 17, 2007m, while on tour promoting his book, The Lost Years, whose documentary is entitled The Bloody Years. For anyone in a place where Enderlin is about to speak, please feel free to use this material to inform those unfortunate people who are about to be subject to his misinformation.

Charles Enderlin’s Personal Contribution to The Bloody Years

On September 30, 2000, two days after Sharon visited the Temple Mount, and one day after rioting broke out in the West Bank and around Jerusalem, Charles Enderlin, relying on the word of his Palestinian cameraman, ran some shocking footage of a boy he claimed had been targeted and killed by the Israeli army. If this were true, it would be the first time in the history of TV, that a camera caught live the death –the murder! – of a child. This image had an enormous emotional impact around the world, and incited bondless violence among Palestinians. Palestinian leaders declared Muhammad al Durah a martyr and brainwashed a generation of children to want death by killing Israelis (including a music video of him in heaven saying, “follow me!”) All the first suicide bombers, who followed in a waxing wave of assaults on Israeli civilians, invoked al Durah. Eventually one Israeli observer noted you could predict levels of violence the following day by MDHD – Muhammad al Durah hours per day on TV. No single image has created more violent hatred in this enraged 21st century.

And yet, closer examination shows that Enderlin had no justification for relying on his cameraman’s story. Indeed none of the footage he filmed supports any of his claims, in particular the crucial and most terrible claim, that Israeli fire targeted and killed the boy. Enderlin, despite the impact of this accusation of murder, did not reconsider or clarify. For 7 years he has done his best to stonewall, conceal evidence, misrepresent and mislead the public, and, recently, to present tampered evidence to a French court. As you listen to his account of the Bloody Years, know that he made his own unique contribution to the very violence he now pretends to explain.

To regain his credibility, let Enderlin answer the following questions:

1) What evidence, other than Talal’s word, did you have for claiming in your broadcast where the bullets came from, much less that they “targeted” the boy and his father?

2) Why did you not publicize the fact that your cameraman lied under oath in claiming he took 27 minutes of the alleged “40-minute” shooting scene when you knew he only provided 60 seconds?

3) Why, given the evidence of Talal’s dishonesty – lying to Esther Schapira about having the bullets, lying under oath about filming 27 minutes, that the Israelis did it “in cold blood” – do you still defend him as a first rate, professional journalist?

4) Why did you say you cut scenes of the boy’s “death throes” when there are no such scenes?

5) Why did you cut the final scene (which came after you had declared him dead) of the boy lifting up his elbow and looking out?

6) Do you really think the Israeli position was opposite the al Durah’s, as shown in your own hand-drawn map (on the web), and not diagonally across the intersection?

7) Do you admit publicly, what you reportedly said in private, that Palestinians regularly stage scenes of injury?

8) Why did you cut 9 minutes of scenes from the footage before showing it to the court, including scenes of that day at that junction that were clearly staged?

9) Why, when you saw the hatred and violence this icon spurred, did you not do everything you could to clarify the report (and your errors) in order to help slow the violence bloody years?

To examine the evidence yourself, see the dossier at The Second Draft

Here is the one paragraph in The Lost Years on Muhammad al Durah: [errors in italic; previous and subsequent paragraphs have no relationship to this paragraph].

“Jewish organizations abroad began to intensify their press campaigns against press outlets deemed to be pro-Palestinian. In France, on numerous occasions, following the initiatives of the Jewish Defense League and Lawyers without Frontiers, a disinformation prize was given to several journalists, as well as to Agence France-Presse. During a protest in front of the headquarters of France 2 in Paris, this dubious honor originally called the Goebbels Prize was given to the author of a broadcast report relating the death of young Mohammed al-Dureh in the Gaza Strip city of Netzarim, at the start of the intifada on September 30, 2000. (I had asserted that the child had been the target of bullets coming from an [“the”] Israeli position.) In November 2000, Yom Tov Samia, the Israeli general commanding forces in the West Bank, had personally organized a reconstruction of the incident before concluding in his report that a ‘comprehensive investigation conducted in the last weeks casts serious doubts that the boy was hit by Israeli Defense Forces’ fire… It is quite plausible that the boy was hit by Palestinian bullets.’ Parisian demonstrators brandished signs saying ‘Enderlin Liar,’ demanding the broadcast of a German documentary that adopted General Samia’s conclusions. This marked the beginning of a long defamation campaign, pursued in France and the United States, namely through the intermediary of internet sites claiming that the child’s death had been staged in order to provoke the intifada. France 2 never received a complaint or a formal demand from the Israeli authorities on this matter.”


• No mention of the article in the June 2003 Atlantic Monthly by James Fallows, that also agreed with Yom Tov Samia’s findings.

• No mention of any of the substantive criticisms in Samia’s report to which Enderlin has never responded (direction of the bullets, angles of fire).

• No mention that although the German documentary was by France2’s sister station ARD, France2 refused to show the documentary in France.

