"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sports Rant/Composed Look At How to Write a Contrarian Piece

First a brief version of the rant: Paul Daugherty, of Sports Illustrated, is a fucking moron.

Scaling it back.  I think every writer, anyone who wants to be published, wants to be read, has at the very least a gigantic inner narcissist.  You have to think to yourself- my opinions are worthwhile.  I am someone who is worth reading.  And you get to believe that about yourself as soon as people start reading your work.  It can go to your head.   And, if you are someone with an opinion about things, you almost instinctively want to move away from the herd.

That is a good instinct to have.  Conventional wisdom isn't always wrong, but believing that is is makes a good starting point.  However, the contrarian impulse, combined with the arrogance of a writer, the idea that your opinion is always a good thing, can lead to down a dark path.  Anything that most people believe is wrong.  Even when it is right.

Additionally, the internet age, the need for hits, has generated tons of authors and bloggers who rely on this ginned-up controversy to get hits. Talk radio and the political blogosphere are obviously prime examples of this mentality, but it is just as bad, if not worse, in sports. I blame a lot of this on ESPN, who decided that attitude equaled excellent and provocative coverage.  Also they are soulless bastards who, with their Disney overlords, have conspired to ruin sports. 

Happy Birthday...

...to one of my favorite blogs. The other day, Nasser Arrabyee celebrated the first anniversary of his blog. I know I have said this before, but his is an extremely valuable work- top-notch journalism and analysis. Required reading on Yemen.

In light of that, here is an article of his about the trials and tribulations of southern leaders.  In it, you see that various leaders are being sentenced, denounced as traitors even as they insist these are political show trials.  Those being sentenced include former Parliamentarians and even an Ambassador.  

This is usually the beginning of the end for a regime.  This isn't the first time, god knows, that Salih's enemies find themselves in prison.  But the Southern Movement is obviously growing, and the regime is creating rallying points for secessionists, and at the same time essentially confirming southern propaganda.   It is as if you accused me of being a hot-head, and I was so upset by the accusation I punched you and your dog in the face. 

I am not trying to say that this regime will fall because of these trials- but historically these moves resemble panic and create a series of self-fulfilling prophecies.  More phony trials lead to more protests decrying injustice.  Protests are quashed, many are arrested, and you have more trials.   I have enormous sympathy for the Southern Movement, but they are not entirely in the clear here.  I find there calls for secession understandable, but unreasonable and potentially disastrous. (Partly because I don't think a suddenly independent southern state is feasible.)   But the onus is clearly on the President- he has the most power to put the plug back in this drain.   It is up to him to try to provide at least the barest modicum of trust.  These trials do exactly the opposite. 

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Note

I will be traveling until Wednesday, so no blogging until then.  Again, though, if you happen to be in Claremont, CA, come to Pomona Monday night to see me talk.  It will be about Yemen, unless I digress from my prepared notes and just talk about how un-freaking-believable it is that my Butler Bulldogs are in the Final Four.

Either way, it will be exciting. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bring on K-State!

Let's go Butler!

Giant Babies

I love that the GOP spent all night last night introducing amendments to the health care bill, hoping to send it back to the house (they were successful, but not in any substantive matter).  The finest was Tom Coburn's bill that wouldn't allow sex offenders to get Viagra.   The point, of course, is so that Democrats would vote against it and the Republicans could use that vote in an attack ad ("Senator Levin wants rapists to get boners...Can you trust him with your taxes?")  

I honestly don't know how anyone can see this as anything but the desperate act of petulant brats.  I think this is what happens when you reduce a party to intimidation and snark.  Is anyone defending this?  Did Tom Coburn just realize the bill needed this now, after a year and a half of talking about it?  Or is he just that reflexively dishonest?   Clearly it is the latter.  I really think that he is offended it didn't pass, and will get self-righteous about it. 

Remember that Simpsons' episode, Homerpalooza?  About the rock concert when Homer became a sideshow act?  Anyway, he was walking by two teens who had this conversation in very flat, disaffected voices.

Teen 1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy, he's cool.
Teen 2: Dude, are you being sarcastic?
Teen 1: I don't even know anymore.

A perfect encapsulation of jaded, reflexive hipsterism.  I think the parallels here are clear.  When the GOP gets outraged over reconciliation or "deem and pass", things they have used before, dozens of times, and very recently, and call it tyranny and the stylings of a banana republic and Chavez-like totalitarianism, you would have to think they know they are being cynical and dishonest.  But I really don't think they even know anymore.  I think this fiery anger, this offended entitlement, is the default mode, so there is no way to tell legitimate offense from ginned-up controversy.

You know, Waq al-Waq was way more informative about Yemen, but never once mentioned The Simpsons. 

Early radio note

If anyone happens to be up and reading this on the East Coast, I am going to be on The Takeaway discussing Yemen in a few minutes, about 6 Eastern time.   That is, if I don't lapse back into sleep and start having fever-dreams on the air.

Update: Actually, it was more about Saudi Arabia, and how they arrested 110-some militants (over the last 5 months) with links to AQAP, including two suicide cells.  Caryle Murphy of The Christian Science Monitor, who was the primary guest, had some great reporting. I kept trying to hijack the conversation to Yemen.  My quick take is that this shows that Saudi Arabia is finally taking seriously the threat from Yemen.  I think until the attack on Muhammad bin-Nayif last August there was kind of a disbelief that Yemen could actually create a viable organization.  They were maybe a good place for militants to hide or recruit, but a home-grown group couldn't be a threat to the Kingdom.  I could be wrong though.  I am pretty sure I am still asleep.  

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Programming Notes

I will be giving a talk about Pomona College in California (Claremont, near LA) next Monday evening.  If any readers want to come heckle you are more than welcome.  I am not sure the time and place, but I will let you know as soon as I do.

In the meantime, read this ReliefWeb article about IDPs in Yemen's north.  You'll get a sense that while Scorched Earth was a military success, it might make political reconciliation all the more difficult.

And while you are busy being unhappy, check out Paul Stephens' excellent piece on economic disparity in Yemen.  It is both gritty and learned, and continues the great work going on at The Sana'a Bureau.

Monday, March 22, 2010


There is Yemen stuff below, for those of you who are here for that.  But I was wondering about something earlier, regarding US politics.  Do you think Michelle Bachmann gets jealous of Sarah Palin?  Like, she thinks to herself, "Hey- I'm a moderately attractive, gleefully ignorant, mendacious incendiary theocratic loon too!  Why doesn't anyone think I'm presidential?"

Health care is out of my league- I think I understand the outlines, but I don't write about it at all.  Leave that to Cohn and Klein.  I'd only make a fool of myself writing about it, which doesn't usually stop me, but did.  That said, what a beautiful night it was last night.  I never thought much of Pelosi as a leader, but I was wrong.  Everyone thought it was dead, but passing reform was always the right thing to do, and piecemeal reform would not have worked.   And she didn't let it die. 

Obama, I think, is a singular figure.  When voting for him, I didn't think, well, I am voting for the Democrat.  I was voting for him.  Like every other Democrat, I frequently hate my party.  But yesterday they made me wildly proud to be one, possibly for the first time.   The could have quailed at the outrage and the sanctimonious false piousness being offered them by the Republicans and the media, but they didn't.   They remembered that in 2008 millions went to the polls hoping to make this a more livable, humane country, and they made good on their promise.   I would be shocked if any of them read this- but thank you.