• No mention of the intensive and extensive uses to which the Palestinian leadership put the Al Durah footage as part of a systematic campaign to inculcate hatred and provoke violence, that al Durah was the icon of the Intifada.

• Enderlin treats criticism as defamation, the core of his legal campaign of intimidation aimed at silencing rather than responding to criticism.

• No mention that, in claiming that he had more and worse footage of the boy’s death throes (which he did not), Enderlin effectively bluffed the Israelis into not making any formal demands, but rather dropping the issue.

With honesty and accuracy like this, what can you expect from the rest of the book?

Richard Prasquier, president of CRIF has called for a commission of inquiry about the Muhammad al Durah affair: ”these professionals should study the original tapes to have the best quality images to clarify what happened, something that has yet to occur. These images of the death of Muhammad al-Dura, as they were presented by Charles Enderlin, broadcast by other stations, rejected by CNN, are very serious. They have killed, because they created the vocation of terrorists. It is false to say, ‘Now the affair is history.’ The [images] of France2 are extremely troubling. I was deeply troubled.”

Why Arabs Suffer: Philip Salzman Nails it

Philip Salzman, an anthropologist at McGill who specializes in Arab tribal cultures, has written an excellent piece on Arab suffering gives the background to many of the points I’ve made about Palestinian suffering. Without understanding this dimension of the problem, all efforts to “resolve the Arab-Israeli problem,” no matter how well intentioned, are doomed not only to failure, but to making the situation worse by reinforcing precisely the forces that contribute primarily to Arab suffering — their political and religious elites.

This article is drawn from his forthcoming book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East [Humanity Books].

Philip Carl Salzman
National Post, January 11, 2008

By modern standards, contemporary Middle Eastern Arab nations are failed societies. On virtually every index of socioeconomic and political development, they compare poorly with other parts of the world.

Under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, an independent group of 20 Arab scholars analyzed the state of Arab human development in a widely-circulated 2002 report. Their findings were stark. In particular, the Arab Human Development Report 2002 found that the 19 nations under study suffer from a “freedom deficit”:

“Out of seven world regions, the Arab countries had the lowest freedom score in the late 1990s. The Arab region also has the lowest [score] of all regions for voice and accountability [based on] a number of indicators measuring various aspects of the political process, civil liberties, political rights and the independence of the media.”

The Arab region not only ranked last on the freedom scale, but the gap between Arab countries and the next-to-last ranked region, Africa, was substantial. The authors also found the Arab world lagged in gender equality, education, Internet use, human welfare and technological development. “The [total] average [scientific] output of the Arab world per million inhabitants is roughly 2% that of an industrialized country,” the authors noted. “In 1981, the Republic of Korea was producing 10% of the output of the Arab world; in 1995, it almost equalled its output.”

In the number of frequently cited scientific papers generated per million inhabitants, Switzerland scored 79.90, the United States 42.99, Israel 38.63. Among Arab nations, Kuwait led the pack with 0.53, followed by Saudi Arabia with 0.07, Egypt at 0.02, and Algeria at 0.01.

The poet Nizar Qabbani, quoted by Fouad Ajami in his famous book The Dream Palace of the Arabs, concluded that Arab societal dysfunction is so pervasive that he could no longer write:

‘I don’t write because I can’t say something that equals the sorrow of this Arab nation. I can’t open any of the countless dungeons in this large prison. The poet is made of flesh and blood. You can’t make him speak when he loses his appetite for words. You can’t ask him to entertain and enthrall when there is nothing in the Arab world that entertains or enthralls. When we were secondary schoolchildren, our history teacher used to call the Ottoman Empire [Europe’s] ‘sick man.’ What is the history teacher to call these mini-empires of the Arab world being devoured by disease? What are we to call these mini-empires with broken doors and shattered windows and blown-away roofs? What can the writer say and write in this large Arab hospital?’ How can we explain the discouraging state of Middle Eastern Arab societies? Is it the fault of Western imperialism or the existence of Israel, as often claimed?—Nizar Qabbani

It is true that there were brief European imperial and colonial disruptions in the Middle East, and that Arab leaders were guided by Western socialist and fascist political models in developing their dictatorial political systems. Yet these system have been largely over-layers added to—not replacements for—traditionally tribalized Arab societies, with their legacies of violence left intact from Bedouin days.

It is to the latter that we must look to understand the circumstances and difficulties of the Arab Middle East. The lesson is that, in the Arab world and elsewhere, culture matters.

The Arab Middle East has remained largely a pre-modern society, governaned by clan relationships and violent coercion. People in both the countryside and the cities tend to trust only their relatives, and then only relative to their degree of closeness. People define their interests in terms of the interests of their own group, and in opposition to those of other groups. A pervasive cult of honour requires that people support their own groups, violently if necessary, when conflict arises.

What is missing in the Arab Middle East are the cultural tools for building an inclusive and united state. The cultural glue of the West and other successful modern societies—consisting of the rule of law and constitutionalism, which serve to regulate competition among unrelated groups—is absent in the Arab world. The frame of reference in a tribalized society is always “my group vs. the other group.” This system of “balanced opposition” is the structural alternative that stands in stubborn opposition to Western constitutionalism.

Islam, which might have provided an overarching constitution of universalistic rules binding together all members of society, has failed as a political organizing principle, as well—for it too reflects the region’s underlying sociology, having been built up by the Arabs’ Bedouin forebears on a foundation of balanced opposition. This is why it has fueled rather than suppressed the Middle East’s various bloody feuds, such as those between Sunni vs. Shiite and between Muslim vs. infidel.

As a result, Arab political reform has proven elusive, and will remain thus so long as balanced opposition dominates the region’s political culture. Whatever formal unity is imposed by coercive force over a national population—we need only think of the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, etc.—remains illegitimate in the eyes of the subjects on the receiving end, and thus constantly open to violent challenge and radical replacement.

The primary goal of such regimes is to remain in power and maximize their spoils, rather than to enhance the lives of society members. Their dysfunction explains why so many Arabs have suffered so long, and remain without the liberties we in the West take for granted.

The irony in all this, is that such a failed culture on its own grounds can be so effective bringing down a successful culture like Europe.

John Bolton on the NIE: “Highly Politicized Document”

Since the NIE came out, I have argued that the unbridled glee demonstrated by many in the media (see Chris Matthews) was unwarranted and the uncritical coverage reflected the relief felt in the media that war was now averted. The NIE, inconclusive regarding even the very specific aspect of the Iranian nuclear project upon which it commented, becomes even more suspect when one considers who constructed it and what their motives were. John Bolton, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, adamantly echoes this position.

The 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate, as well as the skewed reporting around it, is a sign of the “illegitimate politicization” of the American intelligence establishment, according to former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
The document reportedly said Iran stopped its nuclear weapons production program in 2003.

While “Iran’s nuclear program is continuing and expanding,” Bolton told The Jerusalem Post at a book-signing in a Tel Aviv Steimatzky on Sunday, “the NIE has had a devastating impact on our global efforts to try and constrain Iran.”

Counter-Knowledge and the Decline of the West

My friend Damian Thompson, author of one of the better books on apocalyptic thought, The End of Time is now pursuing a really interesting project on “counter-knowledge”. (He’s the anonymous questioners in the second opening anecdote of my article on post-modern conspiracy theory. His exploration draws our attention to a critical dimension of (an often unconscious) information warfare that we are conducting, in many cases, against ourselves. Nothing illustrates the danger of using post-modernism (e.g., “there is no such thing as objectivity”) to detach ourselves from the kind of “reality testing” that only a sober form of self-criticism can assure.

Lies, damn lies and ‘counterknowledge’
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 12/01/2008
By Damian Thompson

Outright fiction is being peddled as historical and scientific fact, warns Damian Thompson in an extract from his provocative new book

George Bush planned the September 11 attacks. The MMR injection triggers autism in children. The ancient Greeks stole their ideas from Africa. “Creation science” disproves evolution. Homeopathy can defeat the Aids virus.

The fantasy that the US government was behind the 9/11 attacks has wormed its way into the mainstream

Do any of these theories sound familiar? Has someone bored you rigid at a dinner party by unveiling one of these “secrets”? If so, it is hardly surprising. In recent years, thousands of bizarre conjectures have been endorsed by leading publishers, taught in universities, plugged in newspapers, quoted by politicians and circulated in cyberspace.

This is counterknowledge: misinformation packaged to look like fact. We are facing a pandemic of credulous thinking. Ideas that once flourished only on the fringes are now taken seriously by educated people in the West, and are wreaking havoc in the developing world.

We live in an age in which the techniques for evaluating the truth of claims about science and history are more reliable than ever before. One of the legacies of the Enlightenment is a methodology based on painstaking measurement of the material world.

That legacy is now threatened. And one of the reasons for this, paradoxically, is that science has given us almost unlimited access to fake information.

Most of us have friends who are susceptible to conspiracy theories. You may know someone who thinks the Churches are suppressing the truth that Jesus and Mary Magdalene sired a dynasty of Merovingian kings; someone else who thinks Aids was cooked up in a CIA laboratory; someone else again who thinks MI5 killed Diana, Princess of Wales. Perhaps you know one person who believes all three.

Or do you half-believe one of these ideas yourself? We may assume that we are immune to conspiracy theories. In reality, we are more vulnerable than at any time for decades.

I recently met a Lib Dem-voting schoolteacher who voiced his “doubts” about September 11. First, he grabbed our attention with a plausible-sounding observation: “Look at the way the towers collapsed vertically. Jet fuel wouldn’t generate enough to heat to melt steel. Only controlled explosions can do that.” The rest of the party, not being structural engineers (for whom there is nothing mysterious about the collapse of the towers) pricked up their ears. “You’re right,” they said. “It did seem strange…”

Admittedly, no major newspaper or TV station has endorsed a September 11 conspiracy theory. But more than 100 million people have watched a 90-minute documentary, Loose Change, directed by three young New Yorkers who assembled the first cut on a laptop. The result is super-slick: computer-generated planes glide menacingly towards their targets, to the accompaniment of a funky soundtrack; buildings collapse in a comic theatrical sequence. This is one cool movie – and a masterpiece of counterknowledge.