Also, I am a little surprised that when the polls were down, people said the Dems had to listen to them.  Don't we always rip on politicians for obsessively studying the polls?  Weren't the same Republicans who ripped on the Dems for ignoring the people the ones who (rightly) praised George Bush for ignoring popularity to implement the surge?   I am not remotely surprised at the hypocrisy, but am a little surprised I haven't heard that before (which doesn't mean it wasn't said elsewhere).

On a similar note, Mark Lynch has an essay about what this means for the Middle East and the Obama administration's plans.  He judiciously and justly makes both cases, but I am going to quote a paragraph that illustrates why I believe that Barack Obama is the best pol of my lifetime.

The "long game" version is that Obama has a signature method when tackling difficult, long-term objectives, whether health care, Israeli-Palestinian peace or Iran. Obama's method is to lay out an ambitious but realistic final status objective in stark terms and then to let political hardball unfold around those objectives. His most fervent opposition gets more and more outraged, raising the rhetorical pitch until they discredit themselves with key mainstream audiences who recoil from their overheated, apocalyptic and nutty words. And then, just as the Washington DC conventional wisdom declares his ambition dead, they suddenly wake up to the reality that he's won. How'd that happen? The final outcome isn't as pure as many would like, but it's nevertheless a substantial, major achievement against all expectations.

AQAP Offshore

The US has taken to warning ships that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could very well attack them in the near-future.  

"Information suggests that al Qaeda remains interested in maritime attacks in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden along the coast of Yemen," the office said in a statement, citing an advisory by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"Although it is unclear how they would proceed, it may be similar in nature to the attacks against the USS Cole in October 2000 and the M/V Limburg in October 2002 where a small to mid-size boat laden with explosives was detonated," it added.
 It is important to remember that while the methods of AQ are horrifyingly nihilistic, and its theological goals medieval, its groups generally have a grounded strategy.  The main branch over-reached on Septemer 11th, thinking that it could create a clash of civilizations, a world war.  But it had an idea- this wasn't blowing things up just for the sake of blood.

And AQAP is far more developed, strategically.  All of their actions have been toward the goal of harassing and distracting the government, either aiding in its topple or promoting its irrelevance (it is an argument as to which is more likely, and which might benefit AQAP more.  I had one belief, but some discussions have me wavering.  This is a post for another time.  Suffice it to say: there is a strategy).  Maritime martyrdom would not be used simply to cause death.

What successful attacks would do could look like a repeat of the Cole/Limburgh aftermath.  Though the port of Aden had been in steady decline, the astronomical insurance rates that came in the aftermath of those attacks made it economically difficult for ships to dock or refuel there.   That helped to crater an already beaten-down economy.   Oil and gas go away, but the strategic location and natural viability of Aden never will.  It is in an incredibly important place, and its resurrection as a functioning port is extremely important to the future of Yemen (I am ignoring the Southern Movement here, but you get my point).  If AQAP can launch some attacks, that economic lifeline could go away.

But their goals are not limited to Yemen.  The Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandal are also crucial global shipping lanes.  Piracy is already taking its toll, but who looks up to pirates?  Hampering shipping, disrupting the global economy, evading the US Navy- these are things that help cement you as the flagship franchise for al-Qaeda.   That is one of their goals, and all their actions are intended to help reach that.

I've said this before, and Greg and I used to say this all the time on Waq al-Waq, but it is the patience and long-term strategy of AQAP that makes them so dangerous.  Zarqawi in Iraq was so consumed with feverish bloodlust that there was no way he could ultimately succeed.  It is of course a relief that AQAP isn't intent on proving themselves solely by bodycount.  But this means we can't expect them to destroy themselves.  We have to recognize that they are smart.   Giving them credit doesn't mean approval- it only improves chances of victory.

Relatedly, Tom Ricks has had a good conversation on maritime security.

Friday, March 19, 2010

New Blog to Follow

Aaron Walton, one of the great commentators during The New Republic Talkback heyday, has started a blog called One Disgusted Democrat.  Far from merely being a liberal bitch-fest, it is an clear call to action for those sick of Republican perfidy.   Good analysis, good advice on what to do.  Read it.   There will be a link on the side from here on out.

Really Quick Sports Thought

So Charles Pierce had a piece in Slate the other day about how Kentucky's John Calipari is the sleaziest coach in college basketball, which is a really high and sleazy bar.  I don't care much for Calipari- he always leaves schools mired in scandal, with whole season wiped from the record book.  To me he epitomizes the hypocrisy on the NCAA- grown-up coaches can leave their programs without a problem, but if kids want to transfer they can lose a year of eligibility.   But Calipari is probably no more guilty of these sins than many others- that isn't exactly an exoneration, mind you.

But whatever quibbles one might have with Pierce's article, the whole thesis is incorrect.  How can anyone be named the sleaziest coach in college hoops in a world where Bob Huggins exists?  A string of DUIs, no control over players, and, worst of all, shockingly low graduation rates.

As for academics, 27 of 95 Huggins' players graduated from Cincinnati or another university in his 16 years.  That’s a 28% graduation rate overall, including those students who transferred.  Huggins also had four seasons where the NCAA reported the Cincinnati men’s basketball graduation rate to be zero.  Even at the time Huggins was forced to resign, again according to university officials, one of his players had been maintaining a 0.0 GPA, and another would have had a 0.0 if not for two incompletes.

Huggins has a long track record of picking kids up and spitting them out when the season is over.  They are ballplayers, and that is it- winning is the only thing.  Of course the kids are complicit in this- but they are kids.  Huggins takes no responsibility.  Contrast him with the often (and often justifiably) reviled Bobby Knight, who, for all his temper, made goddamn sure his kids went to class. 

All college sports has this level.  Even in the pristine small schools that sportswriters love the jocks get a lot of breaks.  But Huggins takes it to another level, with no regard for the young men put in his charge.  It is hoops at its worst.

Also, with his track suits and hair, the guy gives the air of a low-level Eastern-European gangster thug.


By the way, this blog is pulling for Butler.  I went there, and follow them with more enthusiasm than I think it appropriate. 

Friday links

Some guy named Gregory Johnsen- who may or may not know much about Yemen- has an article in The National about Yemen's upcoming power struggles.   This is something which I think Greg is one of the only people talking about.   There is a lot of behind-the-scenes scheming as the older generation is fading away.  This is interesting, because the modern Yemeni state has no real mechanism for transition.  Greg does a great job of illustrating some of the players, and what they are doing.  

The London Review of Books has a long article by everyone's favorite lefty agitator, Tariq Ali.   It is mostly history, with very little analysis, but the history is probably more-or-less unknown to most readers- since, you know, it is about Yemen.  I have some quibbles with the article, but am having trouble getting my thoughts straight what with basketball on the tv and the computer.  It is a major article though, and deserves a going-over, and will get one soon enough. 

That should do it!

Southern Movement?  Solved.

ADEN, March 19 (Saba)- The biggest flag of Yemen was ever made in Aden province in preparation to celebrate the National Day on May 22.

Head of the local council of Tawahi district in Aden Mohammed al-Jobari said to Saba that the flag is 75 meters long and 8 meters wide and its flagpole is 20 meter tall.

The Republic of Yemen was established on May 22, 1990, with the merger of North Yemen and South Yemen.

On May 22, 1990, President Saleh raised the first flag of the Republic of Yemen in the city of Aden to officially declare the re-unification of Yemen.

To give you some perspective on how large a flag that is, think about it like this: that is a really, really big flag.

Flags are symbols, of course, and I can kind of understand the meaning behind this.  A giant flag of a unified Yemen will show the world that the fragile country is still whole and proud, despite a few rabble-rousers and sabotuers.   But still- if you are a southerner inclined to support the goals of the movement, and are influenced by its rhetoric, doesn't this just seem to be a provocation?   An enormous symbol of the oppressor, of colonialism, the marking of a state you no longer wish to be a art of, casting massive shadows over your putative capital. 

I don't want to overstate this (ok, I do, but am restraining myself).  Little things add up, and I don't think anyone doubts the power of iconography.  I am just a little worried about a collective mindset that would think this is either meaningful, or- worse- useful.

The second link goes to a Nasser Arrabyee article about arrests in the south.  Crimes such as smashing car windows near a public school have people arrested as secessionists.  They might be, but there is the unmistakable air of a larger, and ultimately self-defeating, broader crackdown.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Double-Barrell Right-Wing Watch

We'll start first in Israel, where (via BMK) we see this sickening story from Ha'aretz

A right-wing Web site has posted a list with personal details of organizers of the left-wing protests in Sheikh Jarrah.
The details, which have been up for a week, include head shots of the activists, their phone numbers, e-mails, full addresses and pictures of their homes.
Unless there was proof, it would be irresponsible to blame this on the increasingly right-leaning theocratic government of Israel.   However, I believe that the atmosphere the Shas party and people like Avigdor Lieberman are creating helps to incite, and to provide justification for, this kind of teeth-baring internal battles; this hunting for heresies.   This is a silly example, but I think a telling one: the other day, as the girl was getting ready for work, she had on the local news, and they blurbed an interview with one of the Dixie Chicks (who is apparently touring with the Eagles. That is a show which: I will not be at).  Now, I don't care about the Dixie Chicks, and never have.  But it is amazing to think of the anger they provoked by saying they were embarrassed to be from the same state as George Bush.   Do you remember the ferocity those words were met with? 

I think that is what is happening in Israel right now.  The far-right (the creator of the website boasts he was a close associate of Meir Kahane, something most people don't brag about) is emboldened.  Their simmering anger is allowed to come to the surface.  If you aren't for expansion, you aren't a true Israeli.   They have the wild-eyed and violently beatific glow of the righteous.   I would like to think, though, that incidents like this can backfire, and that a society as decent as Israel's will quickly realize the beast in their midst.

Over here, our beast is still going strong.  The Times has a great article about Alan Simpson, Republican from Wyoming, joining a "bipartisan commission for reducing the national debt."  Simpson is being pilloried from the right because he thinks that maybe raising taxes a little might be needed to fix the deficit (along with spending cuts).  I don't find this to be a remotely controversial idea, but it is anathema to the modern right wing (who I will not call conservative- this is radicalism).    The piece is full of great quotes, and Simpson comes across as a grown up, far more than Rush or Grover Norquist, who called him "old and grumpy".  Grover Norquist calling someone grumpy is like me calling someone drunk- a little hypocritical.   Here are some quotes, which were backed up by other grown-ups likes Howard Baker and Pete Domenici.

He trailed off, and then recalled the Reagan years, when the initial deep tax cuts were followed by years of tax increases to reduce deficits smaller than the current ones.
“Reagan didn’t put anything off the table, if he felt it was for the good of the American people to tweak the tax system,” he said.
As for the present, “I don’t believe we ever had a war where we didn’t have a tax to finance the war,” Mr. Simpson added.

That is the thing- Reagan did raise taxes, and he did negotiate with the Soviets, and he wanted arms control.  But today's movement, whose every member claims to idolize Reagan, would find all of this impossible and wrong.   Like in Israel, they are more concerned with punishing heretics and breaking the opposition then in actually getting anything done in the real world.   Conservatism to me is fundamentally an embrace of doubt.  Sadly, the far right here and abroad are blessed with the miracle of certainty. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A few things

Sorry for the light blogging lately- I've been a little busy on a few other things, but will be able to ramp us up back to the glacial schedule we've all enjoyed before.

First off, I want to say how much I look forward to Wednesdays, when the Times gives us two of its best commentators.  No, not Mo Dowd and Thomas Friedman.   Regular readers know my thoughts on Friedman, and I think anyone who enjoys this blog probably has similar feelings toward Dowd, she of the vamped-up conventional wisdom. (Do I find myself attracted to her?  Yes.  Am I proud of that?  No.)  The pleasure comes from their Opinionator section, which is so incredibly superior to their regular stable of writers that it is embarrassing for everyone.  Anything that includes regular pieces by Dick Cavett is clearly going to be aces in my book.

But today we have the always-compelling Bob Wright talking about Christian missionaries and how their proselytizing techniques inflame tensions between Christian and Muslim communities.  Now, this could easily come across as knee-jerk relativism: yes, Muslims get really angry and burn things all the time, but did you know Christians are bad too?  But Wright spares us that, and looks at how the "camel nose under the tent" technique of using the Koran to prove Jesus' supremacy can do nothing but make things worse.   Obviously there are crazy people on both sides, and there is a strong tendency in Islam to take slight provocations (such as cartoons half a world away) and use it as an excuse to blow shit up.   I certainly would never say "but the Christians brought that on themselves!"   But there is something to be said about the relationship between discretion and valor, and, more importantly, minding your own damn business and tending only to your own soul. 

Blessedly far away from the tribulations of the pious, we have the delightful Olivia Judson talking about evolution on islands.  In and of itself, this is a fascinating topic, but Judson takes it is several unexpected directions.  She first lyrically expands the definition of an island: "Although “island” tends to conjure images of small bodies of land surrounded by water, such as Bermuda, or the Falkland Islands, this is not the only kind of island out there. Lakes are islands of water surrounded by land. Caves are islands of darkness surrounded by light. Oases are islands of fertility surrounded by sand. In short, an island is any self-contained patch of habitat within some larger sea."

This is not just dreamy prose.  All of these islands are important to evolution, as their ecological isolation leads the process down strange and unexpected paths.  Judson goes on to issue a warning about how our stewardship of the environment- building roads, clear-cutting forests, etc- is creating many more tiny islands, and how it is messing up the ecosystem.  I can't do it justice, but please read it.  She is an excellent writer, and makes complicated topic understandable and beautiful. 

We'll have some Yemen stuff soon, I promise. 

Monday, March 15, 2010

Israeli Politics

This is a guest post from a friend of mine who is in Israel right now and who did not want to use his name.  This is ok, since it is the first time I have ever seen him use capital letters.  The trade-off is worth it. Enjoy.