The makers suggest that a missile, not an airliner, hit the Pentagon; that the occupants of Flight 93 were safely evacuated at Cleveland Hopkins airport; that the panicked calls made by the passengers were faked using voice-morphing technology.

The directors make basic errors and play outrageous tricks: quotes from experts and official documents are cherry-picked and truncated. Airline parts are misidentified and pictures cropped in a way that leaves out inconvenient rubble and wreckage. “Expert testimony” is lifted from the American Free Press, a hysterical news service with strong links to the far Right.

Yet the makers of Loose Change are pushing at an open door. More than a third of Americans suspect that federal officials assisted in the September 11 attacks or took no action to stop them. September 11 conspiracy theories have gained such a following in France that even a member of President Sarkozy’s government has suggested that President Bush might have planned the attacks. Christine Boutin, the housing minister, when asked in an interview whether she thought Bush might have been behind the attacks, said: “I think it is possible.”

Another who believes this is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, who reckons that September 11 could not have been executed “without co-ordination with [US] intelligence and security services”. Ahmadinejad is also a well-known Holocaust denier, having referred publicly to “the myth of the Jews’ massacre”.

In the world of counterknowledge, wild theories are constantly mating and mutating. As the editor of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer, puts it: “The mistaken belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking, as well as creationism, Holocaust denial and the various crank theories of physics.”

We do not normally think of creationism and maverick physics as conspiracy theories; but what they have in common with Loose Change is a methodology that marks them as counterknowledge. People who share a muddled, careless or deceitful attitude towards gathering evidence often find themselves drawn to each other’s fantasies. If you believe one wrong or strange thing, you are more likely to believe another. Although this has been true for centuries, the invention of the internet has had a galvanising effect. A rumour about the Antichrist can leap from Goths in Sweden to Australian fascists in seconds. Minority groups are becoming more tolerant of each other’s eccentric doctrines. Contacts between white and black racists are now flourishing; in particular, the growing anti-Semitism of black American Muslims has been a great ice-breaker on the neo-Nazi circuit.

In June 2007, the home page of The Truth Seeker, a conspiracy website, included claims that Aids is a “man-made Pentagon genocide”, that Pope Paul VI “was impersonated by an actor from 1975 to 1978”, that new evidence about the Loch Ness monster had emerged – plus a link to Loose Change.

Yet, as we saw earlier, more than 100 million people have seen that film. In the 21st century, bogus knowledge is no longer confined to self-selecting minority groups. It is seeping into the mainstream, cleverly repackaged for a mass market. This crisis goes beyond traditional political ideology. Yes, the Left has helped to spread counterknowledge by insisting on the rights of minorities to believe falsehoods that make them feel better about themselves. Afro-centric history aims to raise the self-esteem of black youngsters by feeding them the fantasy that the origins of Western civilisation lie in black Africa. Last year, a British government report revealed that some teachers are dropping the Holocaust from lessons rather than confront the Holocaust-denial of Muslim pupils.

But Left-wing multiculturalists are not the only guilty ones: entrepreneurs are turning counterknowledge into an industry. Publishing houses pay self-taught archaeologists and pseudo-historians large amounts to turn fragments of fact into saleable stories. Titles are placed in the history sections of bookshops whose claims have been thoroughly demolished – yet the publishers carry on bringing out new editions.

The dividing line between fiction and non-fiction is becoming increasingly hard to draw. These days, public opinion is so malleable that a product does not even have to pretend to be fact in order to affect perceptions of truth: the success of The Da Vinci Code has persuaded 40 per cent of Americans that the Churches are concealing information about Jesus.

Meanwhile, publishers, television channels and newspapers are making huge profits from another branch of counterknowledge: alternative medicine. Unqualified nutritionists make claims for vitamin supplements and “superfoods” that are unsupported by scientific literature; conveniently, these people often have a commercial interest in selling the supplements in question.

Fashionable advocates of alternative medicine, and the executives who profit from them, are as reliant on counterknowledge as any bedsit conspiracy theorist. Their miracle diets and health scares undermine science by distorting the public understanding of cause and effect, and therefore of risk.

The fingerprints of the alternative medicine lobby are all over the worst British health scare of recent years, in which thousands of parents denied their children the MMR triple vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella following the dissemination of flawed data linking it to autism. In that case, distrust of orthodox medicine increased the danger of a measles epidemic.

But that is nothing compared to the impact of medical counterknowledge in underdeveloped countries. In northern Nigeria, Islamic leaders have issued a fatwa declaring the polio vaccine to be a US conspiracy to sterilise Muslims: polio has returned to the area, and pilgrims have carried it to Mecca and Yemen. In January 2007, the parents of 24,000 children in Pakistan refused to let health workers vaccinate their children because radical mullahs had told them the same idiotic story.