If you follow politics very closely, they can seem deceptively complicated.  The daily zigs and zags, actions and reactions, and diplomatic mind games appear to be part of a complex and continuous pas de deux between highly sophisticated and experienced actors.  But sometimes—more often than many of us who spend hours each day consuming and analyzing exactly this kind of minutiae would like to admit—it simply isn’t so.
Take, for example, the recent fallout from last week’s Israeli announcement of additional Jewish settlement-building in East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s diplomatic visit.  I would argue that all you really need to know took place one year ago, after Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party placed a close second to center–left Kadima in legislative elections.  Despite the loss, President Shimon Peres gave Netanyahu the opportunity to form a government.  Instead of joining with Kadima to create a coalition with broad popular legitimacy, Netanyahu chose to align with a group of smaller, hard-line right-wing parties to form his government.  There’s probably a complicated answer to explain why this happened involving a close and nuanced (read: overly generous and tortured) analysis of Netanyahu’s actual views over time, but the simplest explanation is also the most instructive: Netanyahu wanted to be Prime Minister.  By joining with Kadima, he’d have had to take a backseat to Tzipi Livni, whose party garnered more votes.  Instead, he installed himself as head of state, bringing far-right characters like Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai into top positions and setting the course for the next year.  And the simple, sad truth is this: They have him by the balls.
If we look at Netanyahu through this prism, the last year doesn’t look so confounding at all.  Relieve yourself of the possibility that the man might, somewhere deep down, have some actual views driving him.  His thirst for power is paramount, and it is revealing.   The man seems willing to take a lot of abuse from all sides as long as he remains, ostensibly, in charge—even though his power is essentially empty, as the events in Jerusalem last week demonstrated.  For example, Netanyahu himself admitted that he wasn’t aware of Interior Minister Yishai’s decision to announce additional building in East Jerusalem while Biden was in town.  Some seemed genuinely shocked by this apparent ineptitude; others, like Hillary Clinton, appeared to be intensely skeptical of such a claim.  But why is this so difficult to believe?  The ministers to Netanyahu’s right have been playing games like this for months, with nary a consequence.  (See, e.g., Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon sitting the Turkish ambassador on the floor and having pictures taken, just for fun.)
Surely the various challenges to Netanyahu’s authority bother him, but that’s precisely the point: He can’t do anything about them.  Without the parties to his right and his ever-creeping-rightward Likudniks—the Knesset’s deputy speaker called Clinton’s reported dressing-down of Netanyahu over the weekend a “meddling in [an] internal Israeli decision” and the product of “sheer chutzpah”—Prime Minister Netanyahu would just be Benjamin Netanyahu, the guy with the crazy wife.  As one senior Likud official told Haaretz last week, “Netanyahu knows that if he breaks up the bloc, he’s finished.”  This is the simplest and most forthright assessment of today’s Israeli politics that I have seen, and it is one that has been known here since day one of the current regime.
Not that you would know it from the American reaction to last week’s “insult.”  Many on the Israeli right and in Netanyahu’s inner circle bashed the United States’ response as opportunistic and disingenuous; they are right.  It’s quite telling that what triggered the “worst crisis” in U.S.–Israeli relations “in 35 years” was not the substantive policy—East Jerusalem was always excluded from the settlement “freeze” the Americans pushed so hard for last fall—but the timing of the announcement.  Of course, optics are important in this region, where pride seems to drive daily and long-term decision making to a depressingly high degree.  For the Israelis, embarrassing the U.S. Vice President and giving their supposed future partners in peace the finger in one blow was clearly an amateur move that has backfired in a serious way.  But if it took these ill-timed remarks for the U.S. State Department to realize that Netanyahu is a hostage to his far-right domestic coalition, well, let me just say: we’re all pretty fucked.  (Not least of all because, on several previous occasions, ministers in the Netanyahu government made ill-timed announcements—coincidentally, of course—about expanded settlements.  So even if we score the Obama Administration only on hyper-vigilance for “insults,” it has mostly failed.) 
Biden supposedly made the high-profile trip to Israel to “reassure” the Israeli people that the United States has their backs.  The desire was to improve President Obama’s standing in Israel in order to, perhaps, buy credibility with the public and earn the Administration an opportunity to lead the two sides towards an eventual peace.  In fact, nothing could be more counterproductive for all three parties—the Americans, the Israelis, and the Palestinians.  Giving the impression that the U.S. continues to write Israel a blank check will not convince the Israeli population that peace is in its interest and that continuous settlements in disputed (and even undisputed) territory is a mistake.  Instead, it will only lead to more provocations by those who prop up the Prime Minister.  (Even the Finance Minister has gotten in on the act.)  To change the equation, the United States needs to begin treating Netanyahu like the figurehead he is.  Threats to “assign blame” have to be credible.  Moves to demonstrate American anger and frustration have to come with consequences for Jerusalem, or they will fall on deaf ears.  Only then will the Israeli electorate be moved to reconsider whether it wants its most important policy to be determined not by consensus but by ultra-right religious politicians.
Perhaps last week’s turbulence has awoken the U.S. policy team from its slumber.  If, for example, Secretary Clinton’s list of demands is real, things may change—even quickly—in the coming months.  But I won’t be holding my breath.  Today at a Likud party meeting, Netanyahu got right back into the business of serving red meat to those who keep him in charge: “The building in Jerusalem—and in all other places—will continue in the same way as has been customary over the last 42 years.”
            Here’s a question for an intrepid journalist to ask the administrations in Jerusalem and Washington: “Do you realize that things said by Israeli officials in Hebrew can get translated into English and distributed on the Internet?”  A silly query, maybe, but yet neither of these nations has been acting like the answer is “yes.”  This is a problem.  Cognitive dissonance is nothing new to the Middle East—neither to its people nor to its politics—but recent events have elevated the societal epidemic to an unprecedented level.  And, sadly, the Americans seem to have caught the bug.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Reading Material

Here's a couple of links to start your day.

In the April Atlantic (the future is now!), Chris Boucek and David Donaido have a brief article on why Yemen is failing.  This is accompanied by a very cool interactive map filled with information about refugee camps and routes, where the oil is, where piracy has struck, and CT strikes.  Very informative.

Sarah Phillips has a paper (.pdf) for the Carnegie Foundation about politics and policy in Yemen.  This is an excellent look at the political and tribal structure of Yemen, particularly the relationship of tribes to the central government, AQAP, and what outisders can do to influence it.  The whole thing is chock-full of delicious facts and insights, but what I really found fascinating was how she describes Yemen's politics as still evolving from the days of the revolution.  It is easy to see something as static or determined, especially when you first start looking at it, but she punctures that myth.  Yemen is still experimenting and evolving, for good or ill, and at this juncture in its history, when its destiny intersects with ours, it is important to recognize this and not rush headstrong into the mix.   If you only read one thing today, read this.  Unless you're like a doctor or something, then read your patient's chart.  I don't need to be named on a med-mal suit.

Please also read Nasser Arrabyee's latest report on escalating tension in the south.  I have said it before, but if you are interested in Yemen, you should have his site, offered in both English and Arabic, bookmarked.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

South Words*

As we all know, and as I feel I have said about 1100 times in the last two and a half months, Yemen has just recently been thrust into to global limelight.  It is slipping a bit, but will be a number 3 or 4 story for the near future, and probably beyond that.  Something is going to explode somewhere, and there will be a rash of stories again. I hope that isn't the case, but were I a gambling man- and I am- I would bet on it.