These incidents cannot be dismissed as examples of medieval superstition: these people are not rejecting life-saving vaccines because they reject modern medicine, but because their leaders are spouting Islamic takes on Western conspiracy theories. Counterknowledge, with its ingrained hostility towards a political, intellectual and scientific elite, appeals to anti-American, anti-Western sentiment in the developing world.

Islamic countries, in particular, have embraced counterknowledge to a remarkable degree. In 2006, the Pew Research Centre asked Muslims in Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan whether Arabs carried out the September 11 attacks. The majority of respondents in each country said no. Indeed, most British Muslims – 56 per cent – also thought that Arabs were innocent. A quarter of British Muslims believe that “the British Government was involved in some way” with the London terrorist bombings of July 7, 2005.

The battle between knowledge and counterknowledge is not just a struggle to protect the public domain from bogus facts. It has profound implications for the safety of the West. And, make no mistake about it: this is a battle we are losing.

Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and False History by Damian Thompson (Atlantic) is available for £11.99 + £1.25 p&p. To order, please call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112 or go to © Damian Thompson 2008

Mind you, being susceptible to counter-knowledge — conspiracy theories, propaganda, and the like — do not make one self-destructive. On the contrary, prime-divider societies run by ruthless elites thrive on this kind of stuff. It’s civil societies that prize freedom and mutual respect that need to reality test.

Steven Pinker on the Muhammad bear: “Moral Judgments Can’t Be All That Universal”

Posted by Lazar, additional comments by RL

Steven Pinker, prominent experimental psychologist and author, has much to offer to the contemporary debate over the origin and nature of societies, especially regarding the West’s understanding of the Muslim world. Pinker wrote the feature article in last week’s The New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Moral Instinct”. In it, he discusses the ethical impulses that evolution has endowed us with, and how they manifest themselves in day-to-day existence. But Pinker emphasizes that despite all the common moral traits among humans, major differences remain between cultures. He makes his point in a very direct and poignant fashion.

The moral sense, then, may be rooted in the design of the normal human brain. Yet for all the awe that may fill our minds when we reflect on an innate moral law within, the idea is at best incomplete. Consider this moral dilemma: A runaway trolley is about to kill a schoolteacher. You can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack, but the trolley would trip a switch sending a signal to a class of six-year-olds, giving them permission to name a teddy bear Muhammad. It is permissible to pull the lever?

This is no joke. Last month a British woman teaching in a private school in Sudan allowed her class to name a teddy bear after the most popular boy in the class, who bore the name of the founder of Islam. She was jailed for blasphemy and threatened with a public flogging, while a mob outside the prison demanded her death. To the protesters, the woman’s life clearly had less value than maximizing the dignity of their religion, and their judgment on whether it is right to divert the hypothetical trolley would have differed from ours. Whatever grammar guides people’s moral judgments, it can’t be all that universal.

By framing the situation so well and clearly, Pinker effectively emphasizes how different Muslim culture’s values are from those of the West.


Pinker’s discussion centers around the question of the evolutionary logic of altruism.

Fairness is very close to what scientists call reciprocal altruism, where a willingness to be nice to others can evolve as long as the favor helps the recipient more than it costs the giver and the recipient returns the favor when fortunes reverse. The analysis makes it sound as if reciprocal altruism comes out of a robotlike calculation, but in fact Robert Trivers, the biologist who devised the theory, argued that it is implemented in the brain as a suite of moral emotions. Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest. Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship. Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past. Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future (consistent with Mencken’s definition of conscience as “the inner voice which warns us that someone might be looking”). Many experiments on who helps whom, who likes whom, who punishes whom and who feels guilty about what have confirmed these predictions.

Menckens witty sarcasm gets at the core of the difference between guilt and shame. For him, guilt is just scrupulous shame, and in many cases that’s precisely right. All this discussion could use a more direct discussion of the difference between honor-shame and integrity-guilt precisely because some of the critical issues about what motivates people to “be altruistic” even when they won’t get any advantage have to do with whether “other people” know that you’ve been altruistic. Thus in honor-shame cultures, where what other people know and think is the primary concern, altruism is less likely to develop than in integrity-guilt ones in which internal concerns play significant roles.

But overall, reading Pinker, one gets the sense that awareness of “rule or be ruled” is not a major dimension of his approach. He takes into account the behavior of psychopaths, but considers them by and large genetic abnormalities. Primarily he is interested in “natural morality” as the search for positive-sum — i.e. rational — relations.

One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.

So positive-sum is hard-wired in nature? Strange, Eli Sagan, a psycho-historian, thinks domination is hard-wired, and the vast stretch of human political history agrees with Sagan. For Pinker, though, Sagan’s option is not really viable, except for a “galactic overlord.”

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

One could not ask for a better example of the association of reason with positive-sum relations. Zero-sum domination is relegated to galactic fantasy. This is a more serious problem than mere oversight. What seems absent from the otherwise imposing scientific discussion are all those emotions — many of them “Darwinian” (like envy) — that drive us in the direction of the short-sighted by highly satisfying decisions that, by “rational” standards, are immoral. Indeed, in its own peculiar combination of extreme angelism with its “positive-sum” cognitive egocentrism and petty moral Schadenfreude, and its consequent politics of resentment, Europe may well be committing suicide.

Not coincidentally, the core of this idea — the interchangeability of perspectives — keeps reappearing in history’s best-thought-through moral philosophies, including the Golden Rule (itself discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance. It also underlies Peter Singer’s theory of the Expanding Circle — the optimistic proposal that our moral sense, though shaped by evolution to overvalue self, kin and clan, can propel us on a path of moral progress, as our reasoning forces us to generalize it to larger and larger circles of sentient beings.

These are all Western thinkers who secularize biblical morality (Hobbes is a secular Augustine; Kant, a secular pietist). Not coincidentally, the “golden rule” has been discovered time and time again, and it always runs into the stone wall of the “other” golden rule: “Do onto others before they do onto you.” The issue, it seems to me, is not whether you can squint your evolutionary eye and say, “in the long run, the former golden rule will win out sufficiently for society to survive.” On the contrary, the shift from prime divider to civil societies occurs when the former wins over the latter in by a critical mass, and pace Jared Diamond, that’s civil society is neither an evolutionary foregone conclusion, nor even a small probablility, but, in Sagan’s words, a virtual miracle. (Sagan is a secular humanist.)

At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us. Of course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that they are beyond the pale of reason… But in any conflict in which a meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground. One side can acknowledge the other’s concern for community or stability or fairness or dignity, even while arguing that some other value should trump it in that instance. With affirmative action, for example, the opponents can be seen as arguing from a sense of fairness, not racism, and the defenders can be seen as acting from a concern with community, not bureaucratic power. Liberals can ratify conservatives’ concern with families while noting that gay marriage is perfectly consistent with that concern.

This isn’t science, it’s empathy. And the problem with our empathy, and its desire to reach positive-sum solutions, is that people who are morally committed to zero-sum solutions — as in, [my interpretation of] Allah must rule mankind — can systematically exploit our good intentions and turn us into useful idiots. And when that zero-sum mentality is reinforced by a pervasive peer group that considers any dissent — even that which, seeing in the long-run, argues that this approach is ultimately self-destructive — shameful, indeed treasonous, then people will do incredibly nasty things in the name of “morality.” And my guess is that most of those who are the objects of this “morality” should not wait around for the evolutionary scales to readjust.

One of the (sad) keys to Israeli character is the expression “frier” — a sucker who plays by the rules and gets taken to the clearners as a result. As some speculate, it’s only the threat from the outside that gets Israelis to “rise above” this noxious social tic and engage in altruistic collective behavior. It’s as if only the worst brings out our best. As Starman says to Jenny, “Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.”

Let’s return to our “Muhammad Bear.” Why are there people ready to lynch this woman for naming her class teddy bear Muhammad, even when it was in reference to a kid in the class rather than the prophet Muhammad. In my reading this behavior comes from the following sources:

  • What Pinker refers to as authoritarianism — the importance of “top-down” imposition of “respect” for the sake of maintaining order. But that’s not enough. Even extreme authoritarianism, at a time of crisis, does not lead to this kind of extreme.
  • Honor-shame culture: the idea that it is legitimate to shed another’s blood for the sake of your own face… a fortiori, for the sake of your God’s face. [Note the element of idolatry.] Again, this is not sufficient. The explanation that this was about the name of one of the kids in the class should have sufficed here. Given the dhimmi behavior of the English woman, who certainly didn’t want to create a scene, the “macho” response should have been placated.
  • Bullying rage: the desire to bully others as an expression of frustration with how the world has humiliated you. This gets closer to the core of the problem. A lynch mob to kill a European Christian woman, no matter how sweet and well-intentioned, suggests a worrisome level of anger and bullying which uses the “honor-shame” authoritarian morality as an excuse.
  • That last point brings up more interesting issues. How much of the bullying is “learned” from the pathetically weak responses of the West to the kind of “enraged bullying” that accompanied previous, global events like the Muhammad Cartoon affair, the Kuran in the toilet, and the Pope’s criticism… all occuring on the world stage, all great victories for Islamic rage boy.

    It may be unfair of me to judge the “science of morality” on the basis of a popular article in the MSM. But it strikes me as heavily weighted to Western individualist thinking. And despite the nods in the direction of knowing who one is dealing with, the level of awareness of emotions and reciprocal relations — i.e., the impact of one person’s behavior on the other, not only aggression but concession — seems underdeveloped. Not something we can afford right now.