So, for people new to Yemen, I think the sudden uptick of news about a southern rebellion is strange and even mystifying- why now?  Is this new?   How important is this?

The answer to the last question the hypothetical reader asked is: very.  Greg and I have argued for a long time that the Southern Movement represents the most critical of the "three rebellions", and the one with the most potential to split Yemen apart.  This would be a disaster, because I agree with President Salih that you wouldn't have a new and unified state in the south- I think it would be chaotic and largely uncontrollable.  What Salih doesn't mention is that the same thing would happen to the north, suddenly deprived of the income of the south.  Meager as that may be, the oil, gas and shipping revenue is basically the bulk of the economy.

A few links

This is pretty cool- Foreign Policy has a new Middle East Channel, headed up by Mark Lynch.   There is also a nice little article about how everyone is pretty much trying to distance themselves from Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol and their comically reprehensible attacks.   Every time I think the Republicans have lost any shred of decency, they rediscover it when the wind blows against them.  So that is good, I suppose.

Haley Sweetland Edwards has a disturbing story on the miserable plight of women in Yemen.  This paragraph captures the head-smacking nature of how bad it is.

A 2009 World Economic Forum report on gender equality listed Yemen for the fourth year in a row as the worst country in the world to be a woman. The worst. We’re talking worse than Saudi Arabia. Worse than Pakistan. A March 2010 Freedom House report backed up the World Economic Forum’s findings, reporting that while many Middle Eastern country’s women’s rights records have improved in the last five years, Yemen’s has not.

Being worse than Pakistan in just about anything is not something to be proud of.  By the way, along with her story on Somali refugees and the ones on tension in the south, Haley continues her string of "massively depressing stories about Yemen."  Come on, Haley, why not report on positive trends, like...well...

Not to be outdone in the grim category, (and I don't know how I missed this earlier) Paul Stephens of the Sana'a Bureau has an excellent written/video piece on Yemen's water woes.  It is a few weeks old, but I have a feeling the situation has not improved.

Finally, the Morning Star has a strange and mostly-outdated editorial on how US meddling in Yemen might be counterproductive, a conclusion I think everyone drew a few months ago.  There is also a weird bit here:

Air strikes on alleged al-Qaida fighters and a doubling of US military aid to hard-line Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh have been given the green light by US military commanders despite mounting civilian casualties in a civil war between northern rebels and the government.
One US-assisted air attack on supposed rebels in Abyan last December killed more than 42 civilians, but Yemen's Deputy Defence Minister Rashad al-Alimi took three months before admitting last week that the killings had been a "mistake."

Abyan is, as far as I know, in the south (though I admit it is a fluid situation).  And the US hasn't given a "green light" to attack in the north and the south.  The article strangely conflates all three rebellions.  I don't mean to pick on this, but in case there are any Morning Star/Always Judged Guilty readers I wanted to make things clear.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Uses of Propaganda

I haven't talked at all about President Salih's website, which, in English, is clearly aimed at a Western audience.  It is obviously propaganda, geared toward those who might be able to give money to the country.  This is fine, of course, and something that is needed, but due to vague dismissals regarding its nature and the constraints of time, I have pretty much ignored it.

But, really, it is important, even if sometimes silly.  Its unintentional messages are just as important- if not more so- than the predictable point of view it is trying to promote (I will not get into symbolic interpretations of the main picture, in which the President is seemingly giving medicine to a child, but looks as if he is performing a spontaneous, unnecessary and malicious tooth extraction).

The message today, regarding a talk that Salih gave at the Higher Military Academy, has the headline "I want to be a soldier to serve the nation".  This, of course, is psuedo-inspiring speech-making, with its echoes of sacrifice and willingness to lay down your own identity for the good of the country.    It is uncomfortable to hear coming from the head of an increasingly martial government, but I am willing to chalk it up to the audience.   However, I'll quote at some length the meat of the article.

He accused the opposition Joint Meeting Parties of erupting problems in Saada and some districts of the southern provinces, saying that these parties announced their solidarity with the separatists who block the roads, loot stores and kill innocent people in these districts.

Regarding agreement signed with the JMP in February of 2009, president Saleh considered the deal as a big mistake made by the General People Congress Party (GPC).

It was a big mistake by the GPC, he said, the party had to go ahead alone to hold parliamentary elections with participation of these parties or not.

I am not familiar with accusations of JMP meddling in the north, but am not surprised, either.  That isn't the meat of it, though- the heart of this is the language of total opposition, of lines being drawn clearly, brightly, and irrevocably.   The JMP*, the most important and inclusive of opposition groups, is more or less officially an enemy of the state.  None of this is surprising- it has been coming- but it is still distressing.  Reconciliation, or at least an uneasy peace, grows more distant and unimaginable by the day.

It also makes laughable his statement in the speech, where he "said that if any one want power, he could have it via door not window, adding the power is available for all by elections box."   Not that anyone would have believed it, but it is red meat for a blogger to see an outright lie be immediately contradicted in the same article.

*Originally said GPC, which the opposite of reality.  Thus are the wages of blogging.  Thanks to Anon for pointing that out. 

On the South

Over at the Sana'a Bureau, Haley Sweetland Edwards has a couple of good articles on what is happening with the Southern Movement, particularly how the leadership is attempting to distance itself from Salih's accusations of kinship with al-Qaeda. I've argued for a while that the Southern issue is the single most important of the "three rebellions", and it looks like events there are speeding up.  I don't think we are quite past the point of no return yet, but it is getting really damn close.

Also, Greg continues to break radio silence by blogging at the possibly undead Waq al-Waq.

Friday, March 5, 2010

In the Closet

Dan at Bleakonomy has great post about the tragedy of the closet, and how it warps people, and, if they are Republican, how the series of lies forces them to contort themselves and react out against their interests. Here is the money quote, for me.
First of all, can we all take a moment to observe that a man like Ashburn would surely have chosen not to be gay if it were subject to personal choice. Can we lay to rest the notion that being gay is something for which people can opt in or out? If this were a choice, this man would not have checked the "Homo" box.
An excellent point.

Other Article

This one is a long semi-fisking, so it gets its own post.  Also, I get paid more if I have more posts.

That second sentence contains many errors.

The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs has a strange piece about Yemen's famous vote in the 1990 Security Council.  Briefly, Yemen, newly unified (not "reunified") voted against the US coalition to get Iraq out of Kuwait.  The US shut off aid, and the Gulf countries (especially Saudi Arabia) kicked out their migrant Yemeni workers, which destroyed precious remittance money.  This destroyed a fragile economy that was dealing with unification (for context, look at how long rich Germany struggled to merge two economies).  The reverberations of this vote are only now subsiding, with the Gulf is recognizing that maybe Yemen shouldn't fail. I think the article, by Ian Williams, does a good job in talking about that aspect.