    Fisking a Dishonest Storyteller: Charles Enderlin at Harvard

    Charles Enderlin, whose reputation is shredding as his career winds down, came to Harvard’s Center for European Studies on Thursday, January 17, 2008 to speak about his new book, The Lost Years. He rambled on for about forty minutes, telling anecdotes whose major but unspoken thrust was that Israel and Clinton were responsible for the failure of Camp David and the perdurance of the Intifada. Part of what was so astonishing was that despite the fact that he was at Harvard and presumably speaking to a crowd that was not composed of dummies, he readily made remarks that any well-informed person would find astonishing to say the least. But overall, he’s a skillfull storyteller (most of his remarks are about how Rabin said this to me, Peres said that to me, Saeb Erakat and I used to talk over coffee at the American Colony Hotel, etc…) and he manages to get his dagger jabs very subtly.

    He began with some remarks on how, as a reporter, he tries to get at not just what the big-wigs say, but the “feeling on the ground.” His first example was the following remark:

    During the first months the Israeli army used a million bullets, that’s one per Israeli child.

    Come again? What kind of a statistic is that? Are those bullets “protecting” Israeli children — certainly not. As far as Enderlin is concerned, the Palestinian violence represented little threat to Israeli society. So what’s the relationship? Why even bring up the number of children? Or is it a way to link those bullets to the 800+ Palestinian “children” that Israel [allegedly] killed, and who serve a wide range of Israeli “progressive” ideologues as a stick with which to flagellate their own government…? a stick Charles Enderlin would immediately pick up during the question and answer section when someone asked him about al Durah.

    Having subtly if jarringly indicted Israel for their contribution to the violence, Enderlin immediately exonerated Arafat.

    He did not foment or direct the Second Intifada. It was a spontaneous movement.

    Now this, in itself is interesting. My personal view is that Arafat was the sorcerer’s apprentice to the really malevolent forces of Hamas. But there’s plenty of documented evidence that he and his croneys in Fatah did everything they could to stir the sh*t, including the following from PA Communications Minister, ‘Imad Al-Faluj in Lebanon March 3, 2001:

      “Whoever thinks that the Intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is wrong, even if this visit was the straw that broke the back of the Palestinian people. This Intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David negotiations, where he turned the table upside down on President Clinton. [Arafat] remained steadfast and challenged [Clinton]. He rejected the American terms and he did it in the heart of the US.”

    That it got away from him and spun out of control, hardly means that he “did not foment or direct” the Intifada.

    But for Enderlin, the culprits are the Israelis and Arafat’s a befuddled old man whom events are passing by.

    The IDF General staff decided we won’t go back to the first intifada, where their response was too weak. The army wanted “to recover its capacity of dissuasion” which they felt they had lost after Lebanon which “was considered a failure by many generals… To be seen fleeing was very bad.” There was “almost an Israeli military coup: orders given by Barak to calm down the army’s response were ignored. Ephraim Sneh negotiated with Palestinians, and agreed that Israel would open so-and-so checkpoint, but then the troops on the ground refused.

    In Enderlin’s world, any time the Palestinians negociate, it’s in good faith, and any time the Israelis don’t make them happy, the resulting violence is Israel’s fault. He overflows with stories of people who are just on the verge of becoming (or better yet, already have, become) more moderate, and then the foolish/malicious Israelis go ahead and target them for assassination. If only the Israelis wouldn’t fight back, if only they were smarter… if only they followed my advice.

    Juan Cole’s Hormuz Conspiracy Theory

    The Augean Stables has covered the incident at Hormuz in previous posts. Since that time, few answers have been given regarding exactly what Iran intended by its actions, though I am of the opinion that it was meant to embarrass Bush as he came to the region to build an Arab consensus against Iran. Iran maintains that the incident was a routine interaction between the two fleets, and produced a video to bolster its claims. Of course, the events on the Iranian video do not preclude the occurrence of what the Americans describe, and there is no indication of when the Iranian video was filmed. Moreover, the question remains- why film a routine event? It seems curious to me that the Iranians would film an everyday transmission in which nothing of note happened, unless they did so in anticipation of the event at Hormuz, in order to have ‘proof’ that nothing happened. It is possible that the Iranians record every transmission between themselves and the U.S. navy, but its seems unlikely that they would videotape every transmission as well.

    “So What if Al Durah was Staged?”: Meditations on the Colonization of the Israeli Mind

    I recently gave a talk at a conference on Media and Ethics in Jerusalem, where I presented the case against Enderlin’s version of the Muhammad al Durah story. Apparently, the presentation was relatively convincing since one of the first criticisms I immediately received from a prominent Israeli professor of communications was: “So what? According to reliable statistics, the Israeli army has killed over 800 Palestinian children since the second Intifada. So what difference does it make if this case is staged or not?” His intervention was followed by a round of applause from about a third of the 200-some person audience.

    The remark should not have surpised me. Gideon Levy and Tom Segev have already offered the same response. It did, however, seem unusual coming from a professor of Political Science and Communications, who specializes in media (including focus on their role in peace processes), who would, therefore, presumably know this “one” case was hardly “interchangeable” with the hundreds of others.