I say it is strange for a few reasons.  First, there is this paragraph.
A few years ago, an incident like the Christmas Day crotch bomber might have precipitated another heedless attack on Yemen, a small faraway country of which U.S. politicians like Joseph Lieberman know little and care less. Somehow, they can always countenance a military response against almost any Arab country. When ignorant intelligence goes to war hand-in-hand with such galloping prejudices, the consequences of a massive American incursion into a complex and variegated society such as Yemen would be unimaginable—if it were not that we have actually seen the results in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Nothing could be more calculated to turn Hillary Clinton’s words about Yemen becoming a regional and global threat into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

No, I am second to few in my disdain for Joe Lieberman, as his Yemen comments were insane.   But it is strange to be a moral scold when the outcome has been the opposite of what he criticizes.  I also don't quite get how he seems to distance Hillary Clinton from American actions, as if she was standing on the outside and warning people about this self-fulfilling prophecy, instead of being part of the team that crafted as far better one, one which I imagine the author might approve. 

It gets odder, though.

He (Gordon Brown) even seems to have reinforced Obama’s disinclination to send in the bombers and the Marines, not least since both Washington and Sana’a seem to have realized that too visible an American hand would be guaranteed to unite all the contending parties under a jihadist banner.

Not a jihadist one.  Certainly it would be a propaganda boon for AQAP and sundry other jihadists, but it wouldn't unite the south and the Huthis.  This is a wild misread of the situation.  Still, just a misread.  We haven't gotten to the crazy yet.

Even so, while Brown’s Jan. 27 conference on Yemen was important, in terms of combating terrorism, it was only a sideshow to George Mitchell’s mission to Israel. Economic development and some reining in of corruption in Sana’a might ease the tribal and regional conflicts, but as long as the U.S. sides uncritically with Israel then al- Qaeda will recruit people to carry out its work—and to sanctify whatever tribal battles it puts itself at the head of.
And unless Obama stops the checks and votes going to Binyamin Netanyahu, Mitchell will fail and the bombers will succeed.

Wait, what? Where the hell did Israel come from?   Part of me feels like this was put in just to give Marty Peretz a seizure.   But no: for an article that criticized the "ignorant intelligence" and "galloping prejudice" (a nice phrase, admittedly) of the US, to then assume that the number one concern in Yemen happily dovetails with the ax the author has to grind is the height of narcissism.
People in Yemen don't particularly care for what is happening in Palestine, and yes, it animates some, but it is of far less concern than food, water, money, and the combined neglect and oppression of their own government.   It is the tribal and regional conflicts that are providing the majority of the fuel for AQAP, and a good bulk of its recruiting theology.  There is no need, except for reflexive prejudice, to include Israel into this.  I can't stand the current Israeli government, and am very worried about its rightward lurch, but that doesn't have anything to do with Yemen.  Much like Lieberman and the neo-cons, the author is imposing his worldview onto Yemen, grafting their as awkwardly as that of the most rabid, US-centric warmonger.  Neither side leads us any closer to a solution. 

Some Yemen Articles

Several analytical ones, actually.  We'll start with Jamestown, which has "An Assessment of the Anatomy of al-Qaeda in Yemen: Ideological and Social Factors," an unfortunate name for a good look at how AQAP is constituted.  Murad Batal al-Shishani's article also does a valuable service in talking about how al-Qaeda and other militants can recruit in the south of Yemen.  While the article doesn't make this explicit, it helps to illustrate how, again, the south is not monolithic in its political desires.   To be clear, despite a letter by AQAP emir Nasir al-Wuhayshi claiming solidarity with the Southern Movement, there is no real link other than an emotive one.  But that doesn't mean everyone in the south is clamoring for a secular democracy.  Indeed, there is Islamist militancy down there, both part of and separate from Qaeda.  And what is interesting is that many of the same complaints- the government's lack of concern, its oppression, terrible economic conditions- that fuel the southern movement also inflame less-temporal militancy.   This is a very valuable article to read, but also look at the slight dispute Gregg at The Majlis has with the piece.

Mohammed al-Qadhi in The National has an article on how governmental compensation for dead civilians is not enough in the south.   On Dec. 17th, in an attack on Qaeda militants, the government killed around 50 civilians (as well as a disputed amount of Qaeda- the government number dropped from 34 to 14).  This horrific waste has done as much as anything to keep the Southern Movement aflame, and shows the interlocking gears of the three rebellions.  Al-Qaeda isn't locked into a defined territory, as we all know.  When the government goes after them, with their not-exactly-surgical-precision, civilians stand a good chance of being killed.  The official government response- apologies, money, but no one taking a fall- only seems to heighten the idea that it is a cold and distant body, unconcerned except on the basest level with the south.  Combined with its other actions, an attack on AQAP can also be easily conspiratorialized as a blow to the Southern Movement. 

Speaking of the south, Nasser Arrabyee has a good article on how professional opportunist Tariq al-Fahdli is trying to lower the political temperature down there.  As always, a great article.  My feeling is that al-Fahdli thinks this might be moving too fast and is maybe getting away from him.  He didn't switch sides not to be in charge and be able to cash in.

Here's one on how- stunningly- Yemen might still not be the best investment climate.  Snark aside, it goes to a point we've been saying for a while: natural gas probably isn't going to save Yemen.  It is too long-term, too volatile, and will not be able to solve any immediate needs.  It also extensively quotes AJG friend Chris Boucek, so you know it is good.

The last one is a really long post, so I think we're going to break it up a bit. 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

World Affairs Daily

World Affairs, an excellent journal, has a revamped website.  In addition to its main articles, it serves as a pretty comprehensive aggregate of articles, speeches and think-tank reports.  It also has an excellent line-up of bloggers, including David Rieff, Andrew Bacevich and and Jagdish Bhagwati, among others.  There will be a permanent link on the side, and this is a site I will be checking every day. 

Is there anyone who thinks "Best Actress" is sexist?

Yes.  But I don't imagine there are many others.  The "point" of this Times op-ed is that it is sexist to segregate "actor" and "actress", because there would be an outcry if we had Best White Actor and Best Black Actor (Blactor).   This is wildly dumb.  The author, Kim Elsesser, admits that the categories have been gender-separated from the get-go, but that was probably because women had just gotten the right to vote and were still second-class.

But separate is not equal. While it is certainly acceptable for sports competitions like the Olympics to have separate events for male and female athletes, the biological differences do not affect acting performances. The divided Oscar categories merely insult women, because they suggest that women would not be victorious if the categories were combined.
Really?  It does, like, categorically?  Does anyone believe this?  One could argue that, say, the best WNBA team would get smoked by the Nets, but is there anyone out there who thinks that different categories mean that Meryl Streep couldn't compete against Paul Walker or someone?

There was a time, of course, when acting wasn't something that women were allowed to do.  That was before the history of movies.   The reason it is separate, I would imagine, is that the whole thing is a meaningless back-slapping affair, and most of the point is to have a lot of beautiful people dressed up nice.  You can have more beautiful people if you have more categories.   Yes, one could expand Best Actor to 5 men and 5 women, or any combination of 10, but then you lose a lot of what makes the Oscars fun: seeing people get super-excited and cry or laugh or hug if they win.  The whole thing is goofy, pointless fun (or a pointless drudge if you don't care).

I hate- hate- people who proudly say "Well, I'm not PC" and use that as an excuse to be an asshole.  No one is "PC" anymore.  It is practically a strawman.  But articles like this give ammunition to those who see liberals as a bunch of whiny, elitist, ivory-tower idiots, who invent enemies and cry wolf at the most meaningless slights.  New York Times, I am begging you: please stop printing stuff like this.