    These remarks seemed even more misplaced given the conference’s keynote address delivered just before our panel by Daniel Dayan, the French sociologist of the media. In that talk Dayan discussed the ways in which the media frame the problem of terrorism, and among the issues he raised, one seemed particularly relevant to the issue of al Durah. The terrorist, in this frame, is a “victim fighting back” while the “hegemonic forces” against which he struggles – occupation, invasion, colonialism – are the true terrorists. This kind of media narrative erases both the identity of the terrorist (he is a freedom fighter who “has no choice”) and the victims of the terrorist (they deserve what they get).

    This framing works particularly well, Dayan noted, in terms of a “Politics of pity.” Pity, he pointed out, is not a good mathematician. It can only count to one. But from that one it then manages an algebraic transformation where that one stands for all the victims of the (newly defined) terror emanating from the oppressor. As Osama bin Laden put it so eloquently: “In killing this boy, the Israelis killed every child in the world.” Thus the “freedom fighter,” or, as Michael Moore refers to the Jihadis in Iraq who blow up their fellow Muslims with alarming regularity, the “Minute-Men,” use the “weapons of the weak” to assault the atrocious foe. Or, to quote ISM activists: “Resistance is not terror,” and since all Israeli children will eventually become soldiers of the occupation, Israel has no civilians.

    These conceptual remarks shed a fierce light on the significance of al Durah since this icon was a spectacular and unprecedented event in the history of TV: not only the first “live TV-recorded” death of a child in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but perhaps any conflict, and it was presented to the world as a murder. It thus carried an emotional impact equivalent to a nuclear blast, and became a symbolic matrix that defined the second Intifada and redefined Zionism. The “martyr” Muhammad al Durah became not only the “icon” for the Arab and Muslim world, he became the touchstone of Western perception about the nature of the conflict and the nature of Israel.

    The Bully Left: What Lurks Behind Ms. Magazine’s Rejection of AJC Ad

    [Note: This post was a joint effort by Lazar and RL]

    Since 2000 in particular, the ‘progressive’ movement has increasingly been held in thrall to one tenet that seems trumps all others – the adoption of the Palestinian people as the “chosen people” and the corrolary demonization of Israel as the imperial/colonialist/racist oppressor holding them in subjection. So pervasive has this ideological proclivity gone that progressives abandon core beliefs if those beliefs either question the allegedly “progressive” motives and goals of the Palestinians or — and this is still more astonishing — portray Israel in a positive light. The far “left” allies itself with Muslim groups that preach against civil rights and liberal democracy, and by any impartial standards, qualify as racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic. But, since these groups are involved in a struggle against Israel, the progressive movement ignores all the core freedoms that the groups oppose in principle and embraces them as ideological brethren in the struggle against colonialism.

    The feminist movement, alas, is no different. The anti-American, anti-Israeli narrative that blames those countries for Third World violence and sexism takes priority over actually supporting country like Israel that promote women’s rights. Israel was the second Western country with a female Prime Minister. The IDF features women in high profile roles, including generals and fighter pilots, and continues to open positions to women wherever possible. Israel has scholarship programs specifically designed to encourage Bedouin women to attend college, and the first female Bedouin doctors have begun practicing. Israeli police work with southern Bedouin to combat the practice of honor killings, urgently needed to defend the lives of women. And, Israel’s President of the Supreme Court, Knesset Speaker, and Minister of Foreign Affairs are all women.

    This is not to say that women in Israel live in a feminist paradise. There are many problems that face women there, as in any liberal democracy dedicated to gender equality. But compare their status to any of the surrounding cultures, and unless you’re a hyper-self-critical Israeli/Jew solipsistically focused on your own faults, and any impartial observer would conclude that women in Israel do live in Paradise. Indeed, as a woman lawyer who worked in a shelter for battered women noted to me, the Arab women that fled there had enormous difficulties reintegrating in their own communities, not merely because the men hated them for escaping their patriarchal control, but because the women accused them of “thinking they’re Jewish” in expecting unacceptable levels of autonomy.

    Nonetheless, this record of supporting the advancement of women is not enough to trump anti-Israel sentiment on the left, and a curious recent incident at the flagship feminist magazine, Ms illustrates the problems involved.

    The American Jewish Congress submitted an advertisement to the magazine for publication. The ad featured (unflattering) pictures of Dorit Beinish, President of the Supreme Court, Dalia Itzik, Knesset Speaker, and Tzipi Livni, Minister of Foreign Affairs, with three words underneath that read “This is Israel”.

    ajc ad for ms

    This innocuous ad merely points out women that have risen to influence and prominence in Israel’s liberal democracy, and implies that Israeli society encourages, or at least allows, women to rise to positions of importance. As Zionist propaganda, it’s pretty mild — no demonization of Palestinians, no militarism, no religious defense of the right to settle every square inch of the “whole land of Israel.” Just a relatively anodine affirmation of a western ideal: the empowerment of women.

    But Ms. magazine rejected the ad.