On Jim Bunning

So, because Sen. Jim Bunning has been such an irredeemable prick, and because it is a gorgeous pre-spring day here in Chicago, chilly but with the kiss of warmth in the air, and because me Sox have their first spring training game today, I decided to prove that Jim Bunning was not good enough to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  I had hoped to find that it was due to old-timey sportswriters being tainted by nostalgia, or perhaps because of his new stature.  After all, he wasn't elected until 1996, and that was by the Veteran's Committee, notorious for pushing in their favorites and ignoring worthy candidates out of pique.  So I was all jazzed to do that.

But it is kind of mixed.  I guess I never realized how good he was.  He was an innings-eating monster with good command and was a strike-out machine.  His aggregate stats don't compare that well to Bert Blyleven, but Bert played 5 more seasons. THey are both top-50ish (Bert is 51) in K/BB.  If you look at their Similarity Scores, Blyleven is in far better company, and his HoF rankings are better.   But I don't really understand Similarity Scores, nor do I trust them yet.  Any readers out there statheads who can explain this to me?

So I guess I am left unsure.  Bunning doesn't have a particularly good ERA+, and his K/9 is kind of weak, but the same is pretty true of Bert as well. I kind of feel that the Vet's Committee was about the right time for him to go in.  There is something to be said about Blyleven maintaining an innings-eating pace for 5 more years, and he should be in, without a question.  Basically, though, I will drop any sabrmetrics here and say that Jim Bunning ended up being a tool, and to me, attempting to deny benefits to thousands to prove a hypocritical point is far worse than taking steroids.

Kristof on Yemen

Nick Kristof talks about child marriage in Yemen (something your current author was on years ago- scroll down on that link for several posts).   It is a good column, and appropriately heart-wrenching and moving.  He also makes the important connection between oppression of women and political violence.

Kristof does god's work, and I hate to be critical of him.  He is kind of the anti-Friedman, in that he gets dirty and avoids golfing with billionaires as a way to do research.  I really think he is a great guy.  Kristof is established enough to take the easy road, and refuses to.  But.  Was there anything more predictable than this column?  If he is going to write about Yemen, it is going to be about a child bride who overthrows her shackles.  Honestly, reading him often gives me heart-warmth fatigue.  Kristof, in a take on the war reporter's line, is pretty much "Has anyone been raped and is still inspirational?".   To be fair, he seems to recognize this.

I understand that the above is pretty ungenerous. 

Waq al-Waq

Greg shakes off the dust and posts a bit at Waq al-Waq.  Greg isn't going to retire from the game.  We'll be sure to keep an eye out for those times when he moves away from the grim and dull grind of academia with its "facts" and "research" and rejoins us in the blogosphere.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Jay and Sarah and Dave and Mitt

So, in direct opposition to my "only pop culture post" below, I am going to go again.  Sarah Palin was on Jay Leno tonight, and Mitt Romney was on Letterman.  And even though I dislike to loathe 75% of that crew, I felt obligated as a fan of late night, and observer of our politics, and- most importantly- as a lazy, lazy man to not get off the couch and instead flip back and forth.

Let's start with Palin on Leno.  Hopefully I will be able to get to her stand-up routine.  I am not drinking tonight, though, so I am unsure I can handle it emotionally.  I'll see if I can get there.  Palin came on, in jeans and some kind of sweater, and had her "hey how ya' doin'?" thing going on.  It was folksy and charming, I guess, if you didn't know what a seething ball of vindictiveness and cognitive-dissonance lay beneath the faux-rusticism.  But she immediately launched into stale responses to boring questions about the media (essentially, and unchallenged: she joined Fox because the mainstream media mixes opinion with reporting.  Straight face on that.) and about what Americans want, and how she is out there looking for common-sense solutions.   It was pablum, but she does deliver pablum with a searing intensity.  It is because she really believes it, I think- she is unable to think beyond derivative nonsense, and that endows her with an integrity that can't be faked, regardless of the morality or heft behind the words.

So it is a commercial- let us jump to the candidate for whom "can't be faked" has no meaning: Mitt "Mitt" Romney.  Him and Dave used the first segment to talk about what it was like to have a famous father, a car executive, and a few other softballs.  Romney was charming, and even funny.  We've seen this before with Dave- first segment is soft, then he goes into politics.  I found myself liking Romney, especially in comparison with Palin.  He told good stories about the beat-up hand-me-down cars that he got, despite (or because of) his father's position, and how he put racing stripes on one of them to be cool. (Dave: "Look out chicks!")  He ended by talking about the airplane attack, with a well-delivered "he broke my hair."  I don't know if he has used this before, but it was new to me, and I actually laughed out loud.  Commercial.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

More Josh Hersh on Yemen

Josh Hersh at the New Yorker continues his series on Yemen with a nice little essay about food, with photographs.  It isn't easy to write slice-of-life pieces without sounding condescending or veering into Baedeker-esque "look at that" territory, but Josh does a great job.  He also talks a little about the greatest tea-stand in the world.

Some places seem designed to accommodate this pace. An extraordinarily old man makes sweet chai with hot milk in a tiny shop next to the Pink Mosque in the Old City. He serves one and a half glasses of tea with every order. The half-full one cools more quickly, so you start with that and, by the time you are done, the full glass will be ready to drink.

I am thrilled, but not surprised, the old man is still around.  I think he is timeless and ageless, and I wouldn't be shocked if he outlives me (given my diet and drinking, this is: not difficult).  On a personal note, when San'a was the Arab Cultural Capital in 2004 I edited a book about it, and had a couple of pieces, one of which was about the magic and beauty of the city, and started by talking about the tea man.  I can't find it anywhere on the internet,  which makes me sad, because while the prose was over the top, it is still one of my favorite things I have written.  To add to what Josh has said simply and eloquently, I will annoyingly put in my couple of paragraphs, which time has rendered slightly awkward, but of which I am fond.

The brown and white cupolas of the Al-Mahdi Abbas Mosque loom above the dry banks of a stone river.  Inside is a tomb; outside a magician.  The tomb is of the man whose mosque bears his name.  A ruler of Yemen who twice had to put down revolts led by sorcerers of his day, he lies uneasy as another has come back to haunt his restless nights.  The magician is a tea-maker, a timeless resident of San'a, who operates at night in a dirty and noise little hole carved into the side of the silent mosque.

It is here, at this nameless stand run by a nameless stranger, that you can get the best cup of tea in town.  The magician doesn't pour milk into black tea- he makes it all at the same time, a long procedure that is worth the wait, the noise, and the silence of its creator.  The sweetness of his alchemy is matched only by the grandeur of the view from the uncomfortable metal chairs that are set up haphazardly outside.  You sit and sip and gaze out over the paved levy that used to carry water and raiders into San'a.  On the other side the Old City sits in its nighttime silence.  Frontlit from the street, it seems unreal, a movie prop, a gingerbread backdrop that would topple on you if a strong enough wind came roaring off Jebel Nuqum.  

Vegetarianism and Ebu Gogo

Elizabeth at bleakonomy has a really thought-provoking piece on vegetarianism and the moral duties we owe to others, tinged with a beautiful personal story.   I don't want to summarize its complexity, but part of it is that we have moral duties to humans who can't fend for themselves, who don't have the same cognitive abilities as others, as there is kind of a moral sliding-scale.

I don't know if I agree with this 100%, although I think I might.  In 2004, when the discovery of the Homo floresiensis was being publicized, I was fascinated by it.  I was especially blown away by the idea that it lived as recently as 12,000 years ago, and, according to some local lore, possibly much more recently.  It almost certainly wasn't true, but it got me thinking- what if, in some remote jungle, a proto-human species still existed?  After all,  several variants of man existed at the same time.  It requires a suspension of disbelief, obviously, but: what if?

What would we do if we found them- a small, isolated, cloistered tribe, maybe pre-lingual, stone age?  Do we leave them alone?  Study them?  Put them in a zoo?  Try to "modernize" them?  I don't have an answer here, but what is certain is what we would not do: eat them.  Similarly, I think a lot of use have a revulsion to eating a monkey or a gorilla.  I might, but it would be weird, and not "exotic".  It would be uncomfortably close to cannibalism, and eating a floresiensis even closer.

So, then, where does it end?  At what point do I draw the line.  I was re-reading Gombrowicz's Diary, 2nd Volume, the other day, and he was telling a story of walking on the beach and seeing a beetle flipped in the sand, struggling to right itself.  Witold flipped it to its feet, and then saw another, and did the same, and the pattern kept repeating itself.

But I knew this could not last forever- for it was not just this beach, but the entire coast, as far as the eye could see; it was sown with them so there had to come a moment when I would say "Enough!"  The first unrescued beetle would have to happen, too.  Which one should it be?  Which one?  Which one? Each time I said "this one"- I save it, unable to bear that awful, almost vile arbitrariness- because why this one, why this one?  Until I finally broke down, suddenly, easily, I suspended my empathy, stopped, thought indifferently, "Well, time to go back," and left.  But the beetle, the beetle I stopped with, remained behind thrashing its little legs (all this was a matter of complete indifference to me now, as if I had grown disgusted with the game- but I knew this indifference was imposed upon me by the circumstances and I carried it within me like a foreign object).

I feel a lot of sympathy with this, and I think it relates to the discussion above (of course I do- why would I put it in otherwise?  Well, maybe to introduce people to my beloved Gombro, but I try not to be that random).  Our sympathy toward animals does have a very sudden and mostly arbitrary line.  I don't like animals being tortured or maimed or treated horribly for my pleasure, but I do love eating meat.  All of it, really.  But I recoil in horror at the thought of eating a gorilla, a monkey, or a hobbit.

 I think that as a species we are constantly, if slowly, expanding our circles of sympathy.  As Elizabeth points out, not too long ago her new son, who is cognitively challenged, would have been "unworthy" of kindness, and discarded.  We've opened that circle, thankfully, and have encompassed other species that are close to us.

But I do think that we will always draw a line, especially when it comes to pigs and cows, animals that we cultivated, essentially invented (or at least manipulated) for our own needs.  Is it arbitrary?  Probably.  Cruel?  Maybe.  But I think it does, weirdly, keep us closer to the animal kingdom, in which webs of sympathy are far, far smaller.   That might be rationalization for keeping up something- the eating of meat- that I have a vague feeling is wrong, a feeling I am unwilling to chase down, because I love it too much and know that I will never give it up. 

Probably the Only Pop Culture Post

I was reading last night when I had a strange tickle in my head reminding me that late night TV became suddenly hackier.  Jay Leno was back on the Tonight Show.  Although, if pressed, I would say it doesn't matter, I found myself caring a lot about the Conan/Jay imbroglio, as a matter of taste, principle and class.  Mostly taste, though- it isn't making a new point to say that Leno is boring and lazy, and that when your comedy consists of typos, misprints and people not knowing who won the Civil War, you aren't a comedian as much as a presenter.

But anyway, because I did care about that, I turned on NBC to see what exactly the new Leno show was going to be.  It was pretty lame, of course, though Jay did seem to be making a point of not making a big deal out of it.   I got bored quickly, and flipped back and forth between him and Letterman.

Jamie Foxx was Leno's first guest, and it was an embarrassment.  I guess I always vaguely liked Jamie Foxx, mostly because of the great Collateral, but have never really thought about him.  He came running out with a mic, imploring the crowd to yell "Back!" after he prompted them with "WELCOME!"  Crowd interaction is nice, and he seemed pleasant, but it all seemed so forced, and soulless, and a cringe-inducing amount of hype about something that everyone kind of wanted to ignore.

Contrast that with Letterman and his guest, the great Bill Murray.   Murray was goofy, in shorts and a spangled ice-skater's top and a Russian hat, with a bad leg in a sling descended from the ceiling.  That sounds over-the-top, but he did it with his sardonic, subtle dead-pan, and it was oddly not at all distracting or easy.  I am not just comparing guests- Murray is incomparable- but the style of the shows.  On Dave you had two legends who have gracefully aged, embracing their quirks, comfortable in their own skins.  There was an air of comfort and mutual respect.  It was almost like watching two old friends.

My point is this: is such an atmosphere even remotely imaginable in the blow-dried promotion machine of Jay Leno's show?   Is there any respect or warmth between guest and host, outside of their duties as interviewer and showman?  I think that is the difference between the two hosts- one is a comedian, all personality, for good and ill, fine with being cranky, unable to be anything but himself.  The other is a marketer, seemingly a mashhup of committee-thinking, the bottom-line brought to life, a Burbank golem.

If you need any further proof of the baseness of Jay Leno, his guests this week include Sarah Palin and Brett Favre.  To paraphrase LA Confidential, a movie whose take on artifice is an excellent presage of Leno, I wouldn't watch that for all the whiskey in Ireland.

A few links in the morning

Didn't get a chance to blog yesterday- I was helping a friend move.  You'd like to think that when you get to this side of 30 you're probably not going to be helping people move anymore, but then you remember that some of your friends are musicians.  Then you remember that you are a freelance writer and will be pushing them for the same thing when you're 40, so everything is cool.


Oliver Holmes has an interesting, well-written piece in Asia Times, largely dealing with how Salih is going to spend the money we send to him.   He quotes a dashing, if somewhat creaky and sore, blogger,  which is a sure way to get a link that will be clicked on by the literally tens of readers we have here.  The thrust of the article is the tension between what we want with the money and Salih's internal machinations.  I think they kind of dovetail here, at least more than we generally think they do.  Salih may be somewhat like Musharraf, but he also knows he is not dealing with George Bush anymore, and I think is more willing to adapt in order to keep the money coming in and save his rule.  Holmes' article also quotes Jane Novak, who thinks Salih is basically a smaller-mustachioed Stalin. 

I have an article in the Atlantic Community, a really interesting site.   I am talking about how we need to not force a centralized unification, as that will only increase the tensions that are tearing the country apart.  This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately, and hopefully will continue to flesh out. 

Finally, sadly, many were killed in a dynamite explosion in southern Yemen.  It happened in a housing complex which also housed a dynamite-storage facility used mostly for roads.  This is a horrifying and sobering reminder that not everything in Yemen is politics- most people, like people everywhere, are just trying to live their lives, and that far removed from our security-obsessed mindset, can be victims of a freaky and often absurd universe